The battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. was a defeat for the Greeks -- the invading Persian forces under King Xerxes forced their way through this narrow pass between mountain and sea after destroying the Spartans and their allies. But King Leonidas and his men held the Persians off so long it helped turn the tide of the Greco-Persian War in favor of Greece.
Fighting in the Phalanx
The Greeks who fought at Thermopylae and elsewhere during the Greco-Persian War (500-449 B.C.) were known as hoplites after the large curving shield, or hoplon, each soldier carried. The hoplon was three feet in diameter and made out of wood that was often covered with beaten bronze. The hoplon weighed about 16 pounds, and the hoplite carried it with his left forearm through a metal grip in the shield, his left hand holding a grip. The concave nature of the shield allowed sword or spear blows to glance off, and the shield was also designed for pushing forward, an essential movement in the Greek phalanx formation. The phalanx was closely packed group of soldiers formed into an unbroken wall facing the enemy, each hoplite holding his shield in his left arm and using a sword or spear to fight with his right.
Heavily Armored Hoplites
The hoplites battling at Thermopylae wore breastplates of different types. The most effective (and the heaviest, at 30 to 40 pounds) was a bronze breastplate that made the wearer’s chest and back impervious to any stab wound. The problem was its weight and the fact that it could restrict a soldier’s range of movement. Instead of a breastplate, some Greeks wore body armor made of layers of stiffened linen glued together. Most of the Greeks fought wearing greaves, made of bronze, which protected their legs from just above the knee to the ankle. And they wore Corinthian helmets beaten out of a single sheet of bronze or iron. These helmets covered the entire head, the face and the neck, leaving only a t-shaped slit in the front through which the wearer could see. They had horsehair crests on the top, whose purpose was to make the wearer seem taller and more intimidating.
Fighting with Sword and Spear
The Greek soldiers holding off the Persians at Thermopylae would have had two weapons. The most essential was their heavy thrusting spear, six to eight feet in length, with an iron blade and a bronze tip on the butt end for planting in the ground or striking. When the spear could not be used, the Greeks fought with their short swords, which were about two feet long, double-edged and made of iron.
Beaten but Unbowed
The Greeks were heavily outnumbered at Thermopylae -- they had 6,000 to 7,000 men as opposed to perhaps 80,000 Persian fighters -- but the narrowness of the pass did not allow the Persians to deploy their full strength, thus making the heavily armored Greek phalanxes more than a match for more lightly armored Persian troops used to mobile fighting on horseback and with bows and arrows. They finally defeated the remaining Spartans at Thermopylae by sneaking to their rear, but the last stand of Leonidas and his men bought time for the rest of Greece, and created a lasting heroic mythology.
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images