In peacetime the Greek Army contained about 32,000 men. However, during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) this was increased to 210,000. Senior officers were strongly royalist and like King Constantine I tended to support Germany in its disputes with Britain.
On the outbreak of the First World War, the Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, favoured an alliance with Britain, France and Russia against the Central Powers. Venizelos wanted Greece to give military aid to the Allies during the Dardanelles campaign, and when King Constantine I refused to agree, he resigned from office.
When Eleftherios Venizelos was re-elected after a landslide victory in March 1915, he ordered the mobilization of the Greek Army. Over 150,000 men were called up and most of them were sent to help defend the borders of Serbia. When Venizelos invited the Allied forces to Salonika he was dismissed by King Constantine I.
Eleftherios Venizelos escaped to Crete where he formed a provisional revolutionary government. With the support of Allied forces at Salonika, Venizelos made plans to march on Athens. In June 1917 King Constantine I was deposed and Venizelos was able to regain power.
On 29th June, 1917, Eleftherios Venizelos declared war on the Central Powers. The 60,000 soldiers recruited by Venizelos in Crete, provided the core of the new army. Eventually 250,000 Greek soldiers saw action in the war, including the highly successful Vardar Offensive. During the war, the Greek Army had around 15,000 men killed and another 85,000 wounded.
Sparta was a warrior society in ancient Greece that reached the height of its power after defeating rival city-state Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Spartan culture was centered on loyalty to the state and military service. At age 7, Spartan boys entered a rigorous state-sponsored education, military training and socialization program. Known as the Agoge, the system emphasized duty, discipline and endurance. Although Spartan women were not active in the military, they were educated and enjoyed more status and freedom than other Greek women. Because Spartan men were professional soldiers, all manual labor was done by a slave class, the Helots. Despite their military prowess, the Spartans’ dominance was short-lived: In 371 B.C., they were defeated by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra, and their empire went into a long period of decline.
WATCH: Spartan Vengeance on HISTORY Vault
Greeks May Have Influenced China’s Terra Cotta Army
Though the 13th-century Italian explorer Marco Polo may have been the first Western European to leave a detailed chronicle of his travels to Asia, he was certainly not the first to make the trip. Chinese historians recorded earlier visits by people thought to be emissaries from the Roman Empire, which took place during the second and third centuries A.D. In the third century, during the Han dynasty, came the formal establishment of the Silk Road trade route, a network of caravan stops and trading posts linking China and the West.
The 2,200-year-old Terra Cotta Army on display in Xian, China. (Credit: China Photos/Getty Images)
According to archaeologists and historians now working on China’s famous Terra Cotta Army, meaningful contact between East and West may have begun far earlier. They believe the lifelike appearance of the statues may have been inspired by or modeled on ancient Greek sculptures, suggesting Western influence in the era of China’s first emperor, some 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s famous voyage.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, ascended to the throne in 246 B.C. at the tender age of 13. Over the next 25 years, he unified a number of warring kingdoms and implemented stabilizing policies, including the standardization of coins, weights and measures and the building of roads and canals. Qin also undertook various ambitious building projects during his reign, including the earliest version of the Great Wall, built along the country’s northern border to protect against barbarian invasions, as well as his own mausoleum.
The figure of a kneeling archer on display at the British Museum. (Credit: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
According to the writings of the court’s historian, Siam Qian, Qin ordered construction of the tomb complex to begin early in his reign. More than 700,000 laborers worked to build it over three decades, and the project appears to have been left uncompleted after the emperor’s death in 209 B.C.
Flash forward to 1974, when a terrified farmer stumbled on the Terra Cotta Army after seeing a human face emerge among the vegetables in his fields. Archaeologists eventually unearthed some 8,000 sculptures from the pits in Xi𠆚n, all built to escort Emperor Qin into the afterlife and guard his final resting place. The life-size warrior figures included chariots, weapons and horses, and were sculpted in impressive detail, down to their hairstyles and the insignias on their armor.
Terra Cotta soldiers in battle formation. (Credit: Martin Moos/Getty Images)
Before Qin’s reign, China had no known tradition of building life-size sculptures. Though many other buried terra cotta soldiers have been found, earlier ones were much smaller, measuring less than 10 inches tall. According to Li Xiuzhen, a senior archaeologist at the Terra Cotta Army site, this significant departure in scale and style likely occurred when influences arrived in China from elsewhere–specifically, from ancient Greece.
“We now have evidence that close contact existed between the first emperor’s China and the west before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought,” Dr. Xiuzhen told the BBC, which collaborated with National Geographic on a documentary about the team’s findings. “We now think the Terra Cotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site, have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”
Credit: Keren Su/Getty Images
What’s more, Greek artists may even have been on hand themselves to instruct their Chinese counterparts in sculpture techniques. “I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals,” said Lukas Nickel, the chair of Asian art history at Vienna University and a member of the team working on the history of the Terra Cotta Army.
It’s widely believed that Alexander the Great’s military campaign to India in 326 B.C. was the first point of contact between East and West, leaving behind a cultural tradition of Greco-Buddhist art. But the new theory goes further, suggesting that in the century after Alexander’s campaign, Greek statues could have made their way to China and influenced the Terra Cotta Army.
Xi𠆚n, Shaanxi, China, North-East Asia, Asia
To support this theory, Dr. Xiuzhen and her fellow experts point to a separate study, which found ancient mitochondrial DNA, specific to Europeans and dating to the time of the first emperor, in Xinjian province, the westernmost region of China. Such findings suggest Europeans may have settled in the province before and during Qin Shi Huang’s reign.
In addition to the possible link with ancient Greece, the archaeologists at the site have also discovered that Qin’s tomb complex is far larger than they first thought, some 200 times bigger than Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Alongside the Terra Cotta Army, the mausoleum also contained the mutilated remains of women, believed to have been high-ranking concubines of the emperor. The skull of a man, found with a crossbow bolt embedded in it, is believed to have belonged to the emperor’s son, who was killed along with others during a power struggle after his father’s death.
During the Bronze Age, starting around 1600BC, the ancient Greeks fought in the heroic style of Homer. Each warrior fought for personal glory instead of in an organized formation. Battles usually started with taunts and jeers, followed by duels between champions. If neither side lost its nerve, a general battle would begin. Ancient Greek warriors had already started to wear cumbersome, but effective, armor, and casualties were usually light during the melee. Men fought armed primarily with spears and short swords, and the Greek warriors had already jumped ahead of their contemporaries in the use of shields and armor. They considered ranged weapons, like the bow, to be cowardly and avoided them. Much like in later phalanx warfare, the real carnage started when one side was routed. Fleeing enemies could not make use of their shields and made excellent targets. Warrior kings like the semi-legendary Agamemnon ruled from massive stone hill-top fortresses, raiding and making war for profit and glory.
