Tuesday, August 18, 2020

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, August 18-20 or September 8-10.

         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. Those overwhelming numbers were, however, the basis of Dienekes’ boast, as reported by Herodotus, in response to the assertion that the Persian arrows will block out the sun, “Good, then we will fight in the shade.” Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7, 226. 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.  Ultimately, the Persians were shown how to outflank the Greek forces. Knowing that they were to be outflanked, most of the Greek forces 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 the Spartans were annihilated; some of the other Greek troops surrendered. Still, knowing that they were to that day fall in battle, they gave better than they got: "The Hellenes knew that they were about to face death as the hands of the men who had come around the mountain and so they exerted their utmost strength against the barbarians, with reckless desperation and no regard for their own lives.  By this time most of their spears had broken, so they were slaying he Persians with their swords."  Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7, 223-24. Two of Xerces brothers and two of his sons were killed on that final day.

      Notwithstanding the movie “The 300,” Leonidas did not fight in the final segment of the battle – he had already been killed.  Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7, 224.

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