Today, by one reckoning, is the
anniversary of the commencement of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The record is not clear – the battle may be
dated to August 7-9.
Darius, King of the Persians,
had invaded Greece in 490 B.C. Meeting
an almost exclusively Athenian force at Marathon, his army was decimated while
the Athenian force suffered relatively few casualties. A runner (so it is said) took off to announce
the victory to the population of Athens.
Just over 26 miles later he entered the city, announced “Nikomen”
(victory) and dropped dead from exhaustion.
Meanwhile, part of the Persian fleet had broken off to attack
Athens. The force at Marathon marched
back to the city, manning its walls as the fleet approached.
The Persian fleet and army
withdrew from Greece.
A decade later Xerces had
succeeded Darius as the Persian King, and he resolved to subdue the
Greeks. Gathering a huge army (said to
be over a million but likely not larger than 100,000), he invaded Greece. A force led by 300 Spartan hoplites (heavy
infantry) and several thousand others Greek troops, all under the command of
King Leonidas, resolved to block the Persians at Thermopylae.
For two days the Greek forces,
taking advantage of the small front, it minimizing the advantage in numbers of
the Persian forces, fought them to a standstill while suffering minimal
casualties. Those overwhelming numbers
were, however, the basis of Dienekes’ boast, as reported by Herodites, in response
to the assertion that the Persian arrows will block out the sun, “Good, then we
will fight in the shade.” Ultimately,
the Persians were shown how to outflank the Greek forces. Most withdrew while the Spartan forces, along
with certain others, stayed as a rear guard to hold off the Persians as long as
possible. In the last day of fighting
they were annihilated.
Notwithstanding the movie “The 300,” Leonidas did not
fight in the final segment – he had already been killed. That is not, however, the largest problem in
the popular understanding of the Greco-Persian Wars. The runner to Athens after the Battle of
Marathon is not supported in the historic record, and is first recorded in the
writings of the Roman Lucian.