The Spartans and the Battle of Thermopylae


This is where stuff begins to get exciting. In the intro to the Greco-Persian wars we examined the concept of East versus West. We are watching this unfold today from 9/11 although way to Iraq today. But first we need to examine the subjects and battle of the movie “The 300.”

King Leonidas

East versus West

For 2,500 years there has been a “clash of civilizations” between the East and the West. It has been a battle of ideas and beliefs. It began with ancient Greece- the ancestors of Western Democracy and Persian Empire- the ancestors of ISIS, Al Qaeda and the modern Middle East.

History swept to Rome, which is credited for the modern concepts of citizenships and the rule of law. Although Christianity was born in the East it changed by the time it arrived in the West.

Religion was used as a tool by the West to attack the East during the Crusades. This transformed the relationship between the East and West into one of competing religious beliefs. The secular against the sacred, ideas of the new world and modernity against those of old beliefs and ancient customs.

The West seeks to spread democracy, but runs into the secular values of the East. This was why airplanes were flown into buildings in New York City. This is why America invaded Iraq in 2003. This is what happening in today in Iraq with ISIS. How did this begin and why?

The Spartans

The Spartans are a difficult people to understand. They were superb warriors who played a crucial role in protecting Greek democracy, their own society was inward-looking, caste-bound, highly stratified, and unsociable (Cummins, 2009).

A group of villages formed a single city-state city called Sparta in the 8th Century BC. Once they had enough human agricultural resources their strange and disciplined civilization developed.


They were three layers of their society. At the top were Spartiates- they could vote and they made up the officers of the Spartan army. Next were the Perioikoi or “Neighbors”- free men who could not vote marched with the Spartans and acted as NCOs. At the bottom were the Helots, a workforce of farmers and their children.

In Stephen Pressfield’s historical novel “Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae” the story unfolds in flashback. Xeo, the hero, is a Helot a gravely injured Spartan squire who tells the tale of the epic battle.

He tells about the extraordinary discipline of the Spartans. Any infant boys with deformities are left in the hills to die of exposure. At age seven Spartan boys enter a brutal training program. They are starved and beaten so they learn to forage and steal.

This is what waited for the Persians when at the pass at the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae.


The Greeks thought everyone who wasn’t Greek a barbarian. The two cultures were on a collision course.

In 500BC, the Persians invaded some of the Greek city-states in Asia Minor (now Turkey) to discourage Greek colonies from revolting against their Persian overlords. The war lasted six years. It left the Persian King Darius determined to seek revenge on the Greeks.

First Greco-Persian War- Marathon 490BC

The first Persian invasion of Greece happens in 490BC. In Athens the decision is taken to send an army to confront the Persians, rather than concentrate on the defense of the city.

At Marathon 10,000 Greek hoplites confront perhaps 25,000 Persians. The Battle of Marathon took place was fought between the citizens of Athens, aided by Plataea, and a Persian force commanded by Datis and Artaphernes.

The battle was the culmination of the first attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The Greeks perform a double envelopment defeating the Persians.


Persian King Darius dies in 486BC. His son, Xerxes (featured as the “God King” in “The 300”) prepares for battle and his march to Greece (484-480BC). He not only wanted to punish the Greeks for their upstart victory at Marathon, but he also to use Greece as a launching point for a larger push to the west (Cummins, 2009).

For the invasion Xerxes amassed the largest force of men and ships ever assembled, he sets out to conquer Greece. At the same time he sends an army of Carthaginians to overrun Sicily. The plan was to have the two forces open the gates to wealth and control the western Mediterranean.

Second Greco-Persian War- Battle of Thermopylae

“The Histories” by Herodotus is the primary text for the Persian invasion of Greece 500-449BC. It tells the story of one of the famous last stands in history- the Battle of Thermopylae (480BC).

The movie “The 300” is based on this battle. It is an overdone epic, but it does a great job of detailing the warrior culture of Sparta. The three day battle of Thermopylae was a critical contest in Xerxes’ massive invasion of Greece (Bradford, 1980).

Almost the only way for Xerxes’ army to reach central Greece was via a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea, at a place called Thermopylae, meaning “hot gates,” for its sulfurous springs (Cummins, 2009). Leonidas and his band of three hundred Spartans and eight thousand other Greeks arrive ahead of the Persians.

The Battle

With the roar of the sea in the background and the rotten egg smell of the sulfur springs the Spartans prepared for battle. Leonidas-whose name means “lion-like” and was rumored to be descended from Hercules- took command.

He directed the defense and barked orders with the urgency of both anger and desperation. He knew the Persian war machine was coming. The battle would make them legends.

On the first day the Spartans spitted the Persians on spears and hacked them down with swords. They baited the Persians forward by pretending to fall back only drawing the Persians further into the pass before falling them in mass.

On the second day Leonidas was faced with a decision to turn back and leave the pass to Xerxes or to die with honor. He sent back his entire army except his 300 Spartans, 900 Helots, and 400 Thebans who choose to stay (Cummins, 2009). His men combed their long hair, sharpened their swords and prepared for glory.

On the third day Leonidas fell and a fierce struggle began over his body. The Greek force drove off the enemy four times, killing numerous noble Persians, including two half-brothers of Xerxes (Cummins, 2009).

Surrounded on a small hilltop the Greeks made their last stand. “In this place,” writes Herodotus, “they defended themselves to the last, with their swords, if they still had them, and if not, even with their hands and teeth,”

map of the battle of Thermopylae

Unable to defeat them in hand-to-hand fighting the Persians drew back and killed the defenders with arrows.

Cost of Victory

Even though the Persians won the Greeks had won the psychological battle. The Greek stand of a few hundred men against hundreds of thousands of Persians was powerfully symbolic. The Greek forces at Salamis and Plataea followed the inspiring example of Leonidas and defeated Xerxes.

Xerxes was almost driven mad by the outcome of the battle.

The death of Leonidas and his three hundred men…was seen at the time for what it was: a torch, not to light a funeral pyre, but to light the heretofore divided and irresolute Greek people (Bradford, 1980).

Had there been no stand at Thermopylae, it was almost for certain that central and southern Greece would have fallen to Xerxes.

The bloody stand made by Leonidas and his small band Spartan army has become the very emblem of patriotism, courage and sacrifice (Bradford, 1980).



Bradford, E. (1980). Thermopylae: The Battle For The West . Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press .

Cummins, J. (2009). History’s Greatest Wars. New York : Crestline Publishing .

Herodotus (Author), J. M. (2003). The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics). New York : Penguin Classics.

Pagden, A. (2008). Worlds at War: The 2,500 Year Struggle Between East and West. New York: Random House Publishing.