When news came to Sparta that the Persians were advancing for the second time in 10 years into the Greek heartland, only King Leonidas and his hand-picked band of 300 were dispatched to stop them.
It was the feast of Carnea, and the Spartans were not inclined to go against their latent isolationist tendencies by committing more resources. Leonidas picked up some Greek recruits along the way, forced some 1,100 Boeotians to join him, and then marched to the strategic pass called Thermopylae. Here some 7,000 troops eventually were dismissed when the Persians outflanked them. Leonidas refused retreat and held out at the pass for almost three days, probably in August 480 b.c.e.
The main historian for this battle is Herodotus, who leaves out many conflicting details known from other contemporary writers and modern archaeologists. Other routes would have allowed the Persians to advance, but for some reason they chose Thermopylae as their main attack. Perhaps the Persian generals expected that the Greeks would melt away in intimidation, for they waited three days before attacking Thermopylae.
For the first two days Leonidas and his men brilliantly defend the pass. On the third day of fighting the locals give the Persians advice about an alternative and unguarded trail through the highlands overlooking the pass. After an all-night march by the elite Persian force called the Immortals, Leonidas and his troops faced a rear attack along with a frontal assault by the vastly superior Persian regulars. Despite fierce Spartan resistance that killed two Persian princes, Leonidas and his 300 were slaughtered to the last man. Most of their collaborators and allies also were cut down, with the exception of a few Thebans who are said to have surrendered.
The passage of time only increased Leonidas’s reputation. The Persians mutilated Leonidas’s body, but 40 years later, the Spartans claimed to have recovered the corpse. In a ceremonial reburial a fifth-century b.c.e. hero shrine was established for Leonidas in Sparta. Somewhere on the battlefield a monument was erected that announced to future generations the glory of Leonidas and his 300: “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we
lie here, being obedient to their words.” A famous lyric poem reads: “Renowned was their fortune and fair their fate. Their tomb is an altar; instead of laments they have remembrance, instead of pity, praise. Their shroud is such as neither decay nor the victory of time will touch, for they were brave men and their graveyard took the glory of Greece for its inmate. To this Leonidas the king Leonidas of Sparta bears witness who has left a great memorial of valor and eternal glory.” Ultimately Leonidas’s gallant action paid off. He probably believed that he could hold out with his small group, given his initial success at Thermopylae. The stealthy movements of the Persian Immortals took him by complete surprise. However, the detainment of the Persians for two days probably made the engagement of Battle of Artemisium necessary, a naval clash that the Greeks won. Leonidas had given Athens the time to evacuate and so the Greek navy prevailed.