August 9, 480 BCE is the traditional date for the final day of the Battle of Thermopylae. The battle is one of the most famous in all of Western History, rivaling the Alamo as one of the most significant “last stands” of military history. The battle was one of the last of the Persian Wars, which ultimately ended with the Greeks successfully deflected the Persian invasion of the Greek mainland.
The Battle of Thermopylae saw a relatively small Greek force of approximately 7,000 men hold off the entirety of the Persian Army for seven days (three of them in active battle). While Herodotus’ and other historians’ counting of the army is rather dubious (anywhere from 800,000 to 2.6 million), the reality is that it was by far the largest military force ever gathered at that point.
The success of the Greeks’ can largely be attributed to strategy – as King Leonidas selected a narrow pass (more easily defended by a smaller number of men) to hold off the invading Medes. While popular culture celebrates the 300 Spartans who fell at Thermopylae, the reality is that Greeks from all over the Peloponnese (numbering approximately 4,000) were present, upwards of 1,000 men from Sparta, 700 from Thesbia, 400 from Thebes, 1,000 from Phocia, as well as Greeks from several other smaller city-states (not including the slaves and servants that would have accompanied fighting men to battle).
The Battle saw the death of most of the Greek soldiers (some surrendered, others strategically retreated). All of the Spartans, including King Leonidas, were reported to have been killed violently in the struggle. When the Persians recovered the body of Leonidas, Xerxes reportedly ordered his head removed and his body crucified – uncharacteristic behavior of the Persians who frequently honored their defeated enemies. However, Xerxes was known for his fiery temper and the action seems to have been keeping with his character.
The Battle of Thermopylae has become a defining and romanticized moment in history. It has perpetuated our ideas (some true, some false) of Spartan military culture and the event is embodied in my favorite quote from ancient history attributed to the specially brave Spartan warrior Dienekes. Reportedly, a Trachian (on the eve of the first day of battle) told the Spartans that the Persian has so many archers, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes reportedly retorted:
“εἰ ἀποκρυπτόντων τῶν Μήδων τὸν ἥλιον ὑπὸ σκιῇ ἔσοιτο πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἡ μάχη καὶ οὐκ ἐν ἡλίῳ” — Herodotus Historis 7.226
“If the sun is hidden by the arrows of the Medes, then the battle will be in the shade and not the sun!” — translation mine
The battle is also the theme of one of my favorite classical movies (albeit grossly historically inaccurate), 300 – see the trailer below (and then see the movie).