At Thermopylae in the late summer of 480 the Spartan king Leonidas held out for three days with a mere 300 hoplites against thousands upon thousands of the best of the Persian Empire of Xerxes I during the second Persian invasion of Greece.
Romantic notions of the battle praise the sacrifice and discipline of the Spartan hoplites, citizens renowned for their lifelong combat training and almost mythical military prowess. While the crucial role of the Spartans cannot be denied what is often lost in modern depictions- in movies such as The 300 Spartans and 300 is the fact that after Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army there remained 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, most of whom were killed.
Thermopylae’s location was of great strategic importance as it was a chokepoint of the coastal road that allowed travel. Leonidas believed that the narrowness of the pass could negate the numbers advantage of the Persians (between 100,000 and 300,000 troops) and that holding the pass would delay the Persians long enough for other Greek city-states to prepare for battle or even keep the Persian at bay long enough so they would have supply issues If the position had been held for even slightly longer – the Persians might have had to retreat for lack of food and water.
Scholars may debate the actual strategic results of the battle, but anyone with a passing interest in history no doubt knows the result of the battle. Leonidas and the troops with him held for three days but were eventually overrun and killed. Militarily, the battle was actually not decisive in the context of the Persian invasion, but is of great significance on the basis of the first two days of fighting.
The inspirational example of the rearguard as it unwaveringly faced certain death is used to this day as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers.
If you wish to read more about the battle, I highly recommend the following books available to our patrons- Thermopylae : the battle that changed the world by Paul Cartledge; Thermopylae : the battle for the West by Ernle Bradford; or The Spartans : the world of the warrior-heroes of ancient Greece, from utopia to crisis and collapse by Paul Cartledge
Ronald W. Shaw