Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 7 The Battle Of Thermopylae Summary

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Histories | Book 7, The Battle of Thermopylae | Summary



Herodotus notes that while Xerxes ostensibly meant to punish Athens, his real intent was to conquer all of Greece. He explains his theory that it is the Athenians who ensured the freedom of Greece by taking the course of action he is about to describe. He argues that had the Athenians not decided to fight and build a fleet, that no end of resistance on the part of Spartans or others would have been able to prevent a Persian victory. The fleet is the brainchild of Themistocles. Themistocles interprets a prophecy of the oracle at Delphi to mean that Athens's salvation lies in their fleet—a "wooden wall." Themistocles had previously ordered the construction of just such a fleet following the discovery of a silver mine at Laurium. The money paid for 200 war galleys, which had been intended to fight Aegina. Instead, they would be used to fight the Persians. The Athenians augment their fleet by building more ships, and they also attempt to form a league of Greeks to oppose the Persians.

The Greeks send forth an envoy to Gelon, the ruler of Sicily. Gelon refuses to aid the Greeks. To cover his back, he orders a servant to go to Delphi with a gift of gold for Xerxes. If the Persians defeat the Greeks, the money is to be delivered. If Xerxes fails, the servant is to return home with the gold undelivered.

The Greeks, faced with overwhelming numbers, decide on a strategy. They send one army to guard the pass of Thermopylae to stop the Persian armies from entering Greece. Thermopylae was a very narrow pass that would prevent the Persians from using their cavalry in battle. And they send the fleet to guard Artemisium.

The Greek army at Thermopylae is very small compared to the over five million Herodotus counts among the Persians. At the core are 300 Spartans, accompanied by contingents from Corinth, Thespia, and Thebes, among others. The army is led by Leonidas, a descendant of the mythical hero Heracles. When a Persian spy reviews the Greek troops on the eve of the battle, he is bemused by the antics of the Spartans, who are casually combing their hair and practicing gymnastics. Demaratus later explains to Xerxes that Spartans take care of their hair and appearance prior to engaging in battle.

The battle begins and the Greeks hold the Persians at bay. They are good fighters and have chosen their ground well. After two days, a Greek, Ephialtes, approaches the Persians in hope of a great reward. He tells them about a secret path around the Greek lines that the Persians use to outflank the Greeks. Leonidas and the Greeks are defeated and killed on the third day. Xerxes has Leonidas's head cut off and put on a pike.


Herodotus's praise of the Athenians might not have been well received when he was writing his history. At the time, in the mid-5th century BCE, Athens was a powerful empire that bullied its neighbors. Herodotus feels, however, that he must report the facts as he finds them, and he makes a convincing case that Greek freedom was indeed owed to the Athenians. His argument rests on the fact that it is an Athenian fleet and an Athenian strategy that lead to the victories that follow.

But it was not only the Athenians. The Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae is one of the most famous events recorded in Histories. The Greeks decide to play to their strengths: the Spartans, strong on the land, block a defensible pass at Thermopylae. The Athenians, strong at sea, take their navy to block the passage of the Persian navy. The battle of Thermopylae is filled with memorable anecdotes that have thrilled contemporary and later audiences. The Spartan attitude to war and death—especially their calm attention to their appearance on the eve of battle—should have warned Xerxes that he was biting off more than he could chew. He had earlier laughed off Demaratus's claims of Spartan valor. Even though the Spartans are defeated at Thermopylae, Xerxes realizes his invasion of Greece is not going to go smoothly.

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