Blocking Xerxes’ Invasion 480 BC

The death of Darius and the accession of Xerxes caused considerable disruption in the Persian Empire; the new ruler does not seem to have been minded to pursue further hostilities with the Greeks. After all, despite revolts in Babylonia and Egypt at the start of his reign, the western frontier had held. But most empires have a forward party seeking ever more territory and jobs for the boys – and Mardonios, as the king’s nephew, seems to have been one of them. Prestige was important; both the burning of Sardis by the Ionian rebels of 494 and the defeat at Marathon demanded revenge. The Phoenician cities of what is now Lebanon were under Persian suzerainty and had expanded their trade enormously, establishing Carthage (in what is now Tunisia) as an important centre, virtually a sub-empire, in the western basin of the Mediterranean. This brought conflict with the cities of Magna Graecia (southern Italy and Sicily), and, indeed, they attacked the greatest of these Greek cities, Syracuse in Sicily, at the same time as Xerxes invaded Greece. The Phoenician expansion held out the prospect of a Mediterranean-wide Persian empire. And conditions in Greece continued to favour a Persian attack. Thessaly, Macedonia and other powers in northern Greece were friendly, while there were parties in both Sparta and Athens who favoured collaboration – indeed there were exiles from both at the Persian court. Preparations for an invasion of Greece began in 484/3 with the cutting of a canal through the Athos Peninsula, and a diplomatic offensive which persuaded many of the Greek cities either to throw in their lot with Persia or to adopt a policy of neutrality. It also increased political tensions within and between its intended targets, Sparta and Athens, who collaborated only fitfully in their Hellenic League.

But at about the same time an enormously rich lode of silver was discovered in the Athenian silver mines at Laurium. The war party in the city, led by Themistocles, successfully urged that this windfall be spent on building a war fleet, with an eye to the developing threat from Persia. A fleet was essential for the Persian thrust into Greece, because an army without sea power could be cut off from its base in Anatolia or by landings in its rear. Ultimately the Persians mustered something like 1,300 vessels, amongst them the very latest thing in sea-power, the trireme. This was 35 metres long and less than 6 metres wide, but its 170 rowers were packed into three tiers with a freeboard of 3 metres. Its light construction and large crew made it fast and highly manoeuvrable, and the bronze-covered ram on the prow was much feared. About thirty sailors and marines made up the crew, but rowers would have been expected to fight as needed. This vessel seems to have originated in the late sixth century BC in the Phoenician cities of the Persian Empire. It was a weapons system which, once introduced, made all existing fighting ships outmoded. Its adoption by city-states like Athens had far-reaching consequences. To build substantial numbers

would require huge shipyards and the fortification of Piraeus, the port of Athens. This was hideously expensive. But even more seriously, a fleet of 100 triremes needed over 20,000 men. Ultimately Athens would build 200, manning them with the poor of the city and numerous foreigners. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there was opposition, but in the end Themistocles and the war party triumphed and a formidable war fleet was created. In agreeing to this the Athenians were recognising that the coming war with Persia would be a fight for the very existence of Athens. This would be a quite different scale of warfare from the inter-city squabbling in which they and all the Greek city-states had indulged for so long.

In May 480, Xerxes and his army constructed two bridges of boats across the Dardanelles and crossed from Anatolia into friendly northern Greece. His engineers bridged the Hellespont, between Asia and Europe using moored ships to support the bridge. Herodotus: The method employed was as follows:

galleys and triremes were lashed together to support the bridges – 360 vessels for the one on the Black Sea side, and 314 for the other. They were moored head-on to the current – and consequently at right angles to the actual bridges they supported – in order to lessen the strain on the cables. Specially heavy anchors were laid out both upstream and downstream – those to the eastward to hold the vessels against winds blowing down the straits from the direction of the Black Sea, those on the other side – to the westward and towards the Aegean – to take the strain when it blew from the west and south. Gaps were left in three places to allow any boats that might wish to do so to pass in or out of the Black Sea.

Once the vessels were in position, the cables were hauled taut by wooden winches ashore. This time the two sorts of cable were not used separately for each bridge, but both bridges had two flax cables and four papyrus ones. The flax and papyrus cables were of the same thickness and quality, but the flax was the heavier – half a fathom of it weighed 114 lb. The next operation was to cut planks equal in length to the width of the floats, lay them edge to edge over the taut cables and then bind them together on their upper surface. That done, brushwood was put on top and spread evenly, with a layer of soil, trodden hard, over all. Finally a paling was constructed along each side, high enough to prevent horses and mules from seeing over and taking fright at the water.

He set off down the coast towards Athens accompanied by a powerful fleet. This fleet sailed down the coast. The fleet, apart from transport vessels, consisted of over 1,200 triremes: 300 were Phoenician, 200 Egyptian, 150 Cyprian, 100 Cilician, 30 Pamphylian, 50 Lycian, 500 were from the various Ionian, Asian and island Greek colonies. The contingent of five ships from Halicarnassus was commanded by Artemisia, the widow of the ruler of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyra and Calydna.

This strategy immediately divided the cities allied against him. The Athenians wanted to defeat his army as far north as possible: the Spartans, who had the more formidable army, feared that any expedition would be outflanked and destroyed. They wanted to withdraw into the Peloponnese, and to fortify the narrow isthmus of Corinth, abandoning Athens. But this strategy needed Athenian naval aid, for otherwise the Persian fleet would be able to make landings beyond the Corinthian line. The outcome was a poor compromise: a small allied force was sent to block the road at Thermopylae while the Athenians struck at the enemy fleet in the narrow passages of the sea at Artemisium.

The Greek naval force was composed of 127 ships from Athens – partly manned by the Plataeans, whose courage and patriotism led them to undertake this service in spite of their ignorance of everything to do with the sea – 40 from Corinth, 20 from Megara, 20 more from Athens manned by crews from Chalcis, 18 from Aegina, 12 from Sicyon, 10 from Sparta, 8 from Epidaurus, 7 from Eretria, 5 from Troezen, 2 from Styra, and 2 – together with two fifty-oared galleys – from Ceos. Lastly, the Locrians of Opus contributed a squadron of seven galleys.

The total strength of the fleet, excluding galleys, was thus 27 1 ships of war. The general officer in command, Eurybiades, the son of Eurycleides, was provided by Sparta; for the other members of the confederacy had stipulated for a Lacedaemonian commander, declaring that rather than serve under an Athenian they would break up the intended expedition altogether. From the first, even before Sicily was asked to join the alliance, there had been talk of the advisability of giving Athens command of the fleet; but the proposal had not been well received by the allied states, and the Athenians waived their claim in the interest of national survival, knowing that a quarrel about the command would certainly mean the destruction of Greece.

When the Greek fleet arrived at Artemisium, they discovered the huge Persian fleet nearby at Aphetae. The Persians sent a squadron of 200 ships to trap the Greek fleet by sailing around between Euboea and the mainland. The Greeks decided to attack the main Persian fleet; the Persians tried to surround the Greek fleet. Herodotus:

At the first signal for action the Greek squadron formed into a close circle – bows outward, sterns to the centre; then, at the second signal, with little room to manoeuvre and lying, as they were, bows-on to the enemy, they set to work, and succeeded in capturing thirty Persian ships.

It was not a decisive engagement. When darkness put an end to the fighting, the Greeks returned to Artemisium. The Persians returned to their base at Aphetae.

That night there was a violent storm which wrecked the Persian squadron sailing around between Euboea and the mainland. The next day the Greek fleet received a reinforcement of 53 ships from Athens. They put to sea and successfully attacked some Cilician vessels. The next day the Persian commanders moved to attack again. Herodotus:

Xerxes’ fleet now moved forward in good order to the attack, while the Greeks at Artemisium quietly awaited their approach. Then the Persians adopted a crescent formation and came on with the intention of surrounding their enemy, whereupon the Greeks advanced to meet them, and the fight began. In this engagement the two fleets were evenly matched – the Persian, by its mere size, proving its own greatest enemy, as constant confusion was caused by the ships fouling one another. None the less they made a brave fight of it, to avoid the disgrace of defeat by so small an enemy force. The Greek losses both in ships and men were heavy, those of the Persians much heavier.

At Thermopylae the mountain was only about 100 metres from the sea so that a small force, some 7,000 in all, under the command of King Leonidas of Sparta, could take up position behind an existing defensive wall to block the advance of the enormous Persian army. In August/September the Persian army arrived and began a frontal assault, which was thrown back with heavy losses. The Greek front was so short that it could be tightly packed, and Leonidas could rotate his units so that each enemy attack always faced fresh men. On the second day of fighting the Persians were again thrown back, but then a traitor revealed to Xerxes that there was a path around the Greek position. Leonidas knew this and had placed a force of 1,000 allies across the narrow path, but they were brushed aside by a strong Persian force; they did, however, warn Leonidas that he was about to be encircled. According to legend he sent all the other forces home and stood with his 300 Spartans to permit their escape. In fact about 1,500 Greeks including the Spartans failed to flee, preventing the Persian cavalry from pursuing and destroying the whole army. Leonidas and his entire force were wiped out. How this came about is uncertain and it is possible that they were simply trapped by the Persians. However this may be, the effect was that many experienced troops got away. A monument to the Spartans, rebuilt in 1955, was erected where they died, inscribed:

Stranger, tell the people of Lacedaemon [Sparta]

That we who lie here obeyed their laws.

A poor memorial, one would think, for the much greater numbers of non-Spartans who died there. But Thermopylae delayed the great army which was already operating late in the season, while bad weather and effective Athenian naval action severely reduced the Persian fleet in the narrows of Artemisium. The people of Athens fled to the island of Salamis, abandoning the city to the Persians, who burned it.

By this time it was early October; the campaigning season was coming to a close which increased the pressure upon the Persians. The main Greek army was dug in behind defences across the very narrow isthmus of Corinth, while the allied fleet stood off in the straits of Salamis. Some in the Persian army urged Xerxes to leave a sufficient force to bottle up the Greek ships by Salamis, while the rest sailed on to outflank the Corinth line, and he actually sent some of his army towards Corinth. This alarmed many in the allied navy who favoured pulling back to prevent it. But Themistocles suggested drawing the enemy into the straits where their superior numbers would count for little. Apparently the Greek ships were heavier and less manoeuvrable than those of the Persians, but experience in the confined waters at Artemisium had shown that if the Persian ships could not manoeuvre they could be defeated. Why the Greek ships were so clumsy is unclear; perhaps it was because each had more fighting men on board or because they had been at sea so long that their sailing qualities were degrading – or both.

To lure the Persians into the straits Themistocles sent messages to Xerxes suggesting that the allied fleet was about to leave the Athenians in the lurch, and urging him to come on to destroy them and receive the submission of the Athenian people. Xerxes probably knew of the tensions in the allied army and was in any case anxious to gain a decisive success before winter, so he sent his navy into the trap. In the narrows between Salamis the superior sailing qualities of the Persian ships counted for little, because they could not manoeuvre to ram their enemies, which was their preferred tactic. Nor, in these confined waters, could they bring their superior numbers to bear. In fact once battle was joined the three lines of the Persian fleet became entangled and the battle resolved itself into hand-to-hand fighting between the crews of individual ships, and in these circumstances the bigger Greek crews probably counted for a great deal. In the words of Herodotus:

There fell in this combat Ariabignes, one of the chief commanders of the fleet, who was son of Darius and brother of Xerxes; and with him perished a vast number of men of high repute, Persians, Medes, and allies. Of the Greeks there died only a few; for, as they were able to swim, all those that were not slain outright by the enemy escaped from the sinking vessels and swam across to Salamis. But on the side of the barbarians more perished by drowning than in any other way, since they did not know how to swim. The great destruction took place when the ships which had been first engaged began to fly; for they who were stationed in the rear, anxious to display their valour before the eyes of the king, made every effort to force their way to the front, and thus became entangled with such of their own vessels as were retreating.

Salamis was a major victory for the Greeks. Xerxes at this point withdrew with his fleet because a major revolt had broken out in Babylonia, but he left a very large army in Greece under Mardonios.

Leonidas c.530–480 BC

King of Sparta

Leonidas was famous for his heroic attempt to hold the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece against the advance of the Persians under king Xerxes in 480 BC. His father, Anaxandrides of the Agiad royal house (Sparta had a dual kingship with two royal houses, the Agiads and the Eurypontids), had married his niece but had no children, whereupon the ephors and the council of elders (Gerousia) forced him to take a second wife, who produced a son and successor, Cleomenes I. But shortly after Cleomenes’ birth, the first wife, who was hitherto childless, produced three sons: Dorieus, who died in a failed attempt to plant a colony in Sicily, Leonidas, and Cleombrotus. After Cleomenes lost his throne around 490 BC, probably shortly before the battle of Marathon in that year, Leonidas succeeded, having married Cleomenes’ only child, Gorgo.

In 480 BC the Persians, whose expeditionary force had been defeated at Marathon ten years earlier, launched a massive invasion: their army, led by Xerxes himself, crossed the Hellespont by pontoon bridges and advanced through northern Greece while the navy, carrying supplies, cruised along the coast. The Greek states that were willing to resist allied themselves under Spartan leadership, and first attempted to make a stand at the vale of Tempe in Thessaly, but the commanders of the joint land and naval force that was dispatched there withdrew once they realized the position was indefensible. A second attempt was made at the pass of Thermopylae, where the road between the Malian Gulf and Mount Kallidromos was much narrower than today. Leonidas was sent there with an allied force totalling perhaps 7,000 foot-soldiers, including 300 elite “Spartiates” of the royal bodyguard, and a comparatively large naval contingent was sent to Artemisium at the northern tip of the island of Euboea to prevent any joint operation between the Persian fleet and the army on land.

However, Leonidas’ force was unaware that there was another path bypassing Thermopylae along the ridge of Kallidromos, known locally as the Anopaea. When they learned about it on their arrival, many, particularly those from the region south of the isthmus of Corinth, where the allies from the Peloponnese were building a defensive wall, wanted to withdraw. But Leonidas quelled the panic and assigned the 1,000-strong contingent from Phocis, who knew the terrain, to guard the Anopaea.

For two days the Greeks warded off all Persian efforts to force the pass. But then a traitor, whom the Greeks identified as Ephialtes from neighbouring Malis, offered to lead the Persians along the Anopaea, and Xerxes assigned his elite corps of 10,000 “Immortals” to the manoeuvre. At dawn on the third day Leonidas learned from his scouts that the Persians were circling at his rear by the Anopaea. He sent home the allied contingents from the states to the south of the isthmus of corinth, while he himself, with his 300 Spartiates, and 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans from north of the isthmus, secured their retreat by remaining behind in the pass and fighting to the death. The Greek fleet at Artemisium, which had engaged the Persian navy timidly while the battle at Thermopylae was taking place, retreated to Salamis off the coast of Attica as soon as it learned of the disaster.

Leonidas’ decision to stay and fight was a rational choice made to save the bulk of his army, but he and his brave “Three Hundred” entered mythology almost immediately. Herodotus, who published his Histories around 425 BC, reports that Sparta had received an oracle from Delphi that said that either Sparta itself would be destroyed or a Spartan king would perish, and Leonidas, knowing the oracle, chose to save his state by his death. Thermopylae became the chief building block of the Spartan mystique of utter devotion to duty, which was epitomized by the couplet that Sparta engraved on the monument erected where Leonidas’ Spartiates made their last stand: “Go, stranger, to the Spartans tell / That here, obeying their commands, we fell.” More than half a century later, in 425 BC, when a force that included some 120 elite Spartiates surrendered to the Athenians at the bay of Navarino during the Peloponnesian War, Greece was amazed that they did not die fighting. Leonidas himself became the paradigm of the soldier who obeys orders without question.


Born c.530 BC, Leonidas became king of Sparta after the death of his half-brother Cleomenes in 490. In 480 he attempted to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian army with a hand-picked force of 300 Spartiates and 1100 Boeotians. Their fight to the death immediately entered mythology. His memory has regularly been invoked ever since as the model of resistance to tyranny.

Further Reading

Burn, A.R., Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546–478 BC, 2nd edition, London: Duckworth, and Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1984.

Evans, J.A.S., “The ‘Final Problem’ at Thermopylae”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 5 (1964): pp. 231–237.

Evans, J.A.S. “Notes on Thermopylae and Artemisium”, Historia, 18 (1969): pp. 189–221.

Hignett, Charles, Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Lazenby, J.F., The Defence of Greece, 490–479 BC, Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1993.


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