Eventually during 12th century BC, for reasons not completely understood, Greece entered into a dark age of slow decline. Written language was lost, and the great palaces and cities were destroyed or abandoned. A dark age settled across much of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East at the same time, and there are many theories as to why. Regional droughts, changes in warfare and natural disasters have all been blamed. It was most likely several converging factors, but we don&rsquot truly know at this time.
Starting around 800 BC, Greece began to recover. Over the next 400 years, the Greeks developed democracy, theater, poetry and philosophy, as well as rediscovered written language. Some time before 650 BC, they developed the phalanx, and their warriors and warfare itself began to change as well. Warfare in Greece had always been dictated by the terrain the rough ground was unsuitable for chariots. In earlier times when their contemporaries developed chariot warfare, Greek warriors concentrated on heavy infantry. Besides Thessaly, the Greeks also neglected the development of cavalry in their military. However, their concentration on heavy infantry would pay off in the power of their hoplite warriors and phalanx formation.
Ancient Greek warriors were citizen soldiers, except for the professional army of Sparta, and warfare became somewhat standardized to allow for soldier-farmers to tend to their farms. Only after the harvest had been brought in from the fields would the Greeks take up arms. The different Greek city-states would then settle their many issues during the campaigning season. Warriors would settle scores on pre-selected battle fields, usually a plain between the two warring city-states. The warriors would form up into the famed phalanx on opposite sides of the mountain-surrounded plain.
Greek Hoplites and Phalanxes
The Greek warriors were called hoplites, named after their shield, the hoplon. Hoplons were heavy, bronze-covered wooden shields about 3 to 3.5 feet in diameter. It spanned from chin to knee and was very heavy (17- 33 pounds). These shields had a revolutionary design their rounded shape allowed them to be rested on the shoulder for additional support. They also featured a new grip and forearm straps that gave them great amounts of mobility and allowed them to be used offensively to bash opponents. The Greek warriors overlapped their shields, forming a shield wall. The left part of each warrior&rsquos shield protected the right side of the hoplite to his left. A phalanx would consist of rows of spear-armed hoplites, all protecting each other and presenting a wall of shields and spear points towards their enemies. The first two rows of a phalanx were able to stab at opponents with their spears that protruded from between the shields. The first three rows, or ranks, of a phalanx could stab their opponents, while the back ranks would brace the front rows, prevent the front rows from retreating and support the all-important cohesion of the formation. Phalanxes could be 4, 8, 16 or more men deep, up to 50 rows in some extraordinary instances. This made the back rows relatively safe, giving them little reason to flee a battle, while the front rows were pressed between their own forces and an enemy bent on killing them. Yet, to the honor-driven Greek warriors, the front was where they wanted to be! In their martial culture, warriors sought glory in battle, and a general placed his best men in the front ranks.
Greek Warriors Armor
Greek warriors were required to arm and armor themselves. Hoplite armor was extremely expensive and would be passed down through families. The amount of armor a Greek warrior wore varied. Peasant hoplites may have only carried a shield and maybe a helmet or secondary weapon, while battle-hardened Spartan veterans would have been armored from head to toe. The rich upper-class hoplites typically had the &ldquoworks.&rdquo They wore bronze breastplate fashioned in the bell or muscled style, a bronze helmet that protected their face, and greaves for shin protection. The bronze breast plates alone could weigh an astounding 50-60 pounds! A slightly less well-off hoplite may have linothorax armor, made from stitched and laminated linen fabrics that were sometimes reinforced with bronze scales and/or animal skins. Linothorax armor was the most common type, offering decent protection at a moderate price. Helmet designs varied over time and offered varying amounts of protection. Innovations including cheek plates and visors were added for additional protection. Each city state had its one design on the crest of their helmets.
Greek Warriors Weapons
Hoplites were armed with long spears, called doru. Doru were that were around 7 &ndash 9 feet in length, although this varied. Greek warriors carried their spears in their right hands and their shields strapped to their left. Greek warriors probably employed both underhand and overhand grips, depending on the situation and amount of leverage required. Holding the spear underarm may have been optimal for the front line of the phallanxs while Hoplites in the second and third ranks would almost certainly have made overarm thrusts. The rear rows held their spears in an underarm grip, and raising them upwards on an angle to provide an extra defense against incoming missiles. Doru often had curved leaf shaped spearheads and had a spiked point, called a sauroter, at the opposite end. The spear could be spun around if something happened to the spearhead in battle, but it was more commonly used to stand the spear up by planting it into the ground. This practice gave the sauroter its name, sauroter is Greek for &ldquolizard killer&rdquo. It was also used by the back ranks to dispatch fallen enemies as the phalanx advanced over them when they held their spears in the upright position. The sauroter also served as a counter weight, balancing out the spear.
Ancient Greek warriors also carried short swords, called xiphos, as a secondary weapon. They were used when spears snapped or were lost in combat. They may have also been used when a hoplite needed to discard his spear and shield in order to chase down routing enemies. The xiphos usually has about a 2 foot blade however the Spartans blades were often only 1 &ndash 1.5 feet long. This shorter xiphos would advantageous in the press that occurred in the front row when two phalanxes smashed together. In this crush of men there was no room to use a longer sword, however a short sword could be thrust through gaps in the enemy's shieldwall and into an unprotected groin, armpit or throat. Smaller xiphos would have been particularly useful during the Peloponnesian War (431 BC - 404 BC) when many hoplites began using lighter armor, even abandoning it, in favor of mobility. Alternatively, Greek warriors could carry the curved kopis, a particularly vicious hacking weapon that earned it a reputation as a &ldquobad guys&rdquo weapon in ancient Greece. Spartan hoplites were often depicted using the kopis instead of the xiphos in the art of their arch rivals the Athenians. (See also Spartan Weapons)
Greek Light Infantry & Cavalry
Not every Greek warrior was a hoplite, and though often neglected, Greek armies were usually accompanied by other troop types. Light infantry and cavalry troops were used as skirmishers and to protect the vulnerable flanks of the ponderous phalanxes. Javelin throwers called peltasts would be used as skirmishers, harassing enemy formations and masking troop movements behind them. They were armed with several javelins. Peltast warfare was developed in Thrace while the Greeks were developing an heavy infantry almost exclusively. This led to many of the light infantry being mercenary troops, hired from outlying regions of Greece. For instance, the Agrianes from Thrace were well-renowned peltasts, whilst Crete was famous for its archers and the Beleric Islands and Rhodes were famous for their slingers. During and after the Peloponnesian War use of light infantry became more common. This was dui to the Battle of Lechaeum (391 BC) when an army of Peltasts defeated an army of hoplites for the first time. Astonishingly a force of 600 Spartan hoplites was defeated using hit and run peltast tactics. Of the Greek City states, only Thebes developed their cavalry, a development noted by Phillip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Theban cavalry would be the model for the Macedonian Companion cavalry and eventual serve beside them under Alexander.
