Thursday, August 11, 2005

Thermopylae 11 August

On this day, 11 August, in 480 BC, Leonidas, King of Sparta was killed at the Battle of Thermopylae. This battle is used in military academies around the world to this day to show how a small group of well-trained and well-led soldiers can have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. Xerxes I, king of Persia, was continuing a campaign started by his father Darius to defeat the Greek city states. Xerxes is sometimes estimated to have had between 3 and five million men; Herodotus wrote that the Persian army drank entire rivers and ate the food supplies of entire cities.
The Greeks, were, not suprisingly, somewhat at a loss as to how to deal with such a massive force. Hurriedly, an alliance of Greek city-states was formed, which was headed by the militaristic Sparta, whose supremely disciplined warriors were trained from birth to be amongst the best soldiers in the world at that time. The Spartans contributed a small force of 300 hoplites, hand-picked and commanded by King Leonidas. Leonidas, realising the likely outcome of mixing it with the Persians, took to battle only men who had fathered sons that were old enough to take over the family responsibilities of their fathers.
The mountain pass of Thermopylae, (the "Hot Gates"), was chosen by the Greeks as the site of battle. This was a stroke of genius because at the time it consisted of a pass so narrow that two chariots could barely move abreast - on one side rose the sheer side of the mountain and the other was a vertical drop into the sea. An army of some 7000 Greeks, led by 300 Spartans, stood in this narrow spot to receive the full force of the Persian army, numbering more than 280,000.
The Greeks formed up in a deep phalanx - a wall of overlapping shields and layered long (3 - 4 metre) spears, which spanned the entire width of the pass. Despite repeated waves of attack resulting in massive casualties, the Persians could not break through the Greeks defensive phalanx. Because of the terrain that the Greeks had chosen, the Persians were unable to surround or flank the Greeks, which was the normal method of defeating a phalanx and, because of the narrowness of the pass of Thermopylae, the superior Persian numbers were useless.
It is not inconceivable that, given time, the Persians might have been defeated but after the second day of fighting, a Greek named Ephialtes defected to the Persians and told them of another lightly defended path through Thermopylae, which the Persians quickly exploited to surround the Greeks. Leonidas realized that the game was up and on August 11 he sent away all but what remained of his 300 Spartans. Bravely, a contingent of about 600 Thespians, led by Demophilus, refused to leave with the other Greeks. Instead, they chose to stay with Leonidas and fight in a suicidal effort to delay the advance and allow the rest of the army to escape. The fighting was, as you might imagine, extremely brutal. After a time all of the long spears of the phalanx were broken, but the Spartans and Thespians kept fighting with their xiphos (short swords). After those too were broken, they fought with their bare hands and teeth.
Although the Greeks fought with outrageous bravery against overwhelming odds, Leonidas was eventually killed, along with all of his men. The last Spartans were killed by a barrage of arrows that are said to have blackened the sky.
There is an epitaph on a monument at the site of the battle with Simonides's epigram to the Spartans which reads (in English translation):
"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie". or, perhaps: "Friend, tell the Spartans that on this hill we lie obedient to them still".

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