Certainly, anyone wishing to understand Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch will want
to understand the battle as much of the subsequent history of the classical age was
influenced by the inspiration men drew from the courage of the warriors at Thermopylae.
For instance, the subsequent Battles of Salamis (where the Persian fleet was destroyed
by the Greek navies) and Plataea (where the Persian armies suffered a grievous defeat
at the hands of the allied Greek armies once again led by the Spartans) is recounted in both
the histories of Thucydides and in Plutarch’s Lives (especially in the life of Themistocles).
In his fictional ‘Gates Of Fire’, Steven Pressfield gives us a gripping and largely accurate (according
to historians who have reviewed the book) account of the Battle of Thermopylae. In fiction you sometimes get a better, ‘real-er’ sense of the actual event than in an academic history. This is the case I think with Pressfield’s novel. It is so well-written and so true to the facts and to the spirit of the Spartan military ethic that the novel grips you and holds you to the end. I read the novel in a single sitting and learned more about the ancient Greek hoplite and phalanx battle tactics than in all the histories of ancient battles I’ve read. Pressfield gives us the story from the eyes of Xeones, or Xeo, a fictional survivor of the battle who is ordered by the God Apollo to tell the story of the battle as he experienced it. (Apparently a movie based on this novel will be released in 2006).
The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC, approximately 10 years after the Battle of Marathon. Xerxes I, king of the mighty Persian empire, had accomplished tremendous logistical feats in amassing and supplying a huge army and getting it to the mainland of Greece. Xerxes wanted to avenge the defeat of his father Darius at Marathon. In 484 BC the army and navy of Xerxes arrived in Asia Minor and in a tremendous feat of military engineering built a bridge of ships across the Hellespont to get his troops (500,000 strong), across the waters. A confederate alliance of Greek city-states was quickly formed to meet the Persian threat. The alliance was headed by Sparta, whose warriors were conceded by all to be the best in Greece and probably in the world because they were trained from birth to a fierce military discipline and ethic.
Pressfield is superb in giving us a detailed picture of the kind of training Spartan boys and men underwent to become the best warriors in the world. The novel in fact can be read as a kind of meditation on what it means to be a combat soldier or warrior. He gives center stage to Spartan soldier Dienekes, who later becomes a platoon commander at Thermopylae. We see Dienekes mentoring and training the teenage boys Alexandros and Xeo among others in ‘manly virtue’ as well as in the art of mastering fear—as fear is the soldiers greatest enemy when in battle. We see the boys learning to discipline themselves against the danger of ‘possession’ in the heat of battle…possession is due to the madness or bloodlust that seizes the soldier in hand to hand combat. It is a danger to the warrior as it destroys discipline and breaks up the line and the phalanx. We see the boys learning the fact that they are in the line in order to preserve the life of the man next to them in the battle formation. We see them learning over and over again to polish, repair, honor and guard their weapons (including their own bodies) under any circumstances whatever-even the most brutal or chaotic. Discipline, fearlessness and protocol become second nature to them. They can recite at a moment’s notice detailed protocol/responses…what to do given every conceivable kind of threat…under every conceivable condition. It is no wonder that a single Spartan soldier was considered by all in the ancient world to be ‘worth’ several men in any other army. When a Spartan soldier in his Scarlet robe entered any city in the ancient world he as regarded with awe and respect. He was relied on to create order out of disorder and justice where only chaos reigned.
Why was only a small force sent to meet the overwhelming armies of the Persians? For several reasons unflattering to the Greeks. First the squabbling Greeks could not muster their armies quickly enough and thus they needed to buy themselves time to organize commands, supplies etc. Another reason was that the Spartans feared an uprising of their huge slave population who saw the Persian invasion as a chance to gain their freedom. So they wanted to keep a sufficiently large garrison at home to keep an eye on the slaves. A third set of reasons were religious in nature. Oracles had to be consulted and interpreted, and religious festivals had to be completed before war could be conducted.
Thus, the Spartans contributed only a small force of 300 hoplites, hand-picked and commanded by King Leonidas. Hoplites were Greek infantrymen and were the basis of Greek military prowess. A hoplite was heavily armored wearing and carrying upwards of 70 pounds of equipment during battle including a metal and leather helmet, a 30 pound wood , bronze and iron shield, a metal breastplate, shinguards, a 7 foot long spear, and a 3 foot long xiphos or sword. The hoplites deployed themselves in a phalanx, a wall of overlapping shields and layered spearpoints. After the spears had done their damage Pressfield has the phalanx moving forward in tightly woven formation literally shoving the enemy off the field with the huge hoplite shields and stabbing with short sword. Other military historians do not believe that these shoving tactics were widely used. Instead they believe that the hoplites fought individually about six feet apart. Whatever the case, the hoplite offensive line was incredibly disciplined and could move rapidly and efficiently even in the most chaotic of conditions. This discipline, of course, was due to the years of training every Greek boy and man had to undergo.
