Primary Source: Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae (History, Book VII) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.5)

This is a short selection from Herodotus’s description of the Battle of Thermopylae in his book about the Greco-Persian Wars, which he wrote over a long period between 450 and 420 BC.

So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much further than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them the captains of the squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.

By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many other famous Spartans, whose names I have taken care to learn on account of their great worthiness, as indeed I have those of all the three hundred. There fell too at the same time very many famous Persians: among them, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, his children by Phratagune, the daughter of Artanes. Artanes was brother of King Darius, being a son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames; and when he gave his daughter to the king, he made him heir likewise of all his substance; for she was his only child.

Thus two brothers of Xerxes here fought and fell. And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honor of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, “Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered, “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.

Next to him two brothers, Lacedaemonians, are reputed to have made themselves conspicuous: they were named Alpheus and Maro, and were the sons of Orsiphantus. There was also a Thespian who gained greater glory than any of his countrymen: he was a man called Dithyrambus, the son of Harmatidas.

The slain were buried where they fell …


 Review Questions

 1. Who was the leader of the Persians/barbarians?

2. Who was the leader of the Spartans?

The Greco-Persian Wars (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.4)

After the end of the Greek Dark Age in about 800 BC, the city-states of Greece began to flourish. The epic of poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written in about 800 BC and were performed all over Greece. The ideas and practices that made Greece unique began to form and increase in importance. In contrast to the Greek focus on liberty, however, the nearby Persian Empire instead believed that all people should be forced to submit to their emperor, who was viewed as being almost a god. The Persians invaded Greece twice to try to conquer it. These two invasions of Greece by the Persians are called the Greco-Persian Wars.

The Persians invaded Greece the first time in 490 BC. They landed near the Greek polis of Athens and demanded that the Athenians immediately surrender. The Athenians refused and began to prepare themselves for battle. They sent messengers to Sparta, the other very strong Greek polis, but the Spartans were unable to help. The Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival during which they were forbidden by their beliefs to engage in war. The Athenians had to fight the Persians on their own.

The battle took place at Marathon. In the Battle of Marathon, a much smaller and weaker Athenian force was able to defeat the powerful Persian Empire. It was a great victory of Greece. Without this victory, Western Civilization would not exist. The ideas of democracy, medicine, and science would have been lost forever had the Greeks been swallowed up by the Persian Empire. The Athenian soldiers sent a messenger named Pheidippides to bring the happy news back to the people in Athens. Pheidippides ran the entire 26 miles from Marathon to Athens. As he entered the city of Athens, he shouted, “We have won!” and collapsed dead from exhaustion. Today, when people run a marathon, they run 26 miles just like Pheidippides did.

The Persians were very angry at the Greeks for their defiance. The Persian emperor believed that he was a god and that all people should submit to him. Ten years after their first invasion of Greece, they invaded again in 480 BC. This time, the Spartans came to fight alongside the Athenians.

The Spartan soldiers, led by their king Leonidas, fought the Persian soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae, near a valley between two mountains. At that place, Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers were able to hold off the entire Persian army for several days. By the end of the battle, all 300 of Leonidas’s soldiers were killed but they had killed thousands of Persians. The Greek historian Herodotus guesses that about 20,000 Persian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Thermopylae. While we cannot be sure of the exact number, we know that so many Persian soldiers had been killed that the Persian army was forced to turn back rather than moving to attack the Greek cities. Although Leonidas and all 300 of his men were killed, they won the battle because they were able to protect Greece from the Persians. Today, there is a plaque on the spot where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought that has this inscription:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,

That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.

The Athenians also fought the Persians again during the Second Greco-Persian War. Because they Athenians had a very large and strong navy, they decided to fight the Persians on the sea. At the Battle of Salamis, the Athenians were able to destroy almost 300 ships full of Persian soldiers, preventing them from landing in and attacking Greece. The Persian navy was almost entirely destroyed in the battle.

Following the defeats by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae and the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Persians were forced to once again withdraw from Greece. They had been beaten so badly by the Greeks that they never again invaded. As a result, Greek culture was allowed to continue to flourish and grow.


Review Questions

 1. List the year each of these battles occurred and which Greek polis was involved in the battle.

a. Battle of Marathon

b. Battle of Thermopylae

c. Battle of Salamis