Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae: Herodotus's Real History

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

“Μολον Λαωε!”

Μολον Λαωε!” (“Molon Lave—Come and take them!”) was said to be the response by the Spartans at Thermopylae to the Persian demand that the Greeks surrender their weapons.

Credit: EDSITEment reconstruction of a Greek phalanx from sources at Perseus.org, and Livius.org.

Students may be familiar with this famous battle from its depiction in Zack Snyder's movie 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel. In this lesson students learn about the historical background to the battle and are asked to ponder some of its legacy, including how history is reported and interpreted from different perspectives. They will read from Herodotus's account of the battle at Thermopylae, the narrow pass where 300 Spartans and their Greek allies made their last-ditch stand against tens of thousands of Xerxes's invading army. Although the Spartans were defeated and annihilated at Thermopylae, the battle played an important part in the Greek resistance to this second and final Persian invasion.

Guiding Questions

  • Why was the battle at Thermopylae important?

Learning Objectives

  • Trace major events of the battle at Thermopylae and understand the significance of the conflict.
  • Compare the leaders and the armies of the Greeks and the Persians and understand what they reveal about ancient Greek and Persian culture.
  • Become familiar with the version of the story told by the ancient historian Herodotus, the father of history.
  • Understand that historical events can be interpreted from more than one perspective.
  • Recognize the geography of ancient Persia and ancient Greece.
  • Understand how ancient people overcame the challenges of the natural world without the benefits of modern technology (through the construction of an ancient pontoon bridge).
  • Reflect on the enduring lessons of Thermopylae.

Background

Teachers may want to emphasize that Herodotus was a Greek historian, whose version of the Persian Wars generally favors the Greeks, especially the Athenians. Yet he was not unaware of the greatness of the Persians.

Huge and diverse, the Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great (reigned 559530 BCE) who conquered nearly the whole territory you see on the map. He overthrew the ruling Median dynasty to establish Persian control: his conquest of Lydia and Babylonia vastly increased Persian territory. The Kings of Persia descended from a very small group of families descended from Cyrus' family. Each one was called "the Great King" and was the supreme ruler of the Persian Empire. The king who will be of special interest in this lesson is Xerxes (reigned 486-465 BCE), son of Darius I "the Great" (reigned 522486 BCE). It is important to remember that the Great King was the central figure of the Persian Empire. His word was the source of religious, legal, and political life. Revolts against the King were ruthlessly suppressed, and the goals of the Great King were universalistic: like the Assyrian and Sumerian Kings before him, the Persian King believed that he was appointed by god to rule the world. During the reign of Darius the Persian royal family had adopted the Zoroastrian religion, according to which there was only one god, Ahuramazda, who controlled all fates.

While 6th and 5th Centuries BCE Persia was huge, Greece was small (see map). Modern scholars estimate the population of the Persian Empire at 70 million people, spread over 1 million square miles of territory. Greece, with about 50 thousand miles of territory, had fewer than 2 million inhabitants. Furthermore, in contrast to the Persian Empire, Greece was not a unified nation or country, but a dispersed group of individual city states, each with its own government. At the time of the Persian Wars the two most powerful states were Athens and Sparta, and they were the ones offering the greatest resistance to Xerxes and leading a small coalition of other city states in resisting the invasion. The Athenians were the primary source of Greek naval power; the Spartans of their land forces.

The Spartans were famous for their disciplined army, their law-abiding citizenry, and their plain-spoken ways. It is less well known that the Spartans combined different institutions in order to arrive at a stable government that survived for about 500 years between 750 and 250 BC. The government had four parts:

  • a citizen assembly with limited power (but which could, for instance, refuse to go to war),
  • a powerful council of elders,
  • five "ephors", who were elected executive officers,
  • and two hereditary kings.

The citizen assembly was composed of men descended from ancient Spartan families who fought in the army. The council of elders was composed of 28 men over the age of 60 who were elected for life, and who were entrusted with preserving the laws. The ephors, on the other hand, were elected annually. They performed various executive and judicial functions: They convened the council of elders and brought public business and court cases before it. The ephors also helped to control the kings, since if the kings broke the law the ephors could prosecute them before the council. Two ephors also accompanied each king on his military campaigns. The kings themselves had one vote each in the council of elders, and they commanded Spartan armies.

