The Battle of Thermopylae

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Transcript

In the year 480 BC, one of the most famous battles in history took place on the shore of the Malian Gulf in the Aegean Sea.

Several thousand Greeks held back several hundred thousand Persians, in a battle which is still remembered 2,500 years later. 


While the Greeks lost the battle, they did ultimately win the war.

Learn more about the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 hundred Spartans, on the 300th episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

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This episode is sponsored by Audible.com

My audiobook recommendation today is Thermopylae by Paul Cartledge.

In 480 B.C., a huge Persian army, led by the inimitable King Xerxes, entered the mountain pass of Thermopylae to march on Greece, intending to conquer the land with little difficulty. But the Greeks, led by King Leonidas and a small army of Spartans, took the battle to the Persians at Thermopylae and halted their advance – almost. It is one of history’s most acclaimed battles, one of civilization’s greatest last stands.

Renowned classical historian Paul Cartledge looks anew at this history-altering moment and shows how its repercussions affect us even today. 

You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.

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Most battles and wars throughout human history have involved neighboring kingdoms or tribes, who despite their differences, were probably more alike than different in the big global scheme of things. 

Occasionally, however, different civilizations will clash. These conflicts can alter the course of world history in a way that regular battles cannot. 

One of the first such cases occurred 2,500 years ago between the Persian Empire and the City-States of Greece. 

These were profoundly different societies. 

The Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, was a massive empire which stretched from what is today northern Greece to India to Libya. While the empire was multicultural and multilingual, it was a highly centralized bureaucracy, with an absolute ruler at the top. 

They were the largest, richest, and most powerful empire on Earth. Many historians have considered them to be the world’s first superpower. Before the Romans, before the Chinese, before the Mongols, and before the Macedonians. 

Greece, on the other hand, wasn’t really even a thing. What we think of as Greece was at the time a collection of city-states that were constantly warring with each other. 

Many of the cities were republics that exercised a form of democracy. They would trade extensively through the Aegean and the Mediterranean. 

The customs, traditions, religion, and aesthetics, of the Greeks, were profoundly different from the Persians. 

They didn’t have anything close to the size or wealth of Persia, and that is ignoring the fact that they were in no way united. 

It was in this context that the Greco-Persian wars took place. 

In the year 490 BC the Persians attempted their first invasion of Greece. 

Led by King Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, they were ultimately unsuccessful, having decisively lost at the Battle of Marathon. 

After Darius died, his son Xerxes took the throne. Xerxes intended to complete the job that his father couldn’t. He was going to invade and conquer Greece. 

The Persians spent four years planning and preparing for the invasion. 

They assembled one of the largest armies in the ancient world. Herodotus, a contemporary Greek writer, claimed the Persian army had 2.6 million men under arms, with an equivalent number in support. 

Simonides of Ceos claimed that it was four million strong. 

Ancient writers had a tendency to exaggerate numbers, especially if it makes their side look good if they win. The bigger the opponent, the greater the victory. 

Modern scholars think that the actual size of the Persian army was between 100,000 and 300,000 men, which would still be one of the largest armies in ancient history. 

They created a huge logistical operation to feed and support their army.

Xerxes dug a canal through the Mount Athos peninsula, which is something I referenced in my previous episode on the topic. 

The Persian Army had to cross the Hellespont, today known as the Dardanelles, so Xerxes had built a floating bridge a mile long to have his entire army cross it on foot.

Both of these were incredible engineering feats for the time. 

Supplying and equipping an army of that size was an incredible undertaking, but Xersex didn’t want to leave victory to chance. 

The Greeks were not in a good position. 

The Athenians, who were the primary force that defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon 10 years earlier, had been preparing for another war against Persia for years. They had built a massive fleet, but they didn’t have enough men to both fight at sea and on land. 

Xerxes sent ambassadors to all the Greek city-states, except Sparta and Athens, which were the two strongest. He wanted them to capitulate without a fight, and create division between the city-states, isolating Athens and Sparta in the process. 

A council was called with various city-states to deal with the Persian threat. 

It was decided that the best strategy was to use the terrain to their advantage to try and counter the Persians superior forces. Their first, best opportunity to slow them would be along the coast of the Malian Gulf at a place known as Thermopylae. 

If you’ve seen the movie 300, or any other depiction of the battle, it is almost always shown as taking place on a path with large rocks on either side. 

