Study Notes on Thermopylae!
The Greeks who assembled at Thermopylae were seized with so much terror on the approach of the Persians that they consulted about a retreat.
Those of the Peloponnesus were in general of opinion that they should return and guard the Isthmus; but the Phocians and Locrians disagreed. Leonidas, however, prevailed on them to continue on their post.
In July, 480 B.C. Xerxes arrived at Thermopylae and the Persian navy at the Magnesian coast.
The size, and the number of the Persian ships prevented these to be moored to the coast and had to be kept in lines out in the sea when a storm destroyed a considerable number of the ships thus lessening the inequality between the Persian and the Greek forces. Even after their losses the numerical superiority of the Persians struck terror in the hearts of the Greek commanders who wanted to retreat to the gulf of Corinth but were dissuaded from doing so by Themistocles, the Athenian.
In the mean time Xerxes finding the pass extremely narrow with the now repaired old Phocian wall in its centre, decided to wait. He waited four days expecting that the Greeks would retreat awed by the sight of the huge Persian army. On the fifth day observing that they continued on their post, merely as he supposed, from the impudent rashness, he became much exasperated and sent a detachment with a command to bring the Greek defenders of Thermopylae alive to his presence.
The Persian detachment attacked the Greeks only to lose a considerable number. A reinforcement made the position no better, no impression was made. It now became clear to Xerxes that he had many troops but few men. Xerxes replaced the detachment by a band of Persians called by him the Immortals and commanded by Hydarnes. But the Immortals also failed to make any impression upon the Greek defenders.
The Lacedaemonians fought in a manner which deserves to be recorded; their own excellent discipline, and the unskilfulness of their adversaries, were in many instances remarkable. The loss of the Persians was prodigious, and a few also of the Spartans fell. It is said that Xerxes, being a spectator of the contest thrice leaped from his throne being alarmed for the safety of his men.
While Xerxes was exceedingly perplexed as to the conduct to pursue in the present emergency Ephialtes, son of Eurydemus, a Malian, demanded an audience. Ephialtes expected to receive some great recompense for showing him the path which led over the mountain to Thermopylae to encircle the Greeks in the pass. Xerxes was greatly satisfied and immediately commanded to avail of the assistance of Ephialtes.
The secret march continued throughout the night. At the dawn of morning the Persian detachment under Hydarnes led by Ephialtes found itself at the submit where a band of a thousand Phocians in arms was stationed both to defend their country and the pass. The Phocian troops not able to sustain the heavy flight of arrows from the Persians retreated but were not pursued by Hydarnes because it was not thought worthwhile.
Intelligence reached Leonidas of the movement of the Persians, which threatened the Greeks in the pass. Bulk of the council of War was held. It was decided that the Greek Lacedaemonians, Thebans and the Thespians should methods remain to defend the pass while the rest retired eastwards, probably in order to attack the flank of the Persians descending the hills.
The story that the withdrawal of the main body was a desertion is doubted by some. It is said that those who retired only did so in compliance with the wishes of Leonidas who was desirous to preserve them; but he thought that he himself, with his Spartans, could not without the greatest ignominy forsake the post they had come to defend.
Early in the morning the barbarians with Xerxes approached. Leonidas and his Greeks proceeded, as to inevitable death, a much greater space from the defile than they had yet done. Till now they had defended themselves behind entrenchment, fighting in Final assault the most contracted part of the passage. But on that day they engaged on a wider space.
In the assault a multitude of their opponents fell. Behind each troop of the Persian fighters officers were stationed with whips in their hands compelling with blows their men to advance. Many fell into the sea, many were trodden under foot by their own troops. The Greeks, conscious that their destruction was at hand, exerted themselves with the most desperate valour against their barbarian assailants.
Many of the noblest Persians fell, among them two half-brothers of the king. Leonidas also fell and a Homeric contest was waged for his body. At last the spears of the Greeks were broken, and the Persians now began to pour into the pass from bottle its eastern end. The remnant of the Greek defenders retired to a hillock for the last stand and desperately fighting to the last.
They were surrounded and slain by overwhelming number of the Persians. Three 300 Spartans hundred Spartans were killed to a man. Among the Spartans special glory attached to Dieneces who is said to have answered the complaint that the Persian arrows darkened the air with the words Good, then we shall fight in the shade.
The Spartans who died to a man were thus distinguished:
“Go stranger, and to listening Spartans tell
That here, obedient to their laws, we fell.”
The Persians are said to have lost twenty thousand Persian loss men. Among them were several of royal blood. Xerxes, the victor of the battle of Thermopylae is said to have mutilated the body of Leonidas. We ought not to expect accuracy in the numbers slain nor in the tradition relating various incidents in the battle.
At Thermopylae, Xerxes learnt a lesson which he had earlier refused to receive from the warnings of Demaratus. With altered spirit he is said to have enquired whether he had to expect many such obstacles in the conquest of Greece. The defence of Thermopylae offered by the Spartans made a deep impression on Xerxes.
The prospect of a more powerful and obstinate resistance that Xerxes would meet with made him decide to send a detachment of his fleet to seize the island of Cythera and to invest the coast of Laconia so that the Greek confederacy would be distracted and perhaps disunited making Xerxes task easier. But happily for the safety of Greece Achaemenes, brother of Xerxes interposed to dissuade the monarch from this prudent plan.
The victory at Thermopylae gave the key of northern Greece in the hands of Xerxes. The Thessalian nobles now getting an opportunity to gratify their cupidity or their revenge persuaded Xerxes to march against Phocians, their hated rivals. Many of the Phocians saved themselves by fleeing but those who remained in their homes, fields, cities or temples had to face the fury of the invaders stimulated by the malice of the Thessalians.
Fire and sword, the cruelty and the lust of irritated spoilers ravaged the vale of Cephisus down to the borders of Boeotia. Xerxes divided his forces and despatched a detachment to Delphi, with orders to strip the temple of its treasures and lay them at his feet. The great army turned off towards the lower vale of Cephisus to pursue its march through Boeotia to Athens. Having thus succeeded in breaking through the inner gate of Hellas, and slain the king of the leading state, Xerxes continued his way and passed from Locris into Phocis and thence into Boeotia with no resistance.
Legends soon grew round the Spartan defence at Illustration of Thermopylae, but shorn of the legendary exaggerations, the battle of Thermopylae, insofar as it concerned the Greeks, continued to remain as an illustration of bravery and loyalty from which generations of Greeks drew inspiration. Thermopylae had become the type for all time, of loyal defence that ends only when life ends.