Themistocles sensed the urgency and was busy entreating the other Greek city-states, many of whom were at war with Athens and each other, to set aside their differences and band together to face this foreign, existential threat. Athens had done the fighting at Marathon, he argued, while other cities (the Spartans in particular) were conspicuously absent. This time Greece had to make a united effort which must include the states on the Peloponnese. In 480 BC, at a conference in the city of Corinth, the Hellenic Alliance was formed. King Leonidas of Sparta, especially, recognized the threat to all of Greece. Although Sparta could not release its army for battle until the conclusion of the festival of Carneia for fear of offending the gods, Leonidas would lead his personal bodyguard, 300 hand-picked hoplites, all of whom had sons to carry on their bloodline, north to confront the approaching Persians.
Although it has gone down in common lore as the story of a mere 300 who bravely confronted an army of 250,000, there were, in fact, roughly 6,000 Greeks (my average of several estimates) who marched to war under Leonidas’ overall command. They included 900 Spartan Perioeci (non-citizen squires and attendants), 1,000 Arcadians, 1,000 Phocians, 700 Thespians, 500 Mantineans, 500 Tageans, 400 Corinthians, 400 Thebians, and others. The Spartan king, venerated as both a fierce warrior and, at roughly sixty years of age, the most experienced soldier in all Hellas, was the expedition’s natural leader as he commanded the finest infantry in Greece. His contingent was just a vanguard of what was to be a much larger Spartan force that would be mobilized once Carneia was concluded. As it was also the Olympiad, the same was the case for the others who marched north.
The only barrier to the prize of Attica and with it its defiant city-state, Athens, and then eventually all of Greece was the narrow pass at the hot springs of Thermopylae, literally “Fiery Gates," on the Aegean coast 85 miles to the north; any army moving along the shore as it needed to coordinate with its navy would have to pass through this narrow corridor on its way south. Here, where numbers mattered little in such tight confines, and cavalry was unusable, the 6,000 Greeks would rebuild an ancient wall stretching from the sheer face of Mount Koliodromos on their left to the cliffs above the sea on the right and attempt to make a stand, holding back the Persians to buy time for the full weight of Greece’s armies to assemble. It was a daunting mission. But the Hellenic army steeled themselves and looked to Leonidas and his Spartans for inspiration. Spartan courage was legendary, and was ingrained in their national character. These 300, acting as the tip of the Greek spear, were no ordinary soldiers. They relished the prospect of combat, as fighting was their raison d'être. It’s said that when a Greek scout breathlessly reported the approaching Persian army was so numerous that a volley of their arrows would blot out the sun, the Spartan platoon commander Dienikes scoffed: “Good! Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
With his army now at the fiery gates of Thermopylae, Xerxes, whose forces had swept through northern Greece with little opposition, could not believe that such a small contingent of impudent soldiers would dare contest his advance; in fact he held off his attack for four days, expecting the Greeks to evacuate. But when one of his scouts reported that the Spartans were preening and combing their long hair and oiling themselves, which, unbeknownst to the Persians, was a sign that they were readying themselves to die in battle, Xerxes’ consternation turned to anger at their perceived glibness in the face of a god-king; he unleashed his columns against the foolhardy Greeks holding the pass.
An inkling of just what kind of determined foe barred his way south was made all too clear when one of the approaching Persians commanded the Greeks to lay down their weapons. Leonidas shouted back: “Come and get them!” Soon afterwards, 5,000 Persian archers let fly a hail of arrows at the defiant hoplites, most likely blocking out the sun as predicted but otherwise having little effect against the Greeks crouched under the protection of their bowl-shaped 15-pound Aspis shields, made of two-inch thick wood (like a cutting board) sheathed in metal. When the archers failed, Xerxes sent in his massed infantry to clear the pass, opening one of the most famous and celebrated battles ever fought.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: