The Battle of Thermopylae occurred in “August or September 480 BC, at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae” during the second Persian attempt to conquer Greece. It was “fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I.” (“Battle of Thermopylae”)
Xerxes used one of the most ancient and widely utilized psychological combative strategies in the world: intimidation. From the animal kingdom to Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet of 1907-1909, combatants a display of size and power to cow their opponents into submission. Just as a lion’s mane can deter challenges, and Roosevelt’s fleet acted as his ‘big stick’ to enforce and protect US interests throughout the world, (Pike) the size of Xerxes’ army frightened many Greek towns into surrendering their ‘earth and water’ to Xerxes. (Frye)
Herodotus calculated the Persian army to be “2,641,610” fighters strong. (Histories, vol.7) Including an equal number of Camp Followers as soldiers, He estimated “5,283,220 as the whole number of men brought by Xerxes.” As far as the number of women, hounds, and pack animals following, “no one can give any sure account of it by reason of their multitude.”
Many modern historians believe Herodotus overestimated Xerxes’ numbers, and that the army only consisted of “between about 100,000 and 300,000” Soldiers (“Battle of Thermopylae”) But even so, the force was large enough to drain rivers dry, “block out the sun” with arrows from its archers, and create a pontoon bridge of triremes over the Hellespont, twice. Not to mention arrogant enough to lash the sea itself when the first bridge failed. (Chrastina) Met with such a large, intimidating force, it’s no wonder “The Greek forces at Thermopylae… were seized with fear.” (Herodotus, vol.7)
Unfortunately, frightening as it was, the force could be somewhat unwieldy. The Greeks took advantage of that by attempting to head of the horde at Thermopylae, “A narrow mountain pass” where “the Persians would be unable to take advantage of their massive preponderance in numbers,” and would have to fight the roughly “4,900” Greeks in “close-quarter combat.” (Frye)
However, the psychological effect of the giant army wasn’t ineffective, even in such leveling conditions. Most of the Greek force fully expected to be killed by the Persians, and King Leonidas in particular “was convinced that his final duty was death.”
When the Persians found a way around the ‘gates’ of the mountain pass, much of the Greek force retreated and dispersed to their homes. Whether this retreat was by order of Leonidas, or due to the fear of many of the Greek soldiers, even Herodotus cannot say with certainty. In the end, only the Spartans and Thespians remained to fight – and be defeated by – the Persians.
After the battle, Xerxes used his victory over Leonidas as another psychological attack on the Greeks, ordering the Spartan king’s “head cut off and fixed on a stake” to be displayed to those who would oppose him.
“Battle of Thermopylae”. Wikipedia, 30 Jan 2012 . Web. 28 Jan 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Thermopylae.>
Chrastina, Paul. “King Xerxes Invades Greece.” Old News. n.d. n. page. Web. 30 Jan. 2012. <http://www.oldnewspublishing.com/xerxes.htm.>
Frye, David. “SPARTAN STAND AT THERMOPYLAE.” Military History. 22.10 (2006): 38-44.
Herodotus. Histories. 7. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_Herodotus/Book_7
Pike, John. “GlobalSecurity.org .” Great White Fleet (16 Dec 1907 – 22 Feb 1909) . Global Security Org., 05-07-2011 . Web. 26 Jan 2012. <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/navy/great-white-fleet.htm>.