Battle at Thermopylae: Definition & Map

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about the Battle at Thermopylae and discover the heroism of the Spartan king Leonidas and his men. Explore the background of this famous example of courage and heroism in the face of certain defeat.

Definition

The Battle at Thermopylae was a battle at the pass of Thermopylae between the Greeks and the Persian Empire in 480 B.C.E. Although the Greeks lost the battle at Thermopylae, one small group of Spartans delayed the advance of the Persian army long enough for the city of Athens to be evacuated and for the remaining Greek army to regroup and eventually to defeat the Persian invaders.

Map showing the movements of the Persian army and the battle at Thermopylae
Map showing the movements of the Persian army and the battle at Thermopylae

Background of the Battle of Thermopylae

From 500 B.C.E. to 338 B.C.E. the Ancient Greeks entered into the highest point of their civilization in politics, philosophy, and art, and several distinct societies entered into their most golden ages. The two most important groups were centered on the city of Athens and the city of Sparta.

The Athenians practiced one of the earliest forms of democracy in the ancient world. In Athens, each adult male who had been born in the city was allowed to vote on matters that affected the city. If a voter did not have the necessary time to participate in politics he could delegate his power to other citizens, who would make decisions for him. The most prestigious citizens of Athens were the archons, a group of ten men who were elected for one year to handle legal and military affairs. After their term ended the ex-archons became judges who handled cases involving homicide, injuries and arson.

The Spartans developed an entirely different society from their neighbors in Athens. In Sparta, military prowess was the most important aspect of social life. Spartan boys were put into military barracks at the age of seven and they were trained for battle throughout their childhood. The Spartan soldiers became the most powerful and feared soldiers in Ancient Greece. In battle, Spartan soldiers were trained to die rather than retreat or admit defeat. Hoplites, or Spartan infantry men, were told to come back with their shields intact, in the case of victory, or to be carried home dead upon their shields. Spartan women owned property and kept the Spartan farms running in the absence of their husbands.

In general, the two groups had little to do with one another and upon occasion they even fought amongst themselves; however, in the face of a common enemy, the Greeks would fight together. In 499 B.C.E. a colony of Ionian Greeks rebelled against their Persian overlords with the help of the Greeks in Athens. In retaliation the Persian army invaded mainland Greece, but they were repelled by an alliance of Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. By 480 B.C.E. the Persians, led by their king Xerxes, were ready to attack the Greeks again. Just as they had at Marathon, the Greeks formed an alliance to protect their land and people from invaders.

The Battle

As the Persian army moved unto the Greek mainland, the much smaller Greek army, led by the Spartan king Leonidas, moved to block the pass of Thermopylae. The Athenians with their fleet of ships moved to block the Persian advance from the sea. Xerxes and his army needed to break through the Greek army at Thermopylae in order to get to the wealthy cities in the Greek peninsula; however the tiny Greek army kept them bottled up in the pass for two days.

Close up image of modern shoreline and ancient pass at Thermopylae
Close up image of modern shoreline and ancient pass at Thermopylae

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