Resources, Civilizations and Empires

The Persian Empire

The Persian Empire to 480 B.C.

By Jack Barkstrom

Xerxes' European Expedition

The death of Darius set the timetable for invasion back by another four years, to 481.  Part of the reason for the delay was the seriousness of the revolt in Egypt, which took a year to put down.  In Herodotus' eyes a more serious obstacle was Xerxes' indecision.  He vacillated between war and peace.  At one point, having made the decision to go to war, he ordered his nobles to begin preparations to assemble an army. Not long afterwards he reversed himself and called the venture off.  The nobility who had been ordered to make final preparations for war were now told that they could go home. 

Xerxes, about this time, began to experience visions at night. The night before his announcement that the invasion had been called off, he saw a man standing over him, rebuking him for reversing his decision: "Are you changing your mind, Persian, and will not lead your army against Greece after you have bidden the Persians to gather their host? You will not do well, so to alter your counsel, nor will he who stands before you prove forgiving."   The following day he decided to ignore the vision and announce his decision to call off the invasion. The vision re-appeared that night: "Son of Darius, you have appeared before the Persians and revoked your war and set my sayings aside, treating them as of no account and coming from a nobody. Be sure of this. If you do not launch your war at once, this shall be the outcome: just as in a short while you were raised to greatness and might, just as quickly shall you become humble." [49]

The vision, in Herodotus' story, comes across almost as a political consultant, rather than a divine messenger.  Xerxes must make war on Greece, not because its conquest will add to the greatness of the Persian Empire, nor out of  revenge for the Athenian attack on Sardis, nor because Athens represents a threat. He must go to war because changing his mind, once he has announced his decision to go to war, gives the appearance of weakness.  Sound political advice, for a domestic audience, but not particularly reassuring when it comes to the commitment needed for a military operation.  As a ruler, Xerxes should not be relying on a vision for political advice.

Still undecided after the second appearance of the vision, Xerxes persuaded Artabanus, the sole opponent of the war, to sleep in Xerxes' bed, dressed in Xerxes' clothes, in an attempt to expose the vision. The vision made its nightly visit, but was not fooled by the ruse.  Speaking to Artabanus, it said: "You are the man who has persuaded Xerxes not to make war on Greece, out of concern for him! But you yourself will not escape unscathed for trying to reverse fate, neither hereafter nor in the present.  What Xerxes shall suffer if he disobeys has already been told to him." The apparition took on a threatening appearance and tried to burn out his eyes with hot irons, causing him to awake with a cry and jump out of bed.  Xerxes was convinced by his story that the message was from the gods.  He would obey and take Persia to war. [50]

A third vision came to Xerxes while he slept. In the vision he saw himself crowned with an olive branch, from which shoots had emerged which overshadowed the entire world. However, before he awoke, the crown had vanished.  When he asked the Magi what the dream meant, he was told that the dream referred to all the world and that all mankind would serve as his slaves.

In contrast to his timid or irresolute approach to the question of hostilities, Xerxes' preparations for war were thorough. Four years (484 - 481 B.C.) were required to lay the groundwork for the expedition, according to Herodotus.  A canal was dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos, where Mardonius' fleet had lost a large number of ships to the storm in 492. The canal was about a mile and a half long, wide enough for two triremes, and took three years to complete.  In addition a bridge of boats was built over the River Strymon.  Supplies were stockpiled along the route the army would take as it marched through Thrace; the largest at a place called the White Shore, another at Tyrodiza, another at Doriscus, and others at Eïon, on the Strymon, and in Macedonia.

The thoroughness suggested by Herodotus may be an indication of Xerxes' determination to make the expedition a success.  Alternatively, the time and effort invested may not have been geared to an invasion of southern Greece, but to a consolidation of gains in Thrace and Macedonia.  As Herodotus points out, if Xerxes' goal had been simply to avoid the dangers of sailing an invasion fleet around the promontory of Mount Athos, it would have been much easier to drag the ships overland across the isthmus.  His goal, in building a canal, may not have been so much military, as commercial.  Warships were not the only victims of storms.  A canal would allow for the commercial exploitation of whatever resources were extracted from Thrace and Macedonia.  At least one of those products, timber, could be more safely transported west, while products coming out of Persia would have easier access to markets in northern Greece and Europe.  A similar argument could be made about the food stores. They were created, not so much to support an invading army, as to serve army garrisons permanently stationed in the region. They were supply depots rather than temporary food caches.

In Xerxes' invasion, Greece was confronted by seemingly overwhelming odds.  It was not just the thoroughness of the planning which weighed against the Greeks, it was also the size of the force which Xerxes had assembled, which totaled exactly 5,283,220, according to Herodotus.  The figure was further broken down into a fighting force of 2,641,610,  with a land army of 1,700,000  and a combined naval and land force of 2,317,610.  The number of triremes, 1,207, formed a large fleet, in comparison to past expeditions, although somewhat small, if it was expected to carry the number of sailors cited by Herodotus.[51]

With a fighting force numbered in the millions, Herodotus had converted a simple struggle for survival by Athens and Sparta into an epic venture against overwhelming odds.  However that struggle may pale in comparison to the difficulties Xerxes faced in trying to feed such a large host. Herodotus himself calculated that 1,100,340 bushels of wheat would have been required each day to feed a military force of five million. That figure did not include the amounts needed by women, eunuchs, baggage animals, and dogs. Given the level of development of transport in 480 B.C. Herodotus' figure seems well beyond the capabilities of any ancient force.[52]

Xerxes' army was a sizeable force, but probably well below five million. Modern estimates place the figure closer to 180,000, or even under 100,000.[53]

In the fall of 481 B.C. Xerxes traveled from Susa to Critalla in Cappadocia (northeast Asia Minor, now eastern Turkey), where the army was waiting.  With Xerxes leading, the army then marched to Sardis, where the final invasion force was to be assembled.  Perhaps hoping that news of the invasion force would be enough to intimidate cities into surrendering, Xerxes sent heralds to all the Greek states, except Athens and Sparta, demanding earth and water.  Wintering in Sardis in 481- 480, the army left for the Hellespont in the spring.

Like Darius' Scythian expedition of 516 B.C., Xerxes' army would cross into Europe over a bridge which spanned one of the straits separating Asia from the European continent.  The location was not the strait of the Bosporus, but the strait known as the Hellespont (Dardanelles), closer to the Aegean Sea.  The European side was located on the Chersonese peninsula, close to Sestos and the Asian end was near the city of Abydos.   It took two attempts before the bridge was completed. Phoenician and Egyptian engineers had completed a bridge, possibly parallel bridges, since the Phoenicians had used white flax, while an Egyptian span had been made of papyrus.  A storm came up and destroyed the bridge.  Angered by the destruction, Xerxes had the engineers beheaded. To punish the sea, he ordered that the waters be lashed three hundred times and that a yoke of fetters be lowered into the sea as well.

Whether the design flaw of the first bridge had been its construction as an unsupported length of cable or cables, the second attempt seemed closer to the design of 516 B.C., i.e., a bridge of boats.  The boats used were much heavier. Penteconters, Greek vessels of fifty oars, and triremes, warships with three banks of oars on each side, were incorporated into the structure. The eastern span used 360 ships while the western span (closest to the Aegean) used 314. The re-designed bridge did not eliminate the use of cables.  Two cables of white flax and four of papyrus were used for each span.  The cables were meant to support the walkway over which the army would march. The walkway was made of planks of wood laid directly on the cable, covered by a layer of brushwood, on top of which was a layer of earth. The entire walkway was covered so that the baggage animals and horses would not be frightened by a view of the water below. [54]

At sunrise, on the day the crossing began, Xerxes poured a libation from a golden cup into the sea and offered a prayer to the sun.  He then threw the cup, together with a golden mixing bowl, and an acinaces, a Persian sword, into the sea.  After the ceremony, the army began its crossing.  The cavalry and foot soldiers crossed by the eastern bridge, while the baggage animals and transport crossed using the western bridge. Xerxes himself may have crossed on the second or third day or, alternatively, after the entire army had made the crossing. It is said that the crossing took seven days and seven nights.  The fleet sailed ahead to the Cape of Sarpedon to wait for the army.

