Battle of Thermoplyae: A More in-depth Examination

Hey guys,

So I just published my first REAL Youtube video! It’s a digital re-enactment of the Battle of Thermoplyae. Otherwise known as the Last Stand of the 300 or just simply the ‘300’ battle. If you’re not familiar with it just Google search it real quick and you’ll find out all that you need to know, but I’ll sum things up really quickly here.

Oh and HERE is the link.

The Battle of Thermoplyae was an ancient battle fought between the Greeks and the Persians. It took place at Thermoplyae (obviously) which was an obscure coastal pass on the north-eastern edge of Greece facing the ocean. Please take a look here, because this image will probably do a much better job than I can. On one side were the Greek defenders who had managed to form an alliance between themselves. This was not an easy thing to do, but I’ll get more into that later on. Anyway, on the other side were the Persians. The Greeks were led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persians were led by Xerxes I. This battle was part of the war that became known as the “Second Persian invasion of Greece” and took 3 days long. The battle took place sometime in either August or September of 480 B.C.E. The Greek force was estimated at anywhere between 5,000 – 20,000 men; while the Persians had anywhere between 70,000 – 2,500,000 men. Obviously these are some widely differing numbers, and I will go over why in a little bit. The Greeks main objective was to fortify an old defensive structure at the ‘Hot Gates’ of Thermoplyae (it was actually just an old wall), and to defend it and disallow ANY Persians troops from going further. The Persians primary objective was obviously the opposite of this, which was to simply go past Thermoplyae and assault the rest of Greece. The battle resulted in a victory for the Persians, however, both ancient and modern historians, philosophers, and military experts have used the courage, strategy, tactics, and defiance of the Greeks as an example of patriotism, military training, and entertainment even (go watch 300, it’s a good movie). The battle is most notable for the last act which is when 300 Spartan warriors (and actually a few of their allies) stood their ground and fought to the death against an overwhelming horde of Persian troops.

OK now that you have a basic idea of what happened allow to me to explain what the rest of this post will be about.

I have 3 main goals for this post: 1) to go over some background information about the battle and what led up to it that I wasn’t able to cover in my video, 2) point out some common misconceptions about the battle, and finally 3) give a more in-depth analysis of the battle tactics and other relevant MILITARY information that just couldn’t be explained in the video. Now let’s get started.

So what led up to Thermoplyae was actually a REALLY long series of events and pent-up anger/tension between Greece and Persia. As I mentioned earlier this battle was a part of the SECOND Persian Invasion of Greece. Therefore, there must’ve been a FIRST Persian Invasion of Greece, and that’s where I’ll get started.

In a nutshell, the First Persian Invasion of Greece took place about 20 years earlier from 492 – 490 B.C.E. It happened because the Athenians had supported an Ionian rebellion against the Persians. The Ionians were more-or-less Greeks (think Irish vs. Scottish) who lived on the western edge of Anatolia (Turkey). They didn’t really like being ruled by the Persians and so they fought a war for their independence. A war which Athens and some other Greeks supported and helped them with. Unfortunately, for the Greeks they ended up losing the war, and thus incurred the wrath of the Persians. So in turn, Darius the Persian Emperor at the time decided that he’d go ahead and invade all of Greece both as an act of vengeance and because he saw an opportunity to expand control of his empire. Fast forward 2 years and Darius and the Persians are spectacularly defeated by the Greeks in the Battle of Marathon via an ingenious use of military tactics and strategy. And that’s basically the jist of it. Please note that this whole series of events is way more complicated than what I just wrote, but for the purposes of this post I won’t go in-depth further, although I will say that I’m seriously considering making a ‘Battle of Marathon’ video next.

Anyway moving on, the Persians never quite forgot about that whole Marathon/First Invasion thing, so they held onto a grudge which eventually ended up turning into the Second invasion. This second invasion was 1 part a revenge mission, 1 part another attempt at extending Persian dominance into Greece, and 1 part Xerxes, who was the son of Darius, attempting to prove himself and honor his father’s memory. Now in order for Xerxes to successfully invade Greece he knew he had to do it by land. Darius had tried an amphibious assault which led to the disaster at Marathon, and thus Xerxes knew that if he tried to sail a massive army onto an equally massive navy westward across the Mediterranean, he’d probably fail. Instead, Xerxes decides to head up across Turkey, cross at the Hellespont (which is a tiny little crossing at the northwestern edge of Turkey), and then proceed to march across the eastern/northeastern part of Greece/Thrace/Macedon to get to Athens and the rest of the major Greek cities. You know what, this picture shows things better. And here’s where we get to Thermoplyae.