Although the scene is not exactly reproduced in Pressfield’s novel, Plutarch mentions, in his Sayings of Spartan Women, that Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas was told by Leonidas to remarry as he and his 300 men would likely not return alive. The Spartans knew that this would be a suicide mission designed only to delay the Persians. Pressfield gives us very rounded portraits of Spartan women who come across as fircely intelligent, brave and self-sacrificing. There is a very moving scene in the novel between Leonidas and Arete, a Spartan woman who will lose two of her loved ones at Thermopylae. In the scene, interestingly, we see the real kingly qualities of Leonidas as well as the amazing courage of the Spartan women.
Leonidas chose to stop the Persian armies at the mountain pass of Thermopylae, the "Hot Gates," (named for its hot water springs). At the time it consisted of a pass so narrow that no more than two chariots could pass through at a time. On one side of the pass stood the sheer side of the mountain, while the other was a cliff dropping into the sea. This awesome and terrifying natural setting would be the site of one of the most spectacular battles in history. The Greeks hastily repaired an old wall in the center of the pass in order to give them some protection from the Persian archers who numbered several thousand and who send so many metal tipped arrows onto an enemy at once that the skies darkened. When Dienekes was informed that the Persian arrows blotted out the sun, he is said to have remarked "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." Pressfield has this remark coming on the night before the major battle began thus lifting the mens spirits at a critical time.
Xerxes could not bring himself to believe that such a small force would actually try to fight him, and thus he gave the Greeks three or four days to retreat. Then when no retreat was forthcoming he tried to buy off the Greeks and offered them substantial treaty concessions and local autonomy. He would make them rulers of all Greece etc Leonidas responded with characteristic Greek audacity: He sent the messengers back with an offer of leniency to the Persians upon their unconditional surrender!
Once the battle commenced, the Persians, with wicker shields and short spears, could not break through the long spears of the Greek phalanx. Enormous casualties were sustained (many thousands) by the Persians as the well-disciplined Spartans flawlessly performed a series of maneuvers that left the Persians dazed and confused. Pressfield described these feint retreats and quick reformations beautifully. The Spartans had practiced the maneuvers literally thousands of time and thus were able to do so under the chaotic conditions of battle. Because of the narrowness of the pass, the Persians were unable to surround or flank the Greeks, thus rendering their superior numbers almost useless. The slaughter of the Persian infantry was so huge that the Greek hoplites collapsed from sheer exhaustion from so much killing. No solid ground was left as all the fighting began to take place on the bodies of the fallen. The scene must have been horrific with so much blood and gore in so small a space. Pressfield does a fine job of bringing its horrors to life. After one line of Greek fighters collapsed from exhaustion a second line who had rested reformed and started the slaughter anew. Despite the slaughter the Persian commanders just kept sending in men in waves…Finally, Xerxes decided to send in his legendary Persian Immortals, but even these highly trained warriors could not break the Spartan phalanx and they were forced to retreat with heavy casualties.
After the second or third day of fighting day a Greek by name of Ephialtes, whose name will live in infamy alongside that of Judas, defected to the Persians and informed Xerxes of a separate path through Thermopylae, which the Persians could use to outflank the Greeks. The pass was defended by a 1000 Greeks fighters from Phocis but they offered only ineffectual resistance to the Persians before fleeing (the episode is not described in Pressfield’s novel).
Leonidas realized that further fighting would be futile. On August 11 he dismissed all but what remained of the 300 Spartans, who had already resigned themselves to fighting to the death. However, a contingent of about 600 Thespians, led by Demophilus (called Dithyrambos in the novel), refused to leave with the other Greeks. Instead, they chose to stay in the suicidal effort to delay the advance.
On the last day of battle the fighting was said to have been extremely brutal, even for hoplite combat. After their spears broke, the Spartans and Thespians kept fighting with their xiphos short swords, and after those broke, they were said to have fought with their bare hands and teeth. Although the Greeks killed many Persians, including two of Xerxes' brothers, Leonidas was eventually killed, along with all of his men. The last Spartans were killed by a barrage of arrows after fighting fanatically to recover their king's body, having been driven back into the narrowest part of the pass onto a small hill.
To this day there is an epitaph on a monument at the site of the battle with the poet Simonides's epigram:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.