In summer 480 BCE, allied Greek city-states engaged a vast Persian army which was
attempting to invade Greece at a mountain pass near Thermopylae. This battle was critical in the
development of military strategy for millennia to come, as well as pivotal in the advancement of
Greece. Despite the Greeks loss at the battle (Cartledge 2006), the Greeks eventually stopped the
Persian advance. This led to a weakened Persian army and a fractured Greece: the city-states
allied with Athens and those allied with Sparta. Those city-state alliances would fight in the
Peloponnesian wars (Kagan 2003), which in turn led to the advancement of Europe and provided
a foundation for the Roman Empire and Europe’s colonization of the world. The Battle of
Thermopylae was the catalyst that drove Europe to new heights; every person in the modern
world would have a different life had it not been for the Greeks 2,493 years ago.
To appreciate the complexity and nature of the diplomatic situation at this time, the Battle
of Marathon is important to understand. Athens chose to support a rebellion in a city
administered by a Persian-established ruler. The Persians were unwaveringly determined to force
Athens to pay for these transgressions; consequentially they sent a fleet to land at Marathon.
Though the size of the land army is not precisely known, it was substantially larger than the
10,000 man Athenian force. Despite the unlikelihood, Athens won the battle with over 6,000
Persian deaths and approximately 200 Greeks (Boardman 1986).
For some time before the invasion, Persia had been interested in the conquest of Europe.
Its lands were described to the king as " a wondrous beautiful region, rich in all kinds of
cultivated trees, and the soil excellent: no one, save the king, was worthy to own such a land.”
(Herodotus 440 BCE) However, it was first necessary for the Persians to finish their conquest of
Egypt before beginning the invasion of Greece. Persia’s newly appointed King Xerxes expedited
the Egyptian subjugation with the intent to mount an army to invade Greece (Herodotus 440
BCE). Though it took significant time, according to Herodotus several years, an army was
eventually raised, ready to invade Greece.
The structure of the Acaemenid Persian Empire was extremely complex: it was a blend of
a multitude of ethnicities and countries, spanning at its height from India to Egypt and, from
Turkey to what is now modern Saudi Arabia (Cartledge 2006). This diverse empire’s formation
occurred following Cyrus’ overthrow of the Median Empire (Iranica 2011); almost immediately
thereafter, Cyrus gained control of much of the Near East. The diversity of the Persian Empire is
illustrated in the description of Persia’s preparations for the invasion of Greece: “For was there a
nation in all Asia which Xerxes did not bring with him against Greece? Or was there a river,
except those of unusual size, which sufficed for his troops to drink? One nation furnished ships;
another was arrayed among the foot-soldiers; a third had to supply horses; a fourth, transports for
the horse and men likewise for the transport service; a fifth, ships of war towards the bridges; a
sixth, ships and provisions.” (Herodotus 440 BCE) Indeed, by the time of the Persian Invasion of
Greece, the colossal Persian Empire truly brought much of its might against Greece, though
many historians believe Herodotus’ interpretation of these events to be exaggerated (Cartledge
Despite Herodotus’ thought exaggeration of the events, the army of which Xerxes
himself led was enormous, some estimate the army numbered almost 200,000. Herodotus’
account of the invasion states that a canal was dug, near the Greek city of Snad. This waterway
had many features intended to demonstrate Xerxes’, the Great King’s, power. In addition, a large
bridge was constructed; it was made out of boats, which were fitted with planks, papyrus (an
Egyptian specialty), flax, and an assortment of other components brought in from various parts
of Asia (Durant 1939). The Persian army would then proceed to stalk towards Greece, with
Xerxes in command.
In bipolar Greece, influence was distributed between Athens and Sparta. Athens was a
direct democracy, every inhabitant was allotted one vote, and only one vote; on the contrary,
Sparta was administrated by a pair of kings (who would often sustain conflicting philosophies),
and supported by a peasant workforce (Cartledge 2006). One critical phase in the preparation of
Greece for the Persian incursion was Themistocles’ persuasion of Athens to expend money from
silver mines to manufacture additional ships, instead of directly distributing it to the Athenian
populace (Durant 1939). These ships would be utilized subsequently, where they would
substantiate satisfactory performance (Boardman 1986). Sparta was a predominantly landcentered power; they had very few vessels, even in their extended alliance, known as the
Major Greek powers soon realized that in order to mount any kind of defense against the
Persians, they would need to amalgamate; they did this in the form of a coalition, comprising
primarily of Athens and Sparta (and their Peloponnesian League), in addition to other major
powers in Greece. Sparta (and therefore its two kings) was made the commander of this alliance,
though Athens did maintain, in propaganda, the notion that they would be capable commanders
of this alliance. In reality, it went almost undisputed that Sparta would be the commander, due to
their military dominance. Sparta’s military governance did create complications with some citystates: for example, the city-state of Argos refused to be an active participant in the alliance due
to their extreme disinclination to Sparta; they chose instead to maintain nonalignment (Cartledge
2006). Nevertheless, the Persian Empire remained unsurpassed in number.
