The Battle of Thermopylae is one of the most famous battles in ancient European history. The tale of the 300 Spartans last stand against the mighty Persian empire has rippled through the millennia to the present day. However, upon further review the legend doesn’t quite match up with the actual events. This chart shows the actual Battle of Thermopylae Greek army composition.
After the first Persian invasion of Greece was thwarted at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, the emperor Darius vowed to return. Though Darius died in the ensuing years, his heir and new emperor Xerxes resumed planning and preparing a massive full scale invasion force.
By 480 BCE the army was ready and began marching on Greece. The army was allegedly so big that when they made camp by a river, the Persians “drank it dry”. Modern estimates have the army size between 100,000-300,000 troops.
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.
Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia