For almost a decade after the Battle of Marathon of 490 BC, the Persians stayed well away from Greece. The reasons why were obvious to the Greeks themselves: news reached them in the years immediately after the battle that King Darius’s health was failing even as his attention was being consumed by a rebellion in Egypt. (Darius had ostensibly conquered that rich and storied land in 525 BC, two decades after it had failed to come to the aid of the beleaguered Croesus, but he had yet to fully subdue its populace.) The Egyptian rebellion was still ongoing in 486 BC, when word arrived that Darius had died and was succeeded by his son Xerxes. Perhaps, said some, with the ruler in whom the Athenians had inspired such enmity having gone to his rest, the Persians would be willing to let Greece be. And as more years went by without an attack, more and more Greeks came to believe this to be the case. Only a minority at Delphi and elsewhere continued to say that the Persian memory was long, and a reckoning was still inevitable.
It became clear to everyone in Delphi that the reckoning was imminent on the day in 480 BC when delegations from most of the major cities of Greece arrived unexpectedly, bringing with them the news that war was coming, that a storm was about to descend upon the land that would make the first Persian invasion seem like a diversionary skirmish. In fact, the Persians had already occupied most of Thessaly, and were now bearing down fast upon the heartland of Greece with an army of staggering size.
This is what had been happening on the other side of the Aegean Sea in the early years of Xerxes’s reign, while the Greeks were living the fantasy that they had defeated the Persians once and for all:
Subduing the rebellion in Egypt — a far more bountiful land than Greece — was the most immediately pressing problem facing Xerxes when he became king. Therefore his advisors pressured their king, who was personally more inclined to peace than war, into leading a massive army southward into Egypt, and reimposing his royal will on that land. Even as he was doing that, though, the same advisors continued to whisper the names of Greece and especially of Athens in his ear, just as his vengeance-besotted father had ordered them to do before his death. They knew how to play on the new king’s insecurities; he was painfully conscious of living perpetually in the shadow of his father’s achievements. “My lord,” they said, “the Athenians have inflicted great evils upon us, but have paid no price for it. You should march upon Athens as soon as possible to ensure your reputation as a strong monarch and to make sure that no others dare to make war upon us.”
So, once he had finished subduing Egypt, Xerxes duly began making plans for an invasion of Greece, which he would lead personally. The plans grew in the making, until they encompassed the largest invasion force in the history of man. After conquering the Greeks, it would continue westward and northward into the vast unexplored continent known as Europe, and make it too a part of the Persian Empire. For the day must come when all the world would belong to the Persians.
Xerxes spent years preparing for this gigantic effort. Listening as always to his advisors, he pitted the regional governors of his empire in competition against one another, promising rich rewards to the ones who sent the most soldiers to the northern outpost of Abydus, the invasion’s staging area. His army would be much too large to transport even a short distance by sea, so he sent hordes of Egyptians — the best bridge builders in the world — to construct a floating bridge of light but sturdy papyrus that would span the Hellespont between Abydus and the city of Sestus on the strait’s northern shore.
Meanwhile the invasion force slowly coalesced outside Abydus. In the end, it numbered some 500,000 soldiers — five times the size of the force that had set off for Greece last time. Given its size, this army was nothing like the elite Persian force that had once chased Croesus back to Sardis, nor the one that had defeated the rebels of Miletus with their Athenian allies, much less the one that had been caught out at Marathon. It was a motley group by contrast, but its sheer numbers beggared the imagination. There were ethnic Persians with soft felt caps on their heads, multi-colored tunics covering their bodies, and breastplates of iron fashioned to look like fish scales; Medians in turbans; Assyrians with helmets of bronze and breastplates of linen; Baktrians and Indians in cotton trousers; Caspians and Ethiopians clad in rude skins, with faces, arms, and legs covered in ocher dye; Arabians in long belted robes; Lybians dressed in leather; Paphlagonians in plaited helmets and calf-high boots; Thracians in fox-skin caps and loose shirts, with delicate fawn-skin boots on their feet; Moschians in wooden helmets. They were supplemented by 1207 ships; this fleet was to coordinate its progress across the sea with that of the army moving overland. And in addition to the fighting men, there were tens of thousands of women to prepare their food and serve their other bodily needs, along with hundreds of thousands of dogs and beasts of burden.
On the auspicious morning in the spring of 480 BC when the force was finally to set off, Xerxes reviewed it from an elevated marble throne at the top of the highest hill in the area. The plain before him was completely covered with men, like ants on a ripe melon; the water of the Hellespont was so choked with ships that it looked like solid land. At first, Xerxes exulted at being master of all of this. But then, he suddenly burst into tears.
“Why do you cry, my lord?” asked one Artabanus, a wizened uncle of Xerxes who, almost alone among the king’s court, had been consistently skeptical about the grand invasion. Despite his frustration with what his other advisors told him was Artabanus’s unseemly timidity, Xerxes liked and confided in him above all other men. Artabanus had come here today to say farewell to his nephew, for he himself was too old for campaigning.
“Because I was just struck by the impermanence of it all, by the brevity of human life,” answered Xerxes after a long pause now. “This force at my command seems so awesome today, but 100 years from now not one of its number will still be alive.”
“But consider this,” said Artabanus. “You complain that our span of years on this earth are short. And yet no human being is ever so fortunate that the wish to be dead doesn’t cross his mind at least once during his life. For misfortune and illness can make even a short life seem long. Although death is a horrible thing, the prospect of endless life without death’s relief is still more horrible.”
Xerxes shook off his mood when he heard these wise words. “Yes, it is doubtless just as you have said. At any rate, I should not think of evil things on this day of days. We shall make short work of the Greeks with an army such as this one, eh?”
But now it was Artabanus’s turn to look unhappy. “I hope it will be just as you say, my king. But I must confess that I still worry when I consider that we have to fight not only the Greeks but an even more formidable adversary.”
“What on earth do you mean?” asked the king in surprise. “Do the Greeks have an ally I know nothing of?”
Artabanus shook his head. “I mean the land. An army of this size must consume all of the land’s bounty as it travels. It will leave a ruined waste behind it; it must keep moving forward to survive. But what happens if its forward march is checked, even for a short time? I fear the result will be famine.”
Xerxes’s reply betrayed a trace of annoyance; the two had had discussions like this many times before. “Artabanus, you persist in trying to find the absolutely safe and secure course, but that can never lead to big success,” he said, echoing the words his other advisors had used on him. “Success comes to those who take action rather than worrying over every detail. This army you see all around us is an example of that. If the kings who came before me had had the same attitude as you, or listened to advisors like you, would this army exist today? We have reached this point thanks to men who were willing to play a dangerous game; it is only by taking great risks that great successes are won. Please, let us try to be like those earlier kings, and temper our caution with a modicum of boldness. We are setting off at the best time of year for campaigning, and the lands into which we will march are settled by farmers, not nomads. There will be plenty of food.”
Artabanus only nodded wearily, for they had indeed had this discussion too often in recent months. He recognized a certain logic in what Xerxes had said, but foreboding still gripped his heart. He said his farewell soon after and began the journey back to Sardis even as his king set off in the opposite direction.
Over the course of the next several days, the army marched in single file over the precarious floating bridge built by the Egyptians; the winds which could have pitched the soldiers into the sea never blew, and this Xerxes chose to take as a good omen. Then the army began its long overland march with Xerxes at its head while the fleet set off on the ocean. The plan was for the army and fleet to meet one another at certain checkpoints along the way to Greece, so that they would be able to coordinate their attacks when they arrived. The first of these checkpoints was the port of Doriskus on the shore of Thrace.
From his father, Xerxes had inherited Demaratus, the embittered deposed king of Sparta, as one of his military advisors; in fact, Demaratus was his only advisor other than Artabanus who consistently urged caution against the Greeks. At Doriskus, the two had a conversation which the Persian king wound up finding just as irksome as the one he had recently had with Artabanus.
“Demaratus,” said Xerxes, “I wish to ask your candid opinion about something. Will the Greeks seriously attempt to stand against me? For it seems obvious to me that they wouldn’t have a chance even if they were united, which they are not.”
“Sire,” answered Demaratus, “you have said many times that I should always speak the truth to you. I will do that now, even though I fear my opinion is not what you might wish to hear. One has to remember that Greece is not a fertile land like so many other parts of your empire. It’s a rugged, mountainous place, where farming is a struggle and life in general is hard. Rather than a bane, this has been a boon in many ways for the Greeks. They have had to learn to be clever, resilient, and self-sufficient simply in order to survive. This applies doubly to Sparta, which is situated on some of the less desirable territory even of Greece. Perhaps some of the Greeks might choose surrender rather than the agony of defeat in battle, but I can tell you now that the Spartans at least will never do so. If their city is the only one left unconquered in all of Greece and we outnumber them by a thousand to one, still they will fight us to the death. I am absolutely sure of this. Do not underestimate them, even when their numbers are small. One Spartan soldier is worth any ten of this rabble that travels with us. Remember that even the Athenians, who are definitely not the equal of the Spartans in battle, were able to defeat a much larger Persian force at Marathon that was, considered on a man-for-man basis, far better equipped and more disciplined than this army that marches toward Greece today.”
“I have to believe, my valued servant, that you still take a certain pride in the countrymen you profess to hate,” said a vexed Xerxes in response. “My generals all promise me that any one of my soldiers is the equal of any one Greek soldier — yes, even one of your vaunted Spartans. Marathon was a fluke, they tell me, a stroke of bad luck for a complacent army. I agree that my father perhaps didn’t take the Greeks seriously enough ten years ago, but no one can accuse me of making the same mistake today. Surely no place in all the world could stand against the force I have assembled.”
“My lord,” said Demaratus, “I fear that you do continue to underestimate the Greeks in some ways — at least my countrymen the Spartans. With all due respect, they have a lord and master more compelling than any king: Spartan law. They do what it commands with absolute fidelity, and what it commands is always the same: never to flee in battle, no matter how many men they are fighting, always to remain in their formations until they either prevail or perish. It goes without saying that I wish to see our army victorious; I wish to have my revenge on the people who took from me the throne that was rightly mine. But I warn you that you take the Spartans — and all the Greeks, really — lightly at your peril. I fear it will be a hard-fought campaign, whatever the difference in numbers.”
Xerxes tried to make light of Demaratus’s comments, but he was secretly discomfited by them when the meeting ended.
Nevertheless, his army marched on according to plan, swelling its ranks yet further with new recruits in the regions through which it passed. Sometimes these men joined voluntarily in the hope of adventure and fortune; sometimes they were forced to join, either directly by the Persian soldiers themselves or indirectly by the devastation which Xerxes’s army wreaked upon their crops and livestock. Like a plague of nature, the army crept slowly across the landscape for months on end, leaving a wasteland of blighted fields and dry wells and ponds in its wake.
At last the day came when the army marched around the foot of the mountain of the gods — Mount Olympus, standing like a proud sentinel at the northern outskirt of the lands traditionally considered to be Greek. Now the Persians began to pass through legendary places from the Age of Gods. They marched through Larissa, where Perseus had accidentally killed his father, and through Iolcus, where the Greeks had gathered to sail for Troy and where Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter to appease the gods. Neither city put up a fight now, but rather gave Xerxes the earth and water of surrender which he demanded. As a result, the Persian king became more and more convinced that Artabanus and Demaratus were alarmists at best, cowards at worst.
Rumors of the army sweeping across Thrace had been reaching Greece for some time by this point, but most people had shrugged them off. Surely the reports of the army’s size must be exaggerated — and at any rate, who could say for sure that it was even headed for Greece? But when it turned southward and moved through Thessaly, the reality of the threat could no longer be denied. Thus the emergency meeting of the Greek cities at Delphi.
When all of the news — none of it good — had been shared among the assembled kings, generals, archontes, and diplomats, the delegation from Athens announced that they wished to consult with the oracle before discussing what should be done next.
Unfortunately, Delphi wasn’t blessed with an authoritative oracle at the time. The town’s oracles in general had been plagued by accusations of favoritism and corruption of late. First there had been the suspected bribery of an oracle by the exiled Athenians during the time of Hippias’s tyranny; then the proven extortion of an oracle by a Spartan political faction. The current oracle wanted desperately to avoid similar scandals, but her efforts only served to make her weak, confused and confusing, indecisive at a time when Greece more than ever needed decisiveness.
She had embraced a growing tendency among her predecessors to couch her god’s replies in convoluted verse. This is what she said to the Athenians:
Why sit so idle, you poor wretched men? To the ends of the land you should flee.
Leave your homes, leave the heights of your circular fortress,
For neither the head nor the body remains in its place,
Nor the feet underneath, nor the hands in the middle
Are left as they were, but now all is obscure. For casting it down
Is fire and Ares so sharp on the heels of a Persian chariot
And he will destroy many cities and towers, and not yours alone;
And into the devouring fire he will give the temples of eternal gods,
Which now drip with sweat and shake in their fear
As blood gushes darkly from the tops of their roofs,
Foreseeing the force of compelling disaster.
Now step out of this shrine, and shroud over your heart with the evils to come.
This apocalyptic vision didn’t remain inside the Athenian camp alone for long. Word of it quickly spread to everyone at Delphi, natives and visitors alike, and the mood in the town turned from dark to black.
But that very night the Delphi town elder was seen to pay a visit of his own to the oracle in her temple. The next morning, he told the Athenians to go to her again, bowing extra low this time and bearing olive branches for her god. Perhaps Apollo would look upon their plight differently and alter the fate that lay before them. The Athenians did as the elder advised, and this time the oracle said this:
The rest will be taken, to sacred Mount Cithaeron and beyond.
But a wall of wood does farsighted Zeus to Athens grant
Alone and unravaged, to help you and your children.
Do not await peacefully the horse and the foot,
The army gigantic that comes from the mainland;
Withdraw, turn your backs, though someday you will meet face to face.
O Salamis Divine, the children of women you will yet destroy
While Demeter is scattered or while she is gathered.
This prophecy and advice certainly sounded milder than what the oracle had said the previous day, but there was much debate about what it actually meant. Some said that the “wall of wood” must refer to the one surrounding the acropolis at the very center of Athens, that it must mean the Athenians should abandon all of Attica and even most of their city and make their stand there. But others said that the wall of wood must refer to their ships; their navy, the pride of their military, would save them. But if so, what of the last two lines? They seemed to prophesy defeat rather than victory, at the island of Salamis just outside Athens’s harbor.
Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, had died on a foreign adventure not long after that battle, leaving a man named Themistocles as the most clever and respected military strategist among the Athenians. He now proffered a different explanation of the verse’s concluding lines. “Taken in the context of the whole verse, which explicitly promises us the help of Zeus,” he said, “the last two lines must refer not to our own destruction but that of the Persians. They will be destroyed either at the time of planting or of harvest. Well, harvest time is almost nigh as we speak. The god Apollo is telling us that, if we are brave and resolute and place our faith in our navy, we will win out. ” And everyone rushed to embrace this interpretation over any of the alternatives.
Themistocles stood up now to address the whole assembly. “Men of Greece,” he said, “the god’s latest message offers us Athenians hope if we only take it to heart. But this will not be another Marathon; Athens cannot hope to turn back this Persian invasion alone. To defeat this second wave of barbarians, all of Greece must join together and work toward that common goal. For the time being, Greece must act like a single state. We in Athens have a fine navy, with vessels as fast and potent as any in the world, manned by skilled sailors. Other cities have other strengths. We must pool those strengths — now, before it is too late. All hostility between us must cease today. We must become brothers in arms, one for all and all for one. Only in that way do we have a chance.” And he looked anxiously at the others to see how they would take this exhortation.
He looked most anxiously of all at the Spartans. Would they seize this chance to recover the honor they had lost last time the Persians had attacked, or would they once again allow their rivalry with Athens to overcome their fellowship with all of Greece? King Leonidas of Sparta, who had come to Delphi at the head of its delegation, gave no sign which way they were leaning. “We too must consult with the oracle before making any decisions,” he said. And the assembly briefly adjourned again while the Spartans did so.
The prophecy they received seemed to say that either Sparta would fall to the Persians or one of its kings would do so.
