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Herodotus' twenty-second logos: Thermopylae

The Aegean region in the fifth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering.
 (©**)

The battle of Thermopylae (7.138-239)

Nominally, Xerxes' expedition was directed against Athens, but its real objective was the conquest of the whole of Greece. Having stated this at the beginning of the twenty-second logos, Herodotus feels compelled to express an opinion which he knows to be unpopular: that Greece was saved by the Athenians. If they had remained neutral, he points out, the Greeks had not been able to resist the Persian navy, and Xerxes' army could easily have been ferried to every part of Greece, including Sparta. Herodotus adds to this encomium that the Athenian decision to join the war against the Asian invaders, was especially courageous because the oracle of Delphi had predicted eminent doom if the Athenians were to stand firm.

When this oracle was read in front of the people's assembly in the year preceding Xerxes' invasion, the Athenian leader Themistocles (above) had pointed out that it contained a cryptic reference to a 'wooden wall that shall not fall'. He had suggested that this implied that Athens should rely on its large navy. Herodotus adds that this navy had been build only recently. Several years before, a rich vein of silver had been struck at Laurium (a village near Athens) and Themistocles had suggested to use the money to construct two hundred galleys. 
 

Herodotus
Diary of Xerxes'
campaign
Earth and water
Hydarnes
Immortals
Troezen inscription

Comment

Herodotus' opinion that Athens had saved Greece, was indeed one to which many Greeks would have objected. In the 430's, when he composed The Histories, Athens was regarded as the suppressor of the other Greek towns. In 431 BCE, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes even decided to go to war because they had become afraid of the further growth of Athenian power.

Herodotus' judgment is correct. The Persian strategy was to overwhelm the Greeks with a large army, and Xerxes needed his ships to bring supplies to his troops. When the Athenians destroyed the Persian navy at Salamis (below),  it was no longer possible to maintain an oversized army in hostile territory. The Athenian navy ensured that Greece remained independent, and gave Athens an empire in the Aegean Sea, just like Polycrates of Samos and Histiaeus of Miletus had attempted. 

Bust of Themistocles. Museo Ostiense, Ostia antica (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Themistocles
(Museo Ostiense, Ostia; ©**)

Themistocles' shipbuilding program started in 483. When the Athenian statesman tried to persuade the people's assembly, he seems to have pointed at the threat of the Aeginetan navy (above). But he could also have pointed at the canal through the Athos peninsula (above).

The discussion about the oracle probably took place in September 481, when Xerxes was on his way to Sardes. As a corollary of the decision to trust on the 'wooden wall that shall not fall', Athens was evacuated. (It was a remarkable and bold decision to meet the Persian attack with naval forces, because Marathon had suggested that infantry could be successful too.) An inscription found at Troezen in the Peloponnese mentions that 

  • all Athenian residents will deposit their children and wives at Troezen,
  • that the city is to be entrusted to the goddess Athena, 
  • that one hundred ships will defend Greece at Artemisium, and 
  • that one hundred ships will lie in wait and defend the land.
This was the decision of the Athenian people's assembly. The man who made the motion was none other than Themistocles.
 

The battle of Thermopylae (cont.)

While Xerxes is still at Sardes, Sparta organizes the Greek cities in a military league. All struggles among the Greeks are to cease for the duration of the war, in which the Spartans will have the supreme command. Envoys are sent to the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily, but they return empty-handed. (Herodotus interrupts his story to digress on a great Greek victory, the Battle of Himera, in which Gelon of Syracuse defeated the Carthaginians; text.) In fact, the leading Greek city in the the west, Syracuse, double-crosses the towns in homeland: it sends a herald to Greece, who is to bring earth and water to Xerxes as soon as he is victorious.

