The battle of Thermopylae is one of the important battles of ancient history. Here a force of 300 spartans faced a massive P.rsian force of Xersis.
The figures of the strength of the Spartan force cannot be verified, but all historians like Herodotus from ancient times and Victor Davis Hanson ( author of Wars of the ancient Greeks ) have concluded that the Spartan force that faced the Persian army was very small in numbers compared to the Persian Army which by all accounts numbered over 100,000.
The Earlier battle
The stage for the battle was set 10 years earlier in 490 BC. Xersis the Persian King was informed of the progress of the city states of Greece and he resolved to extend his rule over them. He was convinced that his massive army would over run the Greeks, but now in hindsight we can see that he at that time made a great miscalculation,
Xersis advanced on Greece and at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC the army of Xersis was defeated by the Greeks. The Greeks carried the day because of greater determination while the army of Xersis was to a degree complacent and thus suffered defeat. Xersis had to retreat and he licked his wounds and bided his time.
The Invasion of 480BC
In 480 BC he made a second attempt. He held his war council meetings and this time he decided not to underestimate the Greeks. He built a bigger army and also incorporated his navy for the invasion of Greece. He thus made a dual plan of invasion. He would himself lead his land army against the Greeks through the Thessaly Mountains while his Navy would sail to the Greek coast and annihilate the Greeks. Both would then join up and complete the conquest of Greece.
The political situation in Greece had undergone a change from 490 BC. At that time at the battle of marathon the main opponents of Xersis were the Athenians. But now the omnipotent city-state in Greece was Sparta whose king Leonidas now donned the mantle of leadership to oppose Xersis.
The Greeks held their own war council and decided that a frontal defense against Xersis may fail. They decided to make a stand at Thermopylae a small mountain pass in the Thessaly Mountains, to hold the army of Xersis and in the mean time they hoped to mobilize their navy and defeat the Persian fleet. This plan as per historians is credited to Themistocles an Athenian who conveyed it to the Spartan king.
The Plan for Defense
A look at the map of Greece will show that Thermopylae is located at a strategic intersection in the Thessaly Mountains. Xersis decided that his army would cross the mountains through this pass and strike at the root of Greek civilization. He was confident that his army would negotiate this pass which was a narrow piece of natural architecture, being at places only about 50 ft wide. It was also an excellent position for defense and Leonidas decided that he would make his stand here.
The pass if defended with vigor could hold of a bigger force, but unknown to Xersis there was another path through the jagged mountains which could have an invading army by-pass the force stationed at Thermopylae.
The battle commenced with frontal attacks by the Persians, but the narrow pass formed an ideal defense line and for 3 days Xerxis could make no headway. The elite forces of Xersis were referred to as the Immortals were thrown into battle but Herodotus records that repeated charges by the immortals failed.
Xersis was at his wit’s end. He saw his dreams of conquest fading away and he consulted his advisors if there was another way to get around the pass. However in the night a traitor who had a grudge against Leonidas named Ephialteds offered to show Xersis a path around the pass. In return he asked for recognition and a delighted Xersis gave him what he wanted, riches and the most beautiful Persian girls for company.
The Capture of the Pass
Xersis elite force crossed this path and reached the rear of Leonidas. It was now a desperate fight, but Leonidas and some 300 Greeks held on for 7 days. This is confirmed by historians of that period as one by one the Greeks fell in battle. As a last offer Xersis ordered Leonidas to surrender in return to being made a vassal. He refused and legend has it that Greeks died fighting to the last man. Xerxis won, but it was a pyrrhic victory and precious time had been lost.
This was time enough for the Greek navy to mobilize in the same period. It met the Persian armada and defeated it. Though his Navy was destroyed Xersis marched forward and destroyed Athens and burnt it.
The Withdrawal of Xersis
Xerxes army successfully captured Athens after they took over Thermophylae, Xerxes burned Athens to ashes. But with his fleet destroyed Xersis was nonplussed and without a flank to guard him, he decided to go back to Persia and withdrew his army.
The naval battle was decisive, but it would not have happened if Leonidas had not held up Xersis and his might Persian army at Thermopylae.