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Battle of Thermopylae and the Persian Wars

Updated on January 25, 2012
King Leonidas' bronze statue in Greece
King Leonidas' bronze statue in Greece

Background to the Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae

In 499 the Ionian Greeks rebelled against the expanding Persian empire and asked for help from other Greek cities. The Persian invasion of Greece led by King Xerxes was an attempt to take revenge on Athens for helping the rebellion of the Ionian Greeks. The Greeks united to fight back against the Persian empire in a series of conflicts known as the Persian Wars. The Spartans were the backbone of the Greek army on land and through their victories the Greeks managed to beat back the Persians. The Battle of Thermopylae was the most important of these battles because it was a major victory for the Greeks and a turning point in the Persian Wars.


A depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC
A depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC

A Tale of Two Cities

Athens, Greece
Athens, Greece
Sparta, Greece
Sparta, Greece

A Warlike City

Sparta was a city bred for war and the women were encouraged to produce sons. Male children in Sparta were very important. The Spartans were so concerned about raising strong and physically fit males that any babies that had imperfections were deemed unfit for the Spartan society and were disposed of. Usually these babies were thrown off a cliff near Mount Taygetos.[1],[2] Once they reached the age of seven they began their education and military training. The boys would be taken from their homes and they were subject to becoming a Spartan soldier. Once the male was taken from his family he would be placed into a barracks that housed other children of the same age and together they would go through similar training. This was done so that the soon to be Spartan warriors would already have developed a bond and sense of unity with each other. The Spartan boys would be educated, but only with skills that they would need in battle. For instance, the boys would learn how to count soldiers in a military formation, read war stories, poetry and also chant battle cries.[3]In addition to basic education, they would participate in track and field competitions to build up physical strength and endurance.

The 'blood soup' that sustain warriors from Sparta while on a military campaign
The 'blood soup' that sustain warriors from Sparta while on a military campaign

A Dish to Die For

The Spartans would also eat, what we would consider, an unhealthy diet. The recruits would eat very little and when they were fed, it was not very substantial. On a side note, a notorious delicacy of the Spartan warrior was the 'black broth' staple soup which included boiled pigs' legs, blood, salt and vinegar. This rationing taught them to tolerate pain and hardship, but also the foraging skills they would need to survive in military campaigns in faraway lands.

Sometimes, the young warriors were tasked with stealing food from farms in the countryside without getting caught to encourage them to live off the land and practice their stealth skills as well. However, the Spartans lived by a code of discipline and honor and any act of disobedience was punished severely by beatings and floggings. This training and lifestyle was very harsh, but made boys into Spartan men and very elite soldiers. The whole process was known as the Agoge and all Spartan males were apart of it. The elite members of the Agoge who had better skills and stoodout amongst the rest of the recruits were selected to partake in the secret Krypteia training camp. At age eighteen, these members undergoing the Krypteia were given no food, shelter, or clothing and were expected to live on their own in the wilderness for a certain period of time. Equipped with only a small knife, they had to hone their survival skills and if they were successful (and lived) they were eligible to become a high ranking officer in the Spartan army.[4] Leonidas I, who would later lead the Spartans against the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae, was a product of the Agoge training process as well as the Krypteia and would later become the King of Sparta.


The Battle of Thermopylae
The Battle of Thermopylae

The Pass of Thermopylae

The Battle of Thermopylae could not have taken place at a more strategic location for the Spartans. The pass at Thermopylae was only about 50 feet wide and got even narrower at other points.[9] Leonidas knew that by funneling the Persians into a narrow pass that their strength in numbers would not count for anything because they would have to fight hand to hand as oppose to out in the open. This location also allowed for the Spartans to fight face to face and not have to worry about being surrounded or being flanked. As a result of these narrow fighting conditions the Spartans now had the advantage because of their superior fighting training, skill and motivation. Leonidas was fully aware of what he and his fellow Spartans had to do for their city. Only before heading out to the pass of Thermopylae Leonidas had visited the Oracle, whom Sparta looked to in times of uncertainty, and it was reported she had told him that “Sparta must either lose a king or see the city destroyed.”[10]

Although the Spartans were up against countless odds and it was rumored that when the Persian archers would fire their arrows it would darken the sky because of their vast numbers. However one soldier responded to this comment by saying, “Fine, then we’ll fight in the shade.”[11] The fighting at Thermopylae during the opening days resulted in heavy casualties for the Persians. The Immortals who were alleged to never have been defeated were repulsed by Leonidas and his Spartans, further adding to their confidence and showing that they were not immortal. The main flaw in the Persians failure to successfully defeat the Greeks positioned at Thermopylae was that they had been taught three things, “to ride, to tell the truth and to use the bow.”[12] The reason why these methods did not work was because the tight environment had prevented cavalry form charging and being as effective as they would in an open field of battle. They were also unable to use arrow volleys because of the high cliffs and narrow passes at Thermopylae. Also the Spartans famous battlefield tactic was the phalanx formation which required unity in the ranks to repel, arrows, spears and other things thrown at them.[13] The main reason why the Spartans were able to beat back the Persian invasions were because of their highly evolved fighting skills that were impenetrable. They would use battle tactics that depended on the man next to them in order to survive which was a trait they took on at a very young age. The Persians were not adapted to this style of fighting that had an army comprised of men bred to fight, they were used to fighting and conquering because of their pure dominance due to their size and cavalry. Neither of these were a factor against the Spartans. Because of these superior tactics the 300 Spartans led by Leonidas were able to hold off the Persians by giving their lives for the freedom and defense of Greece.


The reason why the Greeks were able to win the Persian wars originated at the Battle of Thermopylae: the leadership displayed by the warlike Spartans and their commitment to the cause was pointed to by all Greeks as a symbol of unity and heroic stand by free men. The Spartans were able to succeed in defending the pass at Thermopylae not by their numbers but by their lifetime dedication to military training, education, and skilled nature in the art of war.





Works Cited


Berrigan, Joseph. "Battle of Thermopylae." Ancient Mesopotamia. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. <http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/ancientbabylon/id28.html>.


Edger, Christopher. "About." Agoge Grappling. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <http://www.agogegrappler.com/about-2>.


Eger, Christopher. "Agoge - Spartan Military Training: Sparta Took Twenty Years to Create the Perfect Hoplite Warrior." Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers' Network. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.suite101.com/content/agoge-spartan-military-training-a15311>.


Lahanas, Michael. "Ancient Greece: Quotes." Hellenica, Information about Greece and Cyprus, Michael Lahanas. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/quotes.htm>. Primary source quotation


McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. "The Classical Period." A History of Western Society. Vol. A. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 70-71. Print.


"Spartan Martial Arts." Martial Arts Insight. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.martial-arts-insight.com/spartanmartialarts.html>.


"Spartan Education & Military Training." Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://plaza.ufl.edu/tlombard/spaeducation.html>


Welder History Group. "Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae » HistoryNet." HistoryNet – From the World's Largest History Magazine Publisher. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.historynet.com/greco-persian-wars-battle-of-thermopylae.htm/4>. I used all page numbers in this article.


"Who Were the Spartans?" Ancient Society of Creative Anachronism - Spartans. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.spartanwarband.com/history.php>.


Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print. Page 554-555




[1] "Spartan Education & Military Training." Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://plaza.ufl.edu/tlombard/spaeducation.html>

[2] Eger, Christopher. "Agoge - Spartan Military Training: Sparta Took Twenty Years to Create the Perfect Hoplite Warrior." Suite101.com: Online Magazine and Writers' Network. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.suite101.com/content/agoge-spartan-military-training-a15311>.

[3] Edger, Christopher. "About." Agoge Grappling. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <http://www.agogegrappler.com/about-2>.

[4] "Who Were the Spartans?" Ancient Society of Creative Anachronism - Spartans. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.spartanwarband.com/history.php>.

[5] Welder History Group. "Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae » HistoryNet." HistoryNet – From the World's Largest History Magazine Publisher. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.historynet.com/greco-persian-wars-battle-of-thermopylae.htm/2>. I used all page numbers in this article.

[6] Berrigan, Joseph. "Battle of Thermopylae." Ancient Mesopotamia. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. <http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/ancientbabylon/id28.html>.

[7] Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print. Pages 554-555

[8] Lahanas, Michael. "Ancient Greece: Quotes." Hellenica, Information about Greece and Cyprus, Michael Lahanas. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/quotes.htm>. Primary source quotation

[9] Welder History Group. "Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae » HistoryNet." HistoryNet – From the World's Largest History Magazine Publisher. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.historynet.com/greco-persian-wars-battle-of-thermopylae.htm/3>. I used all page numbers in this article.

[10] Ibid

[11] McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. "The Classical Period." A History of Western Society. Vol. A. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 70-71. Print.

[12] Welder History Group. "Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae » HistoryNet." HistoryNet – From the World's Largest History Magazine Publisher. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.historynet.com/greco-persian-wars-battle-of-thermopylae.htm/4>. I used all page numbers in this article.

[13] McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. "The Classical Period." A History of Western Society. Vol. A. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 70-71. Print.


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    • EJ Lambert profile image

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      The battle was proof positive that numbers count for nothing if you have knowledge of your terrain, well trained troops and understand how to properly utilize both.

    • mpirrello profile image
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      mpirrello 5 years ago from United States of America

      Thanks for the advice! Check out the other articles as well. Hope you enjoy.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good information. See comments on other Hub. Wanted to add one other thing. You need to put a bio, tell a little about yourself and your background on the profile page. That will help people to relate to you and your work. Go visit several profile pages and you will see what I mean. On any Hub if you click on the Hubber's name in the top right corner it will take you to their profile page. Good luck.