Were there really only 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae?

It is considered a heroic last stand by King Leonidas of Sparta and his tiny number of brave warriors against an army of a supposed million soldiers.

This article was first published in March 2014

King Leonidas sculpture in Thermopylae © Santiago Rodríguez Fontoba | Dreamstime

King Leonidas sculpture in Thermopylae © Santiago Rodríguez Fontoba | Dreamstime.com

Last week saw the release of 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to the muscle-rippling, blood-splattering, historically-dodgy 300 – which told the fantastical story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when a handful of Spartans fought the entirety of Persia’s armies for three days. But was it as one-sided as the legend suggests?

In short, not as much as suggested. It is true there were only 300 Spartan soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae but they were not alone, as the Spartans had formed an alliance with other Greek states. It is thought that the number of Greeks was closer to 7,000. The size of the Persian army is disputed. 5th-century Herodotus claimed there were over two million but it was more likely to be between 100,000 and 300,000, so the Greeks were still against overwhelming odds.

With this huge army, Xerxes I of Persia was intent on invading and conquering all of Greece, but King Leonidas of Sparta met him at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae, known as the Hot Gates, where Persia’s superior numbers counted for nothing. A messenger threatened a Spartan general saying, “Our arrows will block out the Sun”, to which the general replied, “Then we will fight in the shade.” Leonidas’ forces held off the Persians for two full days.

The Spartans were brutal warriors, raised never to surrender or show weakness. When a Persian ambassador ordered the Greeks to lay down their weapons, Leonidas hit back with, “Come and take them”.

A Greek called Ephialtes betrayed his country by revealing a path to the Persians that allowed them to outflank Leonidas. The Spartan King dismissed most of the army and formed a rear-guard of around 1,500 men, including his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and a few hundred others, many of them slaves. They were wiped out but this sacrifice allowed the bulk of the army to retreat and regroup.

Xerxes’ invasion ended in failure as the Greeks won decisive victories at the Battles of Salamis and Plataea.

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