Powerful King Xerxes of Persia marches his army of 150,000 men to attack a smaller force of 7,000 Greek soldiers led by King Leonidas of Sparta. While Leonidas was a strong tactician and the Spartans he commanded were an elite force of soldiers, no amount of training and skill could help them overcome a force over 20 times their size. Yet, the Greeks have one advantage. Leonidas has deftly positioned his soldiers in the Thermopylae Pass; an area so narrow that the advantage Xerxes had previously in size was mitigated.
For two full days, these soldiers fought against the oncoming Persian army. Wave after wave of the Persians came but the united Greeks continued to fight. Often the Greeks would feign retreat but then turn around and fight back when the Persians left their guard down.
Unfortunately for Leonidas, a local resident of Thermopylae known as Ephialtes informed King Xerxes of Persia that there was a secret alternate path past Thermopylae that he could take. Leonidas, upon realizing this treachery dismissed most of his soldiers to retreat back, away from the pass. Leonidas, embodying the warrior ethos, which had instilled in all Spartan men since they started training for combat at the age of 7, remained behind with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans to cover the rest of the Greek Army’s retreat. (Numbers are approximation. We cannot know for certain how many soldiers, exactly remained behind).
On the third day of battle, Xerxes’ elite soldiers arrived behind the remaining Greeks forcing Leonidas and his men to retreat to a nearby hilltop. Leonidas and his soldiers literally fought to the death on that hill. The Greeks fought until their weapons broke, and then when their weapons broke, they continued fighting with their fists until the end.
Xerxes, furious over this display of Greek prowess, ordered Leonidas’ head severed and his body crucified. The Persians normally were respectful and honorable to their military adversaries so this was a break from tradition. (Although, Xerxes was famous for an angry temperament, he once had the sea whipped as punishment for destroying his ships).
I will be honest with you. Thermopylae was a Persian victory, even if it was a pyrrhic one. The pass needed to be taken for Xerxes to reach mainland Greece so it is not like attacking Thermopylae was a tactical mistake. Some argue that Leonidas’ bravery had stalled the Persians, giving Athens time to evacuate and prepare itself for the oncoming Persian force. Realistically, though, Leonidas had only held the Persians for an extra 2-3 days, which is not enough to make a difference, especially in ancient times when communication was not that advanced. The real credit for victory in the Persian war should be given to Athens, whose phenomenal navy repelled the Persian fleet in 480 B.C.E. at the Battle of Salamis. Some may argue that the Battle of Thermopylae provided a morale boost to Greeks, allowing them to win the war. Yes, while there was a morale boost from the battle, it was not enough to win a war. Increased morale of troops is beneficial, yes, but ultimately it was strategy, which won the war for the Greeks. Furthermore, the Persians did not feel “defeated” by this battle. Xerxes actually had most of his dead buried before his main army could see, as to give the impression that this battle was a decisive victory for the Persians. A smart move by Xerxes who somehow found a way to use this battle as a morale booster for his own army. So, by the end, both armies morales were increased, effectively cancelling each other out.
So why even talk about this, and how does it relate to American history? Well the comparisons that we can draw from this battle to the American Revolution are just too great to ignore.
The United States was a loose collection of colonies similar to the way that the Greeks were a loose collection of city-states. The Americans, like the Greeks, had banded together in an attempt to fight a Great Empire, which threatened their security. Then once the Persians had been successfully defeated the Greeks were later split in two and fought each other over what historians refer to as the Peloponnesian War. Americans, similarly, were split soon after the revolution in the American Civil War. Furthermore, the tactics the Greeks used during this war were very parallel to tactics employed by George Washington in the Revolutionary war. The Greeks were facing a much larger force so they employed selective battles and tactical retreats. Washington was also a master of this warfare. When you actually reflect on Washington’s “victories” one comes to realizes that his greatest feats were successful retreats and forcing the British into pyrrhic victories. Washington, like the Greeks, could not beat his adversary conventionally, and instead, engaged in a war of attrition, hoping to make the cost of the war unjustifiable for his enemy.
The Battle of Thermopylae embodies all these similarities, which is why I picked it. The Greeks knew they would not win this battle; instead their goal was to ensure that when the Persians won, their victory would be costly. Like the American revolutionaries, Leonidas and his soldiers were a collection of diverse soldiers united under the threat of an external enemy.
As previously mentioned, this similarity also contains within itself an unfortunate tragedy. Leonidas died for the purpose of protecting Athenians and other Greek city-states back at home. A New Yorker and Georgian fight side-by-side defending their country from the British. Yet, a generation later, Athenians and Spartans would be at each other throats and the descendants of that New Yorker and Georgian would fight each other is the bloodiest battle in American history.