The Battle of Thermopylae is one of the most heroic battles in the annals of military history. Three hundred Spartan soldiers, lead by their king Leonidas, engaged in a mission of 'suicidal self-sacrifice' by holding off the mighty Persian army for three days at the pass at Thermopylae which was no more than 20 yards wide. This battle has been made into a Hollywood movie entitled, simply, '300' (2006).
In the book of Esther, this battle and the Persian war against the Greeks, takes place between chapters 1 and 2 of the book. It would be included in the “after these things” (2:1).
The Battle of Thermopylae
The Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 484 BC – 430 BC), writing several decades after the battle of Thermopylae, is our main source for this event (Book 7.175-233; LCL 3:491-549).
Sparta was a military city-state with two kings that claimed to be the descendent of the demi-god Hercules. They were famous for their austerity and public military education. In Sparta, the women had a lot of freedom: “they could wrestle in the nude, inherit property, and, if they were married, publically insult bachelors at an annual festival (Strauss 2007: 73).” The Spartans had “unusual sexual customs, such as polyandry (wives having more than one husband each), socially acceptable wife-sharing, and institutionalized pederasty between a young male citizen warrior and a teenage boy” (2007: 73).
Thermopylae is a narrow pass separating northern Greece (Macedonia and Thessaly) from central Greece. The word “Thermopylae” means “hot gates” (plural) because there are three sections of the pass going east – west between steep mountains to the south and the Gulf of Malis to the north. This pass had sulfurous hot-springs along the way. It was the middle gate, no more than 20 yards wide, that had a dilapidated wall crossing it, that the Spartans defended in order to block the Persian advance to Athens.
Xerxes, the Great King, the king of Persia, entered Greece from the Hellespont in June of 480 BC, in order to seek glory for himself and revenge from his father Darius’ defeat by the Greeks a decade before at Marathon. Xerxes commanded an army of 150,000 fighting men and a navy of 1,200 warships. In his army were the 10,000 strong Immortals, the crack infantry troops of the Persian army. Herodotus reports that the army, with all its support personal, numbered well over a million people from all over the Persian empire (cf. Esther 1:1, the 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia). Supplying this force with food and drink must have been a phenomenal job. In fact, Herodotus reports that when they came to a river, they drank it dry! (Persian Wars 7.187; LCL 3:505).
The Greek force that met the Persians at Thermopylae was about 7,100 soldiers from a dozen or so different city-states in Central Greece and the Peloponnese. They were commanded by one of the kings of Sparta, Leonidas. The Greeks were not able to muster a large force immediately because of some religious prohibitions. In progress at the time were two major religious festivals. The first was the Spartan’s Carnea in honor of the Greek god Apollo; and the second was the famous Olympic Games. There was, however, a promise of a large force after the religious festivals were over!
Xerxes and his army arrived at the western end of the Thermopylae passes and set up camp. He expected his vast numbers and superior forces would intimidate the Greeks and force them to flee in fear. However, the Spartans stood their ground. After four days, Xerxes decided to take matters into his own hands.
Herodotus records a bit of “gallows-humor” by a Spartans named Dieneces. A Trachinian said to him before the battle that the Medes were so many that when they shoot their multitudes of arrows it would block the sun light. Dieneces reportedly quipped, “Our friend from Trachis brings us right good news, for if the Medes hide the sun we shall fight them in the shade and not in the sunshine” (Persian Wars 7.226; LCL 3: 543). Keep in mind, the battle took place in the month of August, the heat of the summer!
On the first day of battle, Xerxes sent the Medes against the Spartans. With heavy losses the Medes were repelled so Xerxes sent a second wave to break through the pass, but this failed as well. By the end of the day, the Immortals were thrown against the Spartans, but again with heavy losses. The second day was a repeat of the first, with substantial losses for the Persian army and light losses for the Greeks.
On the evening after the second day of battle, a greedy Greek traitor named Ephialtes, the son of Eurydemus, from Trachis, in exchange for money, offered to lead the Immortals along a little know path over the mountains so they could out flank the Spartans. This they did in the silence of the night. By dawn, Leonidas had gotten word that the Immortals were behind him, but the Spartans stood their ground to the last man.
After the battle, Xerxes buried the three hundred Spartans where they fell in the pass so his forces would not be demoralized when they realized they were stopped by so few warriors. The head of Leonidas was impaled on a spear so that he could be seen by all. Xerxes buried 19,000 of his troops that were slain by the Spartans but left 1,000 dead bodies on the battlefield so his forces would think that their losses were not that great. (For a detailed account of the battle, see Cartledge 2006; for two good summaries of the battle, see the articles: Strauss 2004 and Frye 2006.)
A year later, after the war was over and the Persians defeated and gone home, the Greek erected a monument at the site of the battle with the inscription: “Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by, that here obedient to their words we lie” (Persian Wars 7.228; LCL 3:545). This inscription is also on a modern monument beneath a statue of King Leonidas that was erected by Greek Americans in 1955.
The “final problem” of Thermopylae that scholars have debated is: “What was the purpose of Leonidas clinging to his position at Thermopylae when it had apparently become untenable?” (Evans 1964: 231). A number of answers have been suggested. King Leonidas realized that the Greek troops were afraid so he sent them away so they could escape to fight another day. If they and the Spartans all fled at the same time, Leonidas knew that the swift Persian cavalry would catch up with them and slaughter everybody. Leonidas was buying time so their allies could escape (Evans 1964: 237).
Herodotus recounts: “But to this opinion I the rather incline, that when Leonidas perceived the allies to be faint of heart and not willing to run all risks with him he bade them to their ways, departure being for him not honorable; if he remained, he would leave a name of great renown, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be blotted out. For when the Spartans enquired of the oracle concerning this war at its very first beginning, the Pythian priestess had prophesied to them that either Lacedaemon should be destroyed of the foreigners, or that its king should perish” (Persian Wars 7.220; LCL 3:537). Leonidas understood this prophecy to be about his death. His heroic stand encouraged the other Greek states to take up arms against the Persian invaders and fight for liberty and freedom.
The Historical Setting of the Book of Esther
King Xerxes (486-465 BC), the Great King, the king of Persia is King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther (Esther 1:1; for a full discussion of his life, see: Yamauchi 1990:203-206, 226-239).
In the third year of his reign (1:3), Ahasuerus had a “Pep Rally Party” to entice the various kings in his empire to join him on a military expedition to Greece (Esther 1:3-22). At this lavish banquet, each participant got their own gold vessels (1:7). Each vessel was individually hand crafted and different from any other. This banquet was designed to encourage these kings to “sign up for a Greek vacation” with their armies!
One of my favorite objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is a gold drinking vessel that was bought on the antiquities market in Iran, allegedly near Susa. It is a beautifully stylized drinking cup with the front part of a lion on it and is contemporary with this banquet (Pittman1987: 140-141; plate 102). Whether it was one of the vessels mentioned in verse 7 can not be determined. But if I was a kinglet in the Persian Empire and I got this unique vessel from the Great King, King Xerxes, I would be impressed and would immediately sign up for this vacation package!
It was at this banquet that Queen Vashti refused to entertain the king and his guests with a dance. The king, insulted by her rebellion and humiliated in front of his royal subjects, deposed her (1:10-22). The second chapter of the book of Esther begins with “After these things” (2:1). The time frame includes the campaign to Greece, the battle of Thermopylae, the sack of Athens, and the Persian defeat at Salamis.
The Theme of the Book of Esther
The theme of the book is this: “God’s preservation of His unbelieving people, and the celebration of that event in the feast of Purim” (Shepperson 1975:26). This theme explains why the Name of God is not mentioned in the book and why prayer is never mentioned. It also explains why Mordecai is still in Susa on the 13th of Nisan when he should have been back in Jerusalem for Passover on the 14th (Esther 3:12; cf. Lev. 23:5; Deut. 16:16). It also addresses why there is a “lack of spiritual awareness in Esther and Mordecai, and the vengeful spirit so apparent at the end of the book” (Shepperson 1975:25).
Esther and Mordecai were out of the will of God and in unbelief. The expression of faith for an Israelite (Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin, Esther 2:5) was for them to “Flee the Chaldeans” (Isa. 48:20,21; 52:7-12; Deut. 28:64-67) and return to Zion when Cyrus made the decree so the Judeans could return to Zion (Ezra 1:1-4). Yet a large number of Israelites and Judeans chose to remain outside the Land of Israel, in Babylon and Susa, rather than return to Zion and the hardships that existed there. When a person is out of God’s will, the last Person they want to talk about is the Lord. Thus the Name of God is not mentioned. Sometimes a person in unbelief or out of the will of God will perform religious rituals, just as the Jewish people did in Susa. They fulfilled their religious ritual by fasting for three days, but they did not pray to Him who should have been the LORD their God (Esther 4:16, 17; cf. Isa. 58:1-7; 1 Kings 8:22-61; 2 Chron. 6:12-42). They were still part of God’s covenant people, but they were in unbelief.
The Lord used Mordecai and Esther, outside Eretz Israel in unbelief, in order to preserve the Messianic line that had already returned to the Yehud Province in faith during the First Aliyah (return). The Messianic line returned in the person of Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2; Matt. 1:12, 13 or Luke 3:27). Haman’s decree to annihilate all the Jews affected the Jews living in the land of Judah (Esther 3:12, 13; 4:3; 8:5, 9, 13). This was God’s hand of providence at work.
Another example of God’s providence using an unbeliever to fulfill His purposes is the decree by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-4). This decree moved Joseph and Mary from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judah in order to fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
Origen Compares the Death of Leonidas and the Lord Jesus
Origen, one of the church fathers from Alexandria in Egypt (AD 185-254), was a prolific writer. He wrote a defense of Christianity against the attacks by the pagan philosopher Celsus, entitled Against Celsus. In it, he compares the death of Leonidas with the death of the Lord Jesus. He wrote: “Extremely foolish also is his [Celsus] remarks, ‘What god, or spirit, or prudent man would not, on forseeing that such events were to befall him, avoid them if he could; whereas he threw himself headlong into those things which he knew beforehand were to happen?’ [Origen discusses the death of Socrates]. ... Leonidas also, the Lacedaemonian general, knowing that he was on the point of dying with his followers at Thermopylae, did not make any effort to preserve his life by disgraceful means, but said to his companions, ‘Let us go to breakfast, as we shall sup in Hades.’ And those who are interested in collecting stories of this kind, will find numbers of them. Now, where is the wonder if Jesus, knowing all things that were to happen, did not avoid them, but encountered what He foreknew” (Against Celsus 2.17; Ante-Nicene Fathers 4:438-439).
One historian summarized the battle of Thermopylae this way: “Thermopylae was not the decisive battle of the Persian Wars. But it may well be the decisive battle of our imagination. Thermopylae grips us because men chose to stand there and die for the sacred cause of freedom. That alone is reason to remember” (Strauss 2007: 75).
Cartledge, Paul. 2006 Thermopylae. The Battle that Changed the World. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
Evans, J. A. S. 1964 The “Final Problem” at Thermopylae. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 5: 231-237,
Frye, David. 2006 Spartan Stand at Thermopylae. Military History (January / February): 38-44.
Herodotus. 1998 The Persian Wars. Books 5-7. Vol. 3. Trans. by A. Godley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library119.
Origen. 1994 Origen Against Celsus. Pp. 395-669 in Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 4. Edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Pittman, Holly. 1987 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Egypt and the Ancient Near East. Edited by J. O’Neill. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shepperson, G. E. 1975 The Role of the Book of Esther in Salvation History. Unpublished ThM thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary. Dallas, TX.
Strauss, Barry. 2004 Go Tell the Spartans. MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History (autumn): 17/1: 16-25.
Strauss, Barry. 2007 Classic Spin. Review of Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World. The New Criterion (March): 72-75.
Yamauchi, Edwin. 1990 Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker.