SCHAEFFER: The Greco-Persian Wars, Part Three: Forlorn Stands At The Fiery Gate And Artemisium

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Xerxes’ first series of attacks against the Greeks holding the narrow pass at Thermopylae met with staggering losses. The lightly armored Medes and Cissians, who were trained for open plains warfare of maneuver and thus wore little armor and carried light whicker shields, slammed again and again into solid phalanxes of bronzed-clad and heavily-armored Greek hoplites who rotated by city-state into position on the front line as dictated by their Spartan commander. In these tight confines Xerxes’ infantrymen were no match for men in intimidating Corinthian helmets that protected the cheeks, ears, and nose, bronze linothorax breastplates for the torso, grieves covering the calves, and wielding the one meter in diameter interlocking Aspis. The Greeks fought with unbridled ferocity from the cover of their shield walls, cleaving, spearing, and hacking apart waves of attackers, while heaps of enemy dead piled up before them. Despite physical exhaustion, the phalanx held. When the time was right Leonidas personally led his Spartans into the melee, his men moving forward into the line as the other Greeks retired and walked or crawled their way to the rear staging area at the wall. The Spartans held firm and presented a solid line of shield and spear, impaling their now disorganized foes with their nine-foot long dory, and then when the shafts broke, switching to slice and jab with their short xiphos swords.

Toward the end of the first day’s combat, Xerxes had had enough and sent in his best troops, his personal guard. These men, whose numbers always remained at 10,000 as losses were instantly replaced, prompting the Greeks to call them “Immortals”, consisted of the relatives of Persian aristocrats, even Xerxes’ own kin, and were considered the cream of his army. But they too were cut down by the Spartan-led hoplites, and it is said that several times Xerxes leapt from his throne perched up on the hills overlooking the battlefield in fits of rage and even panic as he watched his most elite troops being cut down by the hundreds. Who were these Greeks, and in particular the Spartans, conspicuous in their scarlet tunics. For his part Leonidas’ had no questions as to who were his opponents and assessed the conscripted armies of the Persian god-king thusly: “Xerxes has brought many men, but few warriors.”


**[Author’s note: Although one often associates the Greek letter Lambda “Λ” with the Spartan shield, which represented their home province, or city-state, of Lacedaemon, most historians believe this emblem was not adopted until decades later.]**


Anyone with a military eye would look at the Spartan position and see the glaring weakness. Yes, they controlled the narrow pass, but why couldn’t Xerxes, with a fleet of 1,100 warships, simply land behind Leonidas’ men and cut them off? Themistocles, the visionary behind the combined land-sea Greek defense, had anticipated this. Protecting the Greek infantry from being outflanked by sea was the Greek navy of some 270 mostly Athenian warships called triremes positioned to block the narrow strait of Artemisium along the island of Euboea, through which enemy ships would have to navigate to reach Thermopylae. As it had been decided that the professional Spartans would lead the expedition to the hot gates, the fleet was nominally headed by the Spartan admiral Eurybiades, who no doubt lacked the Athenians’ understanding of naval warfare. But this was not to be a sea battle of maneuver. The fleet’s job was simply to hold the line and not retreat. And as historian Anton Powell offers, “If there was one thing Spartans were good at it was not running away.”


Still, it would be the far more experienced seaman Themistocles who would be in actual command and dictate the aggressive tactics that would hold at bay a Persian fleet that out-numbered his own five-to-one. Despite the odds, he surprised his Persian counterpart, the Egyptian naval commander Achaemenes, by launching an attack against the much larger enemy. But he was smart to make his attack late in the day, insuring the battle would be short. Having inflicted the damage to the Persian fleet that the advantage of surprise allowed, night fell before any cohesive counter-attack could be launched and the Athenian navy withdrew back to its blocking position in the strait, having inflicted heavy losses and further adding fuel to Xerxes mounting rage.

In an attempt to circle around Themistocles fleet bottling up the Artemisium Strait, Achaemenes sent 200 of his ships on a sweeping voyage around the island of Euboea to fall upon the Spartan rear. But his triremes would be caught in a violent storm out in open water and sent to the bottom with all hands. It must have seemed to the Greeks by this time that the gods were, indeed, on their side. But, the gods can be fickle, and the fates of men often balanced on the knife-edge, as Leonidas would discover soon enough.


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:

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