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Thermopylae. A glorious sacrifice or failed “black operation”?


The operation’s setup

The Greeks who incorrectly thought that the defeat of the Persians at Marathon and the death of Darius had secured peace were in for a very unpleasant surprise when they learned the Persian great preparations and the bloody Persian invasion in their Thracian colonies as preparation for the main campaign. The ferocity of the invasion of Thrace gave arguments to the advocates of resistance and forced the pro Persian parties into silence.

In 483 BC all Greek city states were invited to the Conference of Corinth in order to take decisions on the huge issues that the Greeks faced perhaps for the first time in their history. The situation could not be worse. The Greek colonies in the West were experiencing problems with the Carthaginians and were unable to provide succor. Many believe that Xerxes had secret pact with the Carthaginians through his Phoenician vassals but only circumstantial evidence exist for this.

The prophecies of the Delphic Oracle propagandized indirectly in favor of Xerxes. Without even a fight, and because of the prophecies, the Persian King had put the island of Crete out of the war. The Athenian envoys had to make the unthinkable: challenging the «Divine Word» in order to invigorate the spirit of resistance. The Argives demanded joined command of the Hellenic forces seeking to hinder the Spartans, the Boeotians were undecided and the Thessalian aristocracy was openly accused for treason.

Reconstruction of Persian troops attacking. Courtesy of the German Living History Association «Hetairoi».

All attempts by the opponents of the Persian Empire to endure siege hoping that the Persians will grow tired and abandon the attempt to subjugate them had failed, because the Persian army had plenty of people and means for siege works could reduce the besieged Greeks consecutively one by one. The only success of the Greeks against the Persians at Marathon was the result of a battle in the open field. But the unprecedented volume of Xerxes troops rendered this option extremely difficult if not suicidal. There was always the danger of a Greek involvement in a prolonged battle while Persian reserves would surround them and annihilated them. The Greeks eventually decided to defend narrow passages and gateways with the Greek fleet preventing landings in the Greek rear.

The Greeks knew very well that the material means available to the Persian Empire was superior to their own. But the Marathon experience had taught them that the Persians were not unbeatable. The Greeks also knew that all the armies of the time were sustained from the resources of areas that they crossed. The army’s stay in an area for long time could strip it from its natural resources. This problem, for the large Persian army could become very acute and perhaps even cause a revolution of «Midising Greeks» if their very survival was at stake.

Modern reconstruction of a Spartan vs a Persian.
Courtesy of the German Living History Association «Hetairoi».

The plan originally foresaw the occupation of narrow passageways that abound in the Greek territory in order to immobilize for a long time the Persian army at one point and forced it to retreat because of lack of means for its maintenance. The Persian fleet’s assistance was limited by the habit of the era, to sail along coastal routes and its navigators were apprehensive of the unknown waters. The numerical superiority of the Persian fleet could be neutralized, by guarding the narrow waterways that also abound in the Greek coastline.

The first attempt to contain the Persians at the Tempe pass failed because of insufficient forces, the lukewarm attitude of the Thessalians, but mainly because it could by bypassed from the sea. The Thessalian coastline does not have a narrow sea passages and the Greek fleet had a numerical disadvantage. The Greeks like it or not had to withdraw to the alternative defensive location of Thermopylae.

The general perception of the battle of Thermopylae is dominated by intense sentimentality because of the sacrifice of the Spartans and Thespians. All refer to the «Glorious Defeat» that paved the way for the final victory. The dominant view is that the Leonidas deliberately fought while there was no hope in order to inspire Greek determination in the struggle. But no one ever goes to war in order to die, especially the Spartans. Also Plutarch in his work «Deeds of the Lacedaemonians» says that when a trader told a Spartan to sell him a rooster that would rather be killed than retreat in a rooster fight, the Spartan answered that would rather buy a rooster that would kill his opponent in the fight!

The topography of Thermopylae

The modern traveler of Thermopylae, visiting the monument with a statue of Leonidas, fails to understand how different the landscape was at the time of the Persian wars. The two and a half thousand years that passed have brought dramatic changes in the region. Over the centuries the silting up of the four rivers (Spercheios, Melas, Phoenix and Asopos) has transformed the place pushing the coastline five to eight kilometers to the East. It is terribly difficult for the modern visitor to perceive the cramped space that no longer has any relationship with the descriptions of ancient writers. The difference of the modern with the ancient geographical configuration is such that many scholars believed that Herodotus had not visited the place but the described it through third-party testimonials.

At the time of the Persian Wars the coastline reached to what is today a national highway. The coast was rocky at point while at other point there were dangerous swamps. Mount Oita with its top Kallidromo towers over the area as it is today. Between the mountain and the coastline a narrow road handled traffic between North and South Greece. The Phocians had built a wall to defend themselves from the Thessalians.

Kiing Leonidas ordered the abandoned fort to be repaired so to occupy his army. Most of the savage fighting took place in front of this fort. The Persians pitched camp between the rivers Melas and Asopos, partly for protection against sudden attacks and partly to have water for their large army. The narrowness of the passage and the time that the Persians need to reach the Greek defensive line allowed the Greeks to exchange their fighting units and meet each Persian assault with fresh troops.

The issue though are the passes existing on the mountain Oita. Many scholars wonder why the generally capable Persian scouts did not find the passes circumventing the location. A possible explanation is that by being horsemen they would not risk their expensive horses in the mountain rocky lanes. The Thessalians though had bypassed the Phocian fortress led by the Mallians. Its interesting that they kept their mouth shut on the subject, despite the big reward that Xerxes would offer for such a piece of information.

Kill Xerxes!

Thermopylae neutralized the numerical superiority of Persians and could not be bypassed by the Persian fleet that had to first neutralize the Greek fleet in the Straits of Artemisium. The nature of the waterway with its tricky currents negated the numerical superiority of the enemy fleet and encouraged the Greeks to offer battle. The Spartans had correctly understood that the source of the Persian might was an in personal Asian monarchical system. Everything was directed by one man only, the High King. The system was rather impossible to keep its cohesion if this man was eliminated. Maybe the Greeks doubted until the last minute if the High King himself led the Army taking in to account that all campaigns after the time of Darius were executed by subordinate generals.  But when Leonidas saw the Persians setting up the observatory of Xerxes he was sure that the Persian monarch was present.

Leonidas answer to the Persian summons to surrender was not a reply given in the heat of the moment either. He could answer «I will not surrender», a steady denial within the bounds of diplomacy. He might have thought that an undiplomatic answer would force Xerxes to make wrong moves driven by rage and so he answered MOLON LABE-come and take them! (Might even was pointing to his groin-extremely insulting gesture in Greece!). Though this answer found its way to eternity it was not just a display of bravado but a calculated psychological operation aiming at Xerxes royal arrogance. It’s hardly surprising that Xerxes disregarded the traditional Persian custom to respect bravery and mutilated Leonidas corpse.

The Persian human wave attacks failed to force the passage and their fleet could not get the upper hand in the naval fights of Artemision. Leonidas had managed to stop the Persian advance and had humiliated the Persian might. North Greece could not sustain the huge Asiatic army indefinitely and the high King was made a fool in front of his subjects. Diodorus Siculus, Justin  and Ctesias offer hinds of mutinies in the Persian Army and their claims might have an element of truth. When Ephialtes presented himself to the High King with information how to break the Greek defensive line, it might have just well been a sign of Ahura Mazda’s favor. The Persian monarch by using the religious feeling of his troops could raise their moral and reassert his authority as an “all mighty ruler”.

Here the sources offer differ accounts about the events. Herodotus claims the sheer Megistias sees bad omens about the future of the fight. Diodorus claims that deserter from the Persian camp bring the news that the position has been compromised. Leonidas decided to send a raiding party to eliminate the Persian High Command and bring confusion into the enemy.

If we examine the military situation with a cool head though, we can assume that Leonidas knew that time was not in favor of the Greeks. It was a matter of time before the Thessalians-bitter enemies of his Phocian allies-decided to inform Xerxes about the mountain passes. The tactical situation also, was a stalemate as the hoplites could not counterattack and destroy the Persian army.

According to Diodorus, Leonidas had more Laconian troops besides the 300 Hippeis. That would include Skiritans and possibly elements of the Krypteia, the Spartan force dedicated to guerilla warfare training and also acted as secret service. When he got news of the Persian actions he kept his cool. He tried to persuade the other Peloponnesians that the paths circumventing their defensive line were also narrow and could be held the same way that the main passage was held for the last two days

The Greek commander decides to send his raiders and also used his Thespians and Theban allies (who volunteered according to Plutarch) along his Hippeis as decoy assault force to ease the task of the raiders. According to Diodorus the raiders succeed in entering the Royal Tent and killing everyone inside but missing Xerxes who simply was not there! The Spartans then are being killed by the Persian Royal Guards. Let us not forget that Demaratus who had failed to size Argos in a night raid using Skiritans served as an advisor to Xerxes and might have well told him never to sleep in the same place twice on campaign. Herodotus says that Xerxes brothers Avrakomas and Hyperanthes died in Thermopylae. Considering the fact that Persian royalty after Darius time avoided direct engagement in combat, the two men probably fell victim to the Spartan raiders.

While the Peloponnesians abandoned the pass, the Spartans and the Beotians assaulted the Persian camp. The Persians are being caught by surprise. But the Persian generals were able to restore order and the weight of numbers started to tell. At this critical moment Leonidas gets killed but his bodyguards rescue his corps and along with the desperate Thespians retreat to the Phocian wall. On seeing this, the Thebans surrendered and were stigmatized by the Persians.

Even today special operations especially those aimed at eliminating enemy leadership are hindered by unforeseen circumstances and combined arms attacks can fail because of their very complexity like the failed attemps againt Al Quaida leadership or Somali warlords. If the night raid was successful today we would talk about the great victory of Thermopylae and how a few Greek resisted the might of an Empire but History is never written with the word “If…”. It would also be interesting if there were enough evidence to link Xerxes murder with Krypteia involvement, in attempt to protect the Greek Asiatic Colonists and be used as an excuse to curb the growing influence of  the Athenians in the affairs of Greece.


Herodotus  “History” Loeb Classical Library1920 

Ploutarch “Morals” Loeb Classical Library 1920 

Pausanias  “Description of Greece” John Dreyden London: Macmillan, 1889

Brandon D. Ross Krypteia: A Form of Ancient Guerrilla Warfare Grand Valley Journal of History Volume 1, Issue 2

The above is a translated synopsis of an article of mine published in Greek in the «MACHES KAI STRATIOTES» history magazine in Athens Greece with ISSN  9-771792721800-10

4 Σχόλια
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