You who dwell in Sparta,
Either your city of glory will perish, sacked by the Persians,
Or else you will grieve for the death of your king.
The Persians will not be restrained until one or the other is torn apart.
After pondering this mixed message for a while with the rest of his delegation, Leonidas spoke before the assembly. “What Themistocles has proposed strikes us as reasonable,” he said. “Sparta is willing to set aside its differences with all of you and make common cause against the Persians.”
Now, the bloodiest of all the petty conflicts going on among the Greek cities at the time was a war between Sparta and Argos, one which had been fought off and on for many years. The delegation from Argos said that they wished to consult with the oracle as well before proceeding. The verse they received was clearer than those which had come down to the Athenians and the Spartans, but didn’t say anything about making common cause:
Hated by your neighbors, but dear to the gods immortal,
Hold your spear withdrawn, and on your guard, sit still.
Keep your head well guarded, and it will save the body.
This pronouncement of the god seemed to say quite clearly that their best course was to stay within the fastness of their own city. And indeed, this the men of Argos were initially inclined to do. But then one dissenter among their number spoke. “Centuries ago,” he said, “our future King Orestes came to Athens, pursued by the horrible Furies, at the time of his greatest distress. The Athenians took him in, gave him shelter and protection, and hosted the trial that brought him deliverance. He said to the Athenians then, ‘If ever you have need of additional spears to defend you against your enemies, you may always look to Argos.’ Will we really besmirch our illustrious ancestor’s honor now by showing his promise to have been hollow?”
Taken aback, his countrymen started to argue with one another once again. In the end, they came to the rest of the assembly with a counteroffer. The Spartans must make a treaty of peace with their city that was binding for 30 years, to ensure that Sparta couldn’t take advantage of a weakened Argos after the war with the Persians was over. If they did this, Argos would join the alliance. The Spartans reluctantly agreed to their terms.
Taking to heart the example of Athens, Sparta, and Argos all reconciling for the time being, the other cities pledged their troth one by one. For the first time since the Trojan War, Greece stood united against a common enemy. Yet time was desperately short, for even as they were negotiating the Persians had continued their march southward. Delphi itself was likely to become the next major town to be captured if they could not be stopped. But where and how should the Greeks mount their defense? That was the question that the assembly had to take up now.
A short distance north of Delphi, a chain of mountains spans the land shore to shore from east to west. At the time of these events, just one gap in the chain large enough to admit an army of significant size was commonly known: a space between the mountains’ eastern terminus and the water of the Malian Gulf. This gateway between Thessaly and the heart of Greece is known as Thermopylae: “the hot gates,” after the hot springs which bubble to the surface there from the depths of Hades. It has long been a strategic choke point; even at the time of which we speak, a crumbling wall, built by defenders of long ago, stood near the southern edge of the pass. The Greeks knew that the Persians must come through this natural choke point. It was there, they decided, that they would make their first stand. If the Persians couldn’t be stopped there, they must at least be delayed; otherwise the cities of Greece would all be run over before they could marshal their full armies for war.
At this point, King Leonidas of Sparta, he who had come to his throne courtesy of intrigue when already middle-aged and had done little to distinguish himself while sitting upon it, surprised everyone. “I will lead the defense of Thermopylae. I have a contingent of 300 men with me now. We will rush there immediately. Hopefully we will arrive before the Persian army will be able to reach the same place. Are any of you willing and able to join me?”
“I pledge my 500 men!” said a general from Tegea. “I pledge my 400 men!” said an archon from Corinth. “I pledge my 400 men as well!” said a prince of Thebes. And so it went. A force of almost 6000 soldiers was assembled in this piecemeal way.
But just as a sense of hope was rising in the hall, the town elder of Delphi squashed it again. “We know that these Persians bring a huge fleet of ships with them as well,” he said. “Surely they will simply land troops on the shoreline south of Thermopylae, and squeeze the defenders to death from both sides.”
