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Introduction to Greek-Persian relations

The Persian-Archaemenid Empire
The Greek Empire States
Battlefield of Thermopylae
Overview of Thermopylae
Geology of area
The Battle of Thermopylae
Troop specifications
Summary of Battle events

4.0 References and Acknowledgements


1.0 Introduction to Greek - Persian relations

The boundaries of countries in the Middle East today are not the same as they
were 2500 years ago, large empires expanded, collided and subsequently fought
in large battles. These armies lacked the advantages modern armies have today,
such as all-terrain vehicles, aircraft or GPS equipment, so terrain could be fully
exploited, such as in the battle of Thermopylae, 480 BCE.


References by Herodotus Historia are marked as such (H. v(book number *see
below for titles) (passage number if relevant).
Herodotus was a Greek historian whom, with his writing of Historia (or Histories)
he set to verify the events of recent history; Herodotus Historia was written in
440 BCE, some 40 years after the battle of Thermopylae and serves as one of the
best sources of information pertaining not only the encounter at Thermopylae
but also the larger Greek-Persian wars that occurred during the 5 th century.
Herodotus was an Ionian, one of four tribes of the Greeks at the time, the other
three being Aeolian, Dorian and Achaeans. The Ionian people had been key
players in the events that occurred leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae and
as such the presence of a bias from the perspective of Herodotus must be taken
into account when reading his writings. This said, Herodotus was a scholar and
not only accounts the battles that occurred but also records musings of
mathematics, nature and river systems of continent. He speculates on what is
know today as the east African rift system, that if the river Nile were to, for
reason unbeknownst to him, instead drain into the east African rift then what
is there to hinder it from being filled up by the stream within, at the utmost,
twenty thousand years? For my part, I think it would be filled in half the time.
How then should not a gulf, even of much greater size, have been filled up in the
ages that passed before I was born, by a river that is at once so large and so
given to working changes? (H. v2 12). Herodotus, while not hitting the nail on
the head, at least swung the hammer on comprehending timescales of
environmental changes, especially considering the landscape we see today.


The Greek Empire States and the Persian-Archaemenid Empire

The largest of these empires at

the time was the Persian
(Archaemenid) empire lead by
King Xerxses (r. 486-465BCE)[1].
The son of Darius I (r. 522-486
BCE), Xerxses succeeded his
fathers throne mid way through
the first of two invasions of
Greece by the Persian Empire.
This invasion was forced when
Darius I met opposition from
various areas of western Anatolia
during his reign now referred as
the Ionian revolt. These regions;
primarily Ionia but areas of Aeolis, Doris and Cyprus had been taken control of by
the Persians in 545 BCE and had been since ruled by Histiaeus the Milesian who
was appointed by Darius (H. v7).
Following the Greek Dark Ages where the Bronze Age civilisation collapsed,
settlements of Greeks began to form larger cities and then would coalesce to
larger city-states, such as Athens or Ionia. Before the battle of Marathon in 490
BCE, King Darius sent envoys to discus surrender or subjugation of the Greeks,
famously portrayed in 300, these emissaries were executed leading to the events
of Marathon and Thermopylae. Sparta and Athens were two of the strongest
cities and formed the front of the Greek empire states against the threat of the
Persian Empire.


The Battlefield of Thermopylae


Overview of Thermopylae

Thermopylae today isnt exactly as it was in the past. Sea levels were much
higher as illustrated in figure 1, which would have meant that the pass at
Thermopylae (or also known the Hot Gates) was a lot thinner than would be
assumed today and as such was a lot more of an important choke point for the
Greek forces.

Figure 1.
Difference in
sea level representing
Gulf of Malia between
480BCE and today (Kraft et.


Al, 1987) (G. Rapp, et al. 2006)

This choke lies between the then shores of the Gulf of Malia to the north and the
mountains of Kallidromo to the south, running parallel with the Tempe valley that
extends roughly ENE WSW out to the Aegean sea. To gain access to the
mainland of Greece, Xerxes troops need simply pass this hold.