The army moved up the Chersonese past Cardia, then turned west to follow the coast through Thrace to the Persian-garrisoned city of Doriscus, where the Hebrus River enters the Aegean.  The army, on leaving Doriscus, is said to have been divided into three columns.  Mardonius and Masistes commanded the army taking the coast road.  Tritanaechmes and Gergis commanded the column taking the inland route.  Xerxes himself went with the middle column, commanded by  Smerdomenes and Meabyzus.  The fleet was waiting at Therme.

While Xerxes was at Pieria, near Therma, the heralds who had been sent to the various Greek cities returned from their missions.  Among those rendering tribute were the Thessalians, Dolopians, Locrians, and Thebans.  Of the Boeotians, only the Thespians and the Plataeans refused.   Heralds had not been sent to Athens or Sparta because of the treatment earlier missions sent to those cities received.  When Darius sent heralds, the Athenians had thrown them into the Pit, the place where criminals were thrown for punishment.  The Spartans threw their heralds into a well, telling them that they could obtain their earth and water there.

With Xerxes expected to bring his army south through the mountain passes, the Greeks decided that their best plan was to try to stop, or at least delay, the army in the mountains.  There were several passes, but the one they thought was most defensible was the pass at Thermopylae.  It was located at the edge of a mountain which climbed west to form Mount Oeta.  The mountain range ran down almost to the sea east of the pass.  Any army trying to advance would find itself hemmed in by the sea and marshes until it reached the pass itself.   The Persian fleet, the other major threat, the Greeks hoped to stop as it sailed by Artemisium, a beach on the northern coast of Euboea.

The Battle of Artemisium

The island of Sciathus lies just off Cape Sepias, on the Magnesian peninsula, not far from Artemisium.  The Greeks landed a small force on the island and posted three lookout ships offshore, one from Troezen, one from Aegina, and one from Attica. When the Persian fleet finally sailed from Therme, ten of its fastest ships were sent ahead.  The Greek ships were apparently caught off guard or were considerably slower than the Persian vessels. The Troezen and Aeginetan ships were both captured and the Attic ship was run aground by her captain at the mouth of the Peneus to avoid capture. The crew only escaped by jumping off her at the landing spot and running away.  One of the handsomest of the Troezen crewmen was taken to the prow of the ship and killed by having his throat cut. The captors felt it was a good omen that the first prisoner they captured was the handsomest.  One of the Aeginetans, Pytheas, received better treatment as a captive.  He had been seriously wounded fighting the Persians after they boarded his ship.  Admiring his courage, they nursed him back to health and even took him back to their camp to show the others someone of great valor.

The brief fighting and the fate of the three ships had been observed by those on Sciathus, who lit beacon fires to warn the rest of the Greek fleet at Artemesium.  The news caused a small panic among the fleet and most of the ships sailed to Chalcis, leaving only a small party on Euboea to report on further Persian moves.  The Persian scouting force did not come away from the encounter unscathed.  Three of the ten ships were wrecked on a reef called the Ant, lying between Sciathus and Magnesia, after which a warning marker was left.  Once the advance ships reported back, the entire Persian fleet sailed from Therme, arriving at the cape of Sepias after a day of sailing.

The day the Persian fleet arrived the seas were calm, but the following morning the wind began to pick up. It was the beginning of a storm, called a "Hellespontian."  Those who could pulled their ships ashore, but those unable to reach shore safely were destroyed when the seas drove them onto the rocks or the beaches along the coast.  The storm lasted for three days and was said to have destroyed as many as four hundred warships, with additional losses among the transport vessels.

The Greek watchers left on Euboea, seeing the devastation caused by the storm, managed to get word to their fleet, which returned to Artemisium to await the arrival of the Persians.  On the fourth day, when the storm had blown itself out, the Persians put to sea and sailed south along the coast of Magnesia.  They rounded the cape and anchored in the gulf off Aphetae.  According to Greek legend, Aphetae, the Launching Place, had been the place where Heracles was left behind by Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece when he went to fetch water.[55]

A late-arriving squadron of fifteen Persian ships, mistaking the Greek ships off Artemisium for their own fleet, sailed into the midst of the Greek vessels.  Before they realized their mistake they were captured.  The Persian commander, Sandoces, was among those captured, as was Aridolis, prince of Alabanda, and Penthylus, a general from Paphos.