Now here’s where things get really interesting for our friend Xerxes. See, in order for Xerxes to get to Greece the way he planned, he would HAVE to go through Thermoplyae. And Thermoplyae, as you all saw in that picture. Is a teeny-tiny, little thin pass. On the southern side was a huge cliff and on the northern side was the ocean. Obviously, you’re not going to go across those two parts leading a massive army. And on top of that, the pass was basically only wide enough for one or two full-sized chariots to pass through at the same time, kind of like a really crappy alleyway. Well, all this means that the Greeks knew that this was going to have to be the part where they attempt to hold off the Persians. And thus we have the reason as to why these 2 armies choose to fight at Thermoplyae and not in some random bumble-frickin’ plains in the middle of nowhere.

So now that you’ve all gotten at least a rudimentary understanding of the circumstances that led up to Thermoplyae, let me go over some of the common misconceptions and other stupid stuff that got stuck in your head over the years.

Misconception #1: There were ONLY 300 Spartans fighting against a totally gigantically, epic, terrifying army of Persians!

This is false, plain and simple. In reality, there were multiple contingents of Greek forces sent from pretty much every city-state there was, not just Sparta. It kind of makes sense for all the Greeks to send troops to defend themselves since Xerxes ain’t going to care once he gets to Greece, as far as he’s concerned a Greek is a Greek and it’s as simple as that. Now multiple historians have placed various numbers on the Greek army. Herodotus said 5,200, Diodorus put the number at 7,400, while Pausanias had it at 11,200. But modern estimates give a number of roughly 20,000 or so. Whichever number you pick just know that the real life army was not a small-unit standing by itself against the full might of an empire. And this leads me to my second point.

Misconception #2: There were, like, totally, like a BAJILLION-FRICKIN’ MILLION Persians BRO!

This mistake is arguably worse for the simple fact that it’s logically unsound. OK think about it for a second. There’s no way the Persian army was numbered anywhere near a million. Herodotus gives us 2,500,000 because he wanted it to seem like the Greeks were totally badass mofos who whooped some ass. So clearly he’s biased and his number is obviously false. Now let’s make a real-life comparison. The United States military is roughly about 2,000,000 right now. That’s including all reserves, guardsmen, and cadets at the service academy etc. But this is still inaccurate as this does not imply that a U.S. invasion force would take ALL of our military to another country. That’s retarded! Well the same principle would apply to Xerxes and the Persians. Even if he had a 2,500,000 military, he still wouldn’t take EVERY LAST MAN on an invasion to another country. Who would stick around to protect his empire from rebellions, possible outside enemies, and just simply patrolling the bases/general logistical duties. By the way, none of what I said even matters when you consider that population-wise it’s impossible for the Persians to have mustered that many troops. Think about it, our planet right now is 7,000,000,000 with about 300,000,000 in America from which we can draw upon. This is a pretty big pool of military-age people as potential candidates for military service. Well, we have these ridiculous numbers because of things like modern medicine and the fact that we’ve had thousands of years to grow our population. But the population of ancient Persia could only have been a fraction of the size of what we have now meaning that Xerxes total number of potential candidates was a LOT smaller. In fact, there’s a good chance that the there probably wasn’t even 300,000,000 people in the entire world at that time let alone in Persia. All this means that any given society’s military, would LOGICALLY have to be smaller than what we have now. Don’t believe me, just Google it because I’m tired of sharing links. Anyway, I feel like this is enough for this one minor detail, now onto more stuff.

Misconception #3: The Spartans fought alone and by themselves in the end.

FALSE! This is perhaps, the most well-known mistake about this battle. At the end of the battle when the Greeks realized that the Persians had outflanked them and were about to sneak up on their rear, Leonidas did NOT stand alone with just his 300 Spartans. In fact, the video even goes over this. He had the Thespians and the Thebans to help him. Now this part of the battle is hotly debated. Mostly, because no one knows what really happened. See the defenders who made that last stand died, and obviously couldn’t leave behind anything that would give us a clear image of what happened and how they decided who was going to stay or leave. They died! The Greeks that retreated also, aren’t a reliable source because we can’t be sure that they’re accounts aren’t all full of crap. I mean come on, if they had turned tail and ran like cowards you think they’re going to admit it, plus some of them most likely retreated so fast that they didn’t stick around to hear what Leonidas final battle-plans were. This means that we can’t count on the other Greeks recollections of what supposedly happened near the end. And for the same reason the Persians account isn’t reliable either. The Persians, in addition, to being the enemies of the Greeks and therefore having no reason to praise those who killed them, also weren’t there at Leonidas final counsel. So then what the hell happened? Well here’s what we do know. We know that Leonidas stayed and fought to the death with 300 Spartans. We also know that there were 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans who stayed behind as well. Finally, we know that near the very end, the remaining Thebans actually surrendered to the Persians, thus making only the Spartans and the Thespians to be the ones who actually made a last valiant stand against the Persians. Now I know this is starting to drag on, but there are few really interesting things that I feel you should know about this last part of the battle. First, it appears that some of the Greeks choose to prematurely withdraw without orders. In layman’s terms, they got scared and ran at the first sign of danger, but this hasn’t been proven yet. However, it seems to be the case that Leonidas did indeed order at least some of the Greeks to retreat, and it seems likely that he would’ve ordered the bulk of the Greek army to withdraw anyway but, it’s also obvious that Leonidas was committed to staying and fighting to the bitter end. This is because earlier, Leonidas had received a prophecy from an oracle saying that a Greek hero would sacrifice himself for his people and be forever remembered. And Leonidas being the religious, faithful man he was, probably was determined to carry out this prophecy. But historians have agreed on the fact that Leonidas would probably not have ordered 1,500 other men to die along with him. He was first and foremost a tactician and knew that sacrificing that many men for a mission that would’ve ended in their deaths would’ve been a huge waste of resources. The current leading theory is that once Leonidas decided to stay, his 300 Spartans decided to stay as well, regardless of what their orders may have been. They were not about to let their king die alone. Then, the Thespians probably also, resolved themselves to die with honor along with the Spartans because their honor code forbid them to leave a comrade behind. Finally, we have the Thebans, and once again there is controversy here. No one is exactly sure why the Thebans stayed. Some have theorized that the Thebans were actually hostages, because Thebes was suspected to have been a Persian sympathizer. And thus the rest of the Greeks probably forced Thebes to give them soldiers as an insurance policy for maintaining their loyalty. However, this doesn’t make sense for Leonidas to order the Thebans to stay. If they were hostages, why would you throw them away like that. Once they’re dead Thebes has no reason to remain loyal. In fact, they have every reason to jump ship and join the Persians once Xerxes came by. Instead, the most likely scenario is that the Thebans who came to Thermoplyae were outcasts. These were the Thebans who DIDN’T want to join the Persians. So they left their own people to fight with the rest of the Greeks. They probably figured that if they put all their eggs in one basket, they can stop the Persians from advancing further into Greece. Then once they won the war, they could go home to Thebes and return as heroes saying “I told you so” to the rest of their city. Well, their plan backfired and when they figured that out, they also realized that they had nowhere else left to go. If they run with the other Greeks, they would only be running to the middle of nowhere. They can’t go back to Thebes that’s for sure, and they also can’t seek asylum with the other City-States as all of them had fled the cities. So in an act of desperation the Thebans decided to just simply face the music and fight (I know I just said that the Thebans, surrendered, I’ll get to this later). This all leads to one conclusion. That the Spartans, Thespians, and the Thebans stayed to fight as an act of self-sacrifice so that they’re allies can retreat, unmolested, and live to fight another day.

Wow, that was really long!

Now onto my last section.

With this last section I’d like to go over some of the military stuff about the battle such as why the Greeks performed so well against the Persians among others. Alright so the number one thing that most people think about when it comes to this battle is just how awesomely badass the Spartans were. Well that’s certainly true that they were a warrior society and that each Spartan was undoubtedly one of the best warriors of all time, man for man, it gives a misleading impression about them and this battle. The common opinion, that the Spartans could totally like take on like 100 dudes at once is definitely false. But that is one of the key contributing factors as to why they did so well against the Persians especially at the end, but this does nothing to explain why the Greek force, overall, did so well against the Persians. That is actually a very simple explanation.

