Ephialtes – the traitor who gave Xerxes victory at Thermopylae

Posted in Ancient History, Bravery, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 6 January 2012

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This edited article about Ancient Greece originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 896 published on 24 March 1979.

Thermopylae, picture, image, illustration

Leonidas and the small Greek force held out against the Persian army at Thermopylae, and might have prevailed with some consolidation of Greek defences, but for their betrayal by Ephialtes, by Alberto Salinas

A Column of grim-faced armed men wound its way along a mountain path. In the warm night air little could be heard but their soft, sandalled footfalls on the stony ground.

These warriors were the Immortals, the elite troops of the Persian army that had invaded Greece under King Xerxes. Clad in their distinctive uniforms, the Immortals had been sent on a mission which might decide the fate of nations. Beyond an occasional whispered order, not a word was spoken, for they were under strict orders to maintain silence.

Beside the Persian commander, at the head of the column, forcing himself to keep pace with his steady military stride, was the last person one would have expected to find there. For he was a Greek.

Ten years before, in 490 BC, another Persian king had led an expedition against Greece. This had been defeated at the historic Battle of Marathon. Xerxes, bent on revenge, had assembled a mighty force, some 300,000 strong, and marched it through Asia Minor and into northern Greece. Now, as he advanced southwards, a fleet of Persian ships sailed down the coast, keeping pace with the army.

The leading Greek states included Athens, which was the strongest naval power, and Sparta, famed for having the finest soldiers. These two hurriedly conferred with other Greek communities with a view to resisting the invaders.

The Persians had overrun most of the north without meeting serious resistance. It was clear that something must be done to gain time for defence to be organised.

It was agreed that there was one point eminently suitable for a delaying action. This was the narrow defile of Thermopylae in eastern Greece. At this point only a narrow strip of land separated a steep mountainside from the sea. The Persians would have to march by this route, and even a small force should be able to hold the pass.

An army of about 7,000 Spartans and other Greeks was despatched to Thermopylae. It was commanded by a Spartan named Leonidas, who ordered his men to throw up a rampart across the narrow defile. Meanwhile ships of Athens and other maritime cities challenged the Persian squadrons off-shore.

When his army reached Thermopylae, Xerxes refused to believe that the pitifully small Greek force actually meant to resist his advance. He called a halt to give them a chance to withdraw. But after four days, seeing them still in position, he ordered his troops to attack.

On this narrow front, however, the Persians gained no advantage from their superiority in numbers. Attack followed attack for two days, but every one was thrown back. The heroic little band of Greeks, it seemed, would never be dislodged.

Yet already, unknown to Leonidas and his men, something was happening which was to seal their fate. In a district behind the Persian lines, and not far from the battlefield, lived a Greek called Ephialtes. He was about to play an infamous and decisive part in events.

Ephialtes had watched the mighty host of the Persians and their Asiatic allies marching through his country. To him, as to many of his compatriots, it appeared invincible. It seemed that the Persian power was there to stay.

At some point it occurred to him that it might be as well to win the approval of the conquerors. Besides, if he could hasten their onward march he would help his people; for the Persians were living like locusts off their land.

Ephialtes secretly approached the Persian commanders. Their frontal attacks would never succeed, he pointed out; but he knew of another way to capture the pass. He could show them a path that led up into the mountains from the Persians’ side of Thermopylae, and came down into the pass behind Leonidas’ position.

The fact that there was a “back door” to the position was known to Leonidas. He had taken the precaution of posting a detachment of troops in the hills. These were to protect his rear in the unlikely event of an outflanking movement.

In the stillness just before sunrise on the third day, sentries posted by the commander of this detachment suddenly became aware of a faint but persistent sound. Soon they recognised it: it was the sound of many marching feet. They roused their comrades, who took up position, ready to sell their lives dearly. But Ephialtes knew these hills. He showed the Persians a route round this Greek position, leaving them powerless and isolated.

As the sun came up, messengers managed to get through to Leonidas with the news that the Persians were poised to descend in his rear. But it was too late to take counter-measures.

The Greeks saw that the position was hopeless. Most of them now abandoned the position at Thermopylae – though it is not known whether they did so on their own initiative, or on the orders of Leonidas.

With his Spartans and about 1,000 others, Leonidas remained to fight to the last. Soon surrounded on all sides, they hurled themselves with reckless courage upon the Persians, and perished almost to a man. Leonidas himself and all the Spartans were among the slain.

The treachery of Ephialtes gave Xerxes a victory; but it did not give him Greece. Many more Greeks were to lose their lives; many of their cities, among them Athens, were to fall into Persian hands. But at last the Greeks struck back. Decisive defeats were inflicted on the Persians at sea and on land, and eventually the invaders withdrew.

We do not know what fate befell Ephialtes, but his treachery was never to be forgotten. Today visitors to Thermopylae are shown what is said to be the resting-place of the Spartan dead. Their epitaph, in the words of the Greek poet Simonides, reads:

Stranger, to the Spartans go, and tell
That obedient to their orders here we fell.

About 45 years ago a bronze statue was erected there to honour the memory of Leonidas. For the traitor Ephialtes there is no memorial but the tale of his infamy.

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