But it was stuck like a cork in a bottle. To advance south, Xerxes had to take the pass — and time was not on his side. It was late summer, and he needed to wrap up the whole invasion as far as possible before winter. His army was vast: ancient sources put its numbers in the millions, although modern historians incline to about , Even 50, would have been huge by ancient standards.
Xerxes knew that if he delayed, he faced supply problems. He needed to feed and water not just the warriors but a host of camp followers, cavalry mounts and baggage animals — plus an immense and lavish royal retinue. So, he was under pressure. The Greeks were heavily outnumbered. But the tight space meant that the Persians could not use their vast numbers to crush them. And they could not use the tactics that had made them masters of the world from the Aegean to the Indus: breaking the enemy with volley after volley of arrows from a distance, before moving in to annihilate them.
Worse still, the sheer numbers of the Persian force counted against them, since in this confined space they were at constant risk of being crushed by their own side.
Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae
For two days, Xerxes threw division after division into the pass. But there were paths through the hills, and one in particular led along the mountain overlooking the pass to a point behind the Greek lines. Alerted to the path by a local Greek, at dusk on the second day Xerxes sent his Immortals to prepare to outflank the Greeks on the morning of day three. When Leonidas learned of the encirclement early on the third day, he called a meeting. They still had time to withdraw, but Leonidas and what was left of his Spartans insisted on staying.
So, too, did the contingent of from the ancient Greek city of Thespiae. Since their city in the nearby region of Boeotia was in the path of any Persian advance, they had good reason to lay down their lives.
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Four hundred Thebans also stayed only to desert at the end. The rest of the Greek force chose to leave. The historian Herodotus, keen to lionise Leonidas, tells us that the leader sent the allies away to spare their lives and win immortal glory. The Persians unlike the Greeks had cavalry , which could overtake and destroy the retreating forces. To buy time for the retreating troops, Leonidas needed a rear-guard to hold back the Persians — and die, if necessary.
The rear-guard held their own, despite losing their commander Leonidas amidst brutal, drawn-out fighting. But then the Immortals arrived, and the Greeks had to retreat to a low hill. The vicious hand-to-hand fighting had broken their spears and swords, but they fought on with daggers, hands and teeth until the Persians tired of unnecessary losses and shot them down with arrow volleys.
Related Content Filters: All. Thermopylae is a mountain pass near the sea in northern Greece Leonidas was the Spartan king who famously led a small band of Sparta was one of the most important Greek city-states throughout One of the most effective and enduring military formations in ancient The video and its description text are provided by Youtube. 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.
After the Greeks finally made it into Thermopylae, they established camp at the wall for what would be seven days total. When the Persian army was eventually visible across the Malian Gulf, the Greek forces held a council of war. Some men wanted to retreat and defend the Isthmus of Corinth, but the Phocians grew weary, knowing their land was just south of Thermopylae.
Battle of Thermopylae | Greatest Battles
They were right to worry, but they were also right, to an extent, to trust Leonidas when he eased their fears, assuring them that they would defend Thermopylae. Adding to the list of decisions to make, Leonidas eventually received word of a path that could be used by the Persians to outflank them.
He decided to place 1, Phocians on the mountainside to rectify the possible danger, having no reason to believe they would not prove to be reliable. But why would a glory seeking warrior and his people submit to surrender, to the will of another? Upon refusal of accepting the negotiation terms, Xerxes demanded they lay down their arms, but to no avail. Xerxes allowed four days of delay, only to his dismay. The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall, shoulder to shoulder, taking advantage of the most narrow part of the pass and using the least amount of men as possible.
It was then that Xerxes wanted to utilize his elite force known as the Immortals , but they too failed in their attempt to destroy the Greek lines. Leonidas continued to use the narrowness of the passage to their advantage, utilizing what is known as a feigning retreat by running away from the Persian line only to turn around quickly and slay troops chasing after them. The fact that the Immortals used spears shorter than the Greeks did not help them either, thus reducing their tactical and geographical advantage even more.
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Even with such conditions, Leonidas and his company still faced a possible flank. But Leonidas kept in mind where he had stationed the Phocians, to defend against that possibility. Xerxes needed something to give him a new tactical edge, to make this a more decisive battle, a key to ensure victory.
That key was none other than Ephialtes of Trachis. Ephialtes was of the Malian Greek tribe, whose land spanned around what is the present day Malian Gulf. Ephialtes believed that if he helped the Persian King, he would be rewarded.
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While they fled to the top of the mountain, the Persian forces continued past as fast as they could. Leonidas, who had become aware of this dire situation had to make a choice. Flee, or stand and fight. He had personally ordered many of the Greek allies away, knowing they would be killed if they stayed, but knowing also that he and his Spartan troops could not retreat from a position they had come to defend. For warriors as noble as some of the ones who joined with him, the decision for some to stay was of high conscience and glory seeking.
With many Greek forces retreating, Leonidas and the rest of his men became a rearguard defending their retreat. Leonidas and his men had to continue to hold the battle for as long as they could. Had he not stayed, this would have opened the passage further for Persian forces to run down the retreating Greeks easily. With Leonidas and his final warriors most likely making peace with the gods and themselves, Herodotus says:. Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.
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