It’s because of their weapons, armor, and gear. See the Greeks were heavy pike infantry. They wore somewhere within the range of 60 – 100 lbs of gear on them into battle. They had bronze shields, helmets, breastplates, boots/greaves, and maybe gauntlets/forearm protectors. Basically, the only part of them that wasn’t covered in thick armor were their upper legs which were easily protected by that big, ole’ shield anyway. Then they had these huge pikes. Like 15 – 20 ft. pikes which they used very efficiently, and lastly, they fought in the Phalanx formation. It looked like this. The picture describes it better than words, but to sum it up. A Hoplite Phalanx is when you take a group of men. Line them up in rows and columns, PERFECTLY, and then arm them with those long pikes and armor. When you do it right. The result is that there are rows upon rows of sharp, heavy spears that no attacker can get through. And even if you did, you would still have to deal with the man in full armor who could simply drop his pike and pull out his sword and engage you one-on-one with the benefit that he doesn’t have to worry about his flanks while you do since you are most likely the one guy in your unit that made it through the lines of spears. Obviously, this arrangement would be tough even for the most battle-hardened, well-armed, well-trained, well-organized, and well-disciplined troops. And while the Persians actually were renowned warriors, they had a fatal weakness when it comes to fighting the Greeks. They were from Persia, a hot place to say the least. This meant that they were almost exclusively light infantry. They wore little to no armor at all, and what armor and defensive equipment they had was usually wood, cloth, leather, or maybe mail of some kind. These types of protection are COMPLETELY ineffective against those sharp, heavy pikes of the Greeks. If anything, they were a liability actually since they slowed down and tired out their wearers. Now you consider that the Persians also only used light weapons like short spears or one-handed swords and that meant that even if the Persians managed to get the Greeks to engage them in close-quarters combat, they were still at a natural disadvantage against a man who could simply crouch to one kneed and raise his shield to defend himself, then quickly shank you from below the waist as a counter attack. If this still doesn’t make sense to you, please go watch my video again and focus on the parts where I show the Phalanxes’ basically owning the Persians. That should clarify things.

So you’re probably wondering if there are any weaknesses to the Phalanx. Well the simple answer is…yes, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. See the weaknesses of the Phalanx formation were all negated by the situation at hand in Thermoplyae. First let me tell you what those weaknesses are though. OK the big one is that a Phalanx is TOTALLY vulnerable to any kind of flanking maneuver. If you attack a Phalanx from the sides or rear, then those guys are SCREWED big time. The nature of the Phalanx is such that every last man has his attention focused 100% to the front. So if anything comes from anywhere else, they’ll be REALLY surprised and likely panic and break rank and run. Even if that doesn’t happen, any attackers could easily cut down the men that stand their ground because the men in a Phalanx don’t have the flexibility to respond fast enough to a surprise close-quarters attack. That’s all dandy and fine, but this isn’t the only weakness of a Phalanx. A Phalanx is also vulnerable to missile attacks. Projectiles do well against men in a Phalanx because they are squeezed together tightly and don’t have the means to move quickly unless they disperse, in which case they rendered their entire formation useless. Another weakness is that a Phalanx is slow and doesn’t do well when navigating rough terrain like a steep incline or anywhere that’s rocky/muddy. Finally, the last weakness of a Phalanx is also their greatest strength. The discipline of it’s men. If you have a core of well-trained and well-disciplined men, a Phalanx is like an immovable object. But if your men lose their discipline and either run at the first sign of trouble or go into a blood-rage and charge at the first sign of victory then you are in BIG trouble. If a Phalanx breaks rank you might as well have just sent your men to their deaths, because their gear and load-out were designed to be used as 1 single, unified block of men slowly marching to victory. Troops in a Phalanx are not equipped properly to fight by themselves in duel style fighting, plus the Greeks didn’t really train their troops to fight like this anyway. But the good news for the Spartans and their allies at Thermoplyae is that none of these matter.

