One good reason for the apparent delay of Xerxes before sending his troops forward to attack the Spartan position was the state of the fleet. Had the great storm not occurred, and had the fleet proceeded as intended round to their rendezvous, eliminating any of the Greek ships en route, then the attack on Thermopylae could undoubtedly have begun within a day or two. Even the advance-guard of the army was sufficient to make the first exploratory probe against the walled pass and the limited number of defenders that it could accommodate. The storm damage occasioned to the ships, requiring several days to repair, seems sufficient reason to account for the Persian delay - delay which, naturally enough, the Greeks later liked to see as fearful hesitation. The idea of the Persian monarch, with his vast army, turning timorous at the very first sign of Greek resistance is absurd. Xerxes, as has been seen, had been in no great hurry since his entry into Greece and, at the beginning of a campaign, which had been years in the preparation, he was unlikely to jeopardise his opening move.
The account as given by Herodotus is confusing, but the sequence of events would seem that after the three-day storm, while the main body of the Persian fleet was sorting itself out and making good the damage in the Gulf of Pagasae, Xerxes decided on a bold move and despatched a force of 200 ships with the intention of bottling up the Greek fleet within the Euripus channel. Their orders were to proceed north-east through the Skiathos channel so as to give the impression to the watching Greeks that they were heading north. Once through the channel, they turned south making their way down the long and dangerous eastern flank of Euboea. It was a calculated risk, but one which would certainly pay dividends if they could block the Greek sea route at Chalcis while the main body of their fleet, battle-ready after its repairs, would come down on them from the north. The Greeks would have no escape and could be annihilated at leisure. The news of this daring plan was brought by a certain Scyllias, a famous swimmer and diver, who had been working for the Persians on salvage operations, during which he seems to have saved his foreign masters a great deal of money - ‘as well as putting plenty aside for himself’. Either by boat, or by a ten-mile swim from Aphetae, he came ashore at Artemisium with the alarming news that this squadron was even now turning for its passage east of Euboea with the intention of outflanking the Greeks and bottling them up from their potential line of retreat. This information was immediately sent back to an Athenian squadron of fifty-three ships which had not yet started for Artemisium to alert them as to the danger. Scyllias also brought the Greeks some reassuring news: the extent of the storm damage that had overtaken the Persians.
The Greeks had a little time to reflect, for it would take this Persian task-force about two days and nights to get round Euboea. Inevitably there was a good deal of dissension among them - some being in favour of abandoning Artemisium and getting back south. Throughout the debate that followed it is made clear that Eurybiades, with his typical Peloponnesian outlook, was all for withdrawing. Themistocles, on the other hand, was for staying and taking the offensive against the Persians before they had regrouped and made good all their repairs. In the end he triumphed in what can only be called a very Greek way. The Euboeans, hearing that the Spartan commander was in favour of withdrawal and knowing that this would lead to the devastation of their island, came to Themistocles with a massive bribe to be distributed as he would, if only he could prevail on the other commanders and particularly Eurybiades to stay put. Themistocles was never averse to money, so he pocketed as much as seemed suitable for himself, passed over a sixth of the sum to Eurybiades (who changed his mind about withdrawing), and squared the other commanders. Even at this late hour, and with the fate of their country in the balance, it is instructive to see how their typically Mediterranean rationale never deserted the Greeks. Very illuminating is the story recounted by Plutarch of how Themistocles dealt with one of the commanders who was in favour of withdrawal.
Among his own countrymen the bitterest opposition he encountered came from Architeles, the captain of the sacred state galley, who was anxious to sail back to Athens because he did not have enough money to pay his crew. So Themistocles stirred up the feelings of Architeles’ men against him to such a pitch that they made a rush at him and snatched away his dinner. Then while Architeles was still nursing his indignation and chagrin at this, Themistocles sent him a box containing a dinner of bread and meat and under it a talent of silver. He told Architeles to eat his dinner at once and look after his crew in the morning, otherwise he would denounce him publicly for accepting money from the enemy.
On the day following the great debate (probably 17 August) the decision was taken, again on the initiative of Themistocles, to attack the Persian fleet to the north of them. It was difficult once more to convince Eurybiades and the other commanders of the wisdom of such an offensive move. Having agreed to stay at Artemisium they were now in favour of letting the enemy come down to them. What probably turned the scales was not only the eloquence and possibly even blackmailing tactics of Themistocles (he knew who had received bribes) but also the first-hand report from Scyllias of the sorry state in which the storm had left so many of the enemy. They were not all in one place, but dispersed over a number of anchorages and it should be possible to cut out at any rate some of them before the main body could assemble. In any case it was high time that they took the measure of the Persian fleet and had a chance to compare their own battle tactics with theirs.
Late in the afternoon the Greeks made their move to the north, taking confidence in the fact that by starting at such a time they would, if things went against them, be able to withdraw to Artemisium towards nightfall. The Persians, for their part, could hardly believe that so small a force compared to their own was daring to come out to the attack. They got under way at their leisure, being confident of annihilating them. The Greek ships were heavier and slower and the Phoenicians and others felt sure that, with their greater speed and manoeuvrability, they would easily capture them. However, since they were putting out from a number of harbours at different times, while the Greeks advanced in battle-array, Themistocles’ optimism was justified. His force managed to sink a number of the enemy and put several others to flight. But, as the Persian numbers built up, they were gradually able to try an encircling movement known as the periplous: a tactic designed to constrict the Greeks so that they would fall foul of one another, thus becoming an easy prey. (The technique was similar to that of the seine net in fishing.) To forestall this, the well-trained Athenians and their allies responded by forming ‘into a close circle - bows outward and sterns to the centre’. Known as the kuklos, this was not only an excellent defensive tactic but it enabled the circle, at a given signal, to explode outward, each trireme striking at the nearest enemy. The Persians learned to their cost how highly trained was the adversary whom they had started by regarding with contempt. Although Xerxes had promised a reward to whoever should first capture one of the famed ships of Athens not a single Greek was taken, while thirty Persian ships were captured, among the prisoners being the brother of the king of Salamis in Cyprus, ‘a man of repute in the enemy force’. As darkness came down the triumphant Greeks withdrew. It had been a satisfactory action from their point of view, enabling them to take the measure of the enemy. It also served to remind them that, in a long engagement, they would not have been able to cope with the overriding numbers of the Persian fleet.
It was on this same day, 18 August, that Xerxes had given the orders for the assault to begin on the Spartan position at Thermopylae. He could not wait much longer for the navy to achieve a victory and for the store ships to come back up the coast to bring more victuals. Although the preparation that had gone into the establishment of supply-dumps on the way had been excellent, the fact was that, once into Greece, the army was bound to go forward like a huge snake, eating its way as it moved. The raid carried out by Leonidas in the plain and the valley of the Spercheius must have left little in the immediate path of the army. The Greek fleet (until, he hoped, surprised from the rear) still faced his own navy at Artemisium. On the other hand, it would seem that only a handful of men guarded this pass between the mountains and the sea. It was clearly time to make a move by land. Early on the morning of that day, while Themistocles was still trying to convince his commanders to make an attack on the Persians in the evening, Xerxes decided to make a frontal assault on the Spartan position. It was poor tactics, and everyone on the staff must have known it, but it seemed the only action possible.
In that narrow place which lay before them across the summer-hot plain, the vast weight of the army could not be deployed. They were clearly committing themselves to an engagement that could only suit the enemy (and Demaratus with his trained eye must have recognised that Thermopylae was ideal for a hoplite action). Neither Demaratus as a southerner from the Peloponnese, nor any of the Persians, nor any of the Ionian Greeks to be found in the camp, yet knew about the ‘secret’ of Kallidromos. To these invading foreigners the only immediate route lay through the pass ahead. When Ephialtes came forward with the news of an alternative, it was only in this respect that he could be considered a traitor to the Greeks. The Persians, accustomed as they were to a mountainous land and able to view the country in front of them (easy to discern the hill-slopes behind the savage pass), would sooner or later have discovered the way to circumvent the Greeks. For the moment, though, it seemed that the only course was to try to overwhelm the force that opposed them.
Herodotus’ statement that Xerxes was filled with rage because, although he had given the defenders of the pass four days in which to withdraw, they still made no move almost certainly reflects his sustained portrait of the Great King as an Oriental tyrant. It was only with considerable reluctance, one suspects, that Xerxes gave the order for first the Medes and then the men from Susa to attack. On the reason why these divisions should have been chosen as the spearhead Ephorus has the interesting and possibly accurate comment that Xerxes put the Medes in first either because he thought they were the bravest of his men (unlikely from a Persian monarch) or ‘because he wished to see them destroyed, since the Medes had a proud spirit, the supremacy exercised by their ancestors [over the Persians] having only recently been destroyed’.
The Medes were commanded by Tigranes the Achaemenid and were equipped in the same manner as the Persians, who had indeed adopted it from the Medes in the first place. They wore domeshaped helmets of hammered bronze or iron, a jacket of fish-scale mail with a sleeved embroidered tunic over it, long trousers, and carried light wicker shields. Their arms consisted of short spears, a dagger, and bows with a quiverful of short arrows. Although admirably suited for a certain type of warfare in the mountains, or in deserts, or in the great plains of Asia, such protection and such armament was woefully inadequate against the hoplite line which they were now about to encounter. Those were brave men indeed who now moved forward against the wall of huge bronze shields, the intimidating (and highly protective) helmets, the bronze cuirasses and leg guards which gleamed defiantly as they advanced across the plain and into the defile. It was true that the Persians’ shower of arrows might ‘darken the sun’ (an advance report, about which one Spartan had remarked, ‘Good, then we shall fight in the shade’), but when it came to close-quarter work, as it must, the weapon that would be dominant was the long Greek spear. ‘The fox has many tricks and the hedgehog one good one’, and at the Hot Gates the bristling hedgehog would prove more than formidable.
‘The Medes charged,’ writes Herodotus, ‘and in the ensuing struggle many of them fell; but others took their place, and in spite of savage losses they refused to give up.’ This is fair and accurate war-reporting, but his subsequent comment bears the bias of later Greek attitudes and must be dismissed: ‘They made it clear enough to any observer, as well as to the king himself, that he had indeed many men in his army, but few soldiers.’ It is doubtful perhaps if he had, even among the Immortals, soldiers of the calibre of the Spartans, but he had the same quality of men who had conquered a vast empire. As for their courage, it cannot be dismissed.
As man after man fell in the narrow pass so another came forward to take his place. Finally, the Medes were withdrawn. Now, even the carefully bred toughness of the Spartans was put to the test as a fresh wave - the men of Susa - came up against them. The bodies piled upon bodies may have given the fresh arrivals a shield behind which to kneel down and fire their arrows, but even so they could not break the Greek line. One must imagine the scene not as it is told in picture and story books - a simple row of grim Spartans facing the whole of the onslaught - but a regular and organised changeover of hoplites, Spartan-officered, but composed out of all the small allied force. It was growing late in the afternoon, probably about the same time that the Greek fleet was achieving its tactical if limited success against the Persians, when Xerxes and his staff decided to clear the pass before the end of the day. It was time for a breakthrough. The Immortals were ordered forward.