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The Battle of Thermopylae 480 B.C. ~ Discussion Points

Topics of discussion

As a discussion goes regarding ancient battles, the Battle of Thermopylae would be one of the most talked and probed battles in history. It was legendary even in it's own day, and still widely discussed today. Below we have put a list down of the most popular discussion topics and what our opinion is regarding each.

List of discussions


Why didn't Leonidas send an assassin to try and kill King Darius during the ordeal?
Leonidas' statueThe Spartans were well known for their stealth and ability to work alone and live off the land. Sending an assasin to try to work his way into the Persian camp and kill the king seems like a viable option. However, Herodotus does not mention it and Diodorus says on the last day after the Spartans realised they were surrounded did they make an all out attempt to reach the king's tent.
So, it seems doubtful that any attempt was made otherwise Herodotus who immortalises Leonidas in his work would have mentioned it and Diodorus' last day attempt seems doubtful that a small band of maybe 500 men could have made their way past tens of thousands to get to the king's camp, shades of the Illiad here.
In essence Leonidas was a Spartan military man through and through, he left Sparta with the orders to hold the pass at Thermopylae. In the epitath written by Simonidas about the Spartans, one of the lines reads 'here obidiant to the laws we lie'. He carried out his orders to the letter, he had to hold the pass, not attack the king.

What were the Spartan military strategies during the battle? The pass had to be held, the Spartans did what they did best in war.
SCORCHED EARTH: Leonidas put in place a scorched earth policy, so that before the Persians arrived at Themopylae the Greeks went out and destroyed all livestock, grain, buildings and fouled the water supply. When the Persians arrived with their large army, they found that they could not live off the land but had to rely on food being sent to them from conquered lands, not a desirable situation to be in when your food scorce is based on city-states that would like to see you loose.
FIELD: In brief the landscape of Themopylae made it a vast sheer mountain on the Spartan left and a cliff face looking down at rocks on the right. There was no chance of the Persians easily surrounding the defenders, the cliff face was too sheer to climb and the sea meant that the navy had to destroy the Greek fleet to be allowed behind them, this was not accomplished during this battle.
Tightly packing hoplites formed a human hedgehog of spears that made it madness for a soldier, even in a division to run head long into.
SIGNPOSTS: The Spartans pointed out three signposts that were obvious to the Greeks but not known to the Persians. The furthest one was a rock that looked like a lion, so it was known as the Lions Gate. When orders were given they were told where to march to, but go no further. They would march upto whichever signpost they were ordered to but advance no more, but return back to their original starting point and start again. So, they were not to be drawn out into the open field, where they would be disadvantaged.
RETREAT: A call would come either when reaching the designated signpost or from the pipes and the Greek hoplites would turn and flee, with the intention of starting back where they had started from and getting better ground advantage. This move also through the Persians off and thought the Greeks were fleeing the field, so they started to chase them, loosing all formation and only to find the Greeks return to their initial starting spot wheel around and start again.
THE BENCH: Periodically, the Greeks would rest their men and allow other city-states to line up and be responsible in the pass. So they had the ability to keep men fresh to take to the field with renewed vigor and allow the tired and injured a break.
THE PHOKIS WALL: Many ideas have been put foward about what the benefit of the Phokis wall was. The two leading theories are 1: The wall was behind the Greek army in the pass and therefore allowed Leonidas, the Generals and archers the ability to see what was ahead of the Greek army and issue orders. 2: The wall somehow inhibited the invading army and funelled them into a narrower place that allowed the Greeks to have an even better advantage.

Why didn't the Greeks or Spartans send more men to defend Thermopylae?
The Spartans promised more men were to follow, but never sent any, maybe they had a plan to send more men, but as the situation became clear that the sheer number of men made it incredibly risky, none were sent, and the policy of holding back what they did have to the isthmus became desirable. If the Spartans were not going to send more men, the rest of the Peloponnese were not. The Athenians would have sent all their available men to the fleet and indeed they did hold the most ships in the navy.

Over how many days did the battle take place?
While the Greeks got prepared over a number of days, the actual battle took place over two days with the final stand taking place on day three. The fact that the timeframe was 3 days had lead some historians to suggest that because of this the battle has to be considered under the banner of 'the power of 3'.

