Sparta's finest hour

Since their stunning victory in 490 over the Persians at Marathon, the Greeks had not been as focused as the Persians on the upcoming war. Athens, Sparta, and most other poleis (city-states) had returned to their contentious ways and fallen out among themselves. When hearing the news of Xerxes’s oncoming forces in the winter of 481, they finally sublimated their differences by meeting in a pan-Hellenic conference under Spartan leadership at the Isthmus of Corinth. Many of the northern poleis did not send representatives, however. The major point of discussion was where to make their defensive stand. Sparta argued that, because the Peloponnese, the peninsula upon which they lived, was the heart of Greek independence, the stand should be made at the Corinthian isthmus. This, however, would abandon all of northern and central Greece to Persia without a fight, and such a decision might lead to the poleis north of the isthmus defecting to Xerxes in order to save their lands from destruction. If the defense was mounted farther forward, narrow passages at Thermopylae or the Vale of Tempe could be held by a small military force, while the straits between mainland Greece and the island of Euboea offered a narrow body of water where the Persian numeric naval superiority meant little.

When an expedition to the north found too many passes to hold, the force returned to the south, giving the northerners the impression that they were about to be abandoned. To make bad matters worse, when the Greeks consulted the famous Oracle at Delphi for advice, the response was extremely negative: it implied that Athens would be destroyed, but the other poleis would not if they held themselves aloof. A second attempt at consultation was more positive, but also somewhat puzzling. The Athenians were told to defend themselves behind “wooden walls,” which could mean either their city walls or the bulkheads of the ships of the Athenian navy. The second interpretation was the most widely accepted, and an appeal went to the Greek colony of Syracuse for its powerful navy. They could not respond, however, because they were about to be attacked by the Carthaginians of North Africa, possibly under the direction of Xerxes, for he held sway over the Phoenicians who had established the city of Carthage. The Greeks finally decided to mount a northern defense, the Spartans too afraid of having to fight alone at the Isthmus of Corinth.

Meanwhile, Xerxes in the spring of 480 began moving his massive force around the perimeter of the Aegean. He did so by crossing the Hellespont (the straits near modern Istanbul) on two bridges of boats in one of the most massive engineering feats of its day. As Darius had done before him, Xerxes sent heralds into Greece to demand tokens of submission; they received positive responses only in the northernmost city-states. Having passed his force out of Asia Minor and into Europe, the Persian army marched along the coast, with the navy carrying their supplies. They moved around the Aegean rim toward the Greeks awaiting them at Thermopylae and the narrow Euboean Channel.

A force of 7,000 to 8,000 led by King Leonidas of Sparta stood at the pass of Thermopylae, a stretch of beach along the Gulf of Malis. Three hundred thirty-three ships blocked the channel through which the Persian ships would have to travel if they were going to continue supplying the army. The Greeks were hoping for the naval battle to be decisive, with the army delayed only as an excuse to force the Persian navy into the narrow waters. The Greeks were fortunate that the Persian fleet ran into a storm and lost 400 warships. Themistocles, commanding the Athenian ships in the fleet, counseled an immediate attack to take advantage of the Persian disaster. The two navies fought two battles, but both were draws. The Greeks retreated, however, upon hearing that the Greeks at Thermopylae had been betrayed and overrun following a gallant last stand by King Leonidas and his bodyguard of 300.


Those Athenians who believed that their victory at Marathon in 490 BCE meant that the war with Persia was over were mistaken. Persian king Darius I immediately set about raising a new and far larger force. To pay for it, he raised taxes. This led to a revolt in Egypt in the winter of 486-485 BCE that disrupted grain deliveries and diverted Persian military resources to restore order in that important province. Darius died in late 486. His son and successor, Xerxes, was temporarily distracted by the Egyptian revolt, but once it had been crushed, he returned to the invasion of Greece.

News of the Persian preparations reached Athens, and the Athenian leader Themistocles urged that the city build the largest possible naval force. Athens then had only 50 triremes in commission. Themistocles wanted 200, but the conservatives in power, led by Miltiades, who had distinguished himself at Marathon, opposed such a step.

In 489 the Assembly voted to send Miltiades with 70 ships (20 of them purchased from Corinth) to attack the island city-states that had assisted the Persians. After pressuring some of the other islands back into the fold, Miltiades moved against the Cycladic island of Pardos, which had provided one trireme to the Persians. The city refused to pay the 100 talents he demanded to sail away, and Miltiades commenced siege operations. Following a month-long effort, however, he was forced to admit defeat and returned with the fleet to Athens. This humiliation led to Miltiades’ arrest and trial on a charge of treason. He was sentenced to death, but this was subsequently reduced to a fine of 50 talents. Unable to pay this large sum, he was sent to prison, where he died of gangrene from a leg wound sustained in the siege.