From its dawn around 700-650 BC, hoplite and phalanx tactics dominated warfare. Phalanxes triumphed over disorganized enemy hordes and quickly spread through Greece and beyond. The Greeks perfected hoplite tactics though endemic warfare.
Hoplite tactics hit their high water mark when smaller Greek armies defeated two massive Persian invasions (499-448 BC). Hoplite formations decimated the lightly armored Persian infantry in famous battles like Marathon (490 BC) and Thermopylae (480 BC). However, the Greeks never capitalized on their victory over the world&rsquos super power. Having defended Greece from foreign control the Greeks went back to their insistent warfare against each other. They then launched themselves into another series of wars. First the leading Greek cities of Sparta and Athens warred for supremacy in a decade&rsquos long war, dragging most of the other Greek cities into the conflict (Peloponnesian War 431 BC - 404 BC). Only ten years later the Spartan hegemony was challenged in the Corinthian War (395-387 BC). Sensing the Spartan weakness, an alliance of Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Argos, supported by their enemy the Persians, sought to escape from the hegemony, and increase their own power. This was fought to a stalemate, but Thebes then led yet another war against Sparta. At the decisive Battle of Leuctra (371 BC), the Thebans routed the Spartans and their Allies. The battle is famous for the tactical innovations of the Theban general Epaminondas. Defying convention, he strengthened the left flank of the phalanx to an unheard of depth of 50 ranks, at the expense of the centre and the right. The centre and right were staggered backwards from the left flank and away from the enemies. This 'echelon' formation allowed the phalanx to advance obliquely. The Theban left wing was thus able to crush the elite Spartan forces on the allied right, while the Theban centre and left trailed behind and avoided engagement. After the defeat of the elite Spartans and the death of the Spartan king, the rest of the Allied army retreated. This is one of the first known examples of both the tactic of local concentration of force, and the tactic of 'refusing a flank'. The Spartans and their allies were again defeated by the Thracians and Epaminondas in the largest battle ever fought between the Greeks at the battle of Mantinea (362 BC). Spartan hegemony had been broken, but the Thebes had lost many warriors, including their ingenious general, Epaminondas.
Unfortunately for the Greeks the Macedonian King, Phillip, had taken note of the tactics Thebes had used and even improved on them. Philip doubled the length of the spear used by his phalanxes and reduced the shields his warriors used, allowing them to hold their spears with two hands. He also understood that while a phalanx is almost unstoppable from the front they are vulnerable from the flanks and rear. Phillip wisely used combined arms tactics, incorporating cavalry and light infantry to protect his phalanx. His phalanxes would then pin down opponents forces while his mobile forces outflanked them. When Philip attacked Greece (356-338 BC) the divided and exhausted Greeks could not stop him. Phillips son, Alexander the Great, then took the Greeks, their way of warfare and Hellenistic culture on a world tour of conquest. Persian, Egyptian and even Indian armies were defeated but the Greeks had forever lost their position as the world's top warriors. However, with Alexander and his sucessors Greek culture, civilization and ideas were spread across the known world.
Battle of Thermopylae Greek Army Composition
The Ancient Greek city states, notoriously independent from one another, had formed a confederation to counter the Persian threat. It was agreed that the narrow pass at Thermopylae would serve as their primary defense position.
King Leonidas of Sparta would lead the unified Greek defense. While there really were 300 Spartans present, it’s estimated that around 6,000-7,000 Greeks actually took place in the battle. It’s reputed that more Spartans weren’t present due to their obligations for their summer festival and Olympic game commitments.
The battle raged for 3 days with Xerxes throwing thousands of men and even his elite units at the Greeks. After two days of misfortune on the battlefield the Persians ad a stroke of luck. A Greek traitor showed them a narrow mountain pass around the Greek position upon which the Persians could encircle and trap the Greeks.
When Leonidas heard the news of the Persians flanking he ordered thousands of Greeks to head home and fight another day. Leonidas, the 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans remained behind to fight to the death. Whether this was as a sacrifice for their homeland or a rear guard move to protect the retreating greeks, no one truly knows.
History remembers the Greeks bravery and selflessness in the battle and their legacy lives on today.
Component forces and their organization [ edit | edit source ]
Hellenic National Defense General Staff [ edit | edit source ]
The Hellenic National Defense General Staff, carries out the operational commanding of the Joint Headquarters and the units that come under them, as well as the rest forces, when it comes to the issues of operation plans implementation and the Crises management System implementation, conduction of operations outside the national territory and participation of the Armed Forces in the confrontation of special situations during peace time. Α]
Hellenic Army [ edit | edit source ]
The basic components of the Hellenic Army are Arms and Corps, the first responsible for combat missions and the latter for logistical support. It is organized in Commands, formations, and units with the basic being brigade, division and corps. Its main mission is to guarantee the territorial integrity and independence of the state. Β]
Hellenic Navy [ edit | edit source ]
Hellenic Navy disposes a powerful fleet, consisted of strike units (Frigates, Gunboats, Submarines and Fast Attack Guided Missile Vessels) and support vessels in order to conduct naval operations that ensure the protection of Hellenic territories. Γ]
Hellenic Air Force [ edit | edit source ]
Hellenic Air Force incorporates a modern air fleet (for combat, transportation and training), the congruent structure, as well as a modern system of air control, which cooperates with a widespread net of anti aircraft defense. The structure of its forces includes the General Staff of Air Force, the Command Post of Regular Army, the Air Support Command, the Air Training Command and a number of units and services. Δ]
Achilles: The Illiad
When the Iliad begins, the Trojan War has been going on for nine years. Achilles, the poem’s protagonist, has led one battle after another. He has met with great success–in fact, he is undefeated in battle𠄻ut the war itself has reached a stalemate.
Homer’s story focuses on a different conflict, however: the internecine quarrel between his hero and Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean armies and Menelaus’ brother. In a battle that took place before the poem begins, Agamemnon had taken as a concubine a young Trojan woman named Chryseis. Chryseis’ father, a priest of the god Apollo, tried to buy his daughter’s freedom, but Agamemnon mocked his entreaties and refused to release the girl.
