In 480 BC a vast Persian army under king Xerxes crossed into Greece.
The invasion was triggered by Athens’ defeat of a Persian army at Marathon ten years earlier, but this was a far bigger force and the aim was to conquer the whole peninsula.
The army rolled south unopposed, until it met a small Greek force at the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece.
Sandwiched between mountains and sea, the pass was perhaps two to five metres wide at its entry point and about 15 metres in the middle where the battle was fought.
It was a perfect defensive position, since the Persians could not use their numbers to overwhelm the Greeks. And in this confined space they could not use their cavalry, nor the archers who had made Persia a world force from the Aegean to India.
For two days the Persians attacked in force, only to retreat badly mauled. But the Greek position had a flaw. Informed by a local of a route through the hills, the Persians sent a crack force overnight on the second day to descend behind the Greeks with the daylight.
Alerted to the flanking march the bulk of the Greek army withdrew early on the third day, while a hard core led by the Spartan king Leonidas stayed on.
Surrounded, the remainers retreated to a steep hill and fought on desperately until the Persians tired of the losses and shot them down with arrows.
Within a month the Greeks broke the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis.
The following summer they defeated the Persian army decisively at the battle of Plataea.
Plataea and Salamis changed the course of the war.
Thermopylae did not. But Thermopylae, with its tale of courage against the odds and resolution in the face of death, captured the imagination and it maintains its hold two and a half millennia later as the definitive last stand and the ultimate patriotic sacrifice.
Leonidas at Thermopylae,
by Jacques-Louis David, 1812.
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