The 300 of Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae

‘’Earth and water’’. These were the first words uttered by the Persian emissaries in the city of Sparta. The Persian Empire was at the doorsteps of Greece. The Persian king Xerxes demanded the submission of the whole of Hellas. But there were few who defied the so-called ‘divine king.’

The Battle of Thermopylae is considered one of the most important turning points in the history of Greece. Although the battle itself led to a Greek defeat, it provided the opportunity to the Greek city-states to better organize their collective defense against the Asiatic invaders. But most importantly, it boosted the morale of the Greek army and clearly demonstrated that few can stand against many and that freedom is worth dying for.

What led to this crucial battle? After Darius failed attempt to conquer Greece in 480BC, when his forces were effectively destroyed by the Athenians in the battle of Marathon, his son, Xerses, prepared a second campaign with the same goal in mind. By 480 BC, Xerses managed to build an enormous army, consisting of one hundred and fifty thousand men and a navy of six hundred ships.

The nature of the Persian Empire was clearly expansionistic. From Cyrus to Xerses, every Persian emperor wished for the expansion of Persian influence throughout the known world. On the other hand, the Greeks desired to protect their city-states against invaders, Greeks, or otherwise, so they could continue enjoying their independence and live according to their own rules.

With most of the Greek city-states having already submitted to Persian rule, the Persian army marched south to deal with Sparta and Athens, its two significant opponents. The Spartan Demaratos told Xerses before the battle of Thermopylae: “Now know this: if you subjugate these [Spartan] men and those who have remained behind in Sparta, there is no other race of human beings that will be left to raise their hands against you. For you are now attacking the noblest kingdom of all the Hellenes and the best of men.”

The Persians were destined to face the Greek forces in Thermopylae, where they had set their defense. The Greek force consisted of approximately 7000 men, of whom 300 were Spartan hoplites, 700 Thespians, and 100 Phocians, among others.

The selection of the battlefield by the Greeks was a result of careful strategic planning since the narrowness of the landscape limited the advantage the Persians had in terms of numbers. The Greek right flank there was covered by the sea, and on the left flank, there was a mountain, the Kallidromio.

For the first four days, there was a standstill between the two camps. When the Greeks rejected the Persian demand to surrender their weapons, Xerses ordered the attack. Leonidas ordered the other Greeks to set the defense. They were successful. The next day, Xerses sent his elite force, the Immortals, who were again successfully repelled by the Spartans.

However, during the third day, a local shepherd, named Ephialtes, informed the Persians about a secret passage which could lead them behind the Greek camp. Leonidas was already informed by the locals about that passage, and so he placed 1000 Phocians there to defend it. However, the Phocian guard was taken by surprise by the Persian forces, following a night raid.

The Phocian forces were shocked by the unexpected attack. By night, Leonidas was informed through messengers about the encirclement of the Greeks. The Greeks panicked when they realized that if they stood their ground, that meant certain death for them. Most of them wanted to retreat in order to protect their homes back in the Peloponnese.

Leonidas did order most of his forces to retreat. However, rather than completely abandoning his position and withdraw before the Persian arrival, he ordered 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans to stand their ground and fight to the death. This was a conscious decision, one that could give the rest of his army enough time to flee.

In order to delay the Persians, Leonidas ordered his remaining troops to the lineup in the plateau, so that the battle would take place where the Persians had the advantage. The battle was fought to the last man, with the Greek swords and spears being broken up. The Immortals surrounded the Spartans and finished them off with arrows. They wouldn’t dare to come close to them.

Leonidas, his 300 Spartan hoplites, and the remaining allies perished. The Persian found the corpse of the Spartan king and beheaded it, an act considered a serious insult. Leonidas’ sacrifice did not prevent the Persians from marching south.

But the stories of the courage shown in the battle by the defenders spread across the whole of Greece, boosting the morale of every free Greek. Furthermore, the delay provided the Athenians with sufficient time to abandon their city before Xerses arrival there, and therefore survive to fight another day.

The defeat at Thermopylae offered an opportunity for the Greeks to reorganize themselves and prepare a stronger defense against the invaders. A few months later, the Greeks were victorious in the naval battle of Salamis, and in 479 BC, the rest of the Persian army was defeated in the battle of Plataea. The battle put an end to the Second Persian Invasion.

The last stand at Thermopylae demonstrated that Sparta was willing to sacrifice itself for the protection of Greece. Leonidas became the recipient of lasting fame, with hero cults being established in his honor. In the end, the battle left an enduring legacy, that survived through the centuries, and which clearly demonstrated the courage of the few against the many, and the triumph of freedom against tyranny.

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