The Spartan way of life relied on intensive military training for Spartan males, starting at a very early age, and rigorous discipline in every other aspect of life as well. However advanced the Spartans were in developing a government that gave a greater voice to its citizens, it is important to remember that this state also had its dark side. After several long wars the Spartans had conquered the neighboring peoples, whom they called "Helots." The Helots were held essentially in bondage to raise crops and perform other services for the Spartans. Uprisings among the Helots, who made up 90 percent of the population, were a constant threat to the ruling Spartan minority.

Preparation Instructions

This lesson assumes some background of and exposure to the Greeks and Persians and the Persian wars. If students have seen the movie 300, or read the graphic novel by Frank Miller, encourage them to compare that modern version of the story to the historical record, especially as it has come down to us from the Greek historian Herodotus, the father of history. This review of the movie on the Livius website may suggest some approaches to comparing Herodotus to later versions of the story of Thermopylae.

This lesson is divided into three separate activities which students can access via the EDSITEment LaunchPads. Teachers may assign all three activities or choose among them. They can be assigned as homework or class activities, or a combination of both. They can be assigned for a single class period or divided up over two or more class periods, depending on the time available.

Teachers are advised to read through the unit, and look at the maps, illustrations, animations, and EDSITEment web resources.

Note: The Livius website—accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library—referred to throughout this lesson offers extensive commentary and background information on Herodotus and the Persian Wars. Only the more curious or advanced students are likely to explore all of these links, but all students can benefit from some of the background information and images available on this site. You may want to review these materials yourself before assigning the activities. Passages from Herodotus’ Histories in the EDSITEment LaunchPads are based on the English translation by George Rawlinson (185860).

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Compare the Persians and the Spartans

This first activity is intended to introduce students to the major participants on each side of the battle: Xerxes, the king and commander of the Persians; and Leonidas, the Spartan king and leader of the Greeks. Students are asked to read brief passages from Herodotus' Histories and respond to questions intended to provoke thoughtful comparisons based on their reading. The EDSITEment LaunchPad for this activity includes links to the Livius website with commentary on Herodotus as well as glosses and images for Xerxes and the Persians.

The goal of this activity is not only to get students thinking about the differences between Xerxes and Leonidas, the Persians and the Greeks, but also to guide them to greater understanding of the way history is represented and interpreted from a specific point of view.

Before assigning this activity you may want to review and bookmark some of the following EDSITEment web resources which can be used to enhance this activity.

Links to additional information:

Begin by asking students to compare how Herodotus describes the Persians and the Spartans. In these passages he tells of Xerxes' resolve to invade Greece and add the Greek city states to his empire. Then he reports on the way Demaratus, an exiled Spartan King who has sought asylum with the Persians, describes his fellow countrymen to Xerxes. This is followed by a description of Leonidas, the leader of the Greek forces at Thermopylae.

After they have completed their reading, students are asked some of the following questions:

  • What are some of the defining differences between the Persians and Spartans that Herodotus emphasizes in these passages?
  • What character traits does Herodotus seem to assign to Xerxes and the Persians and to Leonidas and the Spartans?
  • Why do you think Herodotus remarks on the reluctance of the troops from Thebes?
  • What would it be like to be Leonidas, the Spartan commander, under these circumstances?
  • What hints can you find in these descriptive paragraphs that Herodotus was a Greek?
  • If you have seen the movie 300, or read the graphic novel by Frank Miller, how would you say these details from Herodotus' Histories compare or differ from the portrayal of the Greeks and Persians in the movie or novel?
Activity 2. The Road to Thermopylae

The purpose of this activity is to provide background on Xerxes' invasion of Greece and the preparations by the Greeks to defend their homeland. The EDSITEment LaunchPad for this activity includes selected passages from Book 7 of Herodotus' Histories, as well as a link to an interactive map that engages students in retracing the path of Xerxes invasion. There is also a link from the map as well as one from the Herodotus reading to an interactive reconstruction of the bridges across the Hellespont built by Xerxes' engineers.

One of the goals of this activity is to help students understand that the battle of Thermopylae was part of a much larger and much more complicated historical context that included the movement of men and animals and ships and supplies as well as the building of bridges and the apparent intervention of the gods and of storms at sea. Another goal is to further emphasize the role of Herodotus as interpreter and shaper of the history he is telling.

Before assigning this activity you may want to review and bookmark some of the following EDSITEment web resources which can be used to enhance this activity.

Links to additional information:

Based on their reading of selected passages from Herodotus, students will be asked to consider some of the following questions:

  • Why do you suppose Xerxes brings such a large invasion force?
  • What are some of the practical problems associated with moving such a vast army and navy over such great distances?
  • Why do you think Herodotus includes reports of strange prodigies and portents?
  • Why would Xerxes find comfort in some portents and ignore others?
  • Who do you think Herodotus had in mind when he said some would dislike or disagree with his interpretation of the importance of Athens?
  • Do you agree with Themistocles' interpretation of Apollo's oracle?
  • What are the implications of Themistocles' plan for the people of Athens?
  • What sacrifice is being demanded of Athenians if they accept Themistocles' strategy?
  • Why do the Greeks want to meet the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium?
  • What effect do you think the storm will have on the outcome of Xerxes' invasion?
  • How would you describe the Greek battle plan?
  • Do you think the Greeks expect to win a victory at Thermopylae?

From the EDSITEment LaunchPad, Students may go directly to the interactive map or begin by reading "The Road to Thermopylae." This activity also includes links to static maps of the Persian Empire and Greece, as well as links to commentary on key terms and places mentioned in the reading.

Activity 3. The Battle of Thermopylae

This activity presents the longest and most challenging reading assignment from Herodotus. The EDSITEment Launchpad includes links to maps and images of the soldiers and the terrain on which the battle was fought. There are also links to commentary on the battle of Thermopylae.

One of the goals of this activity is to guide students toward a greater understanding of the complexities of a conflict like the battle of Thermopylae. In addition, this activity is intended to foster greater critical thinking about the ways history is presented as story or narrative, often with a specific perspective or point of view imbedded in the interpretations and presentations. Even as Herodotus sometimes offers more than one version of events, his own perspectives and views are clearly the ones that guide his narrative.

The activity itself engages students in attentive reading of key passages from Book 7 of Herodotus' Histories (7.202-229). It can be assigned as homework or as a classroom exercise in which students go over the passages and questions in class, taking turns individually or in small groups reading from Herodotus and discussing the key events of the battle.

If students have read the graphic novel 300 by Frank Miller, or seen the movie based on the novel by Zack Snyder, encourage them to make comparisons and point out differences.

Before assigning this activity you may want to review and bookmark some of the following EDSITEment web resources which can be used to enhance this activity.

Links to additional information:

Based on their reading of Herodotus, students will be asked to consider some of the following questions:

  • Why was it important to convince the Locrians and the Phocians to join the alliance?
  • Why do you suppose Herodotus mentions that the Athenians are watching the sea?
  • Was it fear alone or did the Peloponnesians have other reasons for wanting to retreat?
  • Imagine you are Leonidas: what would you do to foster morale and courage among your men?
  • Imagine you are Xerxes' scout, sent to spy on the Greeks: what would you make of the behavior of the Spartans?
  • Can you detect a trace of Spartan pride in Demaratus' answer to the king?
  • What is Herodotus implying when he reports that it became clear to Xerxes that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors?
  • Why do you think the Greeks organize themselves by cities?
  • Can you guess the significance of the mountain pathway guarded by the Phocians?
  • Why do you think Herodotus offers so many possible motives for the actions of Leonidas and the Greek allies?
  • Why would Leonidas believe that the Spartans must remain at Thermopylae?
  • Why do you think Herodotus introduces the oracle at this point in the story?
  • Why do you suppose the Spartans are singled out in memorials and by Herodotus?
  • If you have seen the movie 300 or read the graphic novel, compare the two versions of the story.
  • What have you learned from reading Herodotus that might alter your understanding of the battle of Thermopylae?
  • What parts of the narrative seem to reinforce the fact that Herodotus was a Greek and not a Persian?
  • What parts of the narrative would you object to in Herodotus' retelling if you were a Persian who had fought in the battles or who knew someone who fought for Xerxes?

This activity also includes many hypertext links to maps and commentary on key terms and places mentioned in the reading.

Assessment

Teachers may want to ask students to consider some of the following questions and discussion topics. These could also be used as essay topics. The questions are wide ranging and encourage thoughtful review of their reading from Herodotus's Histories.

  • How can you tell that Herodotus was a Greek? Cite some of the passages you've read in Herodotus that suggest his biases in favor of the Greeks, and also give some examples of negative characterizations of Xerxes and the Persians. How would you tell the story of Thermopylae if you were a Persian historian?
  • Compare the battle strategies of Xerxes and Leonidas. How do these military strategies reflect the personalities of the two leaders and some of the cultural differences that Herodotus emphasizes in his version of the Persian Wars? Cite some passages from your reading to support your interpretation.
  • What role did nature play in the Persian War? Find some examples in your reading of the ways that nature and geography were important to the war. How did the Persians and the Greeks take advantage of natural circumstances and events? Can you think of ways they were able to overcome natural obstacles?
  • Why do you think the Battle of Thermopylae has continued to capture our interest? What are some of the enduring lessons that can be learned from the story of this conflict? Students who have seen 300 or read the graphic novel by Frank Miller may want to compare the modern version with the one told by Herodotus. How are they similar and how are the different?

Extending The Lesson

Some teachers may wish to discuss events that followed the battle of Thermopylae. Below are some suggestions for extending the lesson to include other important battles and Xerxes eventual defeat. Remind students that while the events in this lesson were proceeding on land, the Greek fleet had been harassing the Persian fleet on the water. When the land battle was lost, the Greek fleet was forced to withdraw. The Greek fleet headed south, where it would eventually take up a new position at Salamis.

Thus, Xerxes won at Thermopylae and forced the Greeks to withdraw from Artemisium. But the victories at Thermopylae and Artemisium had harmed Xerxes more than they had helped him. On land, the Spartans had once again shown that the Persians were not the equals of Greek hoplites. On the sea, the Greeks had destroyed many more Persian ships. Remind your students of the earlier storms that had also destroyed many Persian ships. In contrast, the Greek fleet was largely intact as a fighting force.

From now on, Xerxes's war plans had to be more cautious: Despite the huge number of ships with which he had started out, Xerxes could no longer assume absolute numerical superiority on the water.

Athens destroyed and Xerxes defeated at Sea

Once Thermopylae was lost, the last residents were evacuated from Athens. Xerxes headed south, destroying cities on his way. At the end of August the Persians entered Attica, as the Athenian land is called. By Sept 5th a remnant force of die-hard defenders on the Athenian acropolis was subdued. The Persians sacked and burned Athens.

The Athenians themselves survived. The population had been moved to islands close to Athens. On about August 27th the allied Greek fleet assembled at one of these islands, the island of Salamis. There were about 310350 triremes in this fleet. Over two hundred of these ships were Athenian. The Athenian Themistocles, who had played such an important role in building up the fleet, was now one of the fleet's most important commanders.

Both sides now played a waiting and watching game. On September 20, 480 BC, Xerxes could stand it no longer. He lost patience with waiting and tried to trap the Greeks in the narrow straits between the island and the land.

You can see from this aerial photograph that there wasn't much room here for hundreds of ships to maneuver: The Greeks, who were in their home territory, were well aware of all the difficulties involved in sailing these straits. They knew every rock and every daily wind. Xerxes' attack was exactly what they had been waiting for. Besides knowing the territory, they had heavier, slower triremes than the Persians. In the narrow waters, where the Persians had little room to flee, the Greek triremes were superior to the Persians' lighter and faster boats. The result of Xerxes' attack was a decisive defeat for the Persians. At Salamis, the Persians lost 200 ships, and the Greeks, 40 ships, in a battle that essentially saved Greece.

The End of Xerxes' Expedition

The rest of Persian fleet, now too small to fight effectively, sailed off back to Persian territory, and the Persian land army was left without naval support. Xerxes himself retreated to Persia, accompanied by a force of 70,000 men.

But the Greeks' troubles weren't over yet. Xerxes left behind him the rest of the army, under the command of a general named Mardonius. Mardonius and his army wintered over in Greece. Rather than attacking any particular place directly, Mardonius spent that winter and the next spring (it is now 479 BCE) trying to undermine the Greek alliance. He had endless resources of money at his disposal, and could promise special favors to anyone who came over to his side. He was hoping to weaken the Greeks by detaching one or the other important city, so that they would fight for the Persians, and against the other Greeks.

But he failed in this, and was forced to engage the Greeks at the battle of Plataea in August, 479. Here the Greeks were present in force: about 30,000 Greek hoplites fought in this battle, which was again commanded by the Spartans, and in which the Persians were finally defeated. Mardonius himself was killed. The remnant of the Persian army fled north and back to Persia, inflicting damage as they went, and suffering extremely harsh conditions themselves.

Links to additional information:

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Problem-solving
Authors
  • Edith Foster, Kenyon College (Gambier, OH)

Resources

Student Resources
Media