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Notes on The Battle of Thermopylae - History Channel Video - “Last Stand of the 300”
0:00: Intro - 300,000 Persians against 300 Spartans - hold the pass, or die trying
Famous last stand for the Spartans
Battle determined the fate of democracy and shaped the course of Western Civilization
480 BC - King Xerxes arrives in Greece with largest army in the world at the time
Mustered about 300,000 soldiers for the invasion - but could have been as many as 2,000
Biggest army to ever pass through Greece
1,000 war ships accompany the army
Persian Empire is enormous - extends from the Indus to the Nile to the Mediterranean
Xerxes spent five years in preparation
Goal was to burn Athens to the ground
Greece was a relative backwater at the time - only 500-600,000 total population
Xerxes’ purpose: 1) to conquer Greece and expand Empire to the West, or 2) to punish Athens
for supporting the Ionian Rebellion 25 years earlier
Invasion comes at a crucial point for the new development of democracy in Athens - could have
crushed democracy in its infancy
Xerxes reached Thermopylae in summer of 480
Pass was only 200 yards wide at its narrowest - bounded by mountains, cliffs and the sea
Natural choke point between the north and south of Greece - the one place to make a stand
Persian scout found 7,000 Greeks blocking the pass
Greeks took away Persian advantage in numbers by holding the pass
Fewer men with greater flexibility can hold the ground against greater numbers
Greece is currently a set of small city-states led by two rival cities, Athens and Sparta
Rivals must set aside their differences in the face of invasion - have to fight together
Spartan King Leonidas led the Greeks - chosen by the allies to hold the pass
Leonidas had to stand and fight to the death
Herodotus describes advice given to Xerxes:
If you can trample these men at the pass, then no one can stop you
Persian Navy meanwhile seeks to get through Artemesium in order to circumvent the Greeks
Themistocles, an Athenian admiral, leads the Greek allied navy
Gets credit for devising the joint land/sea strategy in effort to fend off slavery
Xerxes strikes first with a barrage of arrows from his archers
Leonidas and soldiers have waited entire lives for this moment –
Spartans have been born for battle
530 BC - fifty years before the battle - Leonidas as a newborn is evaluated for defects
Spartans are either fit or unfit for life and battle
Exposure for newborns with defects - no concern for feelings of the parents
Only concern was the benefit to the state
Only two types got tombstones in Sparta - men who died in battle, or women who died in
childbirth - both were serving the state
Children are for the state, not for the family
Unique Spartan training program transformed boys into killing machines
Boys were taken from mothers at age seven in order to live and train in the “agoge”
Training lasted for twelve years, until entry into the army
Training focused on killing and toughness - hunger encouraged theft - no crying
Strip individuals of identity
Test of toughness through flogging - endurance
Notes on The Battle of Thermopylae - History Channel Video - “Last Stand of the 300”
“Dysfunctional fraternity” with hazing that goes awry
Training increases in intensity as young men grow up
Consequences of war games could be deadly
Final test was to murder a helot, a local slave - “rite of passage”
Key to ritual is to not get caught - training in the art of evasion - stealth
Spartan training weeds out the weak - learn to kill or be killed
Induction into army is proud moment for parents - validates the sacrifice of mothers
Tale of a Spartan mother: “With this shield or on it” - come back victorious, or dead
Spartan women are also renowned for physical strength in this warrior cult
A good warrior could win a wife - but no true home life
War was an annual occurrence - regional conflicts
Preparation for the looming battle against the Persians at Thermopylae
481 BC - Greek spy discovers that Persians are mobilizing - 300,000 troops gather
Imposing number to the Greeks - looked like the end of the world
Athenians knew they would need help - called for help
But appeal fell on deaf ears because there was no unified concept of Greece
Most Greeks fought against each other, not along side each other
Athens reaches out to Sparta, despite their poor relations
Leonidas now is one of two kings of Sparta - Athenians appeal to him for help
Spartans consult the Oracle at Delphi - a sacred Greek shrine
Priestess babbles in response to a question - priest then interprets
Oracle predicts that a Spartan king must die if Greeks are to defeat Persians
Leonidas believes gods have chosen him to defend Greece and save Sparta
Spartans also believe that Persia would want to take over all of Greece - not just Athens
But Spartan Council allows Leonidas to take only a minimal force of 300 troops
Spartans saw selection of the 300 as a great honor - opportunity for immortality
Only those who have already fathered sons were selected - likely a suicide mission
Great opportunity for military glory - must battle world’s greatest fighting force
549 BC - Cyrus the Great unified the tribes of Persia (now modern Iran)
Realized the importance of cavalry - combined with infantry - very effective
Cavalry causes flanks to crumble after infantry attacks the center
Cyrus conquers four kingdoms: Media, Lycia, Lydia, Babylonia
Empire stretches from India to Egypt - most successful empire to date
Persians set up satraps - allow people to maintain old worship as long as they pay taxes
No attempt to impose religion or even a civic code - some see Cyrus as a real liberator
Greeks colonists in Ionia lead a revolt in 499 BC
Darius at first allows local governors to deal with uprising - until Athenians intervene with help
Ionian rebels burn capital of Sardis with Athenian help - Persians want revenge
Rebellion “wakens a sleeping giant” - servant constantly reminded Darius of the Athenians
490 BC - Darius sent 30,00 troops to annihilate Athens in retaliation for Ionian revolt
Battle of Marathon - 26 miles from Athens - Greek army of 8,000 waits on the beach
Persians charge - Athenians take a hit - Greeks eventually sucker the Persians into the center
Battle becomes a slaughter - Greeks repel the Persian invaders - great slaughter
Notes on The Battle of Thermopylae - History Channel Video - “Last Stand of the 300”
Runner reports victory to Athens - dropped dead after 26 miles
Persia feels shock at news of Marathon - cannot let this embarrassment stand
Persian vengeance becomes responsibility of Xerxes after Darius dies
Xerxes has been taught how to fight - kill or be killed (story of lion in courtyard)
Xerxes plans revenge for ten years - trained as a warrior and a ruler
Xerxes marches his army across the Hellespont - one mile of water between Europe and Asia
Engineers build a massive pontoon bridge out of 700 old ships and huge cables
Great engineering feat - would have intimidated the Greeks
Persian Army then marches three months into northern Greece
Greeks set up two defenses - one at Corinth - the other at Thermopylae
300 Spartans and 7,000 allies in the north - along with Themistocles in Artemesium Strait
Xerxes prepares for battle with 300,000 men and 1,000 ships
Greeks block the pass at Thermopylae - narrow space favors the defenders
Xerxes first tried to negotiate with Leonidas - but Leonidas refuses
Persians try intimidation, noting that arrows will block out the sun
Spartan reply: Dienekes says “Then we shall have our battle in the shade”
Spartans were the “Delta Force” of the ancient world
Spartans fought in phalanx formation, shoulder to shoulder - created a shield wall
Hoplites carried a hoplon shield three feet in diameter - twenty pounds with Argive grip
Persians start with a barrage of arrows - but little impact on Greek armor
Greeks used Corinthian helmets made of bronze - heavy, and restricting
Lamellar armor functioned like kevlar
Persian infantry charged - 10,000 rushed forward - but Greek phalanx stops the charge
Greeks counter-attacked - fought in disciplined phalanx - coordinated spear attack
Battle pulses throughout the first day - not continuous combat
Persians are easy targets with little armor - can’t maneuver or use their cavalry - no flanking
Greeks were very good at selecting advantageous terrain
No mercy for the Persians - great carnage - Persians realized the danger
Leonidas understands his initial tactical success
But meanwhile Persian navy tries to go around the pass through the Artemesium Strait
Naval battle determined whether ships could get behind the Greek Army
Persian goal is to break through Greek line and then land troops behind the pass
Themistocles was the architect of the coordinated land/sea battle
“Winston Churchill” of his day who saw the struggle coming and planned accordingly
Persians first tried to sail around Euboea with 200 ships - but Themistocles used surprise
Greeks tried a late afternoon attack - knew first battle would be short
Greeks try to quickly sink as many ships as possible
Themistocles’ strategic genius gives the Greeks an advantage
Born the son of a merchant - democracy allowed him to rise to the top
Athens develops naval power because of its great harbor - Themistocles gets good training
But he also learned the art of manipulation and political strategy in order to convince others
490 BC - Athens has only 100 ships - Themistocles knows Athens needs many more
Present at the Battle of Marathon - learned that naval power would be key in the future
Ground forces only effective with naval support
Themistocles knows the Persians will attack again with more men and more ships
Notes on The Battle of Thermopylae - History Channel Video - “Last Stand of the 300”
Necessary synergy between land and sea - Greek navy could protect a Greek army
Problem was to convince others of his insight - generals were in denial
Themistocles used strategy to save the Greek world
Needed to convince Athenians of importance of ships - and then needed money
Lucky strike when silver comes from mines in Laurenium
483 BC - Themistocles wants money from silver for ships
Each Athenian was due to get ten drachma - significant sum
Themistocles lies by saying that Aegina is a threat to Athenian merchants
Voters support the building of ships through “clever misdirection of the populace” - lie worked
Triremes - ninety feet long - light boat like a racing scull that could ram opponents
Built for sped - open deck - three banks of oarsmen - 170-220
Front has a ram at the front - could move at 15 knots in order to ram
Greeks now have 200 ships - but still heavily outnumbered
Themistocles takes great risk in assault - Greeks ships form a circle in the narrows - then attack
Maneuver ships in order to ram and sink - try to smash oars then hit broadside
Speed was most important - confined space allowed Greeks to do great damage
Big psychological victory for Greeks in initial encounter - Persians did not expect to lose
Xerxes feels shocked and embarrassed - losses on land and sea
Storm comes at night - Persians disconsolate - and Persians ships sink rounding Euboea
Second day of battle on land and sea - Xerxes decides to use his more senior troops
“The Immortals” - silent and masked heavy infantry - Persian elite troops - 10,000
Armies stood fifty yards apart - Spartans raised shouts until Persians advance
Greek lines hold fast under assault - Persian spears do not penetrate Greek armies
But Greek spears do penetrate light Persian armor and wicker shields
Greeks had advantage in close combat - Hoplite army was well trained and equipped - flexible
Thousands of Persian troops die - pile up after every assault - they remain in the way
Enormous Persian body count - Greeks in good shape after second day
Themistocles again leads navy in the strait - can concentrate his force to the front
Details of battle are unknown -but Greeks destroy many Persian ships
Greek front continues to hold on land and sea - Xerxes grows frustrated
7,000 Greeks defend the Thermopylae pass - successful in blocking the Persians for two days
Persians must find a way around the Spartan position
Xerxes discovers a small path through the mountains - perhaps with help of a Greek spy
Xerxes sends out 10,000 men at night in order to flank the Greeks
Leonidas knew to position 1,000 Phocians on the line - but the Phocians withdrew
Phocian retreat for defense of own city opened the way to doom of the Spartans
Leonidas learns of Phocian withdrawal - then orders gradual retreat of small allied units
Only the 300 Spartans and 1,000 Thespians remain at dawn in order to fight
Thespians stayed to fight - though modern memory often forgets them
Moment of allies retreating and Spartans moving forward
Why did Leonidas pull some out and have others stay?
Fulfillment of the Oracle was one reason - Leonidas had to save Sparta despite destined defeat
Leonidas believes in Oracle - genuine religious sentiment
But may also have provided covering force for a tactical retreat - buys an extra day
Ultimate reason for the last stand is impossible to know - but last stand is remembered forever
Notes on The Battle of Thermopylae - History Channel Video - “Last Stand of the 300”
Leonidas is trapped - has to make a last stand
Spartans prepare calmly for battle - Persian scouts witness exercises and don’t understand
In fact, Spartans are preparing bodies for death
Professional warriors welcomed the battle from a psychological and social perspective
Herodotus describes final battle - Spartans advance into wider part of the pass
Fought like madmen devoid of care for anything but the moment
Phalanx fell apart in the midst of battle - Spartans no longer as strong in chaos
Many likely used their swords in close quarters - or fought with anything at hand
Great bravery of Dienekes and Leonidas
But only a matter of time before the slaughter of the Spartans
Leonidas eventually died in fulfillment of the Oracle - struck by Persian arrow - fell
Battle over his body - four times back and forth - Dienekes gets it back
Persian archers then find their targets - every Spartan is slaughtered
Xerxes surveys battlefield after the loss of 20,000 men
Orders that Leonidas’ head be put on a stake
Heroic story of Leonidas remains memorable - great sacrifice in defense of country
Xerxes now has a clear path to Athens - doom awaits for city
Leonidas and 300 Spartans are dead - nothing remains in defense of Athens
Greek allies scatter - some go over to the Persian side
Themistocles no longer must defend the strait - heads south to fight another day
Athenians consult the Oracle - are told to flee to the furthest parts of the earth
Or fight behind a wooden wall
Meaning of Oracle is cryptic - some believe they should stay behind walls of the Acropolis
But Themistocles believes the wooden wall refers to the navy
Two months after Thermopylae Xerxes marches into Athens and burns the city
Only a handful of Athenians had stayed behind - others retreated with Themistocles
Xerxes gets revenge for Sardis
But then Themistocles gets his own revenge at Salamis in naval battle
Dispute about a possible Greek double agent who lured the Persians into the narrow strait
Themistocles launches surprise attack - victorious
Battle of Salamis is most important strategic victory in war - Xerxes needs to withdraw
Persians leave and never return
Greeks now grow emboldened - will win future battles at Platea (479), Mycale and Sestos
Greeks chase the Persians back to Asia and then burn the pontoon bridge at the Hellespont
Greeks keep the Persian cables at trophies - keep them in rebuilt Parthenon
Greeks had put aside their differences and joined together in battle against Persians
Fought as a unified country for the first time in their history at Thermopylae
Greece moved from hodgepodge of small city-states into a Greek nation and culture
Phillip of Macedon will formalize a Greek nation a century and a half later
Alexander then will further spread Greek future and Western Civilization
Nationalism made spread of culture possible - and Thermopylae made nationalism possible
Leonidas succeeded in breaking the will of the Persians
If Persians had won, democracy would have been stopped in its tracks
Inconceivable that democracy would have arisen anywhere else
Many value Spartan heroism - but real significance is what the battle did for the world