If not for Ephialtes' actions could the stand at Thermopylae have been won by the Greeks?
Probably not. For that to have happend more reinforcements would have had to be needed from the Greeks and there is nothing to suggest that was going to be. Even if the Persians did not round the pass to get behind them, just by sheer numbers alone they would have ultimately been able to wear them down.

Did Ephialtes contribute towards the final Greek victory over Persia by his actions?
Ephialtes, was the Greek who informed the Persians of the pass around the defensive position, this information to the king is ultimatley the linch pin that leads to the beginning of the downfall of the Persian invasion. It is this 'anybody can be bought' or 'everyone for himself' that the king believes in that he trusts Ephialtes that pays off dividends. It was Ephialtes a Greek who betrayed Leonidas. Later, that left the door open for that master military tactician Themistocles who understands the pschye of the king and sends an informant to give the Perian king information about the Greek fleet abandoning their position at Salamis. The king swallows this whole heartedly, just another Greek betraying another Greek, he might have thought, just like Ephialtes. And he seperates his competent Egyptian division to bottle the Greeks in and has a good portion of the rest of his navy on alert during the night for that ineviatble Greek escape. The next morning after a good nights sleep from the Greeks and the battle is on. The Persians less the Egyptian division and weary staying awake all night, are automatically in a undesirable position. The reason for this is ultimatley tied in with what Ephialtes did at Themopylae.

Only 300 full-blood Spartans were allowed to follow their King to defend the pass at Thermopylae, there has been a lot of speculation regarding what type of Spartan would have been chosen, including the possibility that the 300 were part of the Spartan army known as 'The Knights'. The points we do know about the 300 are; they were selected by King Leonidas himself; each Spartan chosen at least had one son alive; the number 300 represents the 300 bodyguards that a king was allowed to keep at his command at all times; Sparta knew that these men would never return to Sparta alive; that King Leonidas picked the 'best' men needed for the job.
While this might not seem like a lot of information to base what the 300 were made up of, but from what we know about Sparta and having in mind each of the above points to what we believe is the make-up of the 300, we can make a 'leap of faith' and drawn some conclusions.
That is, that most of the 300 were what we consider to be 'old men', or the grandfathers generation, that is in the range of their 50's to 60's.
This has always been hard to grasp especially today where we see old men as near worthless, but in ancient times the old held alot of clear advantages; for a Spartan man to even be alive in that age range would mean he would have 30+ years of military service; their experience in war was unchallenged, their killing technique unpassed, they had decades or warfare experience and could and had slaughtered on a mass scale; as King Leonidas was probably somewhere in his 50's or 60's he might have chosen men who did their military service with him; the 300's loss would be therefore minimised to the state, as the younger generation was still alive at home, but now with a legend in their family line.

<in progress >

Herodotus tells us there was about 5 million, today scholars thing about 500,000 or even as low as 50,000.

We believe you have to look at other evens and make a judgment call. So the number of men as to be compared to the following.

-The first thing we can do is compare it to another Persian invasion of Greece, that culminated in the Battle of Marathon. If 6,400 Persians died at the Battle of Marathon, and historians believe it to represent 8% of the land army, the land army at Marathon was therefore in the size of 80,000. As the cavalry was also considered to be there too add another 2,500 horsemen. The Persian had to land and capture a number of islands as they won their way over to Greece. So they must have left a detachment force on those islands because the Persians wanted to keep them, but also because the fleet needed to have at least once secured port on the island for their fleet to be able to return home. So at least 750 (at the very least!) men were left on at least 9 islands and 1500 at least on the island of Euboea. That means there was another 8,000 men on the initial invasion force that set out. So if the Persians lead by a statesmen known as Datis, roughly lead 90,000 men, sailing through the Mediterraian, to island hop with the intention of sacking Athens that ultimatley failed. How many men would the Persian King send out over land to try to capture Athens a second time? And this time lead by the Persian King himself!







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Art references
Jacques-Louis David - Leonidas at Thermopylae 1814 A.D. at the Louvre Museum




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