UP TO 6 GUESTS
4 Days Private Tour: Delphi-Meteora-Vergina & Dion
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Vergina Royal Tombs private tour
- Hosios Loukas Monastery
- Village of Delphi
- The Oracle of Delphi – Museum of Delphi
- Sanctuary Athena Pronea – Gymnasium
- The Monasteries of Meteora
- Kalambaka Village
- Vergina (Royal Tombs)/ Aiges
- Dion Archaeological Park – Dion Archaeological Museum
- Olympus Mountain
- Thermopylae’s Battlefield – Leonidas statue
Our trip will start from Athens and a drive on the national northern highway of Greece. Passing by the plane of Thebes and the city of Levadia, we will be on the slopes of Mount Parnassus before reaching Delphi. Our first stop is going to be the monastery of Hosios Loukas, which represents the second golden age of Byzantine art (11th -12th century) in particular its golden mosaic decoration and fine architecture.
After spending some time in this area of serenity we will drive to the site of Delphi, an ancient Greek sanctuary with a PanHellenic character dedicated to god Apollo. It functioned as an Oracle and was considered ‘the naval’ the center of the world and is today a symbol of Greek cultural unity. The scenic location allows you to have a view of the Greek mountains and two more sites the Gymnasium and the secondary sanctuary of Athena Pronea. In the site, you will visit the temple of Apollo where Pythia spoke to the oracles, the theater, and the stadium. While in the museum, you will be able to see the famous charioteer and Gold Ivory statues. After the site, we will have lunch at the modern village of Delphi with a view of the mountains of Fokis.
Before we leave we will stop at a point known for its great view, you will see the Corinthian Sea, the port of Itea and the valley full of olive trees (olive sea). We will spend the night at the mountainous Greek village of Arachova, very close to a ski resort, full of traditional houses and shops selling locally produced products. You can walk through the village with its narrow streets and shops on the central street having a breathtaking view of the mountains full of olive trees literally in front of you.
After spending the night at Arachova we will drive to Meteora through the Greek mountains not taking the highway to see the real Greek countryside, passing by the city of Lamia. We will make a stop at the town of Trikala, a central town of the area, for a Greek lunch or coffee and we will continue to Kalambaka.
Reaching the small town that is surrounded by the rocks of Meteora we will visit the monasteries and have a closer look at the holy rocks. On the rocks that are like suspended in the air (that’s what Meteora means) there is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox Monasteries still in use. Meteora combines natural beauty and cultural heritage a fact that makes them a unique destination between the world’s monuments. Returning from our visit we will have lunch in the town of Kalambaka and we’ll reach the hotel where you may rest for a few hours. Later you have the option of an evening photo tour on the rocks under the Greek sunset. Being able to see a more different perspective of the site and to just stand at the edge of the rock admiring the miracles of nature and the Greek cavitation. Then you will have dinner in the town of Kalambaka before going to the hotel.
On the following day, we will depart for Vergina (Ancient Aiges) driving by the rivers Penios and Aliakmonas and small Greek villages through the Greek mountainous countryside. On reaching Aiges you will be able to visit one of the most glorious sites of the Macedonian Empire and understand why it was chosen as the capital of the Macedonian World. You will be able to visit the museum that developed around the original location of the Royal Tombs full of their golden belonging and more importantly you will face the imposing tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.
Close to the museum are the remains of the Palace of Philip II, the King that held the vision, for the first time, to unite all the ancient Greek cities under his rule and made the PanHellenic idea come true before being murdered.
Next, we will drive towards the site of Dion following the national highway, reaching the village of Dion we will find the site and the archaeological museum of Dion, an ancient Greek city named after Zeus (in Greek Dias) that preserved its importance in the Macedonian Period. There Philip II and his son Alexander the Great made sacrifices to the Gods after conquering the Ancient Greek world and from there Alexander The Great started his expedition towards Asia. It was a city with of huge strategic importance according to the Macedonian Kings. Today you can visit the sanctuary of Isis and other Egyptian Gods, the oldest sanctuary of Goddess Dimitra, a Hellenistic theater, a Roman theater, and a stadium, the mansion of Dionysos with its wonderful mosaic decoration and many more public and private buildings. Furthermore, the museum includes all the precious findings that have been excavated in the old city.
After having lunch at the village of Dion we will drive on the foothills of mountain Olympus to reach the mountainous, scenic village of Litochoro where we will stay the rest of the day and overnight. Litochoro is the closest location to Mt Olympus at sea level making it a popular destination for people that want to start climbing up the mountain. So we will stay on the foothill of the highest mountain in Greece, of the mountain were the 12 Gods of Olympus lived according to Greek Mythology.
Spending the night at Litochoro, the following day we will drive up to a shelter, located higher than the village, enjoying the natural beauty and the great view. The day will continue with a drive on the national highway heading south towards Athens. But before we return we’ll make one last stop at Thermopylae, in the historical center of the site you will enjoy a 3D movie, traveling through the time you will feel the presence of all who died for their freedom under a foreign conqueror. To complete the visit you will see the statue of Leonidas standing right opposite Kolonos Hill where the persisting Spartans left their last breath. And lastly, we will drive back to Athens.
