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Battle of Thermopylae

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC between an alliance of Greek city-states and the Persians.

Battle of Thermopylae
ConflictPersian War
DateAugust, 480 BC
PlaceThermopylae, Greece
ResultPersian victory
Greek city-statesPersia
LeonidasXerxes I
7000 troopsEstimated at over five million;
probably hundreds of thousands
At least 300; likely over 2000Possibly 20 000

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Battle
3 Aftermath


Xerxes I, king of Persia, had been preparing for years to continue the war against the Greeks started by his father Darius. In 484 BC Xerxes' army and navy arrived in Asia Minor, building a bridge of ships across the Hellespont at Abydos to march his troops across. According to Herodotus Xerxes had over five million men, while the poet Simonides estimated three million; Herodotus also wrote that the army drank entire rivers and ate the food supplies of entire cities. These are of course exaggerations, but it is clear that the Greeks were vastly outnumbered. The major Greek city-states formed an alliance, led by Sparta under king Leonidas, and prepared to block the Persian advance at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece. Originally engaging the enemy in August of 480 with a force of some 7000 men, Leonidas aimed to hold the pass as long as possible so that the rest of Greece could rally their troops and navy.

The Battle

Xerxes did not believe such a small force would oppose him, and gave the Greeks five days to retreat. When they did not, he sent his into the pass, but each successive wave of troops was eventually defeated. The Persians, with arrows and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek hoplites, although it was said that the Persian arrows blotted out the sun. The 6000 Greeks defending the pass defeated the Persians in a similar manner on the second day of battle.

After the second day a Greek named Ephialtes defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae. The pass was defended by the other 1000 Greeks, from Phocis, who had been placed there when the Greeks learned of the alternate route just before the battle, but they were not expecting to engage the Persians. The Phocians offered a brief resistance before fleeing, and the Persians advanced unopposed.

Leonidas then realized that further fighting would be futile. On August 11 he dismissed all but 300 Spartans. A contingent of Thespians (the Thespians led by Demophilus) stayed as well in a suicidal effort to delay the advance. Leonidas also had a force of Thebans, but they quickly defected to the Persians. Although the Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes' brothers, Leonidas was killed, along with all 300 of his men. The last Spartans were killed trying to recover their king's body, after having been driven back into the narrowest part of the pass, Onto a small hill in the pass.


The simultaneous naval Battle of Artemisium was a draw, and the Greek navy retreated. The Persians had control of the Aegean Sea and all of Greece as far south as Attica; the Spartans prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Peloponnese, while Xerxes sacked Athens, whose inhabitants had fled to Salamis Island. In September the Greeks and the Persians met at the naval Battle of Salamis.