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Map of Thermopylae. Design Jona Lendering.
Thermopylae: the Anopaea path
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 famous battle in 480 was not the only fight in the small pass between the mountains and the sea.

Thermopylae c.500 BCE

The early fifth century history of Central Greece is poorly understood, but it is certain that the Thessalians and Phocians were at war "a few years before the Persian invasion" (Herodotus, Histories, 8.27). During this war, the "Phocian Wall" was built at Thermopylae: about 150 meters long, parallel along the road, and offering the Phocians a safe place from which to throw missiles at the invaders. However, the Malians (allies of the Thessalians), discovered the Anopaea path and Thermopylae fell for the first time (Herodotus, Histories, 7.215). The invaders, however, were defeated at Hyampolis and the Phocians were able to free themselves., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig (Germany). Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier.

Thermopylae 352 BCE

The Third Sacred War broke out in 355 when Thebes tried to benefit from the difficulties in Athens, which had just lost the Social War. Thebes prepared to attack Phocis, which was more or less up for grabs. The Phocians, however, expected the attack, captured Delphi and took all the gold that was there, hiring a large mercenary force. The first round of war was much to the advantage of the Phocians, but after one year, Thebes was able to seize the initiative again. Phocis now allied itself to Pherae in Thessaly, which changed the balance of power in that northern region. Larissa, which felt threatened by the coalition between Phocis and Pherae, invited king Philip of Macedonia to come to its assistance.

Philip was only too willing to help, and was defeated; but in 352, he was back, and overcame the Pheraeans and Phocians in the battle of the Crocus Field, effectively uniting Thessaly and Macedonia in a personal union. He now proceeded to Delphi, which he wanted to liberate from Phocian control, and moved to central Greece, where he had to fight himself a way through Thermopylae. The story is told by Diodorus of Sicily:

Phaÿllus, the general of the Phocians after the death and defeat of his brother, effected another revival of the affairs of the Phocians, then at a low ebb on account of the defeat and slaughter of their soldiers. For since he had an inexhaustible supply of money he gathered a large body of mercenaries, and persuaded not a few allies to co-operate in renewing the war. In fact, by making lavish use of his abundance of money he not only procured many individuals as enthusiastic helpers, but also lured the most renowned cities into joining his enterprise. [... Meanwhile,] Philip put an end to the tyranny in Pherae, and, after restoring its freedom to the city and settling all other matters in Thessaly, advanced to Thermopylae, intending to make war on the Phocians. But since the Athenians prevented him from penetrating the pass, he returned to Macedonia, having enlarged his kingdom not only by his achievement but also by his reverence toward the god.

[Diodorus of Sicily, World History, 16.37.1-2, 38.1-2;
tr. C.L. Sherman]

We know that the Athenian army was about 5,000 hoplites and 400 horsemen strong, commanded by Nausicles. The battle is also referred to by Demosthenes (On the False Embassy, 319) and by Justin (8.2.8‑12), but they add little information.

Thermopylae 323 BCE

Immediately after the death of Alexander the Great, the Athenians revolted. They had been preparing the war for some time and were joined by several other Greek towns. A mercenary leader named Leosthenes occupied Thermopylae, where he intended to meat the Macedonian forces

When Antipater, learned of the movement concerted against him by the Greeks, he left Sippas as general in Macedonia, giving him a sufficient army and bidding him enlist as many men as possible, while he himself, taking thirteen thousand Macedonians and six hundred horsemen [...] set out to Thessaly, accompanied by the entire fleet which Alexander had sent to convoy a sum of money from the royal treasury to Macedonia, being in all one hundred and ten triremes. At first the Thessalians were allies of Antipater and sent out to him many good horsemen; but later, won over by the Athenians, they rode off to Leosthenes and, arrayed with the Athenians, fought for the liberty of the Greeks. Now that this great force had been added to the Athenians, the Greeks, who far outnumbered the Macedonians were successful. Antipater was defeated in battle, and subsequently, since he neither dared to engage in battle nor was able to return in safety to Macedonia, he took refuge in Lamia.

[Diodorus, of Sicily, World History, 18.12.2-4;
tr. R.M. Geer]

They occupied Thermopylae, and when the Macedonian commander Antipater arrived, he was repelled and forced to hide in the nearby fortress of Lamia.


Thermopylae 279 BCE

After the death of Alexander, his generals created states of their own. One of the most successful leaders was Lysimachus, who, after the Battle of Ipsus, was in control of Thrace, large parts of Asia Minor, and substantial parts of Greece. However, he was defeated by Seleucus I Nicator in 281 (Battle of Corupedium), and the victor was in turn assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos. This meant that Lysimachus' kingdom disintegrated, and that Greece was no longer protected against the tribes in the north, the Galatians. These Galatians belonged to the La Tène culture, which is often called "Celtic"; and they found the way to the south open. In 279, the Greeks made a last stand at Thermopylae, but they were defeated after the Galatians had taken the same path as the Immortals, two century before. The full story is told by Pausanias (Guide for Greece, 10.19.4-23.9) and can be found here.

Antiochus III the Great. Bust at the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Antiochus III the Great (Bust at the Louvre)

Thermopylae 191 BCE

The Syrian War became inevitable when the Roman general, after defeating king Philip V of Macedonia, decided to leave the Greek cities "free and autonomous", a gesture that created a power vacuum that was, as all the world knew and the Romans must have been hoping for, too tempting for the Seleucid king Antiochus III to resist. And indeed: in 192, he allowed himself to be invited to Greece by the Aetolians. Seleucid armies overran Euboea and parts of Thessaly, but soon discovered that the Romans were ready strike in the theater of war they had selected to meet Antiochus.

In 191, the Seleucid king tried to defend Thermopylae against the legions, led by Manius Acilius Glabrio; when a division of the Romans, commanded by Marcus Porcius Cato, used the mountain path, and Antiochus decided to retreat. Greece was evacuated, and Rome had -after Carthage and Macedonia- humiliated another Hellenistic superpower.

The story is told by Appian of Alexandria (Syrian War, 18-20), and Livy (History of Rome since its Foundation, 36.15-19).

Thermopylae 146 BCE

In 146, more or less the same time of the destruction of Carthage, war broke out in Greece, where people tried to save their independence. During this Achaean War, the Roman commander Quintus Caecilius Metellus fought himself a way across Thermopylae against a coalition of Achaeans, Boeotians, and Chalcidians, led by Critolaus, who poisoned himself after his defeat. This battle was described by Livy in his fifty-second book, which is lost, although an excerpt survives. This battle is usually called Battle of Scarpeia, and Pausanias clearly distinguishes the two places (Guide to Greece, 7.15.2).

The site Battle of 480 Herodotus Other battles
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 3 August 2008
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