Themistocles spoke again. “I came to Delphi by sea; my small fleet is docked down in Cirrha now. We will engage the Persian fleet in an attempt to prevent it from doing what you have said. All of you should send any ships you have that can sail and fight with me.” Everyone present wondered how the few ships of Themistocles could possibly hold off a force the size of the Persian fleet, but this time no one, not even the outspoken Delphi elder, said anything. In the absence of hope, purpose would have to do. And so the assembly adjourned — some to join Leonidas on the march to Thermopylae, some to sail with Themistocles, some to return to their home cities as quickly as possible to raise larger armies and fleets.
The town they left behind was eerily still. Fear was palpable; Delphi felt exposed, vulnerable, abandoned. In fact, the people were so terrified that they did something that had become very unusual since the Age of Gods had ended: they consulted the oracle on their own behalf. She returned from her inner sanctum with a message to pray for favorable winds, saying they could become a great ally for Delphi and all of Greece. The people weren’t sure that they understood the full import of this advice, but they nevertheless followed it earnestly: they erected an altar to the wind and prayed at it en masse all day and all night.
That very same night, the Persian fleet that had been shadowing the Persian army down the coast lay at anchor near the shore some distance south of Cape Sepias. At dawn, what had been a peaceful sea suddenly turned into a broiling cauldron, as a storm blew up out of nowhere. Some of the Persian ships raced for shore and managed to beach themselves in time, but most of the fleet was forced to ride out the storm at sea. It blew them to and fro for four days, sinking a third of their number; wreckage would continue to wash up on the eastern shoreline of Greece for months on end.
Meanwhile the small army of Leonidas did indeed reach Thermopylae ahead of the Persians. The soldiers immediately set to work rebuilding and reinforcing the short wall that already stood there between the mountains and the sea. Yet their ranks were full of doubts, even dissension, as they did so. For the scouts they had sent northward were returning with terrifying reports about Xerxes’s army, which was apparently larger than anyone had ever imagined an army could be. “What sense does it make to stand and die here against such an overwhelming foe?” many among the Greeks asked.
But Leonidas and his Spartans were adamant. “Go if you wish,” they said. “For our part, we have promised to defend this pass, if for no other reason than to buy time for the rest of Greece to assemble forces able to defeat the barbarian onslaught. And defend this pass we will.” And the others too stayed out of shame.
Xerxes had scouts as well, who brought back reports of the tiny Greek army preparing to make a stand against him. Flabbergasted that anyone could be so foolhardy, he sent for his advisor Demaratus. “Have your people no sense at all?” he asked.
“My lord, you heard what I have to say on this subject not long after we set out on this expedition,” Demaratus sighed. “I know not what else I can add. From the scouts’ description, I can tell you that at least some of the soldiers blocking the way are Spartans. They are simply the bravest warriors in the world. They will stand and fight to the death against our numbers without giving it a second thought.”
But Xerxes was still unwilling to believe. Again he laughed, again he tried to make a joke out of his advisor’s predictions.
Demaratus was having none of it. “Sire, if what I say proves untrue, by all means, punish me as a liar in your presence deserves to be punished.”
Thoroughly irritated, Xerxes dismissed Demaratus peremptorily.
Xerxes was frustrated not least because he couldn’t make use of his fleet, which otherwise could have landed troops behind the defenders at Thermopylae and made short work of them. As those ships which had survived the storm had attempted to sail past Cape Artemisium at the northern tip of Euboea, they had been met by the ships of Themistocles. Although they lacked the numbers to challenge the Persian fleet in a straight-up battle under normal circumstances, these were not normal circumstances; the Persian ships were scattered, disorganized, their sailors still in shock from the storm they had endured. The Greeks were thus able to drive them back easily as they attempted to sail in ones and twos and threes through the strait leading unto the Gulf of Malia. The fleet simply couldn’t reach Thermopylae — not unless and until it could form up again out to sea and bring its numbers to bear properly on the Greeks blockading the strait. Xerxes wasn’t willing to wait that long. In the absence of his fleet, he decided, the Greeks standing in his way at Thermopylae would have to be beaten in a brutal full-frontal assault.
So, the first ranks of Xerxes’s army began to advance through the bottleneck. For all his army’s size, Xerxes had relatively few of the vaunted Persian cavalry at his disposal, and he wasn’t going to squander them by sending them into a narrow defile that negated all of their strengths. Instead he sent his infantry — and not even the best of it because he knew losses would be high. Alas, he had no idea how high.
For even those among the Greeks who had doubted the wisdom of trying to hold the pass took heart now, and fought like the fiercest lions. They pelted the Persians with arrows from the slopes of the mountains towering to the west as their enemies advanced through the narrow space below. And the Persians died like lambs, panicked in that deadly defile. They died and died and died, until those who advanced from behind found themselves clambering over a hillock of bodies that all but filled the pass. Fear drove some of them to run down to the sea, where they drowned as they sought shelter beneath the waves from the relentless rain of arrows. Eventually the Greeks ran out of arrows and were forced to fall back to their wall, but even this brought the Persians little relief. For the Greeks had cleverly fashioned extra long spears for themselves which they could wield from atop their wall. Thus they continued to kill the Persians at a distance, until the mound of bodies stacked before their wall was higher than their heads in places.
When the Persian attack petered out at sunset, the Greeks advanced into the pass again to strip their enemies’ bodies of useful equipment, and to recover as many as possible of the arrows they had shot. The tide that came in that evening was milky white; the tide that went out was bright scarlet.
The next day, the Persians lived through a repeat of the day before. Once more they had to advance under a rain of arrows from the replenished stocks of the Greeks. There came a point where the Persian commanders could no longer compel their terrified men to continue the assault — not even when they executed some of the balkers as an example to the rest, not even when they stood behind them and flogged them with whips. When the flow of new lambs to the slaughter thus began to slacken, Leonidas’s Spartans marched all the way to the northern egress of the pass, whence they jeered at the Persians in the most insulting way. When the enraged Persians chased into the pass after them, they scampered backward again, leading their pursuers into a deadly ambush of arrows. Once again the sea ran scarlet that night.
Xerxes was at a loss after two full days of this. His whole invasion force, more than half a million men strong, was utterly stymied by a handful of Greeks. While he was sitting in his tent brooding over the absurdity of it all, a soldier came to him, telling of a humble Greek herdsman named Ephialtes who wished to see him. “What? Why are you bothering me with such trivialities?” barked Xerxes, being in no good humor.
“My lord,” stammered the soldier, “he claims to have information useful to our cause.”
Xerxes was intrigued despite himself. “Very well. Send him in.”
Amidst much cringing and bowing, Ephialtes offered to tell of another path through the mountains, known only to local herdsmen like himself. It began, he said, in a hidden dell some distance to the west.
“Where is this path precisely?” demanded Xerxes with growing excitement. “Out with it!”
“Please, lord,” muttered the wretch groveling at Xerxes’s feet, “I had hoped to receive some form of compensation…”
The Persian king swallowed his disgust. “Yes, yes, you shall be rewarded well if your information proves correct. But do not try my patience further now! Where is this path of which you speak?”
So, Ephialtes explained how to find it, and did indeed receive his reward of gold when his information proved correct, at the cost of the eternal scorn of his countrymen. Even today, his name stands for the archetypal traitor when it passes the lips of a Greek.
At dawn the next day, another herdsman, one who plied his trade on the southern slopes of the mountains, ran into the Greek camp at Thermopylae shouting wildly. “The Persians have found another path over the mountains!” he cried. “They marched right past me as I was tending my flock in the foothills. They are coming this way now, to attack you from the rear!”
This was dismaying news indeed. A hasty council of war was convened. Most of the Greek leaders saw only one sensible course: they must withdraw immediately, before they were squeezed to death in their defile between the two sides of Xerxes’s army. But Leonidas was of a different mind. “I will stay here with my men and fight to the last,” he said, thinking of the oracle’s prophecy that either Sparta or one of its kings must fall in this war. If by his death he could fulfill the prophecy and save Sparta, he would gladly do so. His men promised to stand with him in the breach, as they had been conditioned to do since birth.
Some scattered brave souls from other cities also chose to stay with the Spartans. “If by our deaths we can add one more day to the two we have already won for the rest of Greece, it’s worth it,” these said to themselves. The rest dashed madly southward before the trap closed upon them.