Comment

The military alliance that the Spartan diplomats forged in the Autumn of 481, is usually called the Corinthian League. (Herodotus does not use the name.) It gathered under bad auspices: we have already seen the oracle to the Athenians (above). The Spartans learned from Delphian prophetess that they would either see their city in ruins or a dead king. Even worse than these omens, the city of Argos did not join the alliance, and could serve as a Persian 'fifth column'. The loyalty of Aegina and Syracuse was wavering. The spies that the Greeks sent to Xerxes' camp at Sardes, were caught (above). And the first action undertaken by the allies, was a disaster, as we will see right now.
Thermopylae, seen from the west. Photo Jona Lendering.
Thermopylae seen from the
east

The battle of Thermopylae (cont.)

Herodotus tells us about loyal Thessalian envoys, who visit the council of the allied cities in the spring, when Xerxes is still at the Hellespont (above). They request assistance, so that they may stop Xerxes at the northern border of Greece. A Greek army sails to Halos in south Thessaly, and marches to the pass of Tempe, the above mentioned gorge between Ossa and Olympus. The allied commanders learn that the pass can be turned, and they withdraw. The Thessalians are now without support, and as we have already seen, surrender to Xerxes when he demands earth and water (above).

Meanwhile, the council at Corinth decides to guard Thermopylae, which seems easily defensible. This narrow pass, which controls the only road between Thessaly and central Greece, is only two meters wide; on the northern side are cliffs that fall to the sea, on the southern side are mountains. Here the Persian army has to be stopped. The commander of the allies is the Spartan king Leonidas, the half-brother of Cleomenes (above).

At the same time, the council sends 147 Athenian and 124 other warships to Artemisium, where they will lie in wait for the Persian navy. If Leonidas' army is victorious, the war is over; when the Greek navy defeats its opponent, Xerxes has to withdraw his army.

Religious precautions are taken: the oracle at Delphi orders the Greeks to 'pray to the winds, which will be staunch allies of Greece'. As we will see, the winds were indeed the best defense of Greece.

Map of Thermopylae. Design Jona Lendering.
Map of Thermopylae (©**)

Fire signals inform the Greeks at Artemisium that Xerxes' navy has left Therma. When the 1207 Persians vessels are sailing along the coast of the Thessalian district known as Magnesia, they anchor at a place named Squid's Cape. The place is too small to contain all ships. They have to lay off-shore in lines, eight deep, and are an easy victim of a sudden and violent storm. Only eight hundred ships reach the save haven of Aphetae, opposite Artemisium.

The Persian army invades Thessaly along the pass of Tempe, and reaches Thermopylae without further incidents. The Greek garrison is small (4000 men, including 300 heavily armored Spartans, 400 Corinthians and 400 Thebans), and Leonidas sends heralds to the Greek towns, asking for reinforcements. Meanwhile, a Persian spy is ordered to find out if it is true that Thermopylae is guarded by a very small number. He confirms the earlier report, and adds that he has seen the Spartans combing their hair. Demaratus explains that the Spartans are preparing themselves for a good fight.

 
Vase painting of a hoplite. Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.
Vase painting of a hoplite
(KMKG, Brussel)

King Xerxes waits four days before he orders his soldiers to attack the contemptibly small Greek garrison. He first sends the Median and Elamite contingents, which are easily repelled by the defenders of the narrow road. A second wave of troops consists of the ten thousand Immortals, the royal bodyguard, but these elite troops do no better. The Persian position does not improve during the second day of the battle. When Xerxes' soldiers pass through the narrow gap, they are killed by their opponents, who have longer spears and better armor. Many of the invaders fall into the sea and drown.

Then, a Greek named Ephialtes informs the great king of the possibility to turn the position of the Greek army. There is a mountain path. At the beginning of the third day, Leonidas learns that the Immortals, commanded by Hydarnes, will soon descend from the mountains and attack his rear. He sends away the other troops, but orders the Spartans and Thebans to stay. The Thespian contingent and a seer named Megistias refuse to leave. 

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

Herodotus explains why Leonidas decides to stay: because the oracle had announced that Sparta would either be destroyed or lose its king (above). Leonidas choose the second alternative. Then, he orders his men to go forward against their opponents, who are lashed towards the Spartans by their officers. When Leonidas falls, a bitter struggle over his body breaks out. Herodotus tells that the Greeks have to drive off the enemy four times, and finally succeed in dragging the corpse away. Then, the Thebans desert their allies and surrender; the Spartans and Thespians retreat to a small hill, where they are killed by Persian archers.

After the fall of Thermopylae, the road to Greece lies open. Xerxes orders Leonidas' body to be crucified. Herodotus quotes the epitaph of the Spartan soldiers: 'Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we are buried, obedient to their orders.' 

 
Persian arrow heads found at Thermopylae.
arrowheads from 
Thermopylae (©!!!)

Comment

The battle of Thermopylae can be dated with some accuracy: 17, 18 and 19 September (or one day later). Herodotus does not mention the full moon, but its light was absolutely necessary for the Persians to ascend the mountain path. The Olympic games, during which the Greeks were not allowed to fight, lasted until the night of full moon; this explains why Leonidas received no reinforcements. The site of the last stand of the Spartans and Thespians has been identified by the discovery of Persian arrowheads; besides, Herodotus' description of the topography is excellent (text).
Torso of a Spartan hoplite, found at Sparta and identified as a memorial statue to Leonidas. Museum of Sparta. Photo Shane Solow, Herodotus Project.
Torso of a Spartan hoplite,
found at Sparta and identified
as a memorial statue to
Leonidas (Museum of Sparta;
photo Shane Solow, 
Herodotus Project; ©*)

Xerxes' hesitation to attack for several days can easily be explained: he was waiting until his fleet had reached Aphetae. The three days of fighting at Thermopylae coincided with the fighting at the sea between off Artemisium. (Go here for an explanation of the contemporaneity.)

The fact that Leonidas asked for reinforcements when the Persian army was already at close quarters, does not say much for his military abilities. There may be much truth in the statement of the great German historian Julius Beloch (1864-1929) that the death of the three hundred was a mistake: their self-sacrifice did not serve any military purpose, except -of course- the removal of an incompetent commander. On the other hand, it may be that Leonidas' kamikaze had a religious motivation: if the oracle announced that the Spartans would loose their town or their king, it was reasonable to sacrifice a king to save the city.

From Persian sources, nothing is known about a corps called Immortals. Herodotus makes an unconvincing attempt to explain their name from the fact that each casualty would immediately be replaced, so that the corps was immortal. Probably, Herodotus' informer confused the correct name Anûšiya ('companions') with Anauša ('Immortals').

It is unclear how Herodotus knew what happened during the battle. The Spartans were dead, and he did not speak Persian himself. If his source were a Theban, his view on the role of the Thebans would have been kinder. Maybe he knew a Greek who had accompanied Xerxes, perhaps a Halicarnassian or an attendant of Demaratus.

The crucifixion of Leonidas' body is explained by Herodotus from Xerxes' exceptional hatred of the Spartan king. This is an overstatement. A Persian king was supposed to mutilate the bodies of defeated enemies. In the Behistun inscription, nearly all Darius' enemies receive this treatment, and Alexander the Great was to do the same after he had defeated Bessus.

A final remark must be made about the role of the Thebans. Herodotus' judgment about these soldiers is unfair. In every Greek city, there was a pro-Persian and a pro-Greek party. The Thebans who fought at Thermopylae probably belonged to the latter group, and cannot be blamed for the fact that Thebes surrendered to Xerxes after they had been captured. Already in Antiquity, people criticized Herodotus for this error; the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea even wrote an angry treatise on the subject, called Herodotus' malice.

Even today, the reputation of the Thebans remains stained. There are two ugly modern monuments at Thermopylae - one for the Spartans and one for the Thespians. The absence of a monument for the Thebans tells a lot about the popularity of Herodotus. Here, you can read more about his influence.
 

 
Literature
  • Andrew R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks. The Defence of the West, c.546-478 B.C. (1962 London) pages 342-363, 378-381, 406-422
  • N.G.L. Hammond, 'The expedition of Xerxes', in: the Cambridge ancient history, 2nd ed, vol.4, pages 518-590
  • C. Hignett, Xerxes' invasion of Greece (1963, Oxford), pages 113-148 and 356-378 (especially 371-378)
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