Geology of Thermopylae

Figure 2. Tectonic map of the region, based on works by Clews 1989, Simonelli

While the geological formation of the area was unknown to the Greeks, the
importance of the pass and its presence isnt understated in literature. Without

seeing the area first hand, a few observations of the maps and photographs can
be made; a large flat plane runs NE to SW bound lineally with the Kallidromo
Mountains along south and several individual mountains to the north, including
Mt. Orthyrs. The Malian gulf has been regressing eastwards along this plane (G.R.
Rapp, 2006) with the global change in sea levels since 480BCE, on top of
sediment being deposited as the Spercheios River feeds into the gulf.

Figure 3 (above). Geomorphological aerial photo interpretation.

As can be seen, the structure appears to follow that of a graben, with the
hanging wall downthrown and with uplift of the footwall, however the height
disparity between the Kallidromo mountains and the Orthyrs could be the
evidence of a half graben structure, but is at least an extensional graben. The
Lamia graben (R.E. Holdsworth, 2002) is extending in a NNE/SSW orientation. The
position of Thermopylae on the North Anatolian Fault (NAF) allows the driving
mechanism of the region to be explained: the apparent refraction of the fault
northwards as it cuts into the Greek mainland is essentially a large right step
over of the NAF, which is a dextral system, which gives rise to extensional zones
running parallel to the step (P. Kearey et al., 2009).
Figure 4 (below). Cross
section of Kallidromo and the gulf of Malia. Taken from Kraft et al.

The Kallidromo
mountains are made up of
limestone formed in
the upper cretaceous
(Fig. 4), with weathering
of northern faces
(valley facing) of
rocks producing a Limestone
Regina (Translated. Fig 6.)

Figure 6.Soil + Superficial

map of the Spercheios
() valley.


Limestone Regina
Dark Limestone Regna
Dry Stone (alluvium)
Lithogenic dark red alkaloids
Alluvial Reserves (flood plane)

15. Mixed depositional muds. (deltaic sediments).


The extent of the alluvial reserves is a good measure of the range the
Spercheios/Lamia graben. The mountains of the Kallidromon would deposit
material into the basin, wherin the river would transport that material toward the


The Battle of Thermopylae

Troop Specifications

In later summer 480 BCE, Thermopylae was a hive of activity, troops from both
sides met at the path. The Greek contingents quoted by Herodotus, maki as
attending the battle are no more than 300 Lacedaemonians (or Spartans) lead
by King Leonidus. 500 Tegeans, 500 from Mantineia, 120 Orchomenus. From the
other cities in arcadia(Paus. 10.20.1) 1000 troops mustered with 80
Mycenaenians, 200 from Phlius, 400 from Corinth, 700 Boeotians, 700 from
Thespiae and 400 from Thebes, giving us a total of at least 5,200 soldiers.
Pausanias (Paus. 10.20.1) goes further than Herodotus account of the number of
Locrians present, with an estimate of 6000 troops, giving a total greek force of
approximately 11,000. A major attribution of why the greeks lost this battle could
have been as Herodotus writes they intended then to leave a garrison in Sparta
and to come to help in full force with speed: and just so also the rest of the allies
had thought of doing themselves; for it chanced that the Olympic festival fell at
the same time as these events. Accordingly, since they did not suppose that the
fighting in Thermopylai would so soon be decided, they sent only the forerunners
of their force. The inequality of numbers was certainly a decider in the outcome
of the battle.
The number of soldiers present for Persia is, admitted by Herodotus himself,
inconsistent. In just 40 years since the battle was fought, he writes What the
exact number of the troops of each nation was [referring to the Persians
amassing at Doriscus, prior to the battle] I cannot say with certainty- for it is not
mentioned by any one- but the whole land army together was found to amount
to one million seven hundred thousand men. This number has been refuted by
modern historians, with an estimate of at least 250,000 Persian troops being
present. This still meant that the Greeks were significantly outnumbered, at
anywhere between 5000 and 11,000 troops of Greek command.


Figure 5. Reconstruction of the area 480BCE illustrating the position of each side. The
size of the pass couldnt have been more than 100m across (Kraft et. Al 1987) at the


3.2 Summary of battle events

The actual date of events has been lost but its agreed that the battle occurred
around late august (Bradford, 2004). Xerses let four days pass expecting always
that they would take to flight (H. v 7, 210) and sent men from Medes and
Kissians. Getting roughly handled (H. v7 210) the medians retreated. The
Lacedaemons were famously skilled fighters, yet the retreat of the Medians
allowed a new Persian contingent to be toward the pass. A group whom could
have won the battle sooner; referred to by Herodotus and King Xerxes as the
Immortals.(H. v7 211). Supposing that they at least would easily overcome the
enemy they advanced to the pass The Greek forces, though outnumbered, had
tactics to work in their favour; longer spears allowed the Greeks to attack more
efficiently and keep distance (H v7 211) and the feign of a retreat.. The
elongation of the pass allowed the Greeks to pull back allowing a haphazard
advance by Persians. These advances proved more of a hindrance than ground
made; the Greeks turned and attacked the now out of formation Immortals. Both
sides suffered casualties but it was ultimately the Persians who were first to
retreat: the Persians were not able to obtain any success by making trial of the
entrance and attacking it by divisions and every way, they retired back. (H v7
The battle was still won part to the geological structure of the pass itself: the
mountains are a barrier bottlenecking the pass but also a tactical advantage that
both sides can use. After day two of fighting the Greeks were betrayed by
Epialtes the son of Euyrdemos (H v7 213). This Malian man told the Persians of
the Anopaia path; a path that lead around the Hot Gates that could be used to
flank the greeks from behind. The Persians followed this path and met with 1000
Phokians whom Leonidas had posted to guard the route (H v7 227). When
Leonidas found out of this, he sent the majority of his troops home, knowingly
outnumbered and with the strength of the pass annulled by the Persians
knowledge of it, he sent the majority of his troops home and fought to the death,
the Persians free to move further toward Athens.




Historia, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (480 BCE) Translated by George Rawlinson

and available at Extended versions of
volume 7 can be found at Translated by G. C. Macauley (1890).
References by Herodotus Historia are marked as such (H. v(1-7)-(book number
*see below for titles) (integer) (passage number if extended).
1 - Clio
2 - Eurerpe
3 - Thalia
4 - Melpomene
5 - Terpischore
6 - Erato
7 - Polymnia - events of Thermopylae
8 - Urania
9 - Calliope
Geoarchaeology; The Earth-science Approach to Archaeological Interpretation,
George Rapp, Christopher Hill (2006),Yale University Press. p 96 fig. 3.19.
Figure 1
The Pass at Thermopylae, Greece, John C. Kraft, George Rapp, Jr., George J.
Szemler, Christos Tziavos, Edward W. Kase (1987) Journal of Field Archaeology,
Vol. 14, No.2
Figures 1,4 & 5
Higgins MD, Higgins R (1996) A Geological companion to Greece and the Aegean.
Duckworth Publishers, London
Philip Kearey,Keith A. Klepeis, Frederick J. Vine (2009) Global Tectonics (3rd
Regional-scale processes, Robert E Holdsworth (2002), London Geological
Society. Volume 1.
Pausanias, Description of Greece (Paus. 10.20.1).
The Quaternary evolution of the Gulf of Corinth, central Greece: coupling
between surface processes and flow in the lower continental crust, Rob
Westaway (2002), Techtonophysics 358 p 269-318.
A History of Greece, Connop Thirlwall (1835).
Soil map of Greece; accessed from 12/2015,
- Translated by the wonderful Antigoni Gerantzi (2015), with thanks.
Title images;
King Leonidas,

d4rtio8.jpg, Aranthulas, with thanks.

King Darius, King Darius I and Persepolis (Original) by Ruggero Giovannini.
Bust of Herdotus; creative commons.