Enraged, Apollo punished the Greek armies by sending a plague to kill the soldiers one by one. As his ranks thinned, Agamemnon finally agreed to allow Chryseis to return to her father. However, he demanded a replacement concubine in exchange: Achilles’ wife, the Trojan princess Breseis.
Achilles did as his commander asked and relinquished his bride. Then, he announced that he would no longer fight on Agamemnon’s behalf. He gathered his belongings, including the armor Hephaestus had made, and refused to come out of his tent.
With the Greeks’ greatest warrior off the battlefield, the tide began to turn in favor of the Trojans. The Greeks lost one battle after another. Eventually, Achilles’ best friend, the soldier Patroclus, was able to wrangle a compromise: Achilles would not fight, but he would let Patroclus use his powerful armor as a disguise. That way, the Trojans would think that Achilles had returned to battle and would retreat in fear.
The plan was working until Apollo, still seething about Agamemnon’s treatment of Chryseis and her father, intervened on the Trojans’ behalf. He helped the Trojan prince Hector to find and kill Patroclus.
Furious, Achilles vowed to take revenge. He chased Hector back to Troy, slaughtering Trojans all the way. When they got to the city walls, Hector tried to reason with his pursuer, but Achilles was not interested. He stabbed Hector in the throat, killing him.
Hector had begged for an honorable burial in Troy, but Achilles was determined to humiliate his enemy even in death. He dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot all the way back to the Achaean camp and tossed it on the garbage heap. However, in the poem’s last section Achilles finally relents: He returns Hector’s body to his father for a proper burial.
History of Greece: Classical Greece
The flurry of development and expansion of the Archaic Era was followed by the period of maturity we came to know as &ldquoClassical Greece&rdquo. Between 480 and until 323 BCE Athens and Sparta dominated the Hellenic world with their cultural and military achievements. These two cities, with the involvement of the other Hellenic states, rose to power through alliances, reforms, and a series of victories against the invading Persian armies. They eventually resolved their rivalry in a long, and particularly nasty war that concluded with the demise of Athens first, Sparta second, and the emergence of Macedonia as the dominant power of Greece. Other city-states like Miletus, Thebes, Corinth, and Syracuse among many others played a major role in the cultural achievements of Classical Greece.
Early in the Classical era Athens and Sparta coexisted peacefully through their underlying suspicion of each other until the middle of the 5th c. BCE. The political and cultural disposition of the two city-states occupied the opposite ends of the spectrum. Sparta was a closed society governed by an oligarchic government led by two kings, and occupying the harsh southern end of the Peloponnesus, organized its affairs around a powerful military that protected the Spartan citizens from both external invasion and internal revolt of the helots. Athens on the other hand grew to an adventurous, open society, governed by a Democratic government that thrived through commercial activity. The period of Perikles&rsquo leadership in Athens is described as the &ldquoGolden Age&rdquo. It was during this period that the massive building project, that included the Acropolis, was undertaken.Bronze helmet of Miltiades. Dedicated at Olympia, now at the Olympia museum.
The Athenian adventurous spirit, and their loyalty to their Ionian kin obliged them to assist the Greek colonies that were feuding with the powerful Persian Empire in Asia Minor. To aid the Ionian Revolt (499 BCE), led by Miletus, the Athenians landed a small garrison in Ionia to fight against the Persians and to spread the revolt. The Greek forces eraged the Persians by burning the capital of Lydia, Sardis in 498 BCE, but they were finally defeated in 494 BCE. The sacking of Sardis and the defiance of the Athenians invoked the wrath of the Persian king Darius who vowed revenge. In 490 BCE, he landed his forces twenty miles north of Athens, at Marathon. While the Spartans were occupied with a religious festival, the outnumbered Athenians under the leadership of Miltiades mounted a surprise attack and routed the dumbfounded Persians at Marathon to preserve Greek independence for the time being.
It took ten years, but the Persian king Xerxes, determined to succeed where Darius failed, amassed what Herodotus described as the greatest army ever put together in order to attack Greece again. The Athenians, expecting a full attack from the Persians prepared for that moment as well. Under the leadership of Themistokles, they cashed the silver extracted from the newly dug mines of Lavrion, and built a formidable navy of triremes. Xerxes crossed the Hellespont in 480 BCE with his massive army and began annexing Greece through land and sea. The first line of defense for the Greek alliance of city-states was at the narrow passage of Thermopylae where Leonidas with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians held back the mighty Persian army for three days before they fell to a man through deceit. At the same time the Athenian ships fought the Persian navy to a stalemate at nearby Artemision before it withdrew to the straights of Salamina.
The Athenians vacated the entire non-combat population from their city, so when the Persians arrived they met no resistance. They took vengeance on the buildings and temples of Athens by burning them to the ground, and anchored their fleet at Faliron in pursuit of the Greek navy that was sheltered at nearby Salamina Island. While the joint leadership of the Hellenes argued in typical Greek fashion if they should withdraw to the Peloponnese and where to engage the Pesians next, Themistokles, seeking an advantageous quick battle, invoked the Persian fleet into attacking as the Greek ships faked an early morning escape from Salamina. As the Persians pursued what they thought was a fleeing foe, the Greck triremes turned and engaged the surprised Persians inflicting massive casualties and decimating the Persian navy. With his navy destroyed, Xerxes feared that the Greek triremes would rush to the Hellespont to cut off his only way home, so he withdrew back to Asia leaving his able general Mardonious to fight the Greeks. The next year, in 479 BCE, this Persian army was defeated at Plataea by the alliance of Greek states under the leadership of the Spartan general Pausanias, putting a permanent end to further Persian ambitions to annex Greece.
The victory of the Greek forces at Marathon and Salamis are hailed as pivotal points in the development of western civilization. The reason being that, if the Persians were victorious all the achievements of Greece (and especially Athens) that followed immediately after and what is widely consider to be the foundation of western civilization, would not have transpired. Following the successful defense of their homeland, the Greek states entered a state of high development. Athens especially emerged as a major superpower that led a host of other Greek city-states (some willing, some unwilling, and some reluctant) in a defensive alliance, the Delian League, against the Persians. The tributes collected by the allies helped Athens expand and maintain a formidable, yet difficult, empire in the Aegean world. At the same time, Sparta led the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of states mostly from the Peloponnese that acted as a counter-balance against the perceived Athenian hegemony of Greece.
