In 480 bc, the Great King Xerxes (519–465 bc) marched his massive multi-ethnic army into Greece. Herodotus claims that the Persian expedition was the greatest the Greek world had ever seen: ‘For what nation of Asia did Xerxes not lead to Hellas? What body of water did his forces not drink dry except for the greatest of rivers?’ (7.20–21).1 With an estimated land force of some 100,000 men, perhaps many more, Xerxes proceeded slowly through Macedonia and Thessaly, deliberately so because he expected many poleis to capitulate without a fight, and many indeed did. However, 31 refused to yield. Led by the Spartans, these poleis engaged the enemy first at Thermopylae (literally, the ‘gates of fire’), the narrow passage to southern Greece and where Persian numbers might not be an advantage. After two days of heavy fighting, however, the Greeks abandoned the pass once the enemy had found a way to circumvent their position. A small force of 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas, along with a number of Thespians and Thebans, fought on to face inevitable death. Herodotus says of Leonidas that he ‘perceived that it would be ignoble for him to leave the pass, and that if he were to remain, he would secure lasting glory and assure that the posterity of Sparta would not be obliterated’ (7.220.2).2 After Thermopylae, the Greeks mustered more formidable numbers and managed to defeat the Persians and drive them out of Europe.
Swipe to navigate through the chapters of this book
Please log in to get access to this content
To get access to this content you need the following product:
- Classical Greece (500–359 bc): The Golden Age of the Polis
- Macmillan Education UK
- Sequence number
- Chapter number