In ancient times, Thermopylae was a narrow pass in eastern Greece. It took its name from Greek words meaning “hot gates,” a reference to the hot sulfur springs nearby. Located between steep mountain cliffs and the sea, Thermopylae guarded the main land route into central Greece from the north.

Thermopylae was the site of a famous battle during the Persian Wars. At the pass, in 480 B.C. between 6,000 and 7,000 Greek troops led by Leonidas, the king of Sparta, faced a Persian force of about 300,000 under the command of the Persian king Xerxes. The Greeks managed to hold the pass for two days against the invading Persians. But then a Greek local inhabitant led the Persians around Thermopylae along a mountain route unknown to Leonidas.

When the Greeks learned that the Persians were approaching, many retreated. Some historians think that Leonidas sent them away so they would live to fight again. Leonidas remained to defend the pass with 300 Spartans (who formed his personal bodyguard) and about 1,000 other Greeks. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks fell to the Persians after a fierce battle. Some Greeks may have surrendered during the battle, but all who continued to fight were killed.

Other ancient battles were fought at Thermopylae as well. In 279 B.C. a Greek army failed to defend the pass from invading Celts. In 191 B.C. Roman soldiers defeated Syrian troops who attempted to invade Greece through Thermopylae, and in A.D. 395 Romans guarding the pass were defeated by invading Visigoths. The Roman emperor Justinian built several defenses at Thermopylae, including a strong wall, in about A.D. 539. (See also Wars and Warfare, Greek.)

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