The exact number of soldiers that the Persian Empire actually did bring against Greece is
unknown and deliberated. In his account, Herodotus claims that the Persians had over two-and-ahalf million – this number is almost certainly exaggerated; Herodotus also claims that the
Persians had about 1,200 ships – this estimate is much more grounded (Durant 1939). Many
modern scholars now estimate the number of soldiers to have been about 200,000 Persians, with
around 1,000 ships; either way, the Persian army vastly outnumbered the Greeks. Though the
Greeks have fought vast armies before (Marathon), what was about to happen at Thermopylae
was of an unrivaled scale.
Thermopylae was (and is) known as the “Hot Gates” due to its naturally occurring sulfur
springs (Cartledge 2006). These Hot Gates were the place designated by the coalition of Greek
city-states to make a stand against the Persian onslaught. Today, Thermopylae appears to be a
rocky plain (Kerasaridis 2007); Thermopylae itself is a 5-mile-wide plain, and at the time, was a
(very) constricted pass – on one side: a mountain, the other: the sea. Starting on August 17, the
Persians would fight the Greeks for the next three days at Thermopylae – the first real encounter
in the Greco-Persian wars (Cartledge 2006).
This battle begun when King Xerxes’ forces arrived in western Thermopylae; however,
no attack was made in the first few days. Meanwhile, Xerxes may have been corresponding with
his naval forces, which had recently experienced a storm. Around this time, Xerxes purportedly
sent a message to Leonidas, “Hand over your arms!” He is thought to have replied, “Come and
get ‘em yourself!” (Cartledge 2006) Xerxes first attack utilized the Medes, though they were not
the finest soldiers, they were above average. However, their attacks were ineffective; the Greek
hoplites (a type of Greek soldier) proved superior. The hoplites continuously amazed the Great
King with their mastery of tactic. By the end of the first day, King Xerxes was forced to
conclude that sending his personal bodyguard would be necessary. However, even the immortals
(the name of his bodyguard legion of 10,000) failed to break through the Greek lines. The early
part of the second day was not dissimilar to the first; the Greek hoplites continued to hold off the
enemy advance – it seemed as if the Greeks could win this engagement. Conversely, midday,
King Xerxes’ fortunes turned (Cartledge 2006).
The Greek word for nightmare is ephialtis; this word is derived from the name Ephialtes,
a local Greek who would truly be a nightmare to the soldiers defending the pass. Ephialtes’
betrayal of the Greeks would eventually lead to the downfall of King Leonidas and the Persian’s
victory at Thermopylae. Ephialtes provided an alternate route, which would allow Xerxes to
circumnavigate the Greek lines and launch an ambush from the other direction; this is exactly the
plan that Xerxes executed that night. Xerxes took only his immortals on this alternate route – but
even so, their effectiveness was astonishing. The route was poorly defended, and the Greek army
outflanked, King Leonidas is thought to have dismissed all but the Spartan warriors (and the
Thebans) (Cartledge 2006). This left approximately 300 Spartan elders (Durant 1939) and 400
Thebans (Cartledge 2006). By this point, the Greek’s defense was inconsequential in terms of its
effect on the advancing Persian army – 300 warriors are no match for the thousands upon
thousands of Persians. However, King Leonidas did demonstrate that he was a true Spartan, as he
stayed behind and fought even against unthinkable odds. He lost.
His loss was not in vain. Twenty-thousand Persian soldiers were killed in the three days
of the Battle of Thermopylae, but more importantly was the moral effect that this valiant stand
against the odds had on Greece as a whole (Cartledge 2003). The Persians were unable to
surmount Greece in the end, loosing at the Battle of Plataea. After the Persians had been expelled
from Greece, old rivalries began to stir up again as the Athenian Empire grew (Kagan 2003).
This vast maritime empire would eventually go into conflict with Sparta in the Peloponnesian
War. Greece would continue to develop great new ideas, laying the foundation of modern
philosophy, mathematics, and science. Greece studied the world long after the Battle of
Thermopylae was fought (and lost).
In fact, Greece has laid the foundation for almost every modern technology; Greek
mathematics is still in use today. Greek culture is used in fictitious and factual media and Greek
myths permeate the fabric of contemporary culture. The Romans, too, were inspired by the
Greeks (Boardman 1986). It was Rome that led to the development of advanced military
strategy, which affects every one of us today.
It would be impossible to imagine our everyday lives without our European foundations.
Crucial moments in our history – the colonization of America, the American Civil War, the two
world wars, humanity’s travel into space, the Information Age – could not have been
contemplated without the Greeks, who would have ceased to prosper had they been conquered,
had King Leonidas not made a valiant, courageous defense at a small mountain pass near
Thermopylae in the year 480 BCE. The Battle of Thermopylae was a critical turning point in our
history due to its effects on the Greco-Persian war, which in turn would allow Greece to prosper,
laying the foundation for our everyday lives.