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Thermopylae, seen from the east. Photo Jona Lendering.
Thermopylae, seen from the east.
Thermopylae (Θερμοπύλαι; "Hot Gates"): small pass in Greece, site of several battles, of which the Spartan defeat against the Persian invaders in 480 is the most famous.
The site Battle of 480 Herodotus Other battles

The main source for the battle of 480 is Herodotus, Histories, 7.201-233, which is offered here in the translation by G.C. Macaulay, with adaptations., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Xerxes on a relief of Darius I the Great. Originally at the north stairs of the apadana of Persepolis, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins
Xerxes on a relief of Darius I the Great. Originally at the north stairs of the apadana of Persepolis, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran (Iran)

[201] King Xerxes was encamped within the region of Trachis in the land of the Malians, and the Greeks within the pass. This place is called by most Greeks Thermopylae, but by the natives of the place and those who dwell in the country round it, is called Pylai. Both sides then were encamped hereabout, and the one had command of all that lies beyond Trachis in the direction of the North Wind, and the others of that which tends towards the South Wind and the mid-day on this side of the continent.

[202] These were the Greeks who awaited the attack of the Persian in
this place:
  • of the Spartans three hundred hoplites;
  • of the men of Tegea and Mantinea a thousand, half from each place;
  • from Orchomenos in Arcadia a hundred and twenty
  • from the rest of Arcadia a thousand;
  • from Corinth four hundred;
  • from Phlius two hundred
  • of the men of Mycenae eighty
These were they who came from the Peloponnese; and from the Boeotians
  • seven hundred of the Thespians,
  • and of the Thebans four hundred.
[203] In addition to these, the Locrians of Opus had been summoned to come in their full force, and of the Phocians a thousand: for the Greeks had of themselves sent a summons to them, saying by messengers that they had come as forerunners of the others, that the rest of the allies were to be expected every day, that their sea was safely guarded, being watched by the Athenians and the Aeginetans and by those who had been appointed to serve in the fleet, and that they need fear nothing: for it was not a god, they said, who was coming to attack Greece, but a man; and there was no mortal, nor would be any, with those fortunes evil had not been mingled at his very birth, and the greatest evils for the greatest men; therefore he also who was marching against them, being mortal, would be destined to fail of his expectation. They accordingly, hearing this, came to the assistance of the others at Trachis.

Torso of a Spartan hoplite, found at Sparta and identified as a memorial statue to Leonidas. Museum of Sparta. Photo Jan van Vliet.
Torso of a Spartan hoplite, found at Sparta and identified as a memorial statue to Leonidas.

[204] Of these troops, although there were other commanders also according to the state to which each belonged, yet he who was most held in regard and who was leader of the whole army was the Spartan Leonidas son of Anaxandrides, son of Leon, son of Eurycratides, son of Anaxander, son of Eurycrates, son of Polydorus, son of Alcamenes, son of Teleclus, son of Archelaus, son of Agesilaus, son of Doryssus, son of Leobotes, son of Echestratus, son of Agis, son of Eurysthenes, son of Aristodemus, son of Aristomachus, son of Cleodaeus, son of Hyllus, son of Heracles; who had obtained the kingdom of Sparta contrary to expectation.

[205] For as he had two brothers each older than himself, namely Cleomenes and Dorieus, he had been far removed from the thought of becoming king. Since however Cleomenes had died without male child, and Dorieus was then no longer alive, but he also had brought his life to an end in Sicily, thus the kingdom came to Leonidas, both because was of elder birth than Cleombrotus (for Cleombrotus was the youngest of the sons of Anaxandrides) and also because he had in marriage the daughter of Cleomenes. He then at this time went to Thermopylae, having chosen the three hundred who were appointed by law and men who chanced to have sons; and he took with him besides, before he arrived, those Thebans whom I mentioned when I reckoned them in the number of the troops, of whom the commander was Leontiades the son of Eurymachus. Leonidas was anxious to take up these with him of all the Greeks, because accusations had been strongly brought against them that they were taking the side of the Medes [i.e., Persians]; therefore he summoned them to the war, desiring to know whether they would send troops with them or whether they would openly renounce the alliance of the Greeks; and they sent men, having other thoughts in their mind the while.

Warrior cutting his hair with his sword; Athenian lekythos, about 470 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (United States). Photo Marco Prins.
Warrior cutting his hair with his sword; Athenian lekythos, about 470 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

[206] These with Leonidas the Spartans had sent out first, in order that seeing them, the other allies might join in the campaign, and for fear that they would side with the Medes if they heard that the Spartans were putting off their action. Afterwards, however, when they had kept the festival (for the festival of the Carneia stood in their way), they intended then to leave a garrison in Sparta and to come to help in full force with speed: and just so also the rest of the allies had thought of doing themselves; for it chanced that the Olympic festival fell at the same time as these events. Accordingly, since they did not suppose that the fighting in Thermopylae would so soon be decided, they sent only the forerunners of their force.

[207] These had intended to do thus, and meanwhile the Greeks at Thermopylae, when the Persian had come near to the pass, were in dread, and deliberated about making retreat from their position. To the rest of the Peloponnesians then it seemed best that they should go to the Peloponnese and hold the Isthmus in guard; but Leonidas, when the Phokians and Locrians were indignant at this opinion, gave his vote for remaining there, and for sending at the same time messengers to the several states bidding them to come up to help them, since they were but few to repel the army of the Medes.

[208] As they were thus deliberating, Xerxes sent a scout on horseback to see how many they were in number and what they were doing; for he had heard while he was yet in Thessaly that there had been assembled in this place a small force, and that the leaders of it were Spartans together with Leonidas, who was of the race of Heracles. And when the horseman had ridden up towards their camp, he looked upon them and had a view not indeed of the whole of their army, for of those which were posted within the wall, which they had repaired and were keeping a guard, it was not possible to have a view, but he observed those who were outside, whose station was in front of the wall; and it chanced at that time that the Spartans were they who were posted outside. So then he saw some of the men practising athletic exercises and some combing their long hair. And as he looked upon these things he marvelled, and at the same time he observed their number; and when he had observed all exactly, he rode back unmolested, for no one attempted to pursue him and he found himself treated with much indifference. And when he returned he reported to Xerxes all that which he had seen.

[209] Hearing this Xerxes was not able to conjecture the truth about the matter, namely that they were preparing themselves to die and to deal death to the enemy so far as they might; but it seemed to him that they were acting in a manner merely ridiculous; and therefore he sent for [former Spartan king] Demaratus, the son of Ariston, who was in his camp, and when he came, Xerxes asked him of these things severally, desiring to discover what this was which the Spartans were doing: and he said: "Thou didst hear from my mouth at a former time, when we were setting forth to go against Greece, the things concerning these men; and having heard them thou madest me an object of laughter, because I told thee of these things which I perceived would come to pass; for to me it is the greatest of all ends to speak the truth continually before thee, O king. Hear then now also: these men have come to fight with us for the passage, and this is it that they are preparing to do; for they have a custom which is as follows: whenever they are about to put their lives in peril, they attend to the arrangement of their hair. Be assured however, that if thou shalt subdue these and the rest of them which remain behind in Sparta, there is no other race of men which will await thy onset, O king, or will raise hands against thee: for now thou art about to fight against the noblest kingdom and city of those which are among the Greeks, and the best men." To Xerxes that which was said seemed to be utterly incredible, and he asked again a second time in what manner being so few they would fight with his host. He said; "O king, deal with me as with a liar, if thou find not that these things come to pass as I say."

[210] Thus saying he did not convince Xerxes, who let four days go by, expecting always that they would take to flight; but on the fifth day, when they did not depart but remained, being obstinate, as he thought, in impudence and folly, he was enraged and sent against them the Medes and the Cissians, charging them to take the men alive and bring them into his presence. Then when the Medes moved forward and attacked the Greeks, there fell many of them, and others kept coming up continually, and they were not driven back, though suffering great loss: and they made it evident to every man, and to the king himself not least of all, that human beings are many but men are few. This combat went on throughout the day.

