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Of all the ancient battles in the Greek world, none are as famous as the last stand of the 300 Spartans against the Persian force at the Battle of Thermopylae. Here are 13 amazing facts about this legendary battle.
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Without further ado, here are 13 amazing facts about the Battle of Thermopylae.
It Was Not Just 300 Spartans, But A Force Of 7,000 Greeks
The first fact about the Battle of Thermopylae was that it was more than just 300 Spartan soldiers. Historians and archeologists know that there were at least 7,000 soldiers from all over Greece defending the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae.
Besides the soldiers from Sparta there were helot slaves and Hoplites from Thespian and Thebes. This created a small army of around 7,000 Greek soldiers.
Much of what we know about the Battle of Thermopylae comes from the ancient historian Herodotus who himself was writing about 20 years after the battle. If you’re interested you can read his account by clicking here.
The Greek Force Was Lead By Spartan King Leonidas Who Won The Right To Rule Through Competition
Another amazing fact about the Battle of Thermopylae is that the leader of the Greek force was a Spartan king named Leonidas who won the right to rule Sparta from a competition with his brother.
Leonidas had two older brothers. In Spartan society the noble born Spartan men would compete to see who had the right to rule over Sparta. This process of competition is unique to Spartan society and is called the agoge. We don’t know much but it appears that Leonidas won the right to rule from his brother through competition.
We know about this fact because of a passing mention by Plutarch who writes on the moral character of great leaders in society. Plutarch himself is a biased source but he did have access to documents which no longer survive. Here is an English copy.
Xerxes, The Leader Of The Persian Military Had A Similar Upbringing To Leonidas
Much of history paints Xerxes as a bad commander and leader who was responsible for a barbaric invasion of ancient Greece. Modern historians have uncovered various clay tablets which demonstrate that Xerxes himself was a decent leader.
What is interesting however is that Xerxes and Leonidas were more alike than people want to realize. Both the kings were taught to hunt and fight from an early age. Much like Spartan citizens Persian nobles were taught to never be afraid and competed in similar physical events to the Spartan agoge.
Had Leonidas and Xerxes sat down they might have become good friends. However, history demonstrates this was not the case.
The Persian Force Numbered Between 150,000-3,000,000 While The Greeks Only Numbered Around 7,000
One of the most amazing facts about the Battle of Thermopylae is that the Greek force was extremely outnumbered.
Ancient historians place the number of Persian troops at around 3 million while modern historians give a more conservative number of around 150,000. Regardless of the number the Greek force was extremely outnumbered.
If you were at the Battle of Thermopylae as a Greek you would have seen a sea of Persian soldiers advancing towards your position. This would have been extremely demoralizing and it’s amazing that the soldiers held their ground.
The Battle of Thermopylae Was A Persian Response To The Battle Of Marathon 10 Years Earlier
The Battle of Thermopylae was not Persia’s first time invading Greece. For nearly 20 years before Persia had been engaged in a proxy war across the Aegean sea with Greek city states such as Athens.
In 490 BC, 10 years before Thermopylae, Persia would send a massive army to invade Greece. This Persian army numbered in the 150,000 and was defeated by an Athenian army of around 11,000 men.
As such the Greek had a history of successfully fighting a massively larger Persian force.
It Was Not Spartans Who Picked The Mountain Pass Of Thermopylae To Fight In
Most Hollywood movies get this fact wrong. Leonidas was not the one who picked the battlefield to defend against Xerxes’s army.
The Athenian tactician Themistocles came up with the idea of positing a Greek army in the narrow pass of Thermopylae. King Leonidas agreed with the idea and would take charge of the land defense with his Spartan soldiers at the front.
The Battle of Thermopylae Also Had A Naval Battle At The Straits of Artemisium
While Leonidas would head the Greek army and defend the pass, the Athenian fleet of 271 ships would engage the Persian fleet around the Greek coast.
This created a two-prong defense for the Greeks. The Spartans would defend the land while the Athenians defended the sea. Initially this proved to be a massive success. Much of the Persian fleet would be destroyed in a combination of bad storms and engagements with the faster moving Athenian fleet.
The Outnumbered Greeks At Thermopylae Fought Off The Persian Army For 3 Days
This is one the most amazing facts about the Battle of Thermopylae. The allied Greek force successfully held back the Persian army for around 3 days of solid fighting.
This was not a series of small engagements either. Archeological evidence has demonstrated that the Greek force fought for 3 days straight. This means that there was a constant battle where the Persian force could not break through the Greek line.
Initially Xerxes Wanted To Take The Greeks Prisoner Instead Of Fighting
Xerxes delayed fighting the Greeks for 5 days after his arrival at the Battle of Thermopylae. Historians are not sure why Xerxes delayed the battle but on the fifth day Xerxes would send 10,000 soldiers to take the Greeks as prisoners.
This did not work and nearly all of the 10,000 troops sent to defeat the Greeks became casualties. This would be the last time that Xerxes would attempt to take the Greeks as prisoners.
On The First Day Of Fighting The Greeks Had Several Astonishing Victories
During the first day of fighting at the Battle of Thermopylae the Greeks only lost a handful of men while defeating around 20,000 Persian soldiers.
Of these 20,000 Persian soldiers were about 10,000 elite Persian shock troops called the Immortals. Historians have little information regarding this elite group of Persian infantry soldiers but they fared no better than the previous 10,000 sent against the Greeks.
On The Second Day Xerxes Sent More Soldiers
Historians have reported that Xerxes was furious that his army had failed to capture the Greek soldiers on the first day. Ancient historians provide accounts that Xerxes would jump up and own in anger from his throne overlooking the battle.
Xerxes believed that the Greeks by now would be tired and wounded from the nonstop fighting. As such he ordered another advance by the Persian infantry. This however, was a mistake and the Greeks successfully defended the pass once again.
Xerxes Defeated The Greeks By Learning About A Mountain Pass Behind Them
On the second day of battle Xerxes would receive word that a Greek farmer was willing to tell him how to flank around the Spartans for wealth.
In exchange for gold and luxury the Greek farmer Ephialtes would guide a Persian force on an old goat herder path to outflank the Greeks. To this day the name of Ephialtes in Greece is a negative term for a traitor or nightmare to society.
On The Third Day Of Fighting Leonidas Would Stay Behind To Cover The Retreat Of The Greek Soldiers
During the night of the second day the Persians would begin to flank the Greek soldiers. Leonidas in response would give his Greek army the choice to either stay and defend the pass or retreat.
Historians have argued why Leonidas chose to stay behind and defend the pass. Recently a popular theory has emerged that Leonidas realized that if the entire Greek force retreated then the Persian cavalry would be able to easily chase them down.
As such Leonidas looked for volunteers to stay behind and fight to give the Greeks time to retreat from the pass.
There you have it, an entire article on the 13 amazing facts of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Today this battle marks one of the most famous last stands in the history of western warfare. Although the history surrounding this battle has been glamorized by recent movies and books it still remains one of the most famous cultural impacts in history.
Here at The History Ace I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing around the internet.