Inclusions - Exclusions
Private Tours are personal and flexible just for you and your party.
- Professional Drivers with Deep knowledge of history. [Not licensed to accompany you in any site.]
- Accommodation and breakfast (according to your booking)
- Hotel pickup and drop-off
- Guaranteed to skip the long lines / Tickets are NOT included.
- Fuel surcharge
- Local taxes
- Bottled water
- Licensed Tour guide on request (Additional cost)
- Accommodation and breakfast (according to your booking)
- Entrance Fees
- Personal expenses (drinks, meals, etc.)
- Airport Pick Up and drop-off (Additional cost)
ADMISSION FEES FOR SITES:
Summer Period: (1 April – 31 October)
Hosios Loukas Monastery: 4€ (08:00- 15:30)
Delphi: 12€ (08:00- 20:00)
Meteora Monasteries: (3€ per monastery)
St. Stephen’s Nunnery 09:00 -13:30 and 15:30 –17:30 (Mondays closed)
Great Meteoron Monastery 09:00 –15:00 (Tuesdays closed)
Roussanou Monastery 09:00 -16:00 (Wednesdays closed)
Holy Trinity Monastery 09:00 -16:00 (Thursdays closed)
Varlaam Monastery 09:00 –16:00 (Fridays closed)
St. Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery 09:00 -17:00 (Fridays closed)
Vergina Royal Tombs: 12€ (08:00-20:00, Tuesdays 12:00-20:00)
Archaeological Site-Palace: Under excavation
Dion Archaeological Park – Museum: 8€ (08:00 -20:00)
Thermopylae’s Historical Center: 3€ (09:00- 17:00)
Total: 45€ per person
Winter Period: (1 November – 31 March)
Hosios Loukas Monastery: 2€ (08:00- 15:30)
Delphi: 6€ (08:00- 15:30)
Meteora Monasteries: (3€ per monastery)
St. Stephen’s Nunnery 09:30 -13:00 and 15:00 –17:00 (Mondays closed)
Great Meteoron Monastery 09:00 –14:00 (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays closed)
Roussanou Monastery 09:00 -14:00 (Wednesdays closed)
Holy Trinity Monastery 10:00 -16:00 (Thursdays closed)
Varlaam Monastery 09:00 –15:00 (Thursdays, Fridays closed)
St. Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery 09:00 -15:00 (Fridays closed)
Vergina Royal Tombs: 6€ (09:00-17:00, Tuesdays closed)
Archaeological Site-Palace: Under excavation
Dion Archaeological Park – Museum: 4€ (08:30-15:30, Tuesdays closed)
Thermopylae’s Historical Center: 3€ (09:00- 17:00)
Total: 27€ per person
Free admission days:
- 6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
- 18 April (International Monuments Day)
- 18 May (International Museums Day)
- The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
- Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 3rd
- 28 October
- 1 January: closed
- 25 March: closed
- 1 May: closed
- Easter Sunday: closed
- 25 December: closed
- 26 December: closed
Free admission for:
- Escorting teachers during the visits of schools and institutions of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary education and of military schools.
- Members of Societies and Associations of Friends of Museums and Archaeological Sites throughout Greece with the demonstration of certified membership card
- Members of the ICOM-ICOMOS
- Persons possessing a free admission card
- The employees of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Archaeological Receipts Fund, upon presentation of their service ID card.
- The official guests of the Greek government, with the approval of the General Director of Antiquities.
- Young people, under the age of 18, after demonstrating the Identity Card or passport to confirm the age.
Reduced admission for:
- Greek citizens and citizens of other Member – States of the European Union who are over 65 years old, upon presentation of their ID card or passport for verification of their age and country of origin.
- Holders of a solidarity card
- Holders of a valid unemployment card.
- Large families’ parents of children up to 23 yrs old, or up to 25 yrs old (on military service/studying), or child with disabilities regardless the age, having a certified pass of large families, certification from the Large Family Association or a family status certificate issued by the Municipality
- Persons with disabilities (67 % or over) and one escort, upon presentation of the certification of disability issued by the Ministry of Health or a medical certification from a public hospital, where the disability and the percentage of disability are clearly stated.
- Single-parent families with minors, upon presentation of a family status certificate issued by the Municipality. In the case of divorced parents, only the parent holding custody of the children
- The police officers of the Department of Antiquity Smuggling of the Directorate of Security
- Tourist guides upon presentation of their professional ID card.
- University students and students at Technological Educational Institutes or equivalent schools from countries outside the EU by showing their student ID.
The World Heritage-listed monastery, Moni Hosios Loukas, is 23 km southeast of Arahova, between the villages of Distomo and Kyriaki. The monastic complex includes two churches. Its principal church contains some of Greece’s finest Byzantine frescoes. Modest dress is required (no shorts). Nearby is the smaller 10