The Greeks had assembled a fleet of 271 triremes, with nine penteconters, at Artemisium.  Eurybiades, a Spartan, served as commander. Confident, when they returned, that they could easily dispatch a Persian fleet devastated by the recent storm,  the Greeks were disheartened to find that the storm had done less damage than reported.  The force they were facing was quite large and ready for battle.  The coalition was on the verge of breaking up and taking flight.

Herodotus' story is that the fleet only remained because Themistocles, the Athenian commander, was bribed by the Euboeans, who gave him thirty talents to stay.  He, in turn, gave a share of the money, five talents, to Eurybiades, the Spartan, and another three talents to the Corinthian commander, Adimantus. Eurybiades and Adimantus assumed that the money originated with the Athenian government.  Herodotus' strongest condemnation is reserved for Themistocles, who came away from the deal making a profit.  However, it is not clear whether, at a secondary level, the moral of the story relates to the overall character of the three Greek commanders, who could only be induced to fight for money, or whether it is a criticism of Athens, which now viewed motivation as little more than a payroll item.  The unanswered tactical question is not so much whether Athens felt it needed to bribe its military leaders to get them to fight, but whether it was investing wisely when it chose to pay them to fight at Artemisium.  Was it better to risk the fleet at Artemisium because it would contribute little to the defense Athens once the Persian fleet arrived offshore, or did Artemisium offer the greatest chance of victory? [56]

The battle took place over three days.  When the Persians arrived at Aphetae, they saw the Greek fleet and realized that it was a small force.  Fearing that they would flee if the Persians confronted them with their entire force, they decided to send two hundred warships around Euboea to be stationed in the strait of Euripus, the channel separating Euboea from Boeotia.  The Greek fleet would be cut off if it tried to escape through the channel.

The Greek fleet, which  may have been warned of the Persian plan by a deserter, debated an attack on the 200-ship Persian force sailing around Euboea, but came to no decision.  On the following day the Greek force put to sea in expectation of an attack.  The Persians appeared unwilling to offer battle and in the late afternoon the Greeks began attacking.  Herodotus suggests that they considered their attack little more than a training exercise.  In a maneuver called "breaking the line," used at the battle of Lade, a warship would attempt to sail through the enemy's line, and once through, attempt to ram one of the enemy ships.  Whether the attacks caused any serious damage, the Persians managed to recover and, with their larger force, attempted to surround the smaller Greek fleet.  The Greeks however, on signal, formed a defensive circle, with their prows facing the Persian fleet and their sterns close together. For a short time they remained stationary in their defensive circle with the Persian ships closing in.  Then, on signal, the warships all moved forward to attack.  Whether the fading light gave them an advantage, or the move caught the Persians by surprise, the Greeks managed to capture thirty of the enemy ships.  When night fell the two fleets retired.

A violent storm struck in the evening and rain fell the entire night.  It was said that the bodies and wreckage from the day's fighting drifted over to the Persian anchorage at Aphetae.  The Persian fleet sailing around Euboea was caught in the open by the storm and many of the ships were lost.  The fleet at Aphetae remained inactive for most of the next day. However, the Greeks, who had been reinforced by fifty-three Attic vessels during the day, waited until late afternoon, then took to their ships and sailed over to attack the Cilician ships.  Towards nightfall they broke off the attack and returned to Artemisium. 

The Persians, on the third day, went into battle formation about mid-day.  The Greeks, this time, did not advance, but waited in a semi-circular defensive line off Artemisium.  The Persians, in a crescent formation, tried to encircle the Greeks.  Finally the Greek ships sailed forward to meet  the Persian attack. In contrast to the first days' fighting, Greek tactics were not enough to save them against a determined attack.  They suffered heavy losses. Five Greek ships, with their crews, were captured by the Egyptians and half the Athenian warships were disabled.

When they returned to Artemisium, the Greeks decided that it was pointless to continue the fighting. To disguise their retreat they lit fires on shore, waiting for Themistocles to give the final order to leave. While they were waiting, a messenger arrived to inform them that the Greek force holding the pass at Thermopylae had been annihilated and that the Persian army was advancing on Athens.  There was now no reason to remain and they abandoned Artemisium.  The Corinthians, having arrived first, were the first to leave; the Athenians, having arrived after the others, were the final contingent to leave.[57]

The Pass at Thermopylae

In the autumn of 481 B.C., the Greek cities convened an Hellenic congress (Synedrion of Probuloi or Congress of Representatives), which met at the isthmus of Corinth, under the presidency of Sparta.  A delegation from Thessaly offered to help guard the Olympian pass against Xerxes' army, but requested help from the other Greek states.  The congress agreed and organized a force of 10,000.  Sailing through the Euripus, it disembarked at Halus (Alus), then marched to the pass between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa, near Tempe. Discovering that Tempe was not the only pass which the Persians could use, they decided to leave.  They were not a large enough force to defend more than one mountain route.

