Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Thermopylae: The Night Raid

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, related a story about the Battle of Thermopylae some 400 years earlier that was not recorded in Herodotus. Diodorus and other later historians claim that on the night of the second day of the battle, knowing that his flank had been turned, Leonidas sent a raid into the Persian camp in order to murder the Persian Emperor Xerxes. Most modern historians dismiss this tale as mere legend. Today I want to look more closely at the legend.

The Pass at Thermopylae as it looks today.

In his book on the Battle of Thermopylae, Ernle Bradford* both relates and dismisses the tale of a night raid in the following language: "Diodorus and others also tell a tale, which most authorities have considered suspect, that Leonidas, knowing all was lost, personally led a suicidal attempt on the Persian lines to try to kill Xerxes. We can be sure that this is untrue, for we know that Leonidas stayed to the last at Thermopylae, as was his duty and as befitted a Spartan king." (137)

Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire** is less conclusive commenting in a note that: "Several sources claim that Leonidas, on the eve of the Spartan' last stand, launched a raid on the royal tent and was killed. It is hard to know what is made of this story -- since Leonidas himself certainly died in battle -- unless it hints at a garbled memory of a foiled mission to assassinate Xerxes." (282)

As both historians emphasize, the notion of Leonidas leading a raid into the enemy camp on the eve of the final day of battle is both absurd and demonstrably untrue. First, the C-in-C of an large army composed of diverse allied forces does not take the role of a platoon leader. Leonidas was C-in-C because he commanded the trust and respect of the allied commanders; he could not risk the disintegration of the entire operation by exposing himself to unnecessary risk. Likewise, a Spartan king's place in the line of battle was very rigidly circumscribed by tradition. A Spartan king led from the front protected only by his personal guard, which included Olympic victors. It was considered a great honor in Sparta to be allowed to fight in front of the king. Finally and most importantly, Leonidas died far too publicly on the third day of battle. There were thousands of witnesses to his last hours on the Persian side who lived to tell about it. His corpse was fought over, then mutilated and displayed. Herodotus had the opportunity to speak with the survivors of Thermopylae and his account of Leonidas' death can be trusted in this. There is no way Leonidas led -- and died -- on a raid the night before.

But does that mean the raid itself is impossible? 

In his article "Thermopylae: A glorious sacrifice or failed 'black operation'" Stefanos Skarmintzos notes that Diodorus claims Leonidas had additional Laconian troops with him in addition to the 300 Spartiates of his personal guard. Certainly Spartan fielded 5,000 perioiki hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, and it is thus probably that Leonidas had at least some perioiki troops with him at Thermopylae as well. This may have included the Skiritan, Sparta's light cavalry scouts. Skarmintzos suggests Leonidas may have taken elements of the Krypteia with him as well. 

Assuming there was a Krypteia at this time (and more and more historians question this, arguing it was not created until after the helot revolt of 465), the members of such a unit would have been well-trained and experienced in both night operations and murder. Yet, even if the Krypteia had not yet been created, is it completely unreasonable to imagine some sort of equivalent to the British SAS or U.S. Navy Seals? If not a permanent institution, we should not forget that all Spartan hoplites were trained to move and operate in the dark and the creation of an ad hoc "special task force" to undertake a dangerous and secret mission is hardly unreasonable.

Furthermore, Leonidas had every reason to want to kill the tyrant who had initiated the invasion of the Greek peninsula. Yes, his personal mission was to command the defense at the Pass. That was his place and he knew it was his destiny to die there. However, that is not the same thing as assuming that everyone else was going to die with him or that the sacrifice of his life would be in vain, i.e. in a defeat. 

Leonidas did not go to Thermopylae to die. He went to halt the Persian invasion. His "job" was to do that anyway he could. The assassination of the man driving forward that invasion, of the supreme leader of an absolutist state, offered the prospect of, at a minimum, creating temporary confusion in the enemy camp and, at best, causing the entire invasion to collapse due to fights over the succession. If a spy or a scout suggested to Leonidas that it might be possible to smuggle Spartan (or other Greek) troops into the Persian camp with a chance of gaining access to Xerxes tent and killing him, Leonidas would have been a fool not to attempt such an operation. 

As Skarmintzos puts it: "If the night raid [had been] successful, today we would talk about the great victory at Thermopylae and how a few Greeks resisted the might of an Empire." Yet because it failed, we cannot be sure it ever happened at all. 

Like Stephen Pressfield, I find the notion of a night raid by a select body of Spartan troops tasked with eliminating the man who commanded the might of Persia irresistible as a novelist. A night raid, therefore, features in:


* Bradford, Ernle. Thermopylae: The Battle for the West.(New York: Da Capo Press, 1993)

** Holland, Tom, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (New York: Anchor Books, 2005)

1 comment:

  1. A a former member of the 82nd I agree with your assessment. The night raid probably did take place. As the Commander, Leonidas would have been foolish not to try it.

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