The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Thermopylae and Salamis 480.B.C.

by Ann Bourdin

When we looked at the Battle of Marathon last year, we were looking at the first template for how battles are won and lost. Marathon was an opposed landing and taught the valuable lesson that if you do not get off the beach, you will be tipped back into the sea. Julius Caesar and the Emperor Claudius certainly took this lesson to heart when they invaded Britain, and I am sure the D-Day planners bore it in mind. At Gallipoli, however, it seems to have been forgotten.

Today, we are going to look at two more battles. both of which took place to years after Marathon, and they, too have valuable le.ssons to teach.

After Marathon, the Persians retired in disarray, but they had not forgotten their humiliation at the hands of those Greeks. In the ten years since the battle, the old Great King, Darius, had died and was succeeded by his son, Xerxes. This Great King did not just wish to punish the Greeks for their interference, but to conquer the Archipelago once and for all, and thus secure the Eastern Mediterranean from all interference.

The Persians held vast territory, which you may recognize, since it is the empire Alexander was to conquer a couple of hundred years later. They had massive armies, but these were far from being homogenous. They spoke several languages, fought in several different styles and required vast trains to supply them. They were masters of all of Western Asia, and thought themselves rulers of the world. Those pesty Greeks, therefore, were a nuisance but negligible in the long run. Or so thought Xerxes. Still, to conquer them properly would require a large army, larger than could be landed by sea, so Xerxes resolved to build a bridge of ships across the Hellespont so that his armies could march into Greece uninterrupted. It was an expansive plan, and correspondingly expensive. Nothing like it was attempted again until the Bailey bridge in modern times. Xerxes had the labour, he had the financial resources and he had the will, so the bridge was built; we shall never know at what cost in lives, but these came cheap to a Great King. Legend has it that he had the Hellespont whipped when it destroyed the bridge with waves, and thereafter it behaved itself. The same sort of story is told of King Canute, and probably is just to show the overweening vanity of great kings.

So the army was marched into Northern Greece. The Greeks of course heard that he was coming and rapidly consulted together - all of them this time, as to what best to do. There was no way they could meet an army of this size in equal combat, so they decided they would abandon Greece down to the Isthmus, and depend on the narrows into the Peloponnese as an uncrossable line. Such an evacuation of cities was a great operation, and the Spartans (still smarting from being superfluous at Marathon) offered to march northward to Thermopylae the hold the narrows there, until Athens, etc could be evacuated.

We now come to the vexed question of the size of the corresponding armies. Greeks, like ourselves were vague about large numbers. In our case the figure is billion, which few people understand the size of, and in the case of the Greeks, the word was million, which was an equally unimaginably large sum. So, in ancient writing, once you get beyond a few thousand, the numbers jump to a million. Given the size of populations in those days, this is clearly wrong and modern historians have spent considerable time and effort in estimating the largest number which could either live off the land, or be resupplied. The result is an estimate of 100, 000 for the Persian forces and 10, 000 for the Greeks sent to defend Thermopylae. This latter figure is not, of course, the entire Greek potential army, but they knew that the Peloponnese would have to be defended and so they only sent forth enough men to form a holding operation. It is estimated that if they stripped Greece of every goatherd, they might have mustered 50,000, so they knew that even in the best case, they were severely outnumbered.

Leonidas, the king of Sparta, took his 300 veterans to form the backbone of this group. According to Spartan law, men lived in barracks and were not permitted to marry young. To be a veteran you had to leave behind in Sparta, a son old enough to take up family responsibilities. So these men were all over 40, and Leonidas was 50, which made him an old man by ancient standards. So you can forget the gorgeous hunks of Hollywood, and imagine instead, scarred and venerable warriors, who well knew they were marching to their deaths, but they were the most expendable. With them went 10,000 Greek hoplites from all over the Peninsula. The advantage for this army was that it was a homogenous army, all speaking Greek and all trained in the same methods, largely spear, shield and short sword. The spears were for thrusting and keeping men at bay and when these were exhausted the close fighting was done with the short sword, while the vulnerable side was protected by the round shield and the head by the helmet with nosepiece and the legs by greaves. The Persian army, by contrast, was from many different areas, each with their own language, leaders, fighting methods and arms. Vast, certainly, but more difficult to wield as an attacking force.

Xerxes was astounded and offended by the puny force sent to fight his great army and sent a message to Leonidas (there were renegade Greeks in his army), telling him to surrender his arms. The famous reply, much quoted, and often emulated, went back Molon Labe. "Come and take them'" The implications of this in Greek, are not "come, if you can", but "you will have to take them by force". Cf, the American general at the Battle of the Bulge, whose reply to a similar demand by the Germans, was "'Nuts". I am probably not alone here in thinking this is tidying up of something much more scurrilous. One wonders if he was even understood by his enemy.

The Great King sent in the Medes first, and these were induced to enter the narrow Gates, where they had no room to manoeuvre (Herodotus tells us that the space was only 50yds wide) and were then slaughtered by the fanatical Greeks. The dead formed a wall of bodies which broke up any concerted further attack, and even the Immortals (Xerxes famous shock troops) could make no headway. Thermopylae means Hot Gates, and this was a very narrow pass between the cliffs and the mountains, further narrowed by having a wall built in part of it, hence the Gates. The Hot comes from the fact that there were hot springs there (Greece is very volcanic) and were thus a well-known spa.

There had been several days delay before fighting began and there were three days of stalemate when the Persians poured in troops and were butchered. There is no knowing how long this could have gone on, but a renegade Greek, called Ephialtes, told the Persians of a goat track through the mountains where the Gates could be outflanked. Here we have the first named traitor in history (but far trom being the last) and his name has come down into modem Greek to mean "nightmare".

They forced this track during one night (and could have only done so if it were full moon, so we can date the battle to either the 16,17, or 18 September when the moon was very large) and Leonidas knew they were coming, so sent the bulk of the army southwards, to warn Athens, and stayed with his 300, together with 700 of the Thespiae, the men of Thespis, to fight to the end, which they did, and were slaughtered to a man. But they had held up the Persian army for 8 days all told, aside from mauling them badly, and this had given the Athenians and others time to evacuate. The Persians, by now frustrated and bruised, nevertheless sacked the empty city of Athens.

Leonidas sacrifice was the first, and possibly the greatest, Last Stand in history and was commemorated at the time, with what was possibly the first War Memorial to the glorious dead, completed with epitaph by a famous poet, Simonides - the translation of which reads (in my favorite form of the translation)

Go tell the Spartans, Stranger passing by
That here, in obedience to their laws, we lie

The original memorial is now lost, but a handsome new one was erected after WWII and stands in the pass, together with a more recent one to the Thespiae. The Pass itself, has changed out of all recognition in the intervening 2 millennia, the sea having receded and the mountains earthquaked into mere hills. This painting perhaps shows how it might have looked at the time.

By retreating across the Isthmus, the Greeks had presented Xerxes with the same problem as Thermopylae, except that this narrows could only be bypassed by sea. So the scene was set for the Battle of Salamis, another first - the first decisive naval battle in history and rightly commemorated not only as a great naval victory strategically, but one of those battles which saved a world - the Greek world - from foreign domination.

Xerxes was faced with the prospect identical to that at Marathon 10 years earlier, an opposed landing on a hostile shore, but this time with the whole of Greece waiting for him. He was prepared to do it, but the Greek fleet was still in being, and they had to be disposed of first. They were holed up in the narrows between the Island of Salamis and the shore of Attica, a channel which was a mere mile wide. Xerxes was convinced they were cowering, and sent part of his fleet of 600 around the island to block the escape westwards, while he sailed into the channel from the east with the bulk of his forces.

But; like many subsequent actions, what looked like an trap, was actually an ambush. He was doing exactly what the Greeks wanted. They had devised a plan. under the ambitious Athenian, Themistocles, to divide the Persian fleet and deal with them piecemeal. The Greeks were heavily outnumbered in ships by the Persians, but the ships they had were vastly superior. These were the famous triremes, narrow, light and, with three banks of oars, incredibly fast by ancient standards. And remember, the Greeks always rowed with free men - the galley slave was unknown to them - and they were rowing to save their country. This was homeground advantage with a vengeance.

Naval fighting in these times was largely a matter of ramming your enemy, boarding him and killing the soldiers and crew. The Greeks had so designed the trireme that it was very high, compared with the Persians - that's where the three rows of oars come in, which meant that the battering ram installed at the front, was well below the prow, and thus below the waterline of the Persian ships. This meant that a ram, meant a sinking, and the Persian soldiers,from inland Asia, could not swim. The Greeks had changed the rules. They were not interested in boarding at all. They wanted to sink ships and their extreme maneouverability in that confined space, meant there was no escape. They formed an encireling move which meant they could attack the enemy on all sides at once and they sank 200 ships with a lost of only 40 of their own.

A resounding victory by any standards, and in the context of the time, overwhelming. The story goes that Xerxes had had a seat installed on a nearby cliff where he could watch the destruction of Greece, only to see his own forces destroyed instead - another example of hubris.

There was now no hope of invading the Peloponnese, and he had a large army stranded in Attica with no transport. These were defeated by the Greeks the following year at the Battle of Plataea.

Thus, the self-sacrifice at Thermopylae had bought the Greeks enough time to be ready at Salamis, and that action saved Europe from invasion by Asia for more than a thousand years.

Return to Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /