Over the past few years there has been a number of films depicting the great historical events and wars of the ancient world. Notably Ridley Scotts Gladiator, then Troy and more recently 300. Its the story of the 300 Spartans and the battle of Thermopylae that we shall look at here. The 300 Spartans who stood as free men, fighting for freedom and democracy against the overwhelming odds of a slave army. The biggest army every assembled in the ancient world.
But what is fact and what is fiction. Did 300 stand against 1 million ? The only real evidence we have is the ancient writings of Herodotus and others which would be about 2500 years old. Very little evidence has been found at the site of the battle apart from a numerous arrowheads. To really understand what happened all those years ago we must first go back to what is known as the first Greco-Persian war. This had come about when the peoples of Ionia had risen up in an attempt to overthrow Persian rule
and in response, the Greek city states of Athens and Eretia had sent a force to support them and their cause.
In 490 BC after bringing the Ionian revolt to an end the Persian king Darius decided to teach the Greeks a lesson and to extend his empire to include Greece. At that time Greece had evolved into a series of city states. Each one fiercely independent and with their different views and different societies. The two main city states being Athens, with the largest and most powerful navel fleet, and Sparta with its warrior society. All these city states were constantly at war with each other.
The Persian King crossed into Greece close to Athens with 600 ships and 20,000 troops. The Athenians with 10,000 troops marched out to meet them on the plain of Marathon. Here despite being outnumbered the Greeks were victorious and the Persians sailed home, their tails between their legs.
By 490 BC things had changed, The Persian King Darius had died and his son Xerxes now ruled the Persian empire. Xerxes was determined to finish what his father had started and bring Greece into the Persian empire. Also, Greece was the gateway to Europe and Xerxes had ambitions. To make certain that nothing would stop him, Xerxes raised the biggest army the world had every seen. It was probably around 250,000 troops. Nothing stood in its way. This huge army marched from Persia around the Aegean Sea and into Greece, crushing anything that stood in its way. The Persian fleet followed them offshore.
In the ancient world there was a time for war and it was governed by the seasons. While men grew and harvested their crops there was no time for war. Religion, or rather religious festivals was the other reason that men did not make war on each other. Only the latter applied to Sparta. Spartan society was made up of two groups of people. The Spartan elite and the helots. Helots were more or less public slaves and were probably kept in check by fear. Although not treated harshly they were responsible for the day to day work such as farming, building, weaving, in fact everything. Because Spartan men trained for one thing and one thing only – war. They were in fact the first professional soldier, trained to kill.
Helots would also act as a form of back up to the Spartan army as light infantry or archers. Spartan society was ruled by two kings. If one king was killed in battle the other would take charge. (Think about king Harold. The battle of Hastings in 1066) In turn the kings were kept in check by strict laws and an elected body of councilmen.
Even before Xerxes great army had left Persia, word had spread of what was to come. The Greek king Leonides knew that for an army so vast the only possible route into Greece was through the narrow pass at Thermopylae. Thermopylae in Greek means 'hot springs' The area was well known for its hot sulphur springs. Leonides also realised that in such a narrow place a small band of men would be able to hold off against a much larger force. The Spartans initially thought that Xerxes great army would reach the Thermopylae by June. But the Persian army moved slower and would not reach the pass until late August. This was disastrous for Leonides war plans, as the festival of carnea was held at that time and would mean that the Spartan army would be unable to go to war.
With such a large army marching towards them the city states of Greece realised their only chance was to join together as one, so an alliance was formed. Each city state promised to send troops with the Spartans taking the lead. Despite the festival of carnea, Leonides and the Spartan council of elders knew that somehow they had to get Spartans to Thermopylae. All of Greece would would be watching. If the Spartans did not show up, the alliance would fall apart. Greece would fall. One city state at a time.
To take the Spartan army to war during a religious festival would be against Spartan law. The same law that Leonides had sworn to uphold. To get around this Leonides selected 300 veteran troops that he named as his 'bodyguard' and set off for Thermopylae. The rest of the Spartan army were to follow after the festival had finished. Despite the story of '300' holding the pass. In truth Herodotus tells us there was probably another 300 Spartan helots and by the time they had reached Thermopylae they would have been joined by other Greeks. The Thepians, Thebans, Arcadians, Tegeans and others. A total force of around 4,000 men.
Leonides took charge of the Greek forces and put the Spartans at the front. Here where Thermopylae opened onto the plain, the pass would only have been 330 feet wide. When the Spartans fought they fought as one, like a well oiled machine. They were heavy infantry, eight foot long spears, large shields made from oak with a bronze outer layer and a deadly short sword. The Spartans fought in a phalanx formation, their large shields protecting their left side and also the right side of the man next to them. The Persians on the other hand would have been classed as light infantry. Small wicker type shields, shorter spears and swords. They were no match for the Spartan heavy armour.
It took almost four days for the Persian army to deploy itself for battle. And on the fifth day Xerxes sent in his troops. They were used to fighting in wide open spaces, a quick skirmish, retreat, and attack again. They were outmatched in every way. The first day of battle was a victory for the Greeks. The second day of battle was much more difficult, Xerxes sent in his elite troops, the immortals. But the Greeks held. In the narrow pass of Thermopylae Xerxes large numbers of troops counted for nothing. Only a small number of men could could fight each other at any time. This simple but effective tactic was such, that the principle has been taught in military colleges around the world. When Leonides held the Persian army at Thermopylae he 'monopolised' the situation. From the Greek word 'Thermopylae we get the word 'monopoly' which means to control, to dominate, to have exclusive possession. As in the principle of the board game monopoly.
Unfortunately for the Greeks, a local Sheppard who knew the area, was bribed into telling Xerxes of a little known goat path that lead around Thermoplyae to the rear of the Greek forces. Xerxes sent troops along the goat path to attack the Greeks from behind. On the third day of battle Leonides scouts sent word that he was being outflanked. Realising the grim situation he sent the majority of the remaining Greek forces home, only the Spartans and a few others would remain. In his last battle Leonides and the 300 Spartans, caught in a pincer movement, fought to the death.
Although the Greeks were defeated in this battle, Thermopylae was the catalyst that brought the city states together to fight for Greece as one. Xerxes and his army did enter and occupy Greece, even capturing Athens which had been evacuated in time. The Greek navy however did destroy the Persian navy at the battle of Salamis. The following year the Greeks regrouped and in the battle of Plataea they defeated the Persian forces, the remainder of which limped back to Persia. Despite several more battles between the two, a peace treaty was eventually signed.