13 Things You Should Know about the Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopylae was the last stand of the Spartans in the Second Persian Invasion of Greece. It lasted for three days in 480BC. The Spartans joined 1,100 Greek warriors to defend the state. Here are some interesting facts about the Battle of Thermopylae.

1. Roots in the Ionian revolt

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The Greek cities of Ionia in present day Turkey came under Persian Empire in 547BC. The Greeks of Ionia, revolted against the Persians in 499BC. Greek cities Eretria and Athens supported the revolt. They burnt down Persian temples and cities. The rebellion was ultimately crushed by the Persian Emperor Darius I. He vowed to punish those involved in the rebellion, particularly Athens, leading to the First Persian Invasion of Greece in 492BC which involved the famous Battle of Marathon. The Greeks routed the Persian army and inflicted heavy casualties.

2. The Persian Empire was the largest

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Xerxes I, popularly known as Xerxes the Great, assumed the throne of Persia in 486BC. He planned a huge invasion of Greece to avenge the Persian losses in the Ionian revolt and Battle of Marathon. At that time, the Persian Empire was the biggest of all empires in ancient history. It stretched from Nile in Africa to Indus in Asia. Xerxes pooled in resources from his vast kingdom, assembled soldiers, built ships and bought supplies for the invasion.

3. The Persian army numbered in thousands

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Xerxes decided to bridge the narrow and natural Hellespont strait to shorten the distance to Europe. The result was a stunning floating bridge which was an engineering marvel in those days. The Persian army crossed the pontoon and entered Europe in 480BC. While ancient historians pegged the Persian army strength in millions, according to modern estimates, the number was between 70,000 to 300,000. The land army was escorted by more than 1,000 warships to the battle of Thermopylae. It was one of the most sophisticated and largest armies ever assembled for invasion in the ancient world.

4. Themistocles planned the Greek defense

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Greece, before the battle of Thermopylae, was a collection of small provinces that constantly fought each other to stamp regional supremacy. The two largest, Sparta and Athens, were sworn rivals. But all the Greek states forged an alliance to defend their land against the Persians. This was quite remarkable given the fierce enmity between the states. Themistocles, the Athenian military general, took charge of planning the Greek defense against the advancing Persians.

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5. Selecting Thermopylae was a strategic decision

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The Greeks chose the narrow Thermopylae pass to negate the numerical advantage of Persians. The pass is believed to have been only 200 yards at its widest. The Persians could only enter in small numbers that was manageable to be challenged by the small Greek army. Besides, the Persian cavalry would have been rendered useless in the narrow pass. Themistocles knew that the Persian navy may sneak in via the Straits of Artemisium and surround the Greek infantry from behind. He stationed an allied navy unit at the mouth of the strait.

6. Leonidas led the Greeks

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Carneia, a Spartan festival, was being celebrated during the Persian invasion. Spartans were barred from any military activity during the celebrations. According to some ancient accounts, Spartan king Leonidas consulted the Oracle of Delphi who gave him nod to go for the battle. Leonidas selected 300 Spartan men with living sons to ensure their bloodline continued even if they didn’t return from the battlefield. His army was reinforced by various Greek contingents and numbered at least 7,000 when he reached Thermopylae.