They didn’t matter because the Hot Gates of Thermoplyae itself negated virtually all of these weaknesses. For one, the pass was so narrow that there was no way for the Persians to outflank their enemies. The Greeks also didn’t have to move their formations around too much. They were the defenders after all, and they were defending a wall. You don’t need to negotiate rough terrain or make hasty battlefield movements if your only objective is to stand there and prevent someone ELSE from moving too much. Also, the Spartans were EXTREMELY well-disciplined men, thus ruling out lack of discipline as a weakness. Additionally, they’re leadership inspired the other Greeks to stay motivated as well during the heat of battle. So all that leaves is the question of the archers. Why didn’t the Persian archers massacre the Greeks?

The simple answer is that, once again, the Persians were ill-equipped against the Spartans. This goes back to the whole coming from a hot climate thing and being light warriors. The archers were no exception. Their bows and arrows were made to penetrate a man wearing thin leather or mail armor, not thick bronze plate. They had short-bows for this. Meaning that the arrows simply didn’t have the power or force to do any real damage against the Greeks. Also, the Spartans sort of sat there and sucked it up as they were taking the arrows. Because they’re Spartans!

So now that we’ve gone over the tactical stuff, let’s do a quick fly-over of the bigger picture.

When you consider the bigger picture, you’ll see why Thermoplyae was an even smarter choice for the Greeks. Remember that Xerxes HAD to cross at Thermoplyae, and that this was his only way of getting to Greece. At least the only way that wouldn’t take him like years going around a mountain likely losing a sizable portion of his army in the process. But that’s not the whole story. Here’s the deal when you’re an invading army. You’re the one who has to maintain supply lines, and Xerxes and the Persians were no exception to this rule. Only thing for him was that his army was so damn massive and so far from home that his supply lines were inadequate for his army. They needed more than what could be delivered from home. So Xerxes resorted to what any commander would, in a similar situation, he basically looted and stole EVERYTHING from the surrounding lands. Well, this leads to one major problem at Thermoplyae. There wasn’t nearly enough food and supplies in that region of Greece to support Xerxes’ massive army. Meaning that the Persians had no choice but to keep moving, or else they’ll starve to death. This doesn’t even get into the problem of desertion, morale issues, or possible mutiny long before his men would’ve keeled over from lack of munchies. Well, the Greeks knew all this. So their strategy was to simply hold off the Persians until they either starved to death, or the more likely outcome of Xerxes simply losing control of his army and then being forced to retreat anyway. And that was the real beauty of Thermoplyae, that Leonidas only had to hold the pass long enough until the Persians retreated, A.K.A. gave up. And there you have it, a simple explanation for how the Persians would’ve lost if things had just gone a little differently.

Now before I finish this uber-long post allow me to hit upon something else.

This post is about the real-life Thermoplyae. The tactics, strategy, background information, and other relevant facts that I thought were important. But there’s still more I have to write about. I’d like to put up another post about the process of making the video itself. The challenges and rewards it brought. So that others who have similar aspirations might learn from some of the mistakes I made. This will also be a chance for me to explain away some of the inaccuracies I’ve made in my video that I’m sure some of you nit-pickers and history buffs saw right away. For example, how come I didn’t really show Hoplite Phalanxes fighting in the video and opted instead to just put in footage of regular spearmen. Well, that was a judgment call on my part. The Spartan spear infantry in the game that I used to capture all my footage looked a whole lot cooler and more intimidating than the pike phalanxes. I figured that I would simply opt for the more badass guys and then show a few scenes with pikes and then explain things away in blog posts like these.

Anyway, I’ll go over more stuff in the next post which will be coming shortly, but until then please  watch the video if you haven’t. Then let me know what you guys think. If anyone has any comments, suggestions, advice, or complaints you can message me on here or through the Steam group for which there is a link on my channel. And lastly, please remember that if you liked what you saw then please like, comment, follow, subscribe, and share! Until next time.

Best Regards,

TW1

P.S. If there is anything that you guys thought I missed, go ahead and message me, and I’ll see if I can get to it. Also, the main (actually it was the only) source that I used was Wikipedia. I realize that it’s technically not the most trusted source and I shouldn’t be citing it, but or a Youtube video, I believe it’s more than enough. If I see an opportunity to cite other sources I will, but even so I will NOT be using MLA or APA format. I’ve NEVER liked doing that, and it’s completely unnecessary and inappropriate outside of an academic or professional context. That being said, take care guys!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s