The competitive spirit, suspicion, and animosity toward each other that characterized all Greek cities re-emerged once the external danger of the Persians threat subsided, and with the two dominant empires occupying opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum, it was not long before the underlying differences and mistrust spilled over in a particularly long and nasty conflict: the Peloponnesian War. While Sparta and Athens were the primary adversaries, just about every other Greek city took part at one time or another. With Sparta possessing the stronger land forces, and Athens dominating at sea with its navy of triremes, the war lasted for from 431 until 404 BCE with the Peace of Nicias interrupting it briefly in 421-418 BCE. After surviving a decimating plague in 430/9 BCE and a devastating defeat in Sicily by Syracuse in 413 BCE, Athens drained of resources finally capitulated to the Spartans in 404 BCE.
The Classical Period produced remarkable cultural and scientific achievements. The city of Athens introduced to the world a direct Democracy the likes of which had never been seen hitherto, or subsequently, with western governments like Great Britain, France, and USA emulating it a thousand years later. The rational approach to exploring and explaining the world as reflected in Classical Art, Philosophy, and Literature became the well-grounded springboard that western culture used to leap forward, beginning with the subsequent Hellenistic Age. The thinkers of the Classical Greek era have since dominated thought for thousands of years, and have remained relevant to our day. The teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle among others, either directly, in opposition, or mutation, have been used as reference point of countless western thinkers in the last two thousand years. Hippocrates became the &ldquoFather of modern medicine&rdquo, and the Hippocratic oath is still used today. The dramas of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes are considered among the masterpieces of western culture.
The art of Classical Greece began the trend towards a more naturalistic (even in its early idealistic state) depiction of the world, thus reflecting a shift in philosophy from the abstract and supernatural to more immediate earthly concerns. Artists stopped merely “suggesting” the human form and began “describing” it with accuracy. Man became the focus, and “measure of all things” in daily life through Democratic politics, and in cultural representations. Rational thinking and Logic became the driving force behind this cultural revolution at the expense of emotion and impulse. The most striking illustration of this “Logic over Emotion” approach is frozen on the faces of the statues of the temple of Zeus west pediment at Olympia. In the complex array of sculptures, it is easy to know who is a “Barbarian” and who is a “civilized Hellene” through the expression of their faces. Barbarian Centaurs exhibit an excess of emotion, while Lapithae women and Apollo remain collected and emotionless even in the direst of situations (photo on the left).
Even after its defeat at the Peloponnesian war, Athens remained a guiding light for the rest of Greece for a long time, but this light that shone so bright, began to slowly fade. Sparta won the Peloponnesian war and emerged as the dominant power in Greece, but her political prowess failed to match her military reputation. Soon after the conflict ended, and while Sparta fought against other city-states all over Greece, Athens reconstructed her empire after rebuilding her walls, her navy and army. Sparta’s power and military might were eventually diminished, especially after two crashing defeats at the hands of the Thebans first in Leuctra in 371 BCE, and again nine years later at Mantinea. This power vacuum was quickly filled however by the Macedonians who under the leadership of Philip II emerged as the only major military authority of Greece after their victory at Chaeronea against the Athenians in 338 BCE.
Through diplomacy and might, Philip II who became king in 359 BCE, managed to consolidate the areas around northern Greece under his power, and until his assassination in 336 BCE had added central and southern Greece to his hegemony. The pretext for his military expeditions to southern Greece was the protection of the Delphi Oracle from the Phoceans, but his sight was fixed beyond the borders of Greece. His ambition was to lead a military expedition of united Greece against the Persian Empire to avenge the earlier Persian incursions of Greece. This ambition was fulfilled by his son Alexander the Great who became king after his fathers assassination.
With a copy of the Iliad and a dagger in his hand, Alexander continued the centuries-old conflict between East and West by leading a united Greek army into Asia. His success on the battlefield and the amount of land he conquered became legendary and earned him the epithet &ldquothe Great&rdquo. Besides brilliant military tactics, Alexander possessed leadership skills and charisma that made his army unbeatable in numerous battles against more numerous opponents, pushing the Greeks all the way to Egypt, India, and Bactria (today Afghanistan). Alexander led his army in battle always placing his own self at the point of attack, partaking in the common soldier&rsquos jeopardy, and thus won a series of major battles that obliterated all opposition in its path. In the process he amassed the largest empire hitherto known and altered the composition of the ancient world.
In 334 BCE, Alexander led his army across the Hellespond into Asia and scored successive wins against the Persian Empire. His first success came at Granicus River in northwest Asia Minor where his Calvary routed the outnumbered Persian mercenaries who fought under the leadership of Memnon of Rhodes. In 333 BCE Alexander’s outnumbered army defeated the Persians at Issus and forced king Darius to flee for his life. The subsequent conquest of Miletus, Tyre (332 BCE), and Egypt (331 BCE) gave the Greeks control of the entire eastern shore of the Mediterranean, and allowed Alexander to move inland towards the heart of the Persian Empire. In Egypt Alexander was proclaimed to be the son of god Ammon (the equivalent of the Greek Zeus), and he proclaimed himself King of Asia after his victory at the battle at Gaugamela in 331 BCE, which sealed the fate of the Persian Empire.
From Babylon, Alexander led his army towards the heart of south Asia, subduing all resistance and establishing cities along the way. Despite the objections of his officers, he incorporated into his army forces from the conquered lands, adopted local customs, and married a Bactrian woman, Roxane. His march eastward eventually stopped on the edge of India partly due to the objections of his fatigued army. He returned from the frontier to Babylon to plan his next expedition southward, towards Arabia, but in 323 BCE his sudden death of a fever at the age of 32 put an end to a brilliant military career, and left his vast conquered land without an apparent heir.
The conquests of Alexander the Great changed the course of Ancient history. The center of gravity of the Greek world moved from the self-containment of city-states to a more vast territory that spanned the entire coast of Eastern Mediterranean and reached far into Asia. Alexander&rsquos conquests placed a plethora of diverse cultures under common hegemony and Greek influence around the Mediterranean and southern Asia, paving the way for the distinct Hellenistic culture that followed his death.
Greek Army - History
The Greek Army of WW2
Like many of the smaller nations in World War 2 Greece was ill prepared for the conflict with an army suffering from a shortage of modern equipment. None the less it succeeded in resisting an Italian invasion from Albania until the massive intervention of German troops from Yugoslavia overwhelmed their defences.
In 1940 the Greek army consisted of six infantry and nine mountain divisions, four mountain brigades and a cavalry division totalling some 430,000 men. Despite heavy losses during the Italian invasion this had expanded to 540,000 men before the German assault. Infantry divisions had three regiments plus a divisional artillery regiment. Mountain divisions had less artillery (4 batteries instead of 9). Infantry regiments had two battalions each with three rifle and one MG companies.
For further information visit Defence of Greece 1941 website which has a vast amount of information on this conflict and hosts a discussion group. Andrew Mollo's, The Armed Forces of WW2 has a chapter on the Greek army with uniform plates. For those using the popular Flames of War wargame rules there is a section on the Greek army on their website.
The campaign of 1940/41 is described in the feature article Blunder in the Mountains on this website and has a bibliography and order of battle. It includes details of the battlefields today that are also covered in our travel section's tour of the Epirus region of Greece.
The Editor's Greek WW2 army is in 15mm scale, originally for Rapid Fire but now rebased for use with FoW rules. There are no specific Greek troops available but figures can be adapted from Italian, British, French and Spanish Civil War ranges. Most of the figures below come from the Peter Pig ranges supplemented by FoW.
In 28mm there is a new range of figures by David Burns distributed by Rif Raf Miniatures
Greek army in 15mm for FoW
Artillery support from 75mm field guns.
The backbone of the army - the infantry
The cavalry. Units were attached to infantry divisions for recon as well two regiments of cavalry each with four squadrons, Mgs and mortars. A third regiment was in the process of being motorised.
Greco-Persian Wars: Battle of Thermopylae
In the 5th century bc, the Persian empire fought the city-states of Greece in one of the most profoundly symbolic struggles in history. Their wars would determine the viability of a new direction in Western culture, for even as Greece stood poised to embark on an unprecedented voyage of the mind, Persia threatened to prevent the Hellenes from ever achieving their destiny. Persia represented the old ways — a world of magi and god-kings, where priests stood guard over knowledge and emperors treated even their highest subjects as slaves. The Greeks had cast off their own god-kings and were just beginning to test a limited concept of political freedom, to innovate in art, literature and religion, to develop new ways of thinking, unfettered by priestly tradition. And yet, despite those fundamental differences, the most memorable battle between Greeks and Persians would hinge on less ideological and more universal factors: the personality of a king and the training and courage of an extraordinary band of warriors.
The long path to battle at Thermopylae began in what is now Iran, heart of the once vast Persian empire. Nowadays, ancient ruins attest to its long-vanished greatness, but to the Greeks of the early 5th century bc, the Persian empire was young, aggressive and dangerous. Persian expansion had begun in the mid-6th century, when its first shah, or great king, Cyrus, had led a revolt against the dominant Medes. By 545 bc, Cyrus had extended Persian hegemony to the coast of Asia Minor.
The Greeks of Asia Minor were blessed during their period of subjugation only insofar as the Persian kings generally remained remote figures of power. Stories abounded of executions and tortures ordered on the whims of angry monarchs. One shah’s wife reportedly had 14 children buried alive in an attempt to cheat death. There seems to have been little escape from the arbitrary tyranny of the rulers known by the Greeks simply as ‘the King or the Great King, enforced by a system of spies who acted as his eyes and ears. Such was the general atmosphere of oppression that one Persian nobleman who failed to do the shah’s bidding was forced to eat the flesh of his own son — and upon being shown that he had just done so, could muster no more potent a reply than to say, May the king’s will be done.
It was inevitable, then, that there would be tension between the Greek and Persian ways of life, and in 499 bc several Greek cities in Asia Minor revolted against the Persian King Darius. Darius had seized power in 521, when he and six other men crushed a conspiracy of priests on a day that became celebrated on the Persian calendar as Magophonia — The Killing of the Magi. A vengeful man, Darius had ordered that the severed heads of the magi be paraded through the streets on pikes.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Darius was especially furious to learn that a distant city called Athens had dared to assist his rebellious subjects in Asia Minor. Grant, O God, he said, shooting an arrow into the air, that I may punish the Athenians. He even commanded one of his servants to interrupt him during every dinner three times to remind him of his goal with the admonition, Master, remember the Athenians. The first Persian War ended badly for Darius, however, when his troops were defeated by a smaller Athenian army at Marathon in 490 bc. Greece was saved — but only for a while.
Darius’ son Xerxes does not seem to have been especially driven to complete his late father’s unfinished business. He waffled over whether the long-delayed punishment of Athens merited such a far-flung campaign. At last a phantom allegedly appeared in his dreams, urging him to invade Greece — this being interpreted by his magi as a portent for world conquest.
Xerxes spent more than four years gathering soldiers and stockpiling supplies from every corner of his empire. The resulting host amounted to a colossal cosmopolitan army of armies. In it were Persians, Medes and Hyrcanians, all wearing felt caps, tunics, mail and trousers, and armed with short spears, light wicker shields and deadly, powerful composite bows. Assyrians joined them, protected by bronze helmets and shields, and bearing spears, daggers and iron-studded wooden clubs. Bactrians, Parthians and Chorasmians added short bows and spears. The Scythian Sacae, in their tall pointed hats, bristled with bows, daggers and battle-axes. Cotton-wearing Indian auxiliaries were armed with bows that shot iron-tipped arrows. There were Paricanians, Pactyans, Arabs, Ethiopians, Libyans, Paphlagonians, Ligyans, Matieni, Mariandynians, Syrians, Phrygians, Lydians, Thracians, Pysidians, Cabalians, Moschians, Tibareni, Macrone and Mossynoeci. The list, even in abbreviated form, reads like a catalog of lost peoples. Together, they formed an army that the Greek historian Herodotus estimated at 1.7 million, excluding the navy. When he added ship-borne fighters and European allies to the total, he came to a sum of 2.6 million, a figure that he reckoned would have to be doubled to account for servants, crews and camp followers.
Herodotus’ numbers must surely be overstated, although we will never know by how much. We can only accept that Xerxes’ army was a vast and apparently awe-inspiring force — according to Herodotus, whenever it stopped to slake its thirst, it drank entire rivers dry.
Within Xerxes’ army, the native Persian contingent was most privileged. Carriages full of women and servants accompanied the Persians on the march. One Persian unit was particularly esteemed: a crack fighting force that Herodotus called the Immortals, alleging that any dead, wounded or sick soldier in its ranks was replaced so swiftly that its 10,000-man strength never seemed to diminish.
Watching his own army pass in review, Xerxes himself is said to have wept as he reflected on the brevity of human life. Not one of them, he observed, would be alive in 100 years’ time. It was an unlikely moment of insight for a king who had once ordered one of his own soldiers split in two.
The Persians maintained a splendid marching order. At the front was more than half the army, succeeded by a gap to keep those ordinary troops from being in contact with the king. There followed 1,000 of Persia’s finest horsemen, another 1,000 picked spearmen, carrying their spears upside down, 10 sacred horses, a holy chariot drawn by eight horses, then Xerxes’ chariot. The king was then followed by 1,000 noble Persian spearmen with their spears pointed upward, another 1,000 picked cavalry, 10,000 infantry, many with gold or silver ornaments on their spears, and finally 10,000 more horsemen before another gap that separated those fine troops from the ordinary soldiers who brought up the rear.
It is entirely possible that Xerxes did not anticipate having to fight any significant battles in Greece. The magnitude of his force was so great that he must have anticipated only demanding surrender in order to receive it. Like his father before him, he sent messengers ahead demanding the traditional tokens of submission — earth and water. Many Greek towns relented in the face of certain destruction. To the Persian king, they conceded, belonged the land and the sea.
Two cities were spared the indignity of the Persian ultimatum. Xerxes well recalled the fate of the messengers his father had sent to Athens and Sparta. The Athenians had thrown them into a pit. In Sparta the Persian diplomats were shown the place to find the earth and water they sought — by being pushed down a well.
Xerxes was familiar with the willful Athenians who had thwarted his father at Marathon 10 years earlier, but along the march he slowly became acquainted with Greece’s other most powerful city-state. At one point he asked a Spartan exile if anyone in Greece would dare resist his force. The exile, for whom there was no love lost for the city that had expelled him, admitted that no length of odds could possibly convince the Spartans to submit. The Spartans, he said, feared only the law, and their law forbade them to retreat in battle. It commanded them to stand firm always and to conquer or die.
Knowing that they could not hope to defeat the Persians as individual cities, the Greeks convened a conference in order to coordinate a Panhellenic defense. It was there that the Spartans, whose own city was unique in that it had no walls (relying instead upon the bravery of its citizens for defense), advocated the construction of a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, thereby protecting only the southernmost part of Greece. The cities north of Corinth, however, knowing that Xerxes could swing around the Aegean and strike Greece from the north, sought an earlier defense. The congress adopted their strategy. The Greeks elected to draw the line at Thermopylae.
To the Greek strategists in 481 bc, Thermopylae represented their best chance to stop or at least delay the Persian army long enough to allow their combined fleets to draw the Persian navy into a decisive sea battle. A narrow mountain pass, Thermopylae was a bottleneck through which the Persian army somehow had to proceed. Forced to fight there, the Persians would be unable to take advantage of their massive preponderance in numbers instead, they would have to face the Greeks in close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.
Two armies now prepared to converge on the tiny mountain pass. For Xerxes no force, not even nature, would be allowed to resist his progress. When a violent storm tore up the first bridge his engineers had built across the Hellespont, the great king ordered his engineers put to death, and he had his men whip and curse the waters for defying him. New engineers then bridged the Hellespont again. Constructed from nearly 700 galleys and triremes lashed together, the bridge was a marvel of makeshift military engineering. Flax and papyrus cables held the boats in line, and sides were constructed to keep animals from seeing the water and panicking during their crossing. The Persian army advanced inexorably into Greece.
The Greek force that now raced to Thermopylae was ridiculously small for the challenge that awaited it: 300 Spartans, 80 Myceneans, 500 Tegeans, 700 Thespians and so forth, totaling about 4,900. The countrymen they left behind seem to have put little faith in this army. The Athenians voted to evacuate their city. Their men of military age embarked on ships, while women and children were sent to the safer territory of the Peloponnesus. Only treasurers and priestesses remained behind, charged with guarding the property of the gods on the Acropolis.
If any Greek understood the danger of his assignment, it was almost certainly the Spartan commander, Leonidas. Although each city’s contingent had its own leader, Leonidas had been placed in overall command of the Greek army. One of two Spartan kings — Sparta had no kingship in any real sense — Leonidas traced his ancestry back to the demigod Heracles. He had handpicked the 300 warriors under his command all were middle-aged men with children to leave behind as heirs. He had selected men to die, and done so apparently without the philosophic reluctance of Xerxes. Leonidas and the Spartans had been trained to do their duty, and, having received an oracle that Sparta must either lose a king or see the city destroyed, Leonidas was convinced that his final duty was death.
On the way to Thermopylae, Leonidas sent his widely admired Spartans ahead of the other troops to inspire them with confidence. They arrived to find the pass unoccupied. It was only 50 feet wide and far narrower at some points. There were hot springs there — these gave the pass its name — an altar to Heracles and the remains of an old wall with gates that had fallen into ruin. The Greeks now rushed to rebuild it.
As Xerxes’ army drew closer, a Persian scout rode to survey the Greek camp. What he saw astonished him — the Spartans, many of them naked and exercising, the rest calmly combing their hair. It was common practice for the Spartans to fix their hair when they were about to risk their lives, but neither the scout nor his king could comprehend such apparent vanity.
The Greeks, too, began to receive intelligence on the size of the Persian force. Sometime before the battle, the Spartan Dieneces was told that when the Persian archers let loose a volley, their arrows would hide the sun. To Dieneces that was just as well. For if the Persians hide the sun, he said, we shall fight in the shade.Despite the imperturbable courage of Dieneces and the other Spartans, the Greeks were shaken when the Persian host finally neared their position. At a council of war the leaders debated retreat, until Leonidas’ opinion prevailed. The Spartan would do his duty. The Greeks would stay put and try to hold off the Persians until reinforcements could arrive.
The Persian army encamped on the flat grounds of the town of Trachis, only a short distance from Thermopylae. There, Xerxes stopped his troops for four days, waiting upon the inevitable flight of the overawed Greeks. By the fifth day, August 17, 480 bc, the great king could no longer control his temper. The impudent Greeks were, like the storm at the Hellespont, defying his will. He now sent forward his first wave of troops — Medes and Cissians — with orders to take the Greeks alive.
The Medes and Cissians were repulsed with heavy casualties. Determined to punish the resisters, Xerxes sent in his Immortals. The crack Persian troops advanced confidently, envisioning an easy victory, but they had no more success than the Medes.
What Xerxes had not anticipated was that the Greeks held the tactical advantage at Thermopylae. The tight battlefield nullified the Persians’ numerical preponderance, and it also prevented them from fighting the way they had been trained. Persian boys, it was said, were taught only three things: to ride, to tell the truth and to use the bow. There was no place for cavalry at Thermopylae and, even more critical, no place to volley arrows. The Greeks had positioned themselves behind the rebuilt wall. They would have to be rooted out the hard way.
The Persian army was neither trained nor equipped for such close fighting. Its preferred tactic was to volley arrows from a distance, the archers firing from behind the protection of wicker shields planted in the ground. They wore very little armor and carried only daggers and short spears for hand-to-hand combat.
