Saturday, September 8, 2012

Battle of Thermophylae

Battle of Thermophylae

      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.

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