Persian palace guard, found at Susa. Now in the Louvre, Paris.
A Persian warrior on a relief from Susa (now in the Louvre). He is armed with a spear and a bow.

And when the Medes were being roughly handled, they retired from the battle, and the Persians, those namely whom the king called "Immortals," of whom Hydarnes was commander, took their place and came to the attack, supposing that they at least would easily overcome the enemy. However, when these also engaged in combat with the Greeks, they gained no more success than the Median troops but the same as they, seeing that they were fighting in a place with a narrow passage, using shorter spears than the Greeks, and not being able to take advantage of their superior numbers. The Spartans meanwhile were fighting in a memorable fashion, and besides other things of which they made display, being men perfectly skilled in fighting opposed to men who were unskilled, they would turn their backs to the enemy and make a pretence of taking to flight; and the barbarians, seeing them thus taking a flight, would follow after them with shouting and clashing of arms: then the Spartans, when they were being caught up, turned and faced the barbarians; and thus turning round they would slay innumerable multitudes of the Persians; and there fell also at these times a few of the Spartans themselves. So, as the Persians were not able to obtain any success by making trial of the entrance and attacking it by divisions and every way, they retired back.

[212] And during these onsets it is said that the king, looking on, three times leapt up from his seat, struck with fear for his army. Thus they contended then. On the following day the barbarians strove with no better success; for because the men opposed to them were few in number, they engaged in battle with the expectation that they would be found to be disabled and would not be capable any longer of raising their hands against them in fight. The Greeks however were ordered by companies as well as by nations, and they fought successively each in turn, excepting the Phocians, for these were posted upon the mountain to guard the path. So the Persians, finding nothing different from that which they had seen on the former day, retired back from the fight.

[213] Then when the king was in a strait as to what he should do in the matter before him, Ephialtes the son of Eurydemos, a Malian, came to speech with him, supposing that he would win a very great reward from the king; and this man told him of the path which leads over the mountain to Thermopylae, and brought about the destruction of those Greeks who remained in that place. Afterwards from fear of the Spartans he fled to Thessaly, and when he had fled, a price was proclaimed for his life by the Deputies, when the Amphictyons met for their assembly at Pylai. Then some time afterwards having returned to Anticyra he was slain by Athenades a man of Trachis. Now this Athenades killed Ephialtes for another cause, which I shall set forth in the following part of the history, but he was honored for it none the less by the Spartans.

[214] Thus Ephialtes after these events was slain: there is however another tale told, that Onetes the son of Phanagoras, a man of Carystos, and Corydallos of Anticyra were those who showed the Persians the way round the mountain; but this I can by no means accept: for first we must judge by this fact, namely that the Deputies of the Greeks did not proclaim a price for the lives of Onetes and Corydallos, but for that of Ephialtes the Trachinian, having surely obtained the most exact information of the matter; and secondly we know that Ephialtes was an exile from his country to avoid this charge. True it is indeed that Onetes might know of this path, even though he were not a Malian, if he had had much intercourse with the country; but Ephialtes it was who led them round the mountain by the path, and him therefore I write down as the guilty man.

[215] Xerxes accordingly, being pleased by that which Ephialtes engaged to accomplish, at once with great joy proceeded to send Hydarnes and the men of whom Hydarnes was commander; and they set forth from the camp about the time when the lamps are lit. This path of which we speak had been discovered by the Malians who dwell in that land, and having discovered it they led the Thessalians by it against the Phocians, at the time when the Phocians had fenced the pass with a wall and thus were sheltered from the attacks upon them: so long ago as this had the pass been proved by the Malians to be of no value.

The mountain path. Photo Jona Lendering.
The mountain path

[216] And this path lies as follows: it begins from the river Asopos, which flows through the cleft, and the name of this mountain and of the path is the same, namely Anopaea; and this Anopaea stretches over the ridge of the mountain and ends by the town of Alpenos, which is the first town of the Locrians towards Malis, and by the stone called Black Buttocks and the seats of the Kercopes, where is the very narrowest part.

Map of Thermopylae. Design Jona Lendering.
Thermopylae: the Anopaea path

[217] By this path thus situated the Persians after crossing over the Asopos proceeded all through the night, having on their right hand the mountains of the Oetaeans and on the left those of the Trachinians: and when dawn appeared, they had reached the summit of the mountain. In this part of the mountain there were, as I have before shown, a thousand hoplites of the Phocians keeping guard, to protect their own country and to keep the path: for while the pass below was guarded by those whom I have mentioned, the path over the mountain was guarded by the Phokians, who had undertaken the business for Leonidas by their own offer.

Vase painting of a hoplite. Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.
Vase painting of a hoplite; note the long spear (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel)

[218] While the Persians were ascending, they were concealed from these, since all the mountain was covered with oak trees; and the Phocians became aware of them after they had made the ascent as follows: the day was calm, and not a little noise was made by the Persians, as was likely when leaves were lying spread upon the ground under their feet; upon which the Phocians started up and began to put on their arms, and by this time the barbarians were close upon them. These, when they saw men arming themselves, fell into wonder, for they were expecting that no one would appear to oppose them, and instead of that they had met with an armed force. Then Hydarnes, seized with fear lest the Phocians should be Spartans, asked Ephialtes of what people the force was; and being accurately informed he set the Persians in order for battle. The Phocians however, when they were hit by the arrows of the enemy, which flew thickly, fled and got away at once to the topmost peak of the mountain, fully assured that it was against them that the enemy had designed to come, and here they were ready to meet death. These were in this mind; but the Persians meanwhile with Ephialtes and Hydarnes made no account of the Phokians, but descended the mountain with all speed.

[219] To the Greeks who were in Thermopylae first the soothsayer Megistias, after looking into the victims which were sacrificed, declared the death which was to come to them at dawn of day; and afterwards deserters brought the report of the Persians having gone round. These signified it to them while it was yet night, and thirdly came the day-watchers, who had run down from the heights when day was already dawning. Then the Greeks deliberated, and their opinions were divided; for some urged that they should not desert their post, while others opposed this counsel. After this they departed from their assembly, and some went away and dispersed each to their several cities, while others of them were ready to remain there together with Leonidas.

[220] However it is reported also that Leonidas himself sent them away, having a care that they might not perish, but thinking that it was not seemly for himself and for the Spartans who were present to leave the post to which they had come at first to keep guard there. I am inclined (gnomÍ) rather to be of the opinion that because Leonidas perceived that the allies were out of heart and did not desire to face the danger with him to the end, he ordered them to depart, but held that for himself to go away was not honourable, whereas if he remained, a great fame of him would be left behind, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be blotted out: for an oracle had been given by the Pythian prophetess to the Spartans, when they consulted about this war at the time when it was being first set on foot, to the effect that either Lacedemon must be destroyed by the barbarians, or their king must lose his life. This reply the prophetess gave them in hexameter verses, and it ran thus:

"But as for you, ye men who in wide-spaced Sparta inhabit,
Either your glorious city is sacked by the children of Perses,
Or, if it be not so, then a king of the stock Heraclean
Dead shall be mourned for by all in the boundaries of
broad Lacedemon.
Him nor the might of bulls nor the raging of lions shall hinder;
For he hath might as of Zeus; and I say he shall not be restrained,
Till one of the other of these he have utterly torn and divided."

I am of opinion that Leonidas considering these things and desiring to lay up for himself glory above all the other Spartans, dismissed the allies, rather than that those who departed did so in such disorderly fashion, because they were divided in opinion.

