Fact or Fiction: The Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) between the Greeks and Persians is known for two things: the complete defeat of the Greeks leading to the “Persian Destruction of Athens” and arguably the most famous last stand in history: 300 Spartan soldiers holding off a massive Persian army.
The Battle of Thermopylae has been legendary ever since. The belief that Leonidas, King of Sparta, commanded 300 of his bravest and bravest soldiers to fight against what were believed to be millions of Persian invaders led by Xerxes I and almost declared war The victory has become popular today, all thanks to the many songs, poems and blockbuster films dedicated to the battle.
Some people even believe that the Spartans won the battle of Thermopylae against the powerful and large Persian army. But is there any truth to this legend? That’s what we’re here to find out today. Dive in to see how many of the views surrounding the Battle of Thermopylae have historical basis and whether the belief that 300 Spartans fought millions of Persians is fact or fiction.
300 Spartans and a million Persians?
You will be surprised to know that the Battle of Thermopylae and Leonidas’s final battle are two of the most exaggerated events in history. Due to popular films and graphic novels, the story of the 300 Spartans and their sacrifice has reached almost mythical levels.
Frank Miller’s 1998 comic book series 300 and its 2006 film adaptation directed by Zack Snyder are why most people know about the Battle of Thermopylae. However, it’s time to separate fact from fiction. But first, a brief history of Sparta and the events leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae.
History of Sparta
- Sparta was a warrior-state in ancient Greece that reached its peak in the late fifth century BC after defeating Athens.
- Spartan culture emphasized loyalty to the state and military service. Spartans were famous for being brave and fierce.
- Boys in the state are separated from their mothers at an early age and forced to undergo rigorous military training and education known as Agoge. This training prepared the boys for war and instilled in them the values of discipline, hard work and merit.
- Spartan women did not participate in the Agoge but still enjoyed significant rights compared to other states.
- Sparta was at the forefront of the Greco-Persian War (499–449 BC) and, along with Athens, led united Greece to victory.
Battle of Thermopylae
Source: Wikimedia Commons
- The second invasion of Greece, led by Xerxes I, was launched in 480 BC. In August, Xerxes was expected to reach Thermopylae, a narrow pass connecting the northern and southern parts of Greece.
- The Spartans were bound by these customs to ignore the arrival of the Persian army at Thermopylae. The Olympic Games and the Carneia festival were approaching, and going to war during this time was considered sacrilegious. However, the threat is too serious to ignore.
- So King Leonidas departed with his personal bodyguard (Hippeis) of 300 soldiers. Most are hardened veterans with children to carry on their legacy.
- Leonidas was joined by 700 Thespians, 1000 Phocians, 400 Thebans, and many Boeotians, Arcadians, and Lacedaemonians. The total army commanded by Leonidas numbered about 7,000 men.
- Leonidas’s plan was simple. Squeeze the massive Persian army into the narrow pass at Thermopylae and hold them as long as possible to buy time for the allied Greek navy and army to assemble.
How many troops served in the Persian Army?
According to Herodotus, the Persian army numbered 2.6 million people. Other historical records of the time also gave similar numbers. However, Ctesias counted 800,000 Persians, and modern estimates put the Persian Army at between 120,000 and 300,000. Although the Persian army could not have numbered in the millions due to the logistical limitations of the time, they still outnumbered the Greeks nearly 100 to one.
Thus, we have proven that it was not just 300 Spartans who defended Greece from the Persians. They had significant help. Additionally, the Persian army did not consist of millions of soldiers. However, they are still very large.
King Leonidas’s last stand
The Greek army inflicted heavy losses on the Persian army in the first few days. The Greeks were executing a brilliant strategy and there was only one flaw in their plan: an alternative route through the mountains around Thermopylae. Ephialates, a greedy Greek citizen, betrayed his countrymen for a reward, and the Persians quickly defeated the Greeks.
King Leonidas ordered his troops to retreat, but he remained. Surrender or retreat was against Spartan code. The 300 Spartans who refused to leave were accompanied by 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and possibly Spartan supporters and slaves. Leonidas and all the Spartans perished. Leonidas’s body was beheaded, and any surviving Greeks were considered slaves.
There are many myths surrounding the Spartans due to their representation in popular culture. No, they don’t charge into battle wearing only helmets and capes, highlighting their bare chests and rippling muscles. Although brave and heroic, Spartans are still human. Leonidas and his 300 soldiers made a brave last stand, but the Battle of Thermopylae was an absolute defeat for the Greeks.
King Leonidas saved more than half of this army and bought some time, but he did nothing to sway the huge Persian army, let alone defeat them. And although the Persians had huge numbers, they did not count millions. It is therefore a fiction that 300 soldiers alone fought millions of Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae.