Monday, June 24, 2013

What the Battle of Thermopylae Teaches Us

Sometimes when people read the Book of Mormon and see where a strategic pass is mentioned, such as the one through the narrow neck of land that connected the Land Southward with the Land Northward (Alma 50:34), they begin picturing in their minds all sorts of concepts. But Mormon makes it quite clear that this narrow pass between the Land Southward and the Land Northward was a very important strategic position to the Nephites and they guarded it diligently to make sure no enemy could get beyond their lines and get through the pass and into the Land Northward (Alma 22:32, 52:9).
Some theorists place little attention on the strategic nature of this pass, and only try to relate it to a narrower land area within their model. However, the strategic nature of this pass makes it imperative that the width of it was narrow! Narrow enough to be defended, and a singular passage between the two lands (Alma 50:34).
So we turn to the 480 B.C. story of the Greeks who battled an overwhelmingly superior force of Persians in the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae (meaning “the hot gates”). At the time, Leonidas (“spirit of a lion”) was a son to the Agiad Spartan king, Anaxandridas II. It is not known when he was born but Cleomenes, his half-brother, became king when their father died; however, he committed suicide in 490 B.C. Leonidas became king of Sparta the next year and married his niece, Cleomenes' daughter, Gorgo.
The new king adopted many of the policies of his half-brother including the attacks on Athens. He further expanded his foreign policy to include a belligerent attitude towards the Persian Empire to the east under Xerxes I. Trouble with Persia had begun in 546 BC when the Greek city-state of Ionia in Anatolia had been captured by the Persians. When Ionia rebelled in 500 BC, the Athenians lent their support by sending a small fleet. Persia's emperor, Darius, used this as an excuse to invade mainland Greece in 492 B.C., however, this first invasion attempt ended in disaster for the Persians when their fleet was destroyed in a storm.
Two years later, the Persians launched a second invasion attempt. The Athenians prepared to meet the 25,000 Persians at Marathon and asked Sparta to send a contingent to assist them. Cleomenes replied that the Spartans were in the midst of an important religious festival and declined. Fortunately for the Greeks, the Athenians were able to defeat the Persians at Marathon without Spartan help. The Athenian general, Miltiades lost only 192 men compared to the Persians 6,400 deaths.
The second invasion of the Persian army 200,000 strong as they march toward Thermopylae
By the time the Persians invaded again, Leonidas was King of Sparta. He was at the forefront in confronting the Persians and when word came that the armies of the new Persian king, Xerxes, were on the move, the Greeks this time were united in their response. An alliance of the Greeks city-states had been formed in 481 B.C. and command of the army given to Sparta while that of the navy went to Athens.
The slow moving Persian army gave Leonidas plenty of time to prepare and initially he had planned a defense of Thessaly but when it was learned that the 7,000 Greeks were faced with 200,000 Persians he changed his plans. In July 480 the Greeks withdrew to the narrow pass at Thermopylae, which had cliffs on one side and the sea (Gulf of Malis) on the other.
The actual narrow pass at Thermopylae. Note the pass is 46 feet across, and how easily it would be for a small force to defend against a much larger invading force
The Passage at Thermopylae was chosen with care. Though Xerxes had a huge army it was to no advantage in the narrow pass, where fourteen to fifteen men standing abreast with shields and spears several courses deep, prevented the Persians from getting close enough to use their own weapons—short swords, in a battle technique known in the military as “Defeat in detail.” The initial Persian assaults were repulsed and despite repeated attempts by the chosen Persian Immortals—an elite heavy infantry and Imperial Guard—over the next two days, the Greeks could not be dislodged from the pass.
The Spartans were aligned shoulder-to-shoulder across the narrow pass, with long spears that kept the Persians at bay
Keep in mind they we are not dealing with handguns, rifles or machine guns, or with dynamite, hand grenades or explosives. There were no greater weapons employed than spears, swords and arrows. The type of warfare where a narrow pass would strategically be most important as Mormon describes between the Land Northward and the Land Southward in the Land of Promise.
Equipped with long spears and shields. The small Greek force of Spartans was able to withstand a mighty Persian army of over 6,000 soldiers in the narrow pass between the cliffs and the sea
On the evening of the second day a Greek villager named Ephialtes turned traitor and informed the Persians that there was a little known path through the mountains that would allow them to outflank the Greeks. Leondias was aware of the path and had left 1,000 Phocians, from Corinth, to guard it. That night Xerxes sent Hydarnes with 10,000 Immortals up the path. The Phocians took to the high ground and prepared to fight them but the Persians marched past and continued on to confront Leonidas.
When the Greek scouts reported that they had been outflanked them, Leonidas realized that his army was doomed. He dismissed the army and stayed himself along with 300 Spartans, 400 Thebans, and 700 Thespians, forming a rear guard. The small army formed in a circle on a hill and waited for the enemy. The Persians surrounded the valiant Greeks and the final fight ended with the deaths of all of the Greeks. The 300 Spartans were cut down as they defended the body of their king.
With the Persians later defeated at Artemisium and Salamis, the victorious Greeks erected a memorial on the battlefield at Thermopylae which read "Tell them in Sparta, passerby, that here, obedient to their orders, we lie."
What we learn from the battle at Thermopylae, is that a very small force can withstand a very large army in a narrow pass. This battle was fought in 490 B.C., the same time that the Nephites were in the Land of Promise and a little before they fortified the narrow neck of land and guarded the narrow pass into the Land Northward. It was, as Mormon tells us, a strategic pass to the Nephites, just as Thermopylae was to the Greeks.
It cannot be said that this narrow pass was miles wide as some Book of Mormon theorists claim, showing on maps where it was supposedly located, etc., with no apparent understanding of the reason Mormon mentioned the pass at all.
In Thermopylae, the narrow pass rendered the sheer numbers of the 200,000-strong Persian army meaningless and took away that advantage as repeatedly the much larger Persian force attacked, only to be thrown back with heavy casualties. Had there not been treachery, the Persians may never have breached the pass, but the treachery shows the importance of a pass that cannot be circumvented, as all Theorists maps of their locations show can be done.
Wherever one might want to claim this narrow pass was located, and it existed both before the destruction covered in 3 Nephi 8, and after (Alma 50:34, 52:9; Mormon 2:29; 3:5), it has to be the only way of getting from the Land Southward into the Land Northward, and strategically narrow as to be defensible, as well as marking an obvious dividing line between lands. It was, we might point out, the line for a truce between the Lamanites and the Nephites (Mormon 2:28-29), and the dividing line between lands (Alma 22:32), separating the lands of Bountiful and Desolation (Alma 63:5).
Like so many descriptions of the land that Mormon left us, it must be understood before one can arbitrarily make a claim as to its location.


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. The image you have used for the Battle of Thermopylae is totally incorrect. The pass you have shown is the Bolan Pass in West Pakistan:

  3. is the first image real thermopylae

  4. Gerry and Mahdi: The first image was not intended to represent the Pass at Thermopylae—it was intended to show a narrow pass relating to the previous paragraph which states; "this narrow pass between the Land Southward and the Land Northward was a very important strategic position to the Nephites."
    The first image is indeed the Bolan Pass through the Toba Kakar Range in Balochistan province of western Pakistan—its 55-mile long narrow gorges well represent a pass through mountains which the Nephite narrow pass through the narrow neck of land might have been similar (finding representative images is not always easy). The other images are of the pass at Thermopylae.