A Persian nobleman. Terracotta figure from Persepolis. Archaeological museum, Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
A Persian nobleman.
Terracotta figure from
Persepolis (Archaeological
museum, Tehran)

[221] Of this the following has been to my mind a proof as convincing as any other, namely that Leonidas is known to have endeavoured to dismiss the soothsayer also who accompanied this army, Megistias the Acarnanian, who was said to be descended from Melampus, that he might not perish with them after he had declared from the victims that which was about to come to pass for them. He however when he was bidden to go would not himself depart, but sent away his son who was with him in the army, besides whom he had no other child.

[222] The allies then who were dismissed departed and went away, obeying the word of Leonidas, and only the Thespians and the Thebans remained behind with the Spartans. Of these the Thebans stayed against their will and not because they desired it, for Leonidas kept them, counting them as hostages; but the Thespians very willingly, for they said that they would not depart and leave Leonidas and those with him, but they stayed behind and died with them. The commander of these was Demophilos the son of Diadromes.

[223] Xerxes meanwhile, having made libations at sunrise, stayed for some time, until about the hour when the market fills, and then made an advance upon them; for thus it had been enjoined by Ephialtes, seeing that the descent of the mountain is shorter and the space to be passed over much less than the going round and the ascent. The barbarians with Xerxes were accordingly advancing to the attack; and the Greeks with Leonidas, feeling that they were going forth to death, now advanced out much further than at first into the broader part of the defile; for when the fence of the wall was being guarded, they on the former days fought retiring before the enemy into the narrow part of the pass; but now they engaged with them outside the narrows, and very many of the barbarians fell: for behind them the leaders of the divisions with scourges in their hands were striking each man, ever urging them on to the front. Many of them then were driven into the sea and perished, and many more still were trodden down while yet alive by one another, and there was no reckoning of the number that perished: for knowing the death which was about to come upon them by reason of those who were going round the mountain, they displayed upon the barbarians all the strength which they had, to its greatest extent, disregarding danger and acting as if possessed by a spirit of recklessness.

[224] Now by this time the spears of the greater number of them were broken, so it chanced, in this combat, and they were slaying the Persians with their swords; and in this fighting fell Leonidas, having proved himself a very good man, and others also of the Spartans with him, men of note, of whose names I was informed as of men who had proved themselves worthy, and indeed I was told also the names of all the three hundred. Moreover of the Persians there fell here, besides many others of note, especially two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, born to Darius of Phratagune the daughter of Artanes: now Artanes was the brother of king Darius and the son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames; and he in giving his daughter in marriage to Darius gave also with her all his substance, because she was his only child.

The hill of Thermopylae, site of the last stand of the Spartans. Photo Jona Lendering.
The hill of Thermopylae, site of the last stand of the Spartans.

[225] Two brothers of Xerxes fell here fighting; and meanwhile over the body of Leonidas there arose a great struggle between the Persians and the Spartans, until the Greeks by valor dragged this away from the enemy and turned their opponents to flight four times. This conflict continued until those who had gone with Ephialtes came up; and when the Greeks learnt that these had come, from that moment the nature of the combat was changed; for they retired backwards to the narrow part of the way, and having passed by the wall they went and placed themselves upon the hillock, all in a body together except only the Thebans: now this hillock is in the entrance, where now the stone lion is placed for Leonidas. On this spot while defending themselves with daggers, that is those who still had them left, and also with hands and with teeth, they were overwhelmed by the missiles of the barbarians, some of these having followed directly after them and destroyed the fence of the wall, while others had come round and stood about them on all sides.

Arrowheads found at Thermopylae. National Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Arrowheads from Thermopylae (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

[226] Such were the proofs of valor given by the Spartans and Thespians; yet the Spartan Dieneces is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes: being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

[227] This and other sayings of this kind they report that Dieneces the Spartan left as memorials of himself; and after him the bravest they say of the Spartans were two brothers Alpheus and Maron, sons of Orsiphantos. Of the Thespians the man who gained most honour was named Dithyrambos son of

Tombstone at Tobruk. Photo Jona Lendering.
Simonides' epitaph has inspired many later tombstones. This one, from Tobruk, says that the Czechoslovakian soldiers fought and died according to the laws of their fatherland.