The disgrace of Miltiades and his faction left Themistocles the dominant political figure in Athens. Themistocles did what he could to prepare the city-state for war. He reformed the government to allow long-term war planning and then secured approval to increase the fleet to 200 triremes.

When he at last set out for Greece in 481, Xerxes commanded one of the largest invasion forces in history. Its exact size has been debated ever since. Modern reckoning puts it at perhaps 600 ships and three Persian army corps of 60,000 men each. This was a Persian advantage of at least 3 to 1 on land and 2 to 1 at sea.

In the spring of 480 the Persian host reached the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles). There Egyptian and Phoenician engineers had constructed a bridge that was among the most-admired mechanical achievements of antiquity. Herodotus tells us that they distributed 674 boats in two rows athwart the strait, each vessel facing the current and moored with a heavy anchor. The engineers then stretched flaxen cables across the ships from bank to bank. These cables were bound to every ship and were made taut by the use of capstans on shore. Wooden planks were then laid across the cables and were fastened to them and to one another. The planks were covered with brushwood, which was then covered with earth, and the whole was tamped down to resemble a road. A bulwark was erected on each side of this causeway to keep animals from becoming frightened of the sea. In seven days and nights the Persian forces passed over the bridge and entered Europe.

The Persian army quickly occupied Thrace and Macedonia. The northern Greek city-states were completely intimidated, surrendering to fear or bribery and allowing their troops to be added to those of Xerxes. Only Plataea and Thespiae in the north prepared to fight.

For once, however, Athens and Sparta worked together. Athens provided the principal naval force, while Sparta furnished the main contingent of land forces sent north to resist the Persians. The land force was under the command of King Leonidas of Sparta. The Greek plan was for the land forces to hold the Persians just long enough for the fleet to force a Persian withdrawal. Themistocles led the Athenian fleet. Joined by other Greek vessels to make 271 frontline ships, it sailed north to meet the Persian force of more than 650 ships. A storm reduced the Persian naval forces to around 500 serviceable warships, but this was still a comfortable advantage in numbers.

On an afternoon in mid-August the Greek fleet attacked the Persian ships off the northern coast of Euboea at Artemisium. The battle was inconclusive, although the Greeks managed to capture some 30 Persian vessels.

The allied Greek land force of about 4,000 men under Leonidas had meanwhile taken up position at the Pass of Thermopylae, some 135 miles north of Athens. Because of sedimentation in the Gulf of Malis, today the pass of Thermopylae is several miles inland, but at the time of the Persian invasion it was a narrow track between the waters of the Gulf of Malis to the south and cliffs to the north. Leonidas selected the site because here a small force could hold off a much larger one. Three hundred Spartan men-at-arms formed the nucleus of Leonidas’s force, accompanied by perhaps 900 helots. Leonidas had chosen only fathers with sons so that no Spartan family line would be extinguished.

The same day that the fleets clashed at Artemisium, Xerxes launched his first attack against the Greek defenders at Thermopylae. They were driven back. Xerxes committed his famous Guards Division, the Ten Thousand Immortals, but they too were forced back in disorder. The pass was piled high with corpses. Xerxes tried again the next day, but the defenders repelled this assault as well.

Leonidas and his troops were eventually overwhelmed, however, not by the bravery of the Persians but by the treachery of Hellenes. On August 19 a Greek, Ephialtes of Malis, betrayed to Xerxes, apparently for reward, the secret of an indirect route over the mountains. Ephialtes then led a Persian force by that approach, routing a lightly held Phocian outpost that Leonidas had in position to block this route and turning the Greek position. On the night of the second day of battle upon learning from Ionian Greek deserters from Xerxes’ army that they were going to be cut off, Leonidas permitted the allied Greeks to withdraw. Herodotus wrote, “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” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, 424-425). An oracle had foretold that either Sparta would be overthrown by the barbarians or one of its kings had to perish.

Seven hundred Thespians and 300 Thebans refused the order to withdraw and remained with the Spartans. Only 2 Spartans are said to have survived: 1 fell at the Battle of Plataea a year later, and the other hanged himself in shame. Over the tomb of the Spartans was placed the most famous of Greek epitaphs: “Go, stranger, and tell the Lacedamonians [Spartans] we lie here in obedience to their laws.”

This battle, which is also said to have claimed two younger brothers of Xerxes, had far more psychological than military importance. While some Greeks saw it as an excuse to ally with the Persians, others admired the Spartan example and redoubled their efforts to resist the Asian tide.

References Bradford, Ernie. Thermopylae: Battle for the West. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Hignett, C. Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Edited by Manuel Komroff. Translated by George Rawlinson. New York: Tudor Publishing, 1956.