The congress, once it heard the reports, decided that the best place to defend southern Greece was the pass at Thermopylae (literally the "hot gates," named for the hot sulfur springs in the vicinity)  The Spartan king Leonidas, said to be a descendent of Heracles, was chosen as commander.  A force of between 7,000 and 10,000 marched to the pass and occupied it. The Peloponnesians provided a large share, about 4,000, with Tegea and Mantinea providing 500 each and the district of Arcadia sending 1,000.  The Spartan contingent (Spartiates - those with full citizenship) consisted of the 300 members of Leonidas' royal bodyguard.  The city of Corinth sent 400, Thespiae sent 700, and Thebes provided 400.[58]

Once they understood the size of the Persian force camped outside the pass, the would-be defenders began to have serious misgivings about their mission.  The Peloponnesians wanted to withdraw and set up a defense at the Isthmus instead of Thermopylae.  The Greek cities seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, the danger posed by the Persians.  The Spartans did not plan to interrupt their celebration of the Carnean month festival.  Once it was over they promised additional troops.  The other cities offered the excuse of the Olympic festival.  They could only spare an advance guard.  Leonidas held firm, voting that they remain.  He did however agree to send messengers to request reinforcements.

The Persian army waited four days before it attacked the Greek defenders. The Medes and Cissians, on the fifth day, made a frontal assault. When their attack failed to dislodge the Greeks, Xerxes sent in the Immortals.  The Spartans and their Lacedaemonian allies are said to have used the tactic of retreating en masse, then, after convincing their opponents to attack, turning on them in a counterattack.  At the end of the first day, the Immortals were also forced to withdraw.  The second day's fighting ended with the Persian forces unable to make any headway.

Xerxes, frustrated by the first two days of battle, was approached by a Malisian, named Ephialtes, who told him of a mountain path, between Mount Oeta and Mount Trachis, which led to Thermopylae, behind the Greek positions.  Ephialtes agreed to guide the Persians and  Xerxes ordered Hydarnes, the commander of the Immortals, to take his troops and follow Ephialtes.  Moving at night, they did not reach the summit of the pass until dawn. The only opposition they encountered was a detachment of Phocians. Hydarnes, determined to reach the main force, ignored them when they retreated.  Leonidas, with the force holding the pass, may have received word from deserters during the night that part of the Persian foot had left the main body of troops.  His first real warning came when those standing guard spotted Hydarnes' force as it descended and came running into camp at dawn to report what they had seen.

A hastily-called war council was held.  Some of the Greek contingents may have already decided to leave or Leonidas may have sent them away, determined to hold the pass with a corps of Peloponnesian hoplites.  Herodotus argues that Leonidas' motive was heroic: it would be disgraceful to leave a post they had been ordered to hold.  There also was a prophecy the Spartans had been given by the Pythian priestess, which said that Sparta would either be destroyed or, if not, would lose her king.  "Sparta... by the manhood of Persia... shall be sacked - or she shall not, but then Lacedaemon's watcher shall mourn for a king that shall die, from Heracles' race descended."

Leonidas was left with the force of Lacedaemonians, plus the Thespians and Thebans.  Xerxes made his libations at sunrise and, when he was ready, the army was ordered to advance.  The Greeks, who had been defending the walls in the narrowest part of the pass, came out from behind their defensive positions and advanced to meet the Persians.  Whether there was more than one charge, the force of the attack was enough to break the spears of the Greek hoplites and they resorted to fighting with their swords.  In heavy fighting Leonidas was killed, along with the entire bodyguard of 300.  There was a fight over his body but the Greeks managed to retrieve it. They repulsed four attacks before Hydarnes and the Immortals arrived. The Thebans, forced to remain by Leonidas, are said to have surrendered, but were afterwards branded as cowards on the orders of Xerxes. The Greeks then retreated and took up positions on a small hillock.  The Persians finished them off, probably with arrows or spears, rather than by a frontal assault.  On the Persian side, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, were killed.