This is not what happened. 

There was a winding trail that hugged the coastline. On one side there was a mountain, and on the other side was the sea. 

If you look at a picture of the location today, or if you visit it, it doesn’t look like this at all today. I drove through the area several years ago and I was perplexed at how they could have defended such a broad area. 

Over the last 2,500 years, the Malian Gulf has silted in because of a local river, which has caused the shore to move out. Today, the spot is several kilometers from the shore.

It is estimated that the width of the path that the Greeks defended was about 100 meters, or 300 feet, wide. 

King Leonidas of Sparta agreed to take 300 of his elite royal guard to Thermopylae. Along the way, they would try to recruit as many men as they could to try to hold off the Persians. 

Along the way they recruited about 7,000 more men, and set up camp, defending the narrowest part of the passage. 

After several weeks, the Persians finally arrived. 

For several days, they didn’t do anything. On the fifth day, Xerxes ordered his men to take the passage.

They first fired an enormous volley of arrows, but they were ineffective due to the Greek shields and armor.

He then sent in 10,000 men on a frontal assault. They were torn to ribbons by the Greeks. 

The Greeks fought in a formation known as a phalanx with their primary weapon being a very long spear. With their shields locked, the Greeks could reach the Persians with their spears, and the Persians couldn’t reach the Greeks.

After the first assault, Xerxes then sent in his elite Immortal guards, who suffered the same result. 

On the second day of the battle, Xerxes figured that the Greeks would be tired and injured, so he just tried another frontal assault, and got the same results. 

However, later that day, they were informed of a path that went up into the mountain and came back down on the other side of where the Greeks were defending. The information was given to them by one Ephialtes of Trachis, whose name became synonymous with treachery and treason thereafter. 


Xerxes sent his elite units up the path that evening to encircle the Greeks.

The Greeks heard the Persians realized what was happening. They had been aware of the path. 

They held a war council that evening and Leonidas said that he and his men would stay to defend the pass, and everyone else could retreat. As the battle was hopeless, they felt that if they could hold off the Persians long enough, the rest of the Greek forces could get away to fight again another day.  About 2,000 of the 7,000 men stayed behind to fight.

On day three of the battle, knowing that all was lost, the Greeks, led by the Spartans, advanced into the Persians with the goal of taking out as many of them as possible, and occupying them for as long as possible.

They fought until their spears broke, then they fought with their swords and their hands. 

They were totally wiped out. 

In the end, 2,000 Greeks were killed in Thermopylae. However, they killed over 20,000 Persians in the process. 

Even though it was technically a defeat, the valor and performance of the Greeks at Thermopylae was a huge morale boost to the rest of Greece. 


Xerxes continued to march into Greece. Athens was evacuated and there was a retreat across the Isthmus of Corinth, which was highly defendable. 

It was then the Athenian navy defeated the Persians in the decisive Battle of Salamis, which gave the Greeks control of the sea, about one month later.

Xerxes, afraid that the Greeks would destroy his bridge across the Hellespont stranding his army, retreated with most of his forces back to Asia. Having lost control of the sea, he was unable to supply his massive army, and most of his men died in the retreat from starvation and disease. 

The remaining Persian forces left behind were defeated the next year in the Battle of Plataea, which ended the Persian invasion of Greece. 

150 years later, the tables would be turned. Philip II of Macedon would conquer Greece, and his son, Alexander the Great would, in turn, conquer Persia, ending the Persian threat once and for all.

It is difficult to stress just how different history would have turned out if Greece had been conquered by Persia. 

The Battle of Thermopylae has been a centerpiece of western and military history since it took place. It has been the subject of poems, books, songs, and movies. 

Today, over 2,500 years after the events took place, the defiant last stand of the Greeks is still remembered.

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The Associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomson.

Today’s five-star review comes from listener Becky Hickmanover on Apple Podcasts. They write:

Similar to Cabinet of Curiosities

I enjoy these short tales on interesting topics and about interesting people. The only thing I don’t like is the reading of 5-star reviews.

Thanks, Becky. I see what you did there. By saying that you don’t like five-star reviews and putting that into a five-star review, knowing that I would read the five-star review, you attempted to create a recursive loop that would cause the podcast to self-destruct. Fortunately, I only got a slight nose bleed. 

Remember if you leave a five-star review, you too can have your review read on the show.