Xerxes now celebrated the rising of the sun. Just as he had done at that golden moment when he had crossed the Hellespont, he poured a libation to the god. Ahuramazda, like the sun itself, came out of the East, and today would ensure that his believers had the victory. The Great King waited until ‘about the time that the market-place is full’ before giving the order for the army to move forward. The evocative phrase has the distinction of an age before time-pieces: it meant that hour or so, long after the farmers and the carts have come in from outlying villages to the town, when the citizens and women and slaves have attended to their household duties and have time to go out. Shopping and conversation are now the order of the day, before the sun rises too high and all sensible Mediterranean people retire into the shade like lizards. It was, therefore, between nine and ten in the morning that Xerxes ordered his troops to cross the plain. The humidity of the night had worn off, the men had eaten, and now, before the heat of the day began, was the time to send them into action. The conclusion was obvious, in any case: within a few hours Hydarnes and the Immortals would be round at the rear of the pass.
The Spartans and their few allies waited to die. One must admire the amazing courage of the Thespians and the Thebans - and, indeed, of the Helots. Since childhood the Spartans had been conditioned by the iron laws of Lycurgus that this was the moment for which a man was born. The others had not. This makes their bravery to some degree more formidable and, though (as we later learn) a number of Thebans ultimately surrendered, the luminous glory that shines around the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae falls also on these other men. Leonidas, as soon as scouts reported that the Persians were on the move, changed his tactics. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before he was overwhelmed, he determined to inflict as many casualties as possible on the Persians before the end. With this in mind he ordered his small force out from the narrowest part of the pass, which they had been holding on the previous two days, and deployed it on a broader front where the path opened out.
Many legends were to spring up, as was only natural, about the last hours of the Greeks after they had heard that the Immortals were up on the mountain above them. Two of the Spartans were suffering from inflammation of the eyes (probably akin to acute ‘pink-eye’ and caused by the dust kicked up in the dry air) and had been sent back to Alpeni. One of them, hearing of the last-ditch stand, told his Helot servant to lead him to the front rank where, nearly blind as he was, he would still be able to strike out and take at least one or more of the enemy with him. The other stayed behind and returned home with the Peloponnesians. On his arrival in Sparta he was received with silent contumely by his fellows, nicknamed the Trembler, and would never have been forgiven if he had not rid himself of his disgrace by his subsequent death at Plataea. (It was better to die than return home partly blind, when your fellows had fallen with their faces to the foe.) Leonidas wanted to send a last message to Sparta, so he asked one of his Spartiates to take it back for him. ‘I came here to fight not to act as a messenger/ was the reply. The king turned to another and put the same request, only to receive the laconic answer: ‘I shall do my duty better by staying here, and in that way the news will be better.’ Presumably a Helot was sent back with Leonidas’ last despatch.
The first attack now developed and ‘many of the invaders fell, while the company commanders behind them drove them forward, plying their whips relentlessly’. Once again, as throughout his history, Herodotus emphasises the free and voluntary nature of the Greeks in war, as against the sheeplike servitude of the Persians. One suspects exaggeration, although on this last day, after the previous demonstrations of the Greeks’ prowess, it is quite possible that the enemy did have to be driven forward against the murderous ‘hedgehog’ of spears. ‘Many of them were driven into the sea and drowned, while still more were trampled under foot by their own comrades. No one could count the number of the dead.’ As the attack carried on relentlessly, many of the Greeks’ spears were broken, and it was now that they drew their swords and came up hand to hand against the enemy. Helmets and shields dented and cut about, the brave plumes slashed away, the Spartans still fought on. ‘During this part of the action Leonidas was killed, having fought most gallantly… .’
A savage battle now developed over the king’s body, the Persians being determined to seize so valuable a trophy while the Spartans were even more determined to deny it to them. Four times the Greeks drove the enemy off, finally managing to drag the king back within their ranks. Among the many Persian dead ‘of high distinction’ who fell fighting over the body of Leonidas were two brothers of Xerxes, sons of Darius. Then came the moment which the Greeks had long been anticipating, the cry from a sentry at their rear: ‘Here they come!’ Hydarnes and the Immortals were in sight. Herodotus tells of the very last stand:
They drew back again into the narrow neck of the Pass and formed themselves into a compact body all together - with the exception of the Thebans - and took up their stance on the Mound. This is the hillock at the entrance where now stands the stone lion in memory of the Lion’s Son. In this place they defended themselves to the last, with their swords, if they still had them, and if not even with their hands and teeth. Then the Persians from in front, piling over the ruined wall, and those who closed in from behind, overwhelmed them with missiles.
The last word is significant; in Greek literally, ‘thrown things’, presumably arrows, javelins and even lumps of rock. To the very last the Persians kept their distance from these dying and indomitable men.
The Spartan Dieneces (he who had made the remark about ‘fighting in the shade’ if the arrows of the invaders darkened the sun) is especially singled out for praise, as well as two Spartan brothers, Alpheus and Maron, and above all a certain Thespian with the Bacchanalian name of Dithyrambus. The Thespians, like the Spartans, died to a man. One Spartan who, most unfairly, found himself in disgrace when he returned to his city was named Pantites. He had been sent by Leonidas with a message to Thessaly and was still away at the time of the battle. It is just possible that he had loitered, though, knowing the Spartan code, one doubts it. In any case, when he got back to his homeland he was treated as if he had been a coward and, unable to bear the imputation, hanged himself. The ruling caste of Spartiates enjoyed their privileges in Lacedaemon, but noblesse oblige is an expression that they might well have coined.
One may suspect Herodotus, with his pro-Athenian bias, of denigrating the Thebans, who had no love for Athens, but it is quite possible that - as he says - upon the final withdrawal to the mound they decided that they had done quite enough in the aid of a cause that was clearly hopeless. Their own city would now be overrun in any case and they and their leader may have felt that, even at this late hour, a show of submission would earn Thebes some respite. Throwing what weapons they had aside they came forward with open outstretched hands in the traditional gesture of surrender. Some of them were inevitably killed by men who were still hot for blood, but it says something for Persian discipline that the majority of those who gave themselves up were taken prisoner. They were branded with the King’s mark - not, as has sometimes been suggested, an ignoble sign but, rather, one of some distinction.
By midday it must all have been over. Xerxes was now free to inspect the battlefield, noting as he did so the immense number of men the Spartans and their allies had cost him. He ordered them to be buried so that the troops following up behind would not suffer a loss of morale through the evidence of what a handful of Greeks could do. Only at one point did the royal sense of dignity and fitness yield to simple passion: the head was struck from the identified body of Leonidas and displayed before the troops on a pole. It was not a savage act, human enough under the circumstances, and the Great King had good reason to make a humiliating display of the Spartan leader. At some considerable cost he had proved that even these supposedly unbeatable Greeks were as mortal as all other men and the head of their king was evidence of it.
The assessment of the battle and its long-term effects will be apparent later. For the moment, all that mattered was that the Persian army was through and the hinge of the pass, upon which turned the whole situation of the Greek fleet, was broken. It can be no coincidence that on the same day that Thermopylae fell the Persian fleet gathered itself together for a concerted attack upon the Greeks at sea. Messengers had undoubtedly gone ahead even before
Hydarnes had come down off Kallidromos, and long before the final battle was over, giving the orders to strike by sea. It was essential to the Persian master-plan that army and fleet should work in concert together and, once it was clear that the pass would be breached that day, the word had gone to the fleet to take action against the Greeks at Artemisium. The failure of the force sent to round Euboea and take them from the south had been a considerable setback; what was now needed was a major fleet action where the Persian superiority in numbers must, so it seemed, inevitably win the day. By now they will have completed their re-fitting and, even if it is correct that none of the Euboea squadron returned to join the fleet, the Persians still had a considerable edge in numbers over the Athenians and the allies. Allowing for losses on both sides, the Persians would still seem to have had some 450 ships (possibly more) while the Greeks, even after the squadron from the south with its 5 3 fresh triremes had joined them, can scarcely have had more than 300.
Herodotus, unfortunately, with all his virtues, was not a naval historian and when he comes to actions at sea he is inclined to be as vague as any landsman. It is not difficult, however, to reconstruct the strategy and tactics of the day since it is obvious that the Persian objective must have been to clear the Greeks out of their way in order to secure the Euripus (the Euboea Channel) while correspondingly the Greek objective must have been to deny it to them. The Greeks will not have been ‘by Artemisium’ as Herodotus says, but farther west where they could oppose the enemy in the strait, most probably with their lead ships pointing towards the Gulf of Pagasae and their wings laid back so as to form a crescent-moon formation. At about noon - somewhere near the hour when the Spartans were making their last stand on the mound - the Persian fleet, having completed their preparations, moved out from Aphetae. They were also in a crescent formation but, with their superiority of numbers, they will have been able to throw their wings forward, the object being to envelop the Greek wings and constrict the smaller fleet in upon itself.
On that hot bright summer afternoon the initial collision must have exploded across the bay. Trireme met trireme head on, the great bronze rams crashing against one another like prehistoric beasts in combat, the forward oars snapping off as an enemy insinuated himself down one side, and the marines on both sides standing ready to board, or fighting across the interlocked bows of their ships. As has been seen, at this stage in naval warfare, once the initial manoeuvring was over and the ships had been engaged, what developed was a miniature land-battle between ship and ship. Burn has pointed out: ‘The sea-fights of 480 were largely marines’ battles, for the press of ships rendered impossible much manoeuvring for favourable position to use the ram.’ Under these circumstances the heavier Greek ships, while not so fast or so dexterous as those from the Levant, had the advantage of solidity. Again, although the Greek marines were outnumbered by those carried by the enemy (somewhere in the ratio of 2:1, or 30 enemy marines to 14 Greeks per ship), the Greek armour was far superior. As Leonidas and his hoplites had just proved, one hoplite was worth a number of lightly armed men in hand-to-hand combat. Only against the Egyptians do the Greek marines seem to have fared rather badly, for the Egyptian marines were as heavily armed as they were, with large shields and - eminently practical - ‘boarding pikes and heavy axes’. They also carried heavy swords while even their rowers at the bench, unlike the naked Greeks, were protected by a kind of corselet and carried long daggers for close-quarter work. Before the afternoon’s fighting drew to a close the Egyptians had carried five Greek triremes, capturing them together with their crews. This was a serious loss in itself, quite apart from which the Athenians, who were naturally in the thick of the battle, had half their ships disabled in some degree. Nevertheless, things did not go all one way for, if they had, Artemisium would have gone on record as the Greek defeat that led to an over-all victory for Xerxes. As it was, a fact which is well commemorated by Plutarch and Pindar, Artemisium - though something of a stalemate - had produced the desired effect of compelling the enemy to withdraw. ‘Both sides were glad when they parted and made all speed back to their moorings.’ Far from being pursued, the Greeks even seem to have found the time on the way back to their station to collect their dead from the water and to salvage some of the wreckage. The fact that the Athenians and their allies were well outnumbered, and the Persian fleet was as happy to draw off at evening as they were, confirms Pindar’s commemorative words about Artemisium: ‘that great battle where Athens’ brave sons planted the shining cornerstone of freedom’.
On their arrival back at Artemisium Plutarch records the elegiac verses which were later engraved on a commemorative tablet set up near the temple at Artemisium:
Here, by this arm of the sea, the valiant children of Athens
Sailed their ships into battle and shattered the fleets of the Mede,
Conquering a many-tongued host from the farthest confines of Asia.
These are the tokens of thanks to victorious Artemis paid.
The Greeks found that the people of Euboea had decided on evacuation and, with this in mind, had driven their sheep down to the shore. Themistocles wasted no time, but told his men to ‘kill as many sheep as they pleased, for it was better that they should have them than the enemy’. Wreckage was burned, great fires were lit for funeral pyres; at the same time, with practical sense, the sheep of the Euboeans were roasted to put heart into the exhausted oarsmen and the battle-weary marines. It was at the end of this hard-fought day while all were busy at their base that the news came in from Thermopylae. Habronichus, the trusted lieutenant of Themistocles, who had been acting as liaison officer between army and fleet, had waited by the pass until the last possible moment. When he saw that all was lost he had slipped and made off fast up the channel in his thirty-oared cutter. With Thermopylae lost, Artemisium to the north was no longer tenable. It was the end of the Themistoclean strategy of the land-sea defensive line to the north.