The account of the battle, as provided by Herodotus, emphasizes the heroic nature of the struggle but provides relatively few details.  There are some questions as to its accuracy.  The reason given for the delay in sending reinforcements to Thermopylae - the Carnean and Olympic festivals were being celebrated - seems rather flimsy, given the nature of the Persian threat. At the same time, it seems odd that there were no Athenian hoplites among those defending the pass while the Peloponnesians made up a large share of the defending force - disproportionately large, considering that Sparta was located furthest from the fighting, geographically.[59]

Background to Thermopylae

In terms of Persian military strategy, the geography of mainland Greece presents something of a chicken-and-egg question.  Did Greek vulnerability to a sea attack motivate Persia to become a sea power, or did the development of naval power convince Persia that the conquest of mainland Greece was feasible?  Unlike many of the cities of Greek Ionia, which were essentially island kingdoms, mainland Greece was not a small island.  Yet, with its many gulfs, bays, and inlets, it could hardly be described as landlocked. The Peloponnese was, after all, a very large peninsula. To the west lay the Ionian Sea and on the southern coast was the Messenian Gulf, the Laonian Gulf, and the Argolian Gulf. To the north was the Corinthian Gulf. Athens was a coastal city as well.

The size of the Persian Empire was testament to the military capabilities of the Persian army, when it came to land campaigning.  Yet land campaigning came with its own set of risks. Armies or individual units had little hope of rescue if they got themselves in trouble in enemy territory, as Cyrus discovered in his 529 campaign and Darius learned in his 516 Scythian adventure.

Xerxes, in organizing such a massive invasion force, had introduced a new element into warfare in Greece.  It was not simply the size of the force which was new, although lower Greece had never before been threatened by a force of such size.  What was new was a proportionately greater emphasis on naval strategy.  Naval warfare was not, in itself, new.  The backbone of the Ionian Revolt had been the island cities, and the suppression of the rebellion had necessitated the adoption of a marine strategy.  In one sense what the Persian navy contributed to the expedition was not so much raw naval power, although it did do that, rather it provided mobility or maneuverability for the land forces.  Naval battles, such as Artemisium or Salamis, were spectacular confrontations, in and of themselves.  The ability to defeat an opposing navy was militarily significant. However their real power may have been the ability to determine the outcome of fighting on land.  It was not necessary to order a costly attack on a strongly-defended position, when transport ships could bypass a position and land troops at any number of places which were lightly defended or undefended.  As supply vehicles, ships were more efficient at provisioning troops then land-based transport.  A greater amount of supplies could be transported over greater distances.

If Greece represented a military opportunity for a maritime power, the converse was also true - it was a nightmare for any land force trying to resist a sea invasion. The Spartans, as the primary power in the Peloponnese, could be expected to put up stiff resistance in any encounter with the main body of Persian troops, particularly if it came at the Isthmus of Corinth as expected. But what if the Persians landed troops somewhere in the rear. or put agents ashore to foment a rebellion among the Helots or Sparta's regional allies, the Mantineans or Eleans?  The coastline of Greece was only one of the problems faced by the defenders. There were political problems as well.  Sparta and Athens had political and economic rivals who might see the Persian invasion as a chance to settle old scores.  The problem for Sparta was Argos.  With Athens the fear was the island city of Aegina.

Argos had been an ancient power in the Peloponnese, but had been eclipsed by the rising power of Sparta.  Around 550 B.C. Sparta had decisively defeated Argos to claim Thyreatis, the district lying between the two cities.  In 494, the Spartan and Argive armies confronted each other again at Sepeia, near the hill of Tiryns (about four or five miles from Argos).  It was said that the Argive generals mimicked the orders given by the Spartans.  When the Spartans gave the command for breakfast, the Argives would do the same.  Realizing that this was happening, Cleomenes, the Spartan King, ordered his soldiers not to stand down, even if the command for breakfast was given.  The Argives, hearing the Spartan command, began to make breakfast. The Spartans picked up their weapons and attacked.  The Argives suffered heavy casualties in the attack. Their own estimate was 6,000 killed.  Those who survived took refuge in the grove of Argos.

According to Herodotus, the hatred between the two cities was so great that the Spartans surrounding the grove used trickery to entice those in the grove to come out and surrender.  Cleomenes sent word in through deserters that the ransom for specific individuals had been received.  When those called came out, they were all killed.  One of the Argives finally climbed a tree and saw what was happening.  When no one else came out Cleomenes piled brush around the grove and set it on fire.  He left when he learned that the grove burned was sacred to Argus.

Herodotus' story of Argive generals foolishly allowing enemy heralds to determine their own actions may not be an accurate account. Whatever the true story was however, casualty figures suggest that the Argives had committed a serious military blunder.  Cleomenes, on his return to Sparta, was tried for failing to capture Argos.  He was acquitted.  He was accused of taking a bribe not to take the city.  It has been suggested that he may have believed that Argos, in a weakened condition, might serve Sparta's goals better than a city which had been totally destroyed.  The killing by the Spartans of those leaving the grove, suggests a form of political killing in conjunction with an attempt to install a puppet government, since those coming out were called by name. Argos, since her defeat, had recovered somewhat.  She was not yet in a position to challenge Sparta, but her hostility was undiminished.  If she could not attack Sparta herself, the fear was that she would be willing to help the Persians, should their invasion plans involve the Peloponnese.[60]

For Sparta, the Athenian navy offered the best hope of stopping or at least deflecting the threat posed by the Persian fleet.  Keeping the Athenians happy was a delicate political and military calculation.  They needed to provide enough troops to persuade Athens that they were committed to her defense, without seriously weakening their main force gathering at the Isthmus.  Leonidas and his bodyguard of 300 was to serve as their commitment.  They persuaded their allies in the Peloponnese to supply the rest.  The Greek plan, as conceived, was not to sacrifice the Spartans in a last-ditch effort to stop the Persian army at Thermopylae.  Thermopylae was something of a decoy, a delaying action which would allow the Greek navy to defeat or seriously cripple the Persians.  The size of the Persian fleet meant that it would likely win in any contest on the open sea.  It was most vulnerable if it had to fight in a confined space.  There were two possibilities.  One was the strait between Marathon and the island of Euboea, south of Artemisium.  The other was the strait at Salamis, across from Athens.  Allowing the Persian invasion force to reach Athens without trying to prevent the advance was risking everything on a single battle.[61]

Thermopylae Revisited

In his story of Thermopylae, Herodotus suggests that there was only the main pass at Thermopylae and the secret Anopaea trail, which was revealed to the Immortals by the traitor Ephialtes.  There was a third route at Trachis, just west of the beginning of the secret Anopaea trail.  (Once the battle at Thermopylae was over, Herodotus states that  the Persian army used the Trachis pass to enter southern Greece, rather than Thermopylae.)  The Trachis trail ran along the Asopus River, which had cut a gorge leading toward Mount Oeta and Doris.  It has been suggested that the Greeks had stationed a force at the citadel there, even if Herodotus fails to mention it. The force was sufficiently strong to discourage a Persian attack.  The supposedly "secret" path of Anopaea was also not totally secret. A force of 1,000 Phocians had been assigned to guard it.

Leonidas, in organizing the Thermopylae defense, may have been aware that there was a Persian force moving somewhere behind him.  He was "taken by surprise" in a sense, not because the Persians arrived behind his lines, but because they arrived a day earlier than expected.  Leonidas had assumed that the route they would take would lead them around Mount Callidromus.  Herodotus suggests that Leonidas decided to go down fighting out of a sense of duty - duty would not permit him to withdraw in the face of the enemy.  Yet the reason for the determined defense may have been less related to the Spartan military code of honor and more directly linked to the hope that any delay would give the Greek navy at Artemisium time to draw the Persian fleet into battle.  If the Persian army were able to advance through Thermopylae, the Persian fleet would no longer be needed in a supporting role at Artemisium and could sail around Attica to await the army off Athens. A Greek victory, on the other hand, might seriously cripple Persian power at sea, leaving the Greek navy free to attack the Ionian cities.  Even a partial Greek victory might leave the Persian fleet too weak to support an invasion of the Peloponnese.[62]

The Persians, in the first two days of Thermopylae, even with the help of the Immortals, were unable to make any serious headway, in Herodotus'  version.  Alternatively, the Persians may not have made an all-out assault during those days, engaging in more of a reconnaissance-in-force, or intending to create a diversion for Hydarnes' movement behind Leonidas.  Hydarnes probably had planned to begin his march the night of the first day's fighting, but thunderclouds and showers caused a postponement.  Marching all night, the force of Immortals encountered the Phocians near Eleutherochori around dawn.  The Phocians retreated to the south to defend the road to Doris.  Hydarnes chose not to pursue them, although he probably left a rear guard to prevent them from attacking.  Thermopylae was still 14 miles away. 

News of the Immortals' approach may have reached Leonidas from his own watch stationed on the hills above, or the messengers may have been Phocian runners, sent to inform him of their withdrawal and the Persian advance over the Anopaea. Whether they actually arrived at dawn, when the Persians are said to have encountered the Phocian hoplites at the pass (still 14 miles away) is questionable. After a council of war, Leonidas sent the bulk of the defending force south towards Tithronium and Elatea.  There it could keep open his line of retreat.. He stayed behind with a force of 2,000, primarily the Lacedaemonians augmented by the 700 Thespians and the 400 Thebans.

Ephialtes had calculated that the Immortals would be able to reach Thermopylae early in the morning of the third day.  He had advised Xerxes to order the main force to attack about mid-morning. When the attack began, Hydarnes was still miles away and the Immortals probably did not arrive until noon.  Whether the Persians charged once or several times, their sustained attack had disrupted the Greek defensive phalanx.  With their spears broken and now useless, the Greeks were reduced to fighting with their swords.  Leonidas was killed during the close-in fighting and for a time there was a fight over his body, until the Greeks managed to drag it away. The custom of front-line leadership, a risky tactic, was not confined to the Greek army.  On the Persian side, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, sons of Darius, were both killed in the fighting. [63]

When the Immortals arrived, the bulk of the Greek force retreated to a small hill.  They defended themselves as best they could, but had almost ceased to exist as a fighting force.  Most had lost their swords or were too weak to wield them.  They no longer had the strength to hold up their shields, which would have offered some protection.  Some continued to fight with daggers. Having gone without water for most of the morning however, even those who could still stand were in no condition to defend themselves.  The Persians may have sent in infantry in a final assault or may have used archers, with small groups sent in to finish off the survivors.

The massacre of the Lacedaemonian defenders is something of a curious ending to the battle, particularly as it contrasts with the treatment of the 400 Theban hoplites, who were allowed to surrender.  Xerxes was said to have been so incensed by the Spartan defense that when he found the body of Leonidas among the dead, he had the head cut off and placed on a pole.  The Thebans, who were probably ordered to defend a steep track near the east gate of Thermopylae, had been cut off.  According to Herodotus, when they surrendered they persuaded the Persians that they were on the Persian side, but had only been fighting because Leonidas had forced them to.  The story saved their lives, yet Xerxes had them branded as if they were slaves.

Xerxes' actions more likely were related to the message he wanted to send to the Greeks.  Sparing the Theban hoplites may have been a negotiating tool designed to win over the political leadership of Thebes, which had yet to come over to the Persian side.  The message for the Spartans and the rest of Greece was one of  intimidation - no mercy would be shown to those who defied the Persian Empire.


(49) Herodotus VII, pp. 12-14.
(50) Herodotus VII, pp. 17-18.
(51) Herodotus VII, pp. 89 & 184-186.
(52) Herodotus VII, p. 187.
(53) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 273; Bury & Meiggs, "A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great,: p. 169; J.M. Roberts, "History of the World," Oxford University Press, (New York 1993), p. 148.
(54) Herodotus VII, pp. 34-37.
(55) Herodotus VII, pp. 179-193.
(56) Herodotus VIII, p. 5.
(57) Herodotus VIII, pp. 7-21.
(58) Herodotus VII, pp. 172-174; 201-204.
(59) Herodotus VII, pp. 211-225.
(60) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 165-166; Herodotus VII, p. 148; VI, pp. 76-82;.
(61) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 281.
(62) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp.281, 292-293; Herodotus VII, p. 218; VIII, p. 31.
(63) "Cambridge Ancient History," p.281, 293-297.