Although students of military history argue that true shock warfare has seldom been practiced — since it is antithetical to the soldier’s natural desire for self-preservation — the Greeks had made it their standard tactic. Greek soldiers perhaps drew some confidence from their heavy armor and their long spears, which could outreach the Persian swords. But the Greeks also had another, more intangible, edge: something to fight for. They were defending their homes, and they were doing their duty — they were not fighting as slaves of some half mad god-king. As heavy casualties sapped their soldiers’ resolve, the Persian commanders had to resort to lashing them with whips in order to drive them against the determined Greek defenders.
During that long first day of fighting, the Spartans led the Greek resistance. Experienced Spartan warriors would come out from behind the walls, do fierce battle with the Persians, then feign retreat in order to draw the Persians into a trap. Xerxes reportedly leapt to his feet three times in fear for his army.
The second day of Thermopylae followed much the same course as the first. The various Greek contingents now took turns fending off the attacks, but the Persians failed to make any headway.
It is difficult to say how long the Greeks could have held off the Persians at Thermopylae — their casualties thus far were comparatively light — but the question was soon made moot. When the Greeks had first arrived, they learned that the presumably impregnable site possessed a hidden weakness: There was a track through the mountains that could be used by an enemy force to surround and annihilate the defenders of the gate. Recognizing the danger, Leonidas had dispatched his Phocian contingent to guard the path. Thus the already small number of troops available at the gate was made smaller still by the division of the Greek forces. The Phocians themselves were charged with the difficult task of defending a route with no natural defenses. Their best hope — Greece’s best hope — lay in the mountain track remaining unknown to the Persians.
It was, in the end, a Greek who betrayed that secret. The traitor, Ephialtes, was apparently motivated by greed when he revealed the mountain path to Xerxes. Acting immediately on the new information, the king sent Persian troops up the path during the night, when darkness concealed their movement among the oak trees. Near the top, they completely surprised the luckless Phocians. At last free to fight in their usual fashion, the Persians rained down arrows as the Phocians frantically sought to gather their arms. In desperation, the Phocians raced to higher ground for a last stand. The Persians, however, had no interest in chasing the Phocians higher but instead turned down the trail, aiming for the pass at Thermopylae.
Lookouts raced down the hill to warn Leonidas of the descending Persian army. There was little time left. A quick council of war led to the decision to split up the Greek force. There was no reason for the entire army to be annihilated at the wall. Most contingents were now allowed to return home and prepare for a later showdown. Leonidas and his Spartans, however, would remain at Thermopylae. Standing by them were the loyal Thespians, who considered it an honor to die fighting beside the Spartans. Leonidas also kept as hostages some 400 Thebans whom he suspected of having Persian sympathies.
Although some have questioned the wisdom of Leonidas’ decision, wondering if he was overly influenced by a mumbo-jumbo oracle prophesying his sacrificial death, the situation gave him no alternative. If the entire Greek army had fled, it would have eventually been caught from behind and slaughtered by the faster-moving Persian cavalry. Leonidas was giving the retreating troops the only chance they had to escape and fight another day.
It is in many ways the irony of Thermopylae that Sparta, arguably the least free of all the Greek states, now stood as the final defender of Greek freedom. All the things that would make Greece great — science, art, poetry, drama, philosophy — were foreign to Sparta. The Spartans had developed a constitution of almost total subordination of the individual to the community. Spartan elders determined which infants could live or die. Spartan boys were sent into military training at the age of 7. Spartan men lived in barracks, away from their wives, for much of their adult lives. The Spartans ate at a common table, they distributed land equally in an almost communistic fashion and they were forbidden to engage in what were deemed the superfluous arts. Such freedoms as their warrior elite enjoyed did not extend to non-Spartans living in their territory, the Helots, who served as their slaves. Yet the Spartan elite believed passionately in their freedom, and their sense of duty, imbued at an early age, guaranteed that no Spartan commander would ever have to resort to whips to drive his soldiers into battle.
On August 19, the Greeks elected to inflict as much damage as possible on the Persian army. Knowing that this day’s struggle would be their last, they pressed stolidly forward, leaving behind the safety of the wall to fight in the widest part of the pass. There, they would battle the massive Persian army on open ground. They would do so, however, without the Thebans, who as Leonidas had expected surrendered to the Persians before the final assault began.
Xerxes ordered his men in for the kill. Once again his commanders lashed their own troops to drive them forward. Many Persians were trampled to death by their own comrades. Others, shoved aside, drowned in the sea. All the while, the Spartans and Thespians did their deadly work. No one, wrote Herodotus, could count the number of the dead.
The Greeks fought with their long spears until the shafts had all broken. Then they fought with swords. In the course of the struggle, Leonidas fulfilled the prophecy that had doomed him. Four times the Greeks then drove the enemy away from his body before the Persians finally succeeded in dragging it away. It was about then that the second Persian force arrived from the mountain pass.
Now completely surrounded, the exhausted Greeks withdrew for the last time behind the wall and formed themselves into a single compact body. Here, wrote Herodotus, they resisted to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth, until the Persians, coming on from the front over the ruins of the wall and closing in from behind, finally overwhelmed them.
The Battle of Thermopylae was over. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans all lay dead, as did the 700 Thespians who had stood by them. The Persian dead were said to number around 20,000, although Xerxes tried to conceal this horrendous loss by having most of them secretly buried, leaving only about 1,000 Persian bodies for his army to see as it marched through the pass.
It was customary in Sparta to make great ceremony over the death of a king. Riders would carry the news throughout the country, and women would go around the capital, beating cauldrons. But Leonidas was denied even a proper burial. Xerxes ordered his head cut off and fixed on a stake. The rest of the Greek dead he ordered buried in order to conceal how few had held up his army for so long, and to remind his veterans of Thermopylae that the Spartans were mortal after all.
The Greeks’ courageous stand at the mountain pass had hardly even slowed Xerxes’ advance. Four days of waiting and three days of fighting — Leonidas’ heroism had bought only one more week for his compatriots. Athens, all but abandoned, was soon sacked.
And yet Thermopylae was not a total failure. The invading army had been bloodied — badly, if Herodotus is to be believed — and it must have had some effect on Persian morale. The battle’s influence on the Greeks was indisputable. When the war was over — for Greece did finally defeat the Persians — they established holidays commemorating Thermopylae and erected memorials over the battlefield. Four thousand men from Pelops’ land/against three million once did stand read one. Another celebrated Leonidas and his 300 men: Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by/that here, obeying their commands, we lie.
Thermopylae thus acquired a significance that transcended its tangible military impact. In the end, the battle’s value lay not in land gained or lost or in men killed or captured, but in inspiration. The Spartans and Thespians had taught Greece and the world an enduring lesson about courage in the face of impossible odds.
This article was written by David Frye and originally published in the January/February 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!