What were the true motives of the Spartans at Thermopylae?

Andrew J. Bayliss is the author of The Spartans, and in this guest article, argues that the Spartans, despite their courageous sacrifice at Thermopylae may not have been as selfless as once imagined.

This year is the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae, when the Spartan king Leonidas and around 5,000 Greek warriors stood boldly against hundreds of thousands of invaders led by the Persian king Xerxes.

For two whole days, Leonidas and his men held off the Persians at a narrow pass in central Greece, killing tens of thousands of Xerxes’ men. When Leonidas learned that Xerxes had found a way to circumvent his position he dismissed most of his men, but ordered his Spartans to remain and fight to buy time for the allies to withdraw safely. After the battle, a memorial was set up at Thermopylae with the epigram 'Stranger, go tell the Spartans, that here, obedient to their words we lie'.

The Spartans’ courageous self-sacrifice has proved influential and enduring. The historian Diodorus claimed that the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae were 'more responsible' for saving Greece than those who fought in later victories over the Persians, because the mere memory of their great deeds dismayed the Persians and incited their fellow Greeks to perform similar courageous exploits. 

The Spartans and their allies were painted as fighting for 'Greek freedom' in the face of the threat of Persian 'enslavement'

Others have been inspired to attempt to repel invaders at the Thermopylae pass. The southern Greeks successfully held Thermopylae against Philip of Macedon in 353 BCE, and failed to repel a Celtic invasion there in 279 BCE. Antiochus the Great tried to hold off the Romans at Thermopylae in 191 BCE. In 1821 the Greeks attempted to hold a defensive position there in the early stages of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. There was even a doomed attempt by Allied forces to repel the invading German tank divisions at Thermopylae on April 24-25, 1941. Today the Spartans’ courage at Thermopylae proves just as inspirational, with countless sports teams across the globe called the Spartans, and the Battle of Thermopylae the subject of star-studded feature films and best-selling novels.

The Spartans and their allies were painted as fighting for 'Greek freedom' in the face of the threat of Persian 'enslavement' by ancient Greek sources. A wonderful example comes from Herodotus’ account of events just prior to Thermopylae. After the Spartans began receiving bad omens from the gods because they impiously killed ambassadors sent by Xerxes’ father Darius, two Spartans named Sperthias and Bulis volunteered to travel to Persia to sacrifice themselves to atone for the impiety. Along the way to Xerxes’ court, a Persian general advised them to collaborate because Xerxes would receive them as men of honour. But Sperthias and Bulis bluntly rejected his advice as unsound because he knew only how to be a slave, and that if he had ever tasted 'sweet freedom' he would urge them to fight Xerxes not only with Greek spears, but Persian battle-axes too!

This notion of the Spartans as freedom-fighters has been taken up in many modern responses to the story of Thermopylae. Rudolph Maté’s epic film The Three Hundred Spartans (1962) cast the Spartans as resisting Xerxes’ plan to create 'one world ruled by one master', and ends by asserting that the Spartans provided 'a stirring example to free people throughout the world of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny'.

Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas bellows, 'This is Sparta!' before kicking Xerxes’ ambassador down a well

Maté’s vision inspired Frank Miller to write his graphic novel 300 (1998), which describes the Persians as 'poised to crush Greece, an island of reason and freedom in a sea of mysticism and tyranny'. Miller’s novel in turn inspired Zack Snyder’s blockbuster film 300 (2006), which features the iconic scene in which Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas bellows, 'This is Sparta!' before kicking Xerxes’ ambassador down a well for daring to demand tokens of submission. Another iconic scene from the film, Leonidas’ famous (but almost certainly fictional) reply 'come and get them' (molôn labe) to Xerxes’ demand that the Spartans surrender their arms, has become an unofficial slogan for American gun enthusiasts in their vigorous campaign to defend their Second Amendment right to bear arms. But perhaps the most potent modern response to Thermopylae is that of the Nobel Prize-winning author Sir William Golding, who wrote, 'It is not just that the human spirit reacts directly and beyond all argument to story of sacrifice and courage...it is because, way back at the hundredth remove, that company stood in the right line of history. A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to setting us free'.

All this gives the impression that the 300 Spartans gave their lives so that future generations could enjoy great works of literature like Golding’s Lord of the Flies and use assault rifles whenever they want. But the reality could not be further from the truth. The only freedom the Spartans were really interested in was their own.

In the century that followed Thermopylae the Spartans would more than once sacrifice the freedom of their fellow Greeks to seal dodgy deals with the Persians. During the Peloponnesian War against Athens (433-404 BCE), a war the Spartans themselves cast as one of freedom vs Athenian tyranny, they shamelessly bargained away the freedom of the Greeks of Asia Minor in exchange for Persian assistance against Athens. Worse still, in 387 BCE, ten years after launching a campaign to 'liberate' the Asian Greeks from Persian rule, the Spartans abandoned them a second time to secure Persian backing for a treaty that guaranteed Spartan dominance over mainland Greece. 

And it gets even worse. The Spartans’ whole lifestyle was based on the ruthless exploitation of their helot slaves, the ethnically Greek inhabitants of Laconia and Messenia they conquered in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Less than a century before their stand for Greek freedom at Thermopylae the Spartans had even attempted conquering their nearest Greek neighbours the Tegeans, confidently marching into battle carrying iron fetters to chain up the vanquished foe. Rather ironically, the Spartans lost the so-called 'Battle of the Fetters', and many Spartans ended up temporarily bound by their own fetters. The Spartans might have found themselves on the 'right line of history' at Thermopylae, but we should not forget how often they were prepared to trample on the freedom of others when it served their interests.