[228] The men were buried were they fell; and for these, as well as for those who were slain before being sent away by Leonidas, there is an inscription which runs thus:

"Here once, facing in fight three hundred myriads of foemen,
Thousands four did contend, men of the Peloponnese."

This is the inscription for the whole body; and for the Spartans separately there is this:

"Stranger, report this word, we pray, to the Spartans, that lying
Here in this spot we remain, faithfully keeping their laws."

This for the Spartans; and for the soothsayer as follows:

"This is the tomb of Megistias renowned, whom the Median foemen,
Where Spercheus doth flow, slew when they forded the stream;
Soothsayer he, who then knowing clearly the fates that were coming,
Did not endure in the fray Sparta's good leaders to leave."

The Amphictyons it was who honored them with inscriptions and memorial pillars, excepting only in the case of the inscription to the soothsayer; but that of the soothsayer Megistias was inscribed by Simonides the son of Leoprepes on account of guest-friendship.

Xerxes killing a Greek hoplite, perhaps Leonidas. Seal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (United States) Photo Marco Prins.
Xerxes killing a Greek hoplite, perhaps Leonidas (more...); seal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

[229] Two of these three hundred, it is said, namely Eurystus and Aristodemus, who, if they had made agreement with one another, might either have come safe home to Sparta together (seeing that they had been dismissed from the camp by Leonidas and were lying at Alpenoi with disease of the eyes, suffering extremely), or again, if they had not wished to return home, they might have been slain together with the rest - when they might have done either one of these two things, would not agree together; but the two being divided in opinion, Eurystus, it is said, when he was informed that the Persians had gone round, asked for his arms and having put them on ordered his helot to lead him to those who were fighting; and after he had led him thither, the man who had led him ran away and departed, but Eurystus plunged into the thick of the fighting, and so lost his life: but Aristodemus was left behind fainting. Now if either Aristodemus had been ill alone, and so had returned home to Sparta, or the men had both of them come back together, I do not suppose that the Spartans would have displayed any anger against them; but in this case, as the one of them had lost his life and the other, clinging to an excuse which the first also might have used, had not been willing to die, it necessarily happened that the Spartans had great indignation against Aristodemus.

[230] Some say that Aristodemus came safe to Sparta in this manner, and on a pretext such as I have said; but others, that he had been sent as a messenger from the camp, and when he might have come up in time to find the battle going on, was not willing to do so, but stayed upon the road and so saved his life, while his fellow-messenger reached the battle and was slain.

[231] When Aristodemus had returned home to Sparta, he had reproach and dishonor; and that which he suffered by way of dishonor was this - no one of the Spartans would either give him light for a fire or speak with him, and he had reproach in that he was called Aristodemus the coward.

[232] He however in the battle at Plataea repaired all the guilt that was charged against him: but it is reported that another man also survived of these three hundred, whose name was Pantites, having been sent as a messenger to Thessaly, and this man, when he returned back to Sparta and found himself dishonored, is said to have strangled himself.

[233] The Thebans however, of whom the commander was Leontiades, being with the Greeks had continued for some time to fight against the king's army, constrained by necessity; but when they saw that the fortunes of the Persians were prevailing, then and not before, while the Greeks with Leonidas were making their way with speed to the hillock, they separated from these and holding out their hands came near to the barbarians, saying at the same time that which was most true, namely that they were on the side of the Medes and that they had been among the first to give earth and water to the king; and moreover that they had come to Thermopylae constrained by necessity, and were blameless for the loss which had been inflicted upon the king: so that thus saying they preserved their lives, for they had also the Thessalians to bear witness to these words. However, they did not altogether meet with good fortune, for some had even been slain as they had been approaching, and when they had come and the barbarians had them in their power, the greater number of them were branded by command of Xerxes with the royal marks, beginning with their leader Leontiades, the same whose son Eurymachus was afterwards slain by the Plataeans, when he had been made commander of four hundred Thebans and had seized the city of the Plataeans.

[234] Thus did the Greeks at Thermopylae contend in fight.

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