August 480 BC: Leonidas’ Brave 300 Fought the Battle of Thermopylae

Battle-of-ThermopylaeThe battle of Thermopylae and the valiant fight of 300 intrepid Spartans under the guidance of warrior King Leonidas against 10,000 Persian elite soldiers is one of the greatest moments of Ancient Greece’s history and provided great tales of bravery and patriotism for generations to come.

Most historians argue that the famous battle took place on August, 480 BC. Thermopylae (hot gates in English) was a pass of great strategic importance for those travelling south from Thessaly into central Greece. This is where the 7,100 men of the allied Greek forces were waiting.

The quarter-million strong Persian imperial army of King Xerxes was advancing in central Greece with the aim to reach Athens and take over the city. Xerxes was certain that conquering Greece would be easy, given the sheer number of his army. Yet, they camped for five days at Anthela, near Thermopylae, because they had no idea how many soldiers (hoplites in Greek) were waiting on the other side of the pass. They were also waiting for the Persian fleet that had been damaged and delayed by bad weather off the coast of Magnesia.

When the Persian army attacked, the battle went entirely according to the plan of the Greeks at first. The narrowness of the pass at the middle gate negated the advantage of numbers for the imperial troops. Moreover, the Greek hoplites were better equipped, with long thrusting spears, heavy bronze and wood shields, and body armors. The Persians had shorter spears, wicker shields, and thick-woven linen corselets. For two days the Spartans held off lesser elements of the imperial army: Medes and Cissians were succeeded by the elite troops, the Immortals, to little avail.

But the tide turned when a local man, Ephialtes of Trachis, offered, in exchange of money and favors, to show the Persians a way around the back of the defending force, the Anopaia path, a way to get past the mountain and attack the Greeks from behind. Xerxes agreed, sending what was left of his 10,000 “Immortals” off at dusk.

According to Herodotus, Leonidas had been aware from the beginning of the existence of the Anopaia path. He had stationed 1,000 Phokians there to stop any encircling movement. However, the Phokians were taken by surprise and put up little resistance. But word got through to Leonidas that the position had been outflanked, and there seems to have been time to abandon the position and withdraw to the south before the Immortals arrived.

Yet, Leonidas refused to retreat. He let everyone else leave and kept his 300 Spartans to battle the Persians. There have been many interpretations of his decision to stay and fight until death. Herodotus represents it as an act of deliberate self-sacrifice carried out in accordance with an oracle, which had said that the death of a Spartan king would save Sparta from destruction. Other historians took the military approach and argued that Leonidas wanted to give the allied contingents time to get away.

Nevertheless, the Battle of Thermopylae and the heroism of Leonidas and his brave hoplites have written one of the most brilliant pages of Greece’s rich history.

As for Ephialtes, the greedy traitor, his name was used later in the modern Greek language to mean “nightmare.”


  1. Ephialtes was not local by birth. That aside, this battle showed the true mettle of Hellenes – we never surrender. We fight hard. We strategise… But I must make a complaint. When we visited a few years ago we went there with a tour. Because – and I so state having watched and listened over the four days of our tour) – there was no business to offer bribes or gifts to the tour operator, she barely said a word about the battle etc on the buys and on site limited us to a pathetic 10 minutes. The place of Thermopylae in Hellenic history and thus in world history is pivotal. Had the enemy won, Hellas would have been totally over run and destroyed. The golden age would have stopped and the world today would be the far far poorer

  2. Why is it that the Thespians,700 strong are almost never mentioned at this battle.
    Under Demophilos their leader they also gave their lives to the last man.
    It also reminds me of the Battle of Plataia, when 1000 Plataians are rarely mentioned.
    They also in charge of the left wing dared to face the Medes.

  3. In Marathon the grave site of the Plataeans is well preserved next to a beautiful archaeological museum donated by a Greek shipping family. Unlike the Athenians who cremated their dead, the Plataeans buried theirs in a small mound. One boy was buried in a large amphora and a fallen leaders name can be seen hastily carved on a headstone. If you happen to be in Marathon be sure to see this museum. It covers local history from 5000 BC all the way to WW2 when Italians positioned an artillery battery on top of a pre-Mycenaean burial mound.