Not waiting to be attacked from the rear, the remaining Greeks advanced up the pass. In a scene that carried with it echoes of the one at Marathon, they poured chaotically into the Persian camp at the northern mouth of Thermopylae. And as at Marathon, their enemies were caught totally unaware; only the Persians’ staggering advantage in numbers prevented the same ultimate outcome. Today’s battle made all of the fighting that had taken place over the previous two days seem like nothing. When the Greeks’ spears broke and fell, they fought with swords and daggers; when these weapons were wrenched from their grasp, they fought with fists, nails, and teeth. They died one by one, but only after each had taken down dozens of Persians. Leonidas was among the last to fall; needless to say, he had atoned for any shame clinging to him for the circumstances under which he had attained his throne. He would be remembered forever as perhaps Sparta’s greatest hero of all.
When he learned who had been the leader of the Greeks, Demaratus found that the revenge which he had been so eagerly anticipating for more than a decade carried none of the sweetness he had expected. He could take no pleasure at all in the death of the man who had stolen his throne, so nobly had that man fought and died.
After the battle, Xerxes ordered his soldiers to count the Greek casualties meticulously. He assumed that there would be several thousand of them, but was shocked and dismayed to be informed that there were in fact less than 400 Greek bodies on the field. He called for Demaratus. “You have proved your wisdom,” he said. “These Spartans fought just as you said they would. These few hundreds and their few thousand companions who are reported to have fled have killed 30,000 of my own soldiers. But tell me now, how many of them are left to fight? And are all of them really such warriors as these men were?”
“My lord, most of the men who stayed to die at Thermopylae were from the cream of the Spartan military. There are about 8000 more of their caliber.”
Xerxes shook his head. “Such a tiny quantity would normally be beneath regard. But witness the damage so few of them have done today… Tell me now, Demaratus, what is the best way to overcome these men? Tell me truthfully! I promise to give your words the weight they deserve from now on.”
Demaratus considered. “My lord, I fear that the Spartans will join their army with those of the other cities of the Peloponnese and attempt to halt your advance at another natural choke point: the Isthmus of Corinth, where the Peloponnese joins the mainland. That will be a bloody impasse indeed. But I happen to know that the island of Cythera, to the south of the Peloponnese, is very poorly defended. My advice is to divide your fleet in two. Send one half, laden with soldiers, to take Athens — such a force should be more than sufficient for that task — and send the other half to take Cythera, a natural staging ground for an attack into the southern Peloponnese, all while the rest of your soldiers march overland directly to the Isthmus of Corinth. Facing attack from the south, the Spartans and their allies on the peninsula will not dare to send the entirety of their armies to oppose our advance from the north. In this way, we can eliminate at least half of the opposition we will face at the Isthmus of Corinth at very little cost to ourselves.”
Xerxes mulled over this advice; it seemed wise to him. But when he brought it up with his other advisors, they condemned both the message and the messenger. “Do you remember how it went for King Priam when he took Greeks at face value?” they said. “Do you remember how the Athenians pledged their loyalty to your father and then betrayed him? Never trust a Greek! For all we know, Demaratus is trying to get you to divide your forces so his countrymen can defeat us piece by piece. A general who thinks too much about his enemies — where they will fight, how they will fight, how many of them there are — is lost. You should continue the invasion as we have long planned it. You still have an overwhelming force at your disposal. The losses we have suffered these last few days are the merest nick on the flank of a raging bull.”
The king heatedly dismissed the idea that Demaratus might be in league with the enemy. “I forbid you to utter such slander against him again!” he declared. And yet, notwithstanding the promise he had made to listen to Demaratus henceforward, he did grudgingly agree that his Spartan advisor’s strategy might not be the wisest. “We will continue our invasion as planned, then,” he said. “We march on Boeotia and Thebes, then onward to Attica and Athens. After that, we will take the Peloponnese. But one smaller army will break away to the southwest on a special mission today.”
“And what mission will that be, my lord?”
“Why, the occupation of Delphi, of course. It has half the gold of Greece in its treasuries, if half the reports about it are true. And it has the world’s foremost oracle. How can these Greeks hope to fight on without her guidance?”
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)