Persia Defeated | The Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

— Poem by Simonides on a tablet at Thermopylae, translated by Steven Pressfield —

A group of boys sit beneath a tree on hard wooden benches around their tutor, a man whose face is lined with many summers. Like most children they fidget, wishing they could be playing in the fields outside the city walls. The tutor waits for silence and then begins to speak. His words draw them in, painting pictures of the sad history of their country as he tells stories of the gods and heroes of old. The man’s voice begins softly but rises like a wave as he warms to his topic and tells of the rise and fall of Greece.

By the dawn of the 5th century BC, the Persian Empire stretched across the known world, from the Hindu Kush in modern-day Afghanistan to the Ionian coast of Turkey. Forged by the mighty King Cyrus the Great, Persia united all peoples of the Near East into a single nation but one which respected many traditions and cultures. The Persians simply demanded that their subjects respect the authority of the king and his governors, pay their taxes, and send soldiers to fight in the army when called upon. To solemnize this pledge, emissaries were sent to the nations of the world to collect earth and water, symbols of the fruits and the lands of their peoples.

Of course, not everyone willingly submitted to Persian rule. On the west coast of modern Turkey, a collection of Greek city-states had cherished their freedom and bristled under the rule of the Persian governors. In 499 BC, these Greeks revolted against King Darius I with the support of Athens, the largest and wealthiest of the city-states in Greece. The revolt was crushed, and the Persians imposed a generous peace settlement on the rebels after executing their leaders. Darius then sent his emissaries into Greece to collect earth and water from its citystates. The Athenians murdered these ambassadors, while the Spartans threw them into a well and told to collect the earth and water themselves. The Greek city-states were now at war with Persia.

The first Persian invasion of Greece failed with their defeat at Marathon in 490 by the Athenians. Darius died four years later, and his son Xerxes I planned to complete his father’s mission and defeat the troublesome Greeks. His army, numbering between one hundred and three hundred thousand soldiers (far smaller than the figure given by the Greek historian Herodotus of over two million) crossed the Hellespont into Greece on two pontoon bridges. The overwhelming power of Persia now evident, many city-states in northern Greece voluntarily sent earth and water to Xerxes’ camp; they would make no trouble.

The Athenians had no intention of submitting to Xerxes; they cherished their democracy and were preparing for war. Their strategos Themistocles, a veteran of Marathon, had become the most influential politician in the city and poured money into the construction of a fleet of ships capable of defeating the Persian navy. The Spartans, though always ready for a fight, initially balked at waging war during the Carneia, a religious festival during which bloodshed was forbidden. In the end, only three hundred Spartans marched north to join the fight, led by their king, Leonidas I. The plan was simple—hold the Persians back at the “hot gates” of Thermopylae 85 miles northwest of Athens long enough for the Athenian fleet to be ready for war and for the Carneia to pass and the rest of Sparta to take up arms. As the Spartan men departed, their wives and mothers handed them their shields with the words, “Come back with this shield or on it.”

Battle at the “Hot Gates”

Thermopylae in 480 BC looked much different than it does to visitors at the battlefield today. The plain stretched about one hundred meters north from high, rocky hills to the Gulf of Malia, and the Persian army would have to march in columns across it to enter Attica and reach Athens and the Peloponnesian city-states beyond. (Today, the battlefield is far larger due to changes in tides and sedimentation.) Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans were joined by between four- and six thousand other Greek hoplites, and they planned to deploy their phalanx from the rocky ground to the sea and force the Persians to channel their enormous army into the pass, thus negating their advantage in numbers. The Greek phalanx was formed by soldiers carrying long spears and wide shields which protected both themselves and the man to their left in an interlocking wall of wood and bronze. As long as the phalanx remained unbroken, Leonidas believed, the Persians could hurl their soldiers at it but would not pass.

Xerxes and his warriors were skilled fighters but had little experience in this kind of terrain. Much of his navy had been sunk in a storm, so he could not get around the Greeks by sea—he had to make a direct, frontal attack. In mid-August 480 BC, the Persians were spotted on the north shore of the Gulf of Malia opposite Thermopylae, and the Greek leaders met together to set out a plan. Some urged retreat, but Leonidas insisted that the battle would be fought at the “hot gates.” When one of his soldiers commented that the barbarian Persians’ arrows would fill the sky and block out the sun, the historian Plutarch wrote that Leonidas replied laconically, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?” Xerxes sent an emissary to the Greek camp and offered peace and friendship, which was refused. He then sent a handwritten message with a second court official ordering Leonidas and the other Greeks to “lay down their arms.” Leonidas famously responded, “Molòn labé,” “come and take them” (words now engraved upon his statue at Thermopylae).

The first wave of Persians who attacked the phalanx was “cut to ribbons,” according to the historian Ctesias, and fewer than ten Greeks were lost. Xerxes stood up from his throne three times as he watched the battle, a clear sign of his displeasure and unbelief that the Greeks could stand against his mighty armies. He then deployed the ten thousand Immortals, the best-trained soldiers in all of Persia, who also failed to break the phalanx. The Greeks fought all day, rotating units out of the line to prevent battle fatigue, and when night fell the ground was still theirs. On the second day, a third assault failed to break the lines because the Greeks—using a common Spartan tactic—appeared to retreat at several points to lure the enemy deeper into the pass and then turned and slaughtered their enemies. At a council of war that afternoon, Xerxes met with his generals and asked them how to break the phalanx. None of them had an answer for their king.

Then, fortune turned against Leonidas and in Xerxes’ favor. A Greek traitor by the name of Ephialtes informed the Persian ruler of a small goat path in the hills above Thermopylae that could bring his troops around to the Greeks’ rear and cut them off. Ephialtes hoped to be rewarded by Xerxes for his betrayal, but history does not record his fate. During the night, the surviving Immortals and other Persian auxiliaries moved quietly up into the hills following Ephialtes and, as dawn approached, hid in the dense brush awaiting orders.

The goat path was being watched by a contingent of Greeks, but they were scattered by Persian arrows. When a runner arrived at the camp that night and informed Leonidas and the other Greek leaders that they had been flanked, Leonidas released his allies from their service. His three hundred Spartans would stay and hold the Persians back as long as they could. At dawn, about two thousand Greeks (nearly one-third of their total strength) took the field while the rest pulled back. They formed up in the open, rather than between the hills and the gulf, and awaited the Persians’ arrival. When Xerxes’ army approached, another five hundred Greeks turned and fled.

Surrounded, the Greeks charged. They fought with spears and, when all had been broken, with their short swords. Two of Xerxes’ sons were killed in this melee. King Leonidas was cut down by a Persian arrow during the attack, and when their leader fell, the Spartans and surviving Greeks took his body with them as they pulled back up a low rise near their camp for a last stand. Rather than waste his soldiers’ lives, Xerxes ordered his archers to fire on the hill, and every last Greek still standing was slain.

The Battle of Thermopylae has conjured many stories, myths and legends in the minds of those who hear of the Spartans’ bravery (many of which we will cover in the discussion section of this podcast). But it was an unquestioned defeat for the Greeks. Xerxes continued his assault on Greece, destroying one city-state after another who refused to surrender earth and water to him. He laid waste to Athens itself in September 480, and much of the city’s public buildings— including the Acropolis—and its historic texts and treasures were burned. Yet the Greeks did not change tactics; the geography of Greece favored the defensive, and the four-mile-wide Isthmus of Corinth connecting the mainland to the Peloponnesian Peninsula beckoned as a last line of defense. The Greeks built a wall across the Isthmus and destroyed every road leading to it and then awaited the Persian assault. But it was not to be.

“Now is the Struggle for all Things”

In the months since the loss of his fleet in a storm, Xerxes had received fresh ships from Lydia and Ionia and was now planning to land troops in the Peloponnese, bypassing the Greek defenses at Corinth. Had he succeeded, Greece probably would have lost the war and, given the fate of Athens, been left in ruins. To do this, he needed first to destroy the Greek fleet, which was in the Straits of Salamis helping the Athenians evacuate their city. The Greeks, led by the Athenian strategos Themistocles, saw an opportunity to draw the Persian fleet in and, hopefully, destroy the enemy and save their homeland.

Exactly how the events which led to the Battle of Salamis unfolded are shrouded in mystery, but history does record that Themistocles sent a servant to Xerxes and tell the king that Themistocles hoped for a Persian victory. The servant then laid his master’s trap—he told the Persians that the Peloponnesian Greeks (whose homelands were still intact) wanted to retreat from Salamis while the Atticans (led by the Athenians) wished to remain at Salamis to help the fleeing survivors from Athens. All Xerxes had to do, the servant insisted, was block the entrance to the Bay of Salamis, and victory would be his. This is the most important military lesson of the Battle of Salamis: that disinformation is often just as important as armed strength on the battlefield.

Xerxes now ordered his fleet to move, but his own command was not unified in his decision to attack; Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, a Greek fighting for Persia, insisted to her master that he need not risk a battle, but she was overruled. The Persian fleet outnumbered the Greeks at least two-to-one, meaning that Xerxes had enough ships to both attack at Salamis and land troops on the Peloponnese, but he chose to risk it all in the naval battle. As the ruins of Athens still smoldered in the distance and his slaves set up a throne on Mount Aigaleo, Xerxes watched Persian triremes row into the bay. As the Persians approached, the Greek hoplites aboard their ships sang a battle hymn:

O sons of the Greeks, go,

Liberate your country, liberate

Your children, your women, the seats of your fathers’ gods,

And the tombs of your forbearers: now is the struggle for all things.

The Greek ships initially backed away to gain time and draw more of the enemy fleet into the narrow bay (as they had done at Thermopylae). There is no complete account of the battle in any historical record, as no one was in a position to see the entire battlefield. Ancient historians instead tell individual stories of what happened at Salamis. Xerxes’ brother Ariabgnes, an admiral in the Persian fleet, was killed early in the fighting on the Greek left flank and his body flung into the sea by Greek hoplites. Queen Artemisia accidentally rammed another Persian ship in an attempt to get away from an enemy, which probably saved her life; Xerxes, watching from his throne on Mount Aigaleo above the bay, is said to have commented, “my men have become women, and my women men.” As the battle turned against the Persians, many of their ships tried to retreat but were ambushed by Greeks from Corinth, who rammed at least a dozen Persian triremes and then landed hoplites on the beaches to finish off the survivors. When a Phoenician crew whose ship had been sunk arrived before Xerxes’ throne to make a report, the captain mocked the sailing abilities of other non-Phoenician Persians. Xerxes, now enraged by his defeat, had the captain and crew beheaded for slandering “more noble men.” He then threatened to massacre the Phoenician people back home for these insults, causing the entire Phoenician contingent of his fleet to withdraw to save themselves and their families.

The Persian fleet was decimated at Salamis, losing more than half its strength and ending the threat of a seaborne invasion of the Peloponnese. Xerxes’ generals, who believed that Persia’s strength was in men and horses and not ships, urged him to attack the wall at Corinth. But Xerxes refused; he though that when word of this defeat reached the Greek city-states to the north who had surrendered to him, they might rise up and destroy his bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe. That would spark a general revolt across the empire and be the end of Persia.

Aftermath: Plataea, the Delian League, and the Downfall of Greece Xerxes left behind a force of ninety thousand well-trained soldiers in Greece before departing for home with the bulk of his army. Led by General Mardonius, this army burned Athens a second time and hoped to draw the Greeks into battle outside the wall at Corinth. However, the victory at Salamis had done as Xerxes had feared, and the city-states rose against their Persian oppressors and rallied to the defense of their land. In August 479 BC, a year after the defeat at Thermopylae, a force of nearly eighty thousand Greeks attacked the Persians at Plataea, utterly destroying what remained of Xerxes’ army in Greece. When Xerxes was assassinated fourteen years later, his dream of a Persian-dominated Greece died with him.

The sense of unity among the Greeks created by a common enemy did not survive the end of the Persian Wars. Over the next half-century, the two great city-states of Athens and Sparta grew to distrust each other. Themistocles urged the Athenians to rebuild their walls and navy instead of relying on Sparta for a protection. For this, he was ostracized by his own people and fled Greece. He found a new career as the Persian governor of Magnesia on the Ionian coast of Turkey in service to King Artaxerxes I, his old nemesis’ son and heir. Ultimately, Athens and Sparta would divide the Greek world between them and fight a 27-year-war that weakened both city-states. Other city-states then arose and were clawed down, and the power of Greece began to wane. As the tutor speaks these words, a boy raises his hand. Turning to the young man, the tutor says, “Yes, Alexander?”

The Turning Point: Loss of Greek Culture

The burning of Athens was a tremendous loss, both to the Greeks at the time and to students of history. It also presaged what could have happened had the Spartans not bought time for the Greeks to rally at Thermopylae or the city-states to come together to win the Battle of Salamis. The Persians did not simply burn the city of Athens; they also murdered many of its citizens and singled out its intellectual and cultural leaders. Given the later importance of Greek thinkers and artisans to Western, and indeed to world, history, the destruction of Greece at Persia’s hands would have meant that the Roman conquests of the Western world would not have been tempered by Greek ideas of logic, reason, and the pursuit of the good life. There would have been no Socrates to give us the foundation of Western education: the pursuit of knowledge by embracing ignorance and asking “why.” There would have been no Plato to propose the idea that the people should be ruled by those in society best able to lead. There would have been no Aristotle, without whom the disciplines of science, philosophy, and politics in the Western world would not exist. In short, our world today would be a very different place.

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