In 480 B.C., the Persians arrayed one of the largest forces the ancient world had ever seen -- 120,000 soldiers by conservative modern estimates, and over 1 million according to the ancient chronicler Herodotus -- to invade and enslave Greece. Dispatched in a desperate attempt to stop them were less than 7,000 Greeks, led by 300 elite Spartan warriors.
Even the Greeks knew it was probably a suicide mission, yet the volunteers from Sparta and Athens faced thousands of Persian conscripts at a narrow coastal mountain pass called Thermopylae or "Hot Gates" after a volcanic spring nearby. Xerxes, the Persian king, sent emissaries to negotiate with the vastly outnumbered Greeks. When Xerxes asked for their weapons and surrender, Spartan King Leonidas told him, "Come and take them."
Weapons Used at Thermopylae
Most of what is known about the battle comes from the accounts of the Greek historian Herodotus, whose "Histories" are an attempt to untangle the Greco-Persian wars. For days, he wrote, the Spartans led the Greek forces in disciplined phalanxes, a wall of overlapping shields from which the highly trained Greeks could strike out with long, bronze-tipped spears. The terrain favored the Greek tactics, and the Persians were unable to break through the Greek lines. Even by conservative estimates of the Persian army – Herodotus claimed Xerxes' troops numbered in the millions – the Greek achievement was stunning: In three grueling days of battle, they killed at least 20 Persians for every man they lost.
Ultimately, they were betrayed -- a local shepherd showed the Persian king an alternate route, and Xerxes' army was able to outflank the Greeks. Surrounded, the Spartans volunteered to fight to the last man to give the rest of the outnumbered Greeks time to retreat inland and raise another defense.
Continuing reading about the Battle of Thermopylae with Thermopylae on the next page.
The Ultimate Last Stand
The battle has been a symbol of heroic resistance for 2,500 years. Poets and historians from Herodotus to Byron have immortalized the battle at Thermopylae as history's ultimate "last stand." More recently, conservative classicists like Victor Davis Hanson have cited it as an example of how free, democratic societies can outfight despots. (That the warrior Spartans kept large numbers of slaves or helots â€“ 900 of whom were in the battle at Thermopylae -- is generally overlooked in this line of argument.) Alongside the Spartans were 700 Thespians, another often-overlooked group of brave warriors.
The Spartan sacrifice bought time for the rest of the Greeks to prepare a naval defense against the Persians. Xerxes continued to pressure the Greek islands until he finally met the Greek navy in the Battle of Salamis. Most of the Persian fleet was destroyed, and with it Xerxes' push into Europe.