Student Activity

Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopilas
Photo caption

Battle of Thermopilas.

300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae

Compare the Persians and the Spartans | The Road to Thermopylae | Herodotus Narrates the Battle of Thermopylae

Compare the Persians and the Spartans

The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE), our best source of information about the battle of Thermopylae, depicted in the movie 300, was born several years after the battle actually took place, but the memory of that heroic stand was still very much alive among the Greeks. In addition, Herodotus had access to many ancient sources of information about the battle and the Persian Wars. Before you read the following passages from Herodotus' Histories describing the Persians and the Greeks, you can follow these links to learn more about Herodotus himself.

Passages from Herodotus’ Histories in the EDSITEment LaunchPads are based on the English translation by George Rawlinson (1858-60).

Links to More Information about Herodotus:

As you read Herodotus' account of Xerxes’ call to arms, pay careful attention to the way Herodotus portrays the character of the Persian king.

Herodotus Histories 7.8

After Egypt was subdued, Xerxes, being about to take in hand the expedition against Athens, called together an assembly of the noblest Persians to learn their opinions, and to lay before them his own designs. So, when the men were met, the king spoke thus to them:

'Persians, I shall not be the first to bring in among you a new custom -- I shall but follow one which has come down to us from our forefathers. Never yet, as our old men assure me, has our race reposed itself, since the time when Cyrus overcame Astyages, and so we Persians wrested the scepter from the Medes.

Now in all this Ahuramazda guides us; and we, obeying his guidance, prosper greatly. What need have I to tell you of the deeds of Cyrus and Cambyses, and my own father Darius, how many nations they conquered, and added to our dominions? Ye know right well what great things they achieved. But for myself, I will say that, from the day on which I mounted the throne, I have not ceased to consider by what means I may rival those who have preceded me in this post of honor, and increase the power of Persia as much as any of them. And truly I have pondered upon this, until at last I have found out a way whereby we may at once win glory, and likewise get possession of a land which is as large and as rich as our own nay, which is even more varied in the fruits it bears- while at the same time we obtain satisfaction and revenge. For this cause I have now called you together, that I may make known to you what I design to do.

My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father.'

  • According to Herodotus, what kind of ruler is Xerxes?
  • What was Xerxes’ principal reason for invading Greece?

Now compare Xerxes' own presentation of himself in some famous inscriptions that Xerxes added to the great palaces at Persepolis one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. You can follow the links for more information.

Xerxes' Royal Inscriptions

When my father Darius went away from the throne, I became king on his throne by the grace of Ahuramazda. After I became king, I finished what had been done by my father, and I added other works.

A great God is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many.

I am Xerxes, the Great King, King of Kings, King of countries containing many kinds (of men), King in this great earth far and wide, son of King Darius, an Achaemenian [follow link to original inscription and translation]

  • By what authority does Xerxes claim his right to rule?
  • Does this inscription seem to support or differ from the impression you get of Xerxes from Herodotus?

In the next paragraph Herodotus describes the Greeks through the words of Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king who had sought asylum among the Persians and accompanied Xerxes on the invasion of his former homeland. Notice how Demaratus responds to Xerxes’ questions about the resistance he is likely to encounter from the Greeks, especially the Spartans, who were also known as Lacedaemonians, from the Greek name for their homeland, Lacedaemonia.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.102

O king! since you’ve asked me at all risks to speak the truth, and not say what will one day prove me to have lied to you, thus I answer. Want has at all times been a fellow-dweller with us in our land, while valor is an ally we have gained by dint of wisdom and strict laws. Her aid enables us to drive out want and escape slavery. Brave are all the Greeks who dwell in any Dorian land; but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Lacedaemonians. First then, come what may, they will never accept your terms, which would reduce Greece to slavery; and further, they are sure to join battle with you, though all the rest of the Greeks should submit to your will. As for their numbers, do not ask how many they are, that their resistance should be based on numbers; for if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet you in battle, and so will any number, be it less than this, or be it more.”

When the Spartans fight as a group, they are the bravest of all. For although they are free men, they are not in all respects free; law is the master whom they obey, and this master they fear more than your subjects fear you, King Xerxes. Whatever their law commands, they do; and its commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or to die.

  • Does Demaratus sound to you like and exile and a traitor?
  • What specific Spartan attributes does Demaratus identify that would challenge the authority of Xerxes?

Later in the Histories Herodotus describes the assembly of the forces in the Greek alliance and the Spartan King and leader of the Greeks. Compare this with the earlier descripton of Xerxes and the way Xerxes assembled the many peoples of his empire.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.204-205

The various nations had each captains of their own under whom they served; but the one to whom all especially looked up, and who had the command of the entire force, was the Lacedaemonian, Leonidas. ... Leonidas had come to be king of Sparta quite unexpectedly. Having two elder brothers, Cleomenes and Dorieus, he had no thought of ever mounting the throne. However, when Cleomenes died without male offspring, as Dorieus was likewise deceased, having perished in Sicily, the crown fell to Leonidas. ... He had now come to Thermopylae, accompanied by the three hundred men which the law assigned him, whom he had himself chosen from among the citizens, and who were all of them fathers with sons living. On his way he had taken the troops from Thebes, whose number I have already mentioned, and who were under the command of Leontiades the son of Eurymachus. The reason why he made a point of taking troops from Thebes, and Thebes only, was that the Thebans were strongly suspected of being well inclined to the Persians. Leonidas therefore called on them to come with him to the war, wishing to see whether they would comply with his demand, or openly refuse, and disclaim the Greek alliance. They, however, though their wishes leaned the other way, nevertheless sent the men.

  • 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 are some of the defining differences between the Persians and Greeks 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?
  • 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?

The Road to Thermopylae

In the spring of 481 BCE, the Persian King Xerxes set out on his invasion of Greece and began the journey that would take him to his historic confrontation with the Spartans and their Greek allies at the narrow pass called Thermopylae, or the Hot Gates. Below are some passages taken from the Greek historian Herodotus, whose Histories provide the earliest account of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. As you read these excerpts and think about the questions that follow, you will be able to retrace Xerxes' path and discover how the Greeks responded to the Persian invasion. You can also follow Xerxes' invasion on the interactive map and reconstruct his amazing bridge across the Hellespont.

Passages from Herodotus’ Histories in the EDSITEment LaunchPads are based on the English translation by George Rawlinson (1858-60).

Maps and Interactive Activities:

Xerxes Gathers His Forces

Before he sets out on his expedition against Greece in the spring of 481 BCE, Xerxes gathers a great army from all the nations of the Persian Empire. Notice how Herodotus places Xerxes' invasion in a larger historical context.

Herodotus Histories, 7.20-21

Reckoning from the recovery of Egypt, Xerxes spent four full years in collecting his invasion force and making ready all things that were needed for his soldiers. It was not until the close of the fifth year that he set forth on his march, accompanied by a mighty multitude. Of all the armaments whereof any mention has reached us, this was by far the greatest; so much so that no other expedition compared to this seems of any account, neither that which Darius undertook against the Scythians, nor the expedition of the Scythians (which the attack of Darius was designed to avenge), when they, being in pursuit of the Cimmerians, fell upon the Median territory, and subdued and held for a time almost the whole of Upper Asia; nor, again, that of the sons of Atreus against Troy, of which we hear in story; nor that of the Mysians and Teucrians, which was still earlier, wherein these nations crossed the Bosphorus into Europe, and, after conquering all Thrace, pressed forward until they came to the Ionian Sea, while southward they reached as far as the river Peneus.

All of these expeditions, and others, if such there were, are as nothing compared with this. For was there a nation in all of Asia which Xerxes did not bring with him against Greece? Or was there a river, except those of unusual size, which sufficed for his troops to drink? One nation furnished ships; another was arrayed among the foot-soldiers; a third had to supply horses; a fourth, transports for the horse and men likewise for the transport service; a fifth, ships of war towards the bridges; a sixth, ships and provisions.

  • What is the most impressive thing about Xerxes’ invasion force?
  • Do you recognize the reference to the famous expedition launched by the Greeks and the sons of Atreus against Troy?

The Persians Cross the Hellespont

In the fall of 481 BCE, Xerxes’ great army reached the city of Sardis, where they spent the winter. The following spring, 480, they began their march to the Hellespont, where his engineers and components of his navy, composed primarily of Egyptians and Phoenicians, had prepared a bridge across the entrance to the Black Sea, which the Greeks called the Euxine Sea. Herodotus' description captures many of the details of this marvel of ancient engineering.

Herodotus Histories, 7.36

They joined together triremes and penteconters, 360 to support the bridge on the side of the Euxine Sea, and 314 to sustain the other; and these they placed at right angles to the sea, and in the direction of the current of the Hellespont, relieving by these means the tension of the shore cables. Having joined the vessels, they moored them with anchors of unusual size, so that the vessels of the bridge towards the Euxine could resist the winds which blow from within the straits, and so that those of the more western bridge facing the Aegean might withstand the winds which set in from the south and from the south-east. A gap was left in the penteconters in no fewer than three places, to allow a passage for such light craft as chose to enter or leave the Euxine Sea. When all this was done, they made the cables taut from the shore by the help of wooden capstans. This time, moreover, instead of using the two materials separately, they assigned to each bridge six cables, two of which were of white flax, while four were of papyrus. Both cables were of the same size and quality; but the flaxen were the heavier, weighing not less than a talent the cubit. When the bridge across the channel was thus complete, trunks of trees were sawn into planks, which were out to the width of the bridge, and these were laid side by side upon the tightened cables, and then fastened on the top. This done, brushwood was brought, and arranged upon the planks, after which earth was heaped upon the brushwood, and the whole trodden down into a solid mass. Lastly a fence was set up on either side of this causeway, of such a height as to prevent the pack animals and the horses from seeing over it and taking fright at the water.

Now that you’ve read Herodotus’ description, try your own hand at recreating the Persian’s engineering feat with this interactive bridge-building challenge.

Based on astronomical records, Scholars believe an eclipse of the sun occurred the previous spring, April 10, 481 BCE, at the beginning of the expedition, when Xerxes was set to depart from Susa. But Herodotus tells us the eclipse occurred a year later, when Xerxes was preparing to cross into Europe.

Herodotus Histories, 7.37

At the moment of departure, the sun suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens, and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight, but the sky was clear and serene. Day was thus turned into night; whereupon Xerxes, who saw and remarked the prodigy, was seized with alarm, and sending at once for the Magi, inquired of them the meaning of the portent. They replied- 'God is foreshowing to the Greeks the destruction of their cities; for the sun foretells for them, and the moon for us.' So Xerxes, thus instructed, proceeded on his way with great gladness of heart.

  • Is Herodotus mistaken about the date, or does he find the later date more dramatic?
  • Why should Xerxes be alarmed by a solar eclipse?
  • Would it help to know that the Persian god Ahuramazda was associated with goodness and light, also sometimes represented by the light of the sun, and opposed to evil represented by darkness?
  • How do the Magi interpret the meaning of the eclipse so that it brings encouragement rather than alarm to Xerxes?

The eclipse was not the only sign from the gods. A little later Herodotus tells of other portents and omens that occurred during Xerxes march towards Greece.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.57-58

When the whole army had crossed, and the troops were now upon their march, a strange prodigy appeared to them, whereof the king made no account, though its meaning was not difficult to conjecture. Now the prodigy was this: a mare brought forth a hare. Hereby it was shown plainly enough, that Xerxes would lead forth his host against Greece with mighty pomp and splendor, but, in order to reach again the spot from which he set out, would have to run for his life. There had also been another portent, while Xerxes was still at Sardis, a mule dropped a foal, neither male nor female; but this likewise was disregarded.  So Xerxes, despising the omens, marched forwards; and his land army accompanied him.

  • Why do you think Herodotus includes these reports of strange prodigies and portents?
  • Why would Xerxes find comfort in some portents and ignore others?

Xerxes and his whole force of Persians are now in Greece, at Doriscus, and are ready to begin on their final march southward toward mainland Greece. According to Herodotus, Xerxes’ land army numbered 1,700,000 men. Most scholars now agree that this number is far too great, even including all of the auxiliary forces and baggage handlers that would have accompanied the men at arms. A more likely figure is approximately 250,000 men at arms, composed of 180,000 to 200,000 infantry, plus 70,000 cavalry, and 2000 chariots. Herodotus numbers Xerxes’ navy at 3000 transport vessels of all sizes and more than 1200 triremes, with the Phoenicians contributing 300 of these and the Egyptians 200, and the remainder coming from other parts of the Empire. Scholars, however, think the total number of warships was probably closer to 650. Before setting out Xerxes reviews his troops.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.59

The name Doriscus is given to a beach and a vast plain upon the coast of Thrace, through the middle of which flows the strong stream of the Hebrus. Here was the royal fort which is likewise called Doriscus, where Darius had maintained a Persian garrison ever since the time when he attacked the Scythians. This place seemed to Xerxes a convenient spot for reviewing and numbering his soldiers; which things accordingly he proceeded to do. detail of Ancient Greece map pinpointing DoriscusThe sea-captains, who had brought the fleet to Doriscus, were ordered to take the vessels to the beach adjoining, where Sale stands, a city of the Samothracians, and Zone, another city. The beach extends to Serrheum, the well-known promontory; the whole district in former times was inhabited by the Ciconians. Here then the captains were to bring their ships, and to haul them ashore for refitting, while Xerxes at Doriscus was employed in numbering the soldiers. (7.208)

  • 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?

The Greeks Respond

At first the Greek response to the Persian threat had been chaotic. Xerxes had earlier sent heralds to ask for gifts of "earth and water" as a sign of obedience from all of the Greek city states except Athens and Sparta. He knew that those cities would not respond or might even mistreat his envoys as they had done previously when Xerxes’ father Darius the Great had sent heralds to demand earth and water. In Athens the Persian heralds had been thrown into a pit of punishment, and in Sparta they were cast into a well and told to get the earth and water from there. In this passage Herodotus describes the differences in the ways the Greeks reacted.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.138

The expedition of the Persian king, though it was in name directed against Athens, threatened really the whole of Greece. And of this the Greeks were aware some time before; but they did not all view the matter in the same light. Some of them had given the Persian earth and water, and were bold on this account, deeming themselves thereby secured against suffering hurt from the barbarian army; while others, who had refused compliance, were thrown into extreme alarm. For whereas they considered all the ships in Greece too few to engage the enemy, it was plain that the greater number of states would take no part in the war, but warmly favored the Persians.

According to Herodotus, only the Spartans (also called Pelopannesians and Lacedaemonians, from the geographic names of their territory) and the Athenians seemed determined to resist the Persians, and of these two the more important were the Athenians, for they held the key to Greece’s naval power. Herodotus explains his reasons for thinking that Athens holds the key to Greek success against the Persians.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.139

And here I feel constrained to deliver an opinion, which most men, I know, will dislike, but which, as it seems to me to be true, I am determined not to withhold. Had the Athenians, from fear of the approaching danger, quitted their country, or had they without quitting it submitted to the power of Xerxes, there would certainly have been no attempt to resist the Persians by sea; in which case the course of events by land would have been the following. Though the Peloponnesians might have carried ever so many breastworks across the Isthmus, yet their allies would have fallen off from the Lacedaemonians, not by voluntary desertion, but because town after town must have been taken by the fleet of the barbarians; and so the Lacedaemonians would at last have stood alone, and, standing alone, would have displayed prodigies of valor and died nobly. Either they would have done thus, or else, before it came to that extremity, seeing one Greek state after another embrace the cause of the Persians, they would have come to terms with King Xerxes—and thus, either way Greece would have been brought under Persia. detail of Ancient Greece map pinpointing Isthmus of CorinthFor I cannot understand of what possible use the walls across the Isthmus could have been, if the king had had the mastery of the sea. If then a man should now say that the Athenians were the saviors of Greece, he would not exceed the truth. For they truly held the scales; and whichever side they espoused must have carried the day. They too it was who, when they had determined to maintain the freedom of Greece, roused up that portion of the Greek nation which had not gone over to the Medes; and so, next to the gods, they repulsed the invader. Even the terrible oracles which reached them from Delphi, and struck fear into their hearts, failed to persuade them to fly from Greece. They had the courage to remain faithful to their land, and await the coming of the foe.

  • 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 find his explanation of the role played by Athenian naval power convincing?

The Athenians Abandon Their City

When the Athenians sought advice from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, they received the warnings that Herodotus mentioned above. At first the oracle urged the Athenians to flee, predicting ruin and destruction for Athens, but when the Athenian envoys requested a second audience with the priestess, she responded with another ambiguous but this time somewhat more hopeful prophecy:

Herodotus' Histories, 7.141

Pallas has not been able to soften the lord of Olympus,
Though she has often prayed him, and urged him with excellent counsel.
Yet once more I address you in words firmer than adamant.
When the foe shall have taken whatever the limit of Cecrops
Holds within it, and all which divine Cithaeron, shelters,
Then far-seeing Jove grants this to the prayers of Athene;
Safe shall the wooden wall continue for you and your children.
Wait not the tramp of the horse, nor the footmen mightily moving
Over the land, but turn your back to the foe, and retire.
Yet shall a day arrive when you shall meet him in battle.
Holy Salamis, you shall destroy the offspring of women,
When men scatter the seed, or when they gather the harvest. (7.141)

  • Can you find any signs for hope in these words from Apollo's oracle?
  • Why do you think the priestess delivered her prophecies in such riddling language?

Like most ancient prophecies, this one was couched in ambiguity. Many interpreters thought the oracle was predicting only more doom, but Herodotus tells us that the Athenian statesman Themistocles interpreted this second prophecy to mean that the Athenians should abandon their city and man their naval fleet to defend Athens and Greece by sea:

Herodotus' Histories, 7.143

Themistocles came forward and said that the interpreters had not explained the oracle altogether correctly—"for if," he argued, "the clause in question had really respected the Athenians, it would not have been expressed so mildly; the phrase used would have been ‘Luckless Salamis,’rather than ‘Holy Salamis,’ had those to whom the island belonged been about to perish in its neighborhood. Rightly taken, the response of the god threatened the enemy, much more than the Athenians." He therefore counseled his countrymen to make ready to fight on board their ships, since they were the wooden wall in which the god told them to trust. When Themistocles had thus cleared the matter, the Athenians embraced his view, preferring it to that of the interpreters.
  • Do you agree with Themistocles’ interpretation of the oracle?
  • What are the implications of his plan for the people of Athens?
  • What sacrifice is being demanded of them if they accept Themistocles’ strategy?

The Greeks Meet the Persian Advance

At first the Greeks determined to stop Xerxes' advance in Thessaly at the pass of Olympus, but when they sent an advance party of men, they realized that Xerxes’ army was far too numerous, and so they abandoned that idea and decided to defend the much narrower pass at Thermopylae and to send the Greek fleet under the command of the Athenians to nearby Artemisium. Herodotus explains the Greek's decision.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.175-177

Then it was determined that they should guard this pass at Thermopylae, in order to prevent the barbarians from penetrating into Greece through it; and at the same time it was resolved that the Greek fleet should proceed to Artemisium, in the region of Histiaeotis, for, as those places are near to one another, it would be easy for the fleet and army to hold communication. . . . These places, therefore, seemed to the Greeks fit for their purpose. Weighing well all that was likely to happen, and considering that in this region the barbarians could make no use of their vast numbers, nor of their cavalry, they resolved to await here the invader of Greece. And when news reached them of the Persians being in Pieria, straightway they broke up from the Isthmus, and proceeded, some on foot to Thermopylae, others by sea to Artemisium.

Mother Nature Enters the War

As the Greek army and fleet advanced to Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes’ army continued to make its way south over land, and Xerxes’ fleet was proceeding down the coast. Suddenly, disaster struck the Persians: storms, usual in northern Greece at this time of year, blew into the coast. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.188-192)

The Persian fleet had no harbors and was therefore unprotected from the winds. On the 13th of August, 480 BC, severe storms destroyed a third of the Persian fleet of 700-800 triremes. By the end, the loss of these ships would be very important for the Greek victory in this war.

The Greeks, who knew their own winds and waters, had taken refuge behind the island of Euboea. Their fleet was unscathed, and the Greeks offered prayers to the gods for helping them in their time of need. Notice again the importance placed on the favor of the gods.
Herodotus' Histories, 7.192

The scouts left by the Greeks about the highlands of Euboea hastened down from their stations on the day following that when the storm began, and acquainted their countrymen with all that had befallen the Persian fleet. These no sooner heard what had happened than straightway they returned thanks to Poseidon the Saviour, and poured libations in his honour; after which they hurried back with all speed to Artemisium, expecting to find a very few ships left to oppose them, and arriving there for the second time, took up their station on that strip of coast: nor from that day to the present have they ceased to address Poseidon by the name then given him, of Saviour.

The Greeks and Persians Meet

Xerxes was, of course, undaunted; he believed he could provide new ships after winning on land. By August 14th-15th, the Persians pitched camp close to Thermopylae with their battered fleet anchoring nearby, and by August 16th, 480 BCE, the storm had blown itself out.

Meanwhile, an advance force of several thousand men from the Spartan alliance, lead by 300 Spartans, had marched north to guard the narrow pass at Thermopylae, with the rest of the Spartan army scheduled to follow. At the same time (late July, 480 BCE) an allied Greek fleet of 271 vessels, mostly Athenian, had sailed for Artemisium, so that from the beginning of August both the land and the sea defenses of this point on the Greek coast were in place.

The Greeks and Persians were ready to fight each other for the pass at Thermopylae. Herodotus describes the scene.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.201

King Xerxes pitched his camp in the region of Malis called Trachinia, while on their side the Greeks occupied the straits. These straits the Greeks in general call Thermopylae (the Hot Gates); but the natives, and those who dwell in the neighborhood, call them Pylae (the Gates). Here then the two armies took their stand; the one master of the entire region lying north of Trachis, the other of the country extending southward of that place to the verge of the continent.
  • 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?

Herodotus Narrates the Battle of Thermopylae

With the Persian army approaching from the north, the Greeks realize their situation is increasingly dire. The Spartans and Athenians try to muster their forces, sending out an appeal to other city states all across the Greek mainland to join them and make a stand at the narrow pass called Thermopylae, the Hot Gates. As you read the following narrative of Thermopylae from Herodotus' Histories you can follow the progress of the battle using these maps. If you have seen the movie 300 or read the graphic novel by Frank Miller, compare the modern version with the story of the battle told by Herodotus, the father of History.

Passages from Herodotus’ Histories in the EDSITEment LaunchPads are based on the English translation by George Rawlinson (1858-60).
Maps of Greece and the Battle of Thermopylae

The Greeks Prepare for Battle

The Greek city states were more accustomed to fighting among themselves than standing united against a common enemy. Herodotus describes how on this occasion representatives came from different regions, in groups of various sizes, to join with the Spartans in common defense of their country.

Herodotus Histories, 7.202

The Greeks who at Thermopylae awaited the coming of Xerxes were the following:—From Sparta, 300 men-at-arms; from Arcadia, 1,000, Tegeans and Mantineans, 500 of each people; 120 Orchomenians, from the Arcadian Orchomenus; and 1,000 from other cities: from Corinth, 400 men; from Phlius, 200; and from Mycenae 80. Such was the number from the Peloponnese. There were also present, from Boeotia, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans.

In the following passage, Herodotus emphasizes that other Greek allies from the region who live near Thermopylae are urged to join in the defense. Meanwhile the Athenians gather the Greek navy nearby at Artemisium.

Herodotus Histories, 7.203

Besides these troops, the Locrians of Opus and the Phocians had obeyed the call of their countrymen. The Locrians sent all the force they had, the Phocians contributed 1,000 men. For envoys had gone from the Greeks at Thermopylae among the Locrians and Phocians, to call on them for assistance, and to say, "They were themselves but the vanguard of the host, sent to precede the main body, which might every day be expected to follow them. The sea was in good keeping, watched by the Athenians, the Eginetans, and the rest of the fleet. There was no cause why they should fear; for after all the invader was not a god but a man; and there never had been, and never would be, a man who was not liable to misfortunes from the very day of his birth, and those misfortunes greater in proportion to his own greatness. The assailant therefore, being only a mortal, must needs fall from his glory." Thus urged, the Locrians and the Phocians had come with their troops to Trachis.
  • 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?

As you read the next passage, consider the challenges and disadvantages that the Spartan commander, Leonidas, faces. The two festivals mentioned are important ones: The Carneian festival was a festival of the god Apollo at Sparta, and the Olympic games were dedicated to Zeus. It may be helpful to remember that the Greeks believed they could not win a war without the good will of the gods.

Herodotus Histories, 7.206

The force with Leonidas was sent forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, so that the sight of them might encourage the Greek allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes, as it was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was holding back. The Spartans intended presently, when they had celebrated the Carneian festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army. The rest of the allies also intended to act similarly; for it happened that the Olympic festival fell exactly at this same period. None of them expected to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily; therefore they were content to send forward a mere advanced guard. Such were the intentions of the allies.
  • Can you imagine a modern army not sending all available troops to war because of a holy day or athletic festival?
  • Herodotus suggests that the Greeks expect reinforcements to arrive in time to join the battle: what do you think?
  • Do you think the Spartans and their allies anticipate victory?

When they see Xerxes’ vast army of Medes and other Persian allies approaching, the Greeks from the Peloponnesian peninsula desire a vote be taken to return home. Look at the map to see how far Thermopylae is from the narrow isthmus that connects the rest of Greece with Sparta and the surrounding region of Peloponnesia.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.207

The Greek forces at Thermopylae, when the Persian army drew near to the entrance of the pass, were seized with fear; and a council was held to consider a retreat. It was the wish of the Peloponnesians generally that the army should fall back upon the Peloponnese, and there guard the Isthmus. But Leonidas, who saw with what indignation the Phocians and Locrians heard of this plan, gave his voice for remaining where they were, while they sent envoys to the several cities to ask for help, since they were too few to make a stand against an army like that of the Medes.
  • Was it fear alone or did the Peloponnians have other reasons for wanting to retreat?
  • Why do you think the Phocians and Locrians were indignant?
  • Imagine you are Leonidas: what would you do to foster morale and courage among your men?

Xerxes Sends a Spy

In these next passages Herodotus describes how Xerxes sends a scout to discover the strength of the Greek defenses.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.208

While this debate was going on, Xerxes sent a mounted spy to observe the Greeks, and note how many they were, and see what they were doing. He had heard, before he came out of Thessaly, that a few men were assembled at this place, and that at their head were certain Lacedaemonians, under Leonidas, a descendant of Hercules. The horseman rode up to the camp, and looked about him, but did not see the whole army; for those who were on the further side of the wall (which had been rebuilt and was now carefully guarded) it was not possible for him to behold; but he observed those on the outside, who were encamped in front of the rampart. It chanced at this time that the Lacedaemonians held the outer guard, and were seen by the spy, some of them engaged in gymnastic exercises, others combing their long hair. At this the spy greatly marvelled, but he counted their number, and when he had taken accurate note of everything, he rode back quietly; for no one pursued after him, nor paid any heed to his visit. So he returned, and told Xerxes all that he had seen. (7.208)
  • Imagine you are Xerxes’ scout, sent to spy on the Greeks: what would you make of the behavior of the Spartans?
  • How do think Xerxes will react to the report from his spy?

Remember, Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king who sought asylum at the Persian court and accompanied Xerxes on the invasion of Greece? Xerxes turns to him for an explanation of the Spartan behaviour reported by his spy.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.209

Upon hearing this report, Xerxes, who had no means of surmising the truth—namely, that the Spartans were preparing to do or die manfully—but thought it laughable that they should be engaged in such employments, sent and called to his presence Demaratus the son of Ariston, who still remained with the army. When Demaratus appeared, Xerxes told him all that he had heard, and questioned him concerning the news, since he was anxious to understand the meaning of such behavior on the part of the Spartans. Then Demaratus said,

'I spoke to you earlier, O king! concerning these men, when we had just begun our march upon Greece; you, however, only laughed at my words, when I told you of all this, which I saw would come to pass. I struggle earnestly to speak truth to you at all times, sire; and now listen to it once more: These men have come to dispute the pass with us, and it is for this that they are now making ready. It is their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care. Be assured, however, that if you can subdue the men who are here and the Lacedaemonians who remain in Sparta, there is no other nation in all the world which will venture to lift a hand in their defence. You have now to deal with the first kingdom and town in Greece, and with the bravest men.'

Then Xerxes, to whom what Demaratus said seemed altogether to surpass belief, asked further 'how it was possible for so small an army to contend with us?' 'O king!' Demaratus answered, 'let me be treated as a liar, if matters fall not out as I say.'
  • How does Demaratus' explain the behavior of his former countrymen?
  • How do you think Xerxes might have interpreted Demaratus' answer?

Xerxes Decides to Fight

Finally, on August 18, 480* BCE, Xerxes launches his attack. As you read the following passages, pay particular attention to the way Herodotus describes the fighting and the ways the Persians and the Greeks engage in battle. Study the map and this time sequence animation to get a sense of the terrain where the battle is being fought.

*The actual dates of the battle are disputed. Some scholars say it was later in August, others as late as September 18-20.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.210

But Xerxes was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew angry, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into his presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others however took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day.
  • Why do you think Xerxes delays instead of attacking right away?
  • 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?

The heavily armed Greek infantry (known as hoplites) were trained to fight in disciplined, close formation known as a phalanx. Once it is clear that the Medes and Cissians will not be able to prevail, Xerxes deploys the famous Immortals It is still the first day of the battle.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.211

Then the Medes, having met so rough a reception, withdrew from the fight; and their place was taken by the band of Persians under Hydarnes, whom the king called his 'Immortals': they, it was thought, would soon finish the business. But when they joined battle with the Greeks, it was with no better success than the Median detachment—things went much as before—the two armies fighting in a narrow space, and the barbarians using shorter spears than the Greeks, and having no advantage from their numbers. The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skilful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting. Then the Spartans at their approach would wheel around and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy. Some Spartans likewise fell in these encounters, but only a very few. At last the Persians, finding that all their efforts to gain the pass availed nothing, and that, whether they attacked by divisions or in any other way, it was to no purpose, withdrew to their own quarters.
  • What are Xerxes battle tactics?
  • What tactics do the Spartans employ?
  • Who has the advantage and why?
  • If you’ve seen the movie 300, or read the graphic novel, how does Herodotus’ description of the fighting compare to that in the movie or novel?

The Second Day: Same as the First

On the second day of the Persian attack. Herodotus tells us that despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Persians, Xerxes fears for his army, which seems to be making no progress against the Greeks.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.212

During these assaults, it is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle, three times leaped from the throne on which he sat, in terror for his army. Next day the combat was renewed, but with no better success on the part of the barbarians. The Greeks were so few that the barbarians hoped to find them disabled, by reason of their wounds, from offering any further resistance; and so they once more attacked them. But the Greeks were drawn up in detachments according to their cities, and bore the brunt of the battle in turns—all except the Phocians, who had been stationed on the mountain to guard the pathway. So, when the Persians found no difference between that day and the preceding, they again retired to their quarters.
  • Why do you think the Greeks organize themselves by cities?
  • Can you guess the significance of the mountain pathway guarded by the Phocians?

A Traitor Appears

The Greek forces knew very well that there was one very dangerous weakness in their defense of Thermopylae. Although the mountains protected them on one side and the sea on the other, there was an alternate pathway through the mountains that was well-know among the local Greek inhabitants.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.213

Now, as the king was in great strait, and knew not how he should deal with the emergency, Ephialtes, the son of Eurydemus, a man of Malis, came to him and was admitted to a conference. Stirred by the hope of receiving a rich reward at the king’s hands, he had come to tell him of the pathway which led across the mountain to Thermopylae; by which disclosure he brought destruction on the band of Greeks who had there withstood the barbarians. This Ephialtes afterwards, from fear of the Lacedaemonians, fled into Thessaly; and during his exile, in an assembly of the Amphictyons held at Pylae, a price was set upon his head by the Pylagorae. When some time had gone by, he returned from exile, and went to Anticyra, where he was slain by Athenades, a native of Trachis. Athenades did not slay him for his treachery, but for another reason, which I shall mention in a later part of my history: yet still the Lacedaemonians honoured Athenades none the less. Thus then did Ephialtes perish a long time afterwards.

At this point Herodotus interrupts his story of the battle to consider an alternate version of the betrayal, but casts doubt on it, because the Greeks did not desire revenge on these other traitors, but only on Ephialtes, who was the one who, as Herodotus stipulates, actually led the Persians around by the mountain pathway. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.214)

Herodotus' Histories, 7.217

The Persians took this path, and, crossing the Asopus, continued their march through the whole of the night, having the mountains of Oeta on their right hand, and on their left those of Trachis. At dawn of day they found themselves close to the summit. Now the hill was guarded, as I have already said, by a thousand Phocian men-at-arms, who were placed there to defend the pathway, and at the same time to secure their own country. They had been given the guard of the mountain path, while the other Greeks defended the pass below, because they had volunteered for the service, and had pledged themselves to Leonidas to maintain the post.
  • Why do you suppose Herodotus takes the time to describe the fate of the traitor Ephialtes?
  • What is the importance of the Phocian’s assignment?

A Time of Decision for the Greeks

Once they have achieved the mountain pass, the Persians are prepared to sneak up on the Greeks from behind. Meanwhile, various warnings that the end is near filter into the Greek camp. Once again they are faced with a moment of decision.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.219

The Greeks at Thermopylae received the first warning of the destruction which the dawn would bring on them from the seer Megistias, who read their fate in the victims as he was sacrificing. After this deserters came in, and brought the news that the Persians were marching round by the hills: it was still night when these men arrived. Last of all, the scouts came running down from the heights, and brought in the same accounts, when the day was just beginning to break. Then the Greeks held a council to consider what they should do, and here opinions were divided: some were strong against quitting their post, while others contended to the contrary. So when the council had broken up, part of the troops departed and went their ways homeward to their several states; part however resolved to remain, and to stand by Leonidas to the last.

Now Herodotus focuses our attention on Leonidas in this moment of crisis and decision. Try to imagine how you would handle this situation if you were the Spartan commander.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.220

It is said that Leonidas himself sent away the troops who departed, because he tendered their safety, but thought it unseemly that either he or his Spartans should quit the post which they had been especially sent to guard. For my own part, I incline to think that Leonidas gave the order, because he perceived the allies to be out of heart and unwilling to encounter the danger to which his own mind was made up. He therefore commanded them to retreat, but said that he himself could not draw back with honor; knowing that, if he stayed, glory awaited him, and that Sparta in that case would not lose her prosperity. For when the Spartans, at the very beginning of the war, sent to consult the oracle of Pythian Apollo concerning it, the answer which they received from the Pythoness was “that either Sparta must be overthrown by the barbarians, or one of her kings must perish.” The prophecy was delivered in hexameter verse, and ran thus:—

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 nought that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city.

The remembrance of this answer, I think, and the wish to secure the whole glory for the Spartans, caused Leonidas to send the allies away. This is more likely than that they quarrelled with him, and took their departure in such unruly fashion (7.220).
  • Why do you think Herodotus offers so many possible motives for the actions of Leonidas and the Greek allies?
  • What does Leonidas hope to gain from staying?
  • Why would Leonidas believe that the Spartans must remain at Thermopylae?
  • What event does he hope to prevent?
  • Why do you think Herodotus introduces the oracle at this point in the story?

The Battle Ends

In the end only a much reduced force is left to defend the Hot Gates: the Spartans, the Thespians, and the Thebans.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.222-223

So the allies, when Leonidas ordered them to retire, obeyed him and forthwith departed. Only the Thespians and the Thebans remained with the Spartans; and of these the Thebans were kept back by Leonidas as hostages, very much against their will. The Thespians, on the contrary, stayed entirely of their own accord, refusing to retreat, and declaring that they would not forsake Leonidas and his followers. So they remained with the Spartans, and died with them. Their leader was Demophilus, the son of Diadromes.

At sunrise Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the time of day when the forum is accustomed to fill, and then began his advance. Ephialtes had instructed him thus, since the descent of the mountain is much quicker, and the distance much shorter, than the way round the hills, and the ascent. So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw near; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond that point, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them the captains of the Persian squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.
  • Do you think Herodotus favors the heroism of the Greeks?
  • How would you tell the story differently if you were a Persian?

Herodotus' Histories, 7.224-225

By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius, being a son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his only child. (7.224)

Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew near, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a small hill, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hill of which I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honor of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons. (7.225)
  • Why does Herodotus take care to learn the names of all of the 300?
  • What do you think would motivate the Spartans to fight so fiercely over the body of the slain Leonidas?
  • Do you believe such a struggle ever actually took place?

Herodotus' Histories, 7.226

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, that was Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, 'Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.' Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered 'Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.' Other sayings too of a similar nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.
  • What part do these famous “sayings” play in Herodotus’ telling of the story of Thermopylae?

Now compare the following inscriptions Herodotus reports were erected as memorials after the battle.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.228

The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honor, nor less in honor of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an inscription was set up, which said:

Here did four thousand men from Pelops’ land
Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.

This was in honor of all. Another was for the Spartans alone:

Go, stranger, and tell the Lacedaemonians
That here, obeying their commands, we fell.

This was for the Lacedaemonians. The seer had the following:

The great Megistias’ tomb you here may view,
Whom the Medes slew, fresh from Spercheius’ fords.
Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew,
Yet scorned he to forsake his Spartan lords.

These inscriptions, and the pillars likewise, were all set up by the Amphictyons, except that in honor of Megistias, which was inscribed to him (on account of their sworn friendship) by Simonides, the son of Leoprepes.
  • What is the purpose of these memorials?
  • What do such memorials seem to say about the men, especially the Spartans, who fell at Thermopylae?
  • Why do you suppose the Spartans are singled out in memorials and by Herodotus?

Now look at another story Herodotus tells about two Spartans who were suffering with some disease of the eyes, possibly infections brought on by all the dust stirred up during the battle. Try to determine what this episode has to do with the the other stories of Spartan heroism.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.229

Two of the three hundred, it is said, Aristodemus and Eurytus, having been attacked by a disease of the eyes, had received orders from Leonidas to quit the camp; and both lay at Alpeni in the worst stage of the malady. These two men might, had they been so minded, have agreed together to return alive to Sparta; or if they did not like to return, they might have gone both to the field and fallen with their countrymen. But at this time, when either way was open to them, unhappily they could not agree, but took contrary courses. Eurytus no sooner heard that the Persians had come round the mountain than straightway he called for his armor, and having buckled it on, bade his helot lead him to the place where his friends were fighting. The helot did so, and then turned and fled; but Eurytus plunged into the thick of the battle, and so perished. Aristodemus, on the other hand, was faint of heart, and remained at Alpeni. It is my belief that if Aristodemus only had been sick and returned, or if both had come back together, the Spartans would have been content and felt no anger; but when there were two men with the very same excuse, and one of them was chary of his life, while the other freely gave it, they could not but be very wroth with the former.
  • How is this story related to the rest of the narrative?
  • What lesson do you think Herodotus sees in the behavior of these two men?

By the time Thermopylae was taken on August 20, 480 BCE, all the Spartans and Thespians were dead. It is estimated, however, that over those same three days the Persians had lost as many as 10,000 men, many of whom would not have been killed by the Greeks, but by trampling and drowning. Finally, near the end of his narrative of the battle, Herodotus describes how Xerxes took out his anger on the slain body of Leonidas. Again, consider some of the motives Herodotus might have for emphasizing this particular story about the Persian commander.

Herodotus' Histories, 7.238

When Xerxes had thus spoken, he proceeded to pass through the slain; and finding the body of Leonidas, whom he knew to have been the Lacedaemonian king and captain, he ordered that the head should be struck off, and the trunk fastened to a cross. This proves to me most clearly, what is plain also in many other ways—namely, that King Xerxes was more angry with Leonidas, while he was still in life, than with any other mortal. Otherwise, he would not else have used his body so shamefully. For the Persians are accustomed to honor those who show themselves valiant in fight more highly than any nation that I know. They, however, to whom the orders were given, did according to the commands of the king.
  • 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?
  • Do you think there are parts of Frank Miller's 300 that would also be objectionable to a Persian audience?