Battle of Thermopylae

From Academic Kids

Template:Battlebox The Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC set an alliance of Greek city-states against an invading Persian army. Though vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persian advance until a defector informed the Persians of an alternate route, leading to the defeat of the Greek army and the sacking of Athens.

Contents

Background

Xerxes I, king of Persia, had been preparing for years to continue the war against the Greeks started by his father Darius. In 484 BC the army and navy of Xerxes arrived in Asia Minor and built a bridge of ships across the Hellespont at Abydos to march his troops across. According to Herodotus, Xerxes had over five million men, while the poet Simonides estimated three million; Herodotus also wrote that the army drank entire rivers and ate the food supplies of entire cities. While these are certainly exaggerations, it is clear the Greeks were enormously outnumbered.

A confederate alliance of Greek city-states was quickly formed, headed by the militaristic Sparta, whose supremely disciplined warriors were trained from birth to be amongst the best soldiers in the world at that time. The Greek states held back from sending the full force of their armies, however, citing religious reasons. Fearing an uprising of their huge slave population, and fearful of going to war before the conclusion of the Carneia festival, the deeply superstitious Spartans contributed only a small force of 300 hoplites, hand-picked and commanded by King Leonidas. Knowing the likely outcome of the battle, Leonidas selected his men on one simple criteria: he took only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities of their fathers.

Because of its defensible terrain, the mountain pass of Thermopylae, the "Hot Gates", was chosen as the site of battle. At the time it consisted of a pass so narrow two chariots could barely move abreast--one side stood the sheer side of the mountain, while the other was a cliff drop into the sea. Along the path was a series of three "gates," and at the center gate a short wall was hastily erected by the Greek army to aid in their defense. It was here in the August of 480 BC that an army of some 7000 Greeks, led by 300 Spartans, stood to receive the full force of the Persian army, numbering perhaps some forty times its size.

Battle

Xerxes did not believe such a small force would oppose him, and gave the Greeks three or four days to retreat. The Persians were initially astounded upon seeing the Spartans oiling themselves and performing calisthenics, not understanding its ritual significance, performed by men with the resolution to fight to the end. The Greeks deployed themselves in a phalanx, essentially an almost impenetrable wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints, which spanned the entire width of the pass. Meanwhile, the Persian army was growing restless, and Xerxes sent his troops into the pass with hellish results. The Persians, with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek phalanx, nor were their lightly armed and armoured men a match for the vastly superior armour and weaponry of the better trained and equipped hoplites. Enormous casualties were sustained by the Persians as the disciplined Spartans orchestrated a series of feint retreats, followed by a quick turn back into formation. Because of the terrain, the Persians were unable to surround or flank the Greeks, thus rendering their superior numbers almost useless. Greek morale was high. Herodotus wrote that when Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, was informed that Persian arrows blotted out the sun, he remarked with characteristically laconic prose, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." The Greeks defending the pass slew the Persians in a similar manner on the second day of battle, fighting in a relay manner. After watching his troops fall before the Greeks, Xerxes decided to send his legendary Immortals, so named for their fierce fighting and impenetrable line. Whenever one would fall, another would quickly fill the gap in the ranks. However, even the Immortals lacked the power to break the Spartan phalanx and they were forced to retreat, their numbers decimated.

After the second day a Greek named Ephialtes defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to surround the Greeks and defeat them. The pass was defended by the other 1000 Greeks, from Phocis, who had been placed there when the Greeks learned of the alternate route just before the battle, but they were not expecting to engage the Persians. The Phocians offered a brief resistance before fleeing, and the Persians advanced unopposed.

Leonidas realized that further fighting would be futile. On August 11 he dismissed all but the 300 Spartans, who had already resigned themselves to fighting to the death. A contingent of Thespians, led by Demophilus, stayed as well in a suicidal effort to delay the advance. Leonidas also had a force of Thebans, but after some fighting they defected to the Persians. After their spears broke, the Spartans kept fighting with their xiphos short swords, and after those broke, they were said to have fought with their bare hands and teeth. Although the Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes' brothers, Leonidas was eventually killed, along with all 300 of his men. The last Spartans were killed by a barrage of arrows after fighting fanatically to recover their king's body, having been driven back into the narrowest part of the pass onto a small hill.

When the body of Leonidas was recovered by the Persians, Xerxes, in a rage at the loss of so many of his soldiers, ordered that the head be cut off, and the body crucified. The mutilation of a corpse, even one of the enemy, carried a great social stigma for the Persians, and it was an act that Xerxes was said to have deeply regretted afterwards. Leonidas' body was later cut down and returned to the Spartans, where he was buried with full honours.

There is an epitaph on a monument at site of the battle with Simonides's epigram, which can be found in Herodotus's work The Histories (7.228), to the Spartans:

ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
(O xein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti tde)
κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
(keimetha tois keinon rhmasi peithomenoi.)

Which to keep the poetic context can be translated as:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie

or more literally as:

Oh foreigner, tell the Lacedaemonians
that here we lie, obeying those words.

Another translation (by Michael Dodson, 1951) captures the spirit of enduring service to the state which was taught to all Spartan warriors:

Friend, tell the Spartans that on this hill we lie obedient to them still.

Aftermath

While a technical victory for the Persians, the enormous casualties caused by a few thousand Greeks was a significant blow to the Persian army. Likewise, it significantly boosted the resolve of the Greeks to face the Persian onslaught. The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a draw, whereupon the Greek (or more accurately, Athenian) navy retreated. The Persians had control of the Aegean Sea and all of Greece as far south as Attica; the Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes sacked Athens, whose inhabitants had already fled to Salamis Island. In September the Greeks defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis, which led to the rapid retreat of Xerxes. The remaining Persian army, left under the charge of Mardonius, was defeated at Plataea by a combined Greek army again led by the Spartans, under the regent Pausanias. The Persians, never to return to Greece, were soon to fall under the shadow of Alexander the Great.

Inspiration

The legend of Thermopylae, as told by Herodotus, has it that Sparta consulted the Oracle at Delphi before setting out to meet the Persian army. The Oracle is said to have made the following prophecy in hexameter verse:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bulls nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is naught that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.

In essence, the Oracle's warning was that either Sparta would be conquered and left in ruins, or one of her two hereditary kings must sacrifice his life to save her.

This battle, along with Sogdian Rock and similar actions, is used in military academies around the world to show how a small group of well-trained and well-led soldiers can have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. It is worth noting also that the effectiveness of the Greeks against such a vastly larger army was due in no small part to the battlefield itself. Had this battle been fought on an open field, rather than a narrow pass, the smaller Greek army could have been surrounded and defeated with ease, despite the quality of the Greek infantry. Thus Thermopylae is also regarded as being as much a lesson in the importance of favorable terrain and good strategy as it is in good training and discipline.

A. E. Housman wrote a poem called The Oracles which can be found in his book Last Poems the last verse of which is:

The King with half the East at heel is marched from land of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

A Hollywood epic, The 300 Spartans, was made in 1962, directed by Rudolph Mat. The battle is also referred to in the context of the Vietnam war in the film Go Tell the Spartans (1978).

Frank Miller wrote and illustrated (with Lynn Varley) a 1998 comic book called 300 about the battle, and the last stand of the Spartans. A film based on it, titled 300 ([1] (http://imdb.com/title/tt0416449/)), has been announced for 2006.

Gates Of Fire by Steven Pressfield is a largely accurate telling of the story from the eyes of Xeones, a fictional Spartan warrior who makes his stand at Thermopylae. A movie based on this novel is planned.

Ω ξείν... (O stranger) is a poetic book by Dimitris Varos written in 1974.

In "The Last Samurai (2003)", character Nathan Algren, played by Academy Award Winner Tom Cruise uses the example of the Battle of Thermopylae to give inspiration to character Katsumoto, played by Academy Award Nominee Ken Watanabe in the final battle between the traditional Samurai and the new Japanese government.

External links

de:Erste Schlacht bei den Thermopylen es:Batalla de las Termpilas fr:Bataille des Thermopyles he:קרב תרמופילאי hr:Bitka kod Termopila it:Battaglia delle Termopili ja:テルモピレーの戦い pl:Bitwa pod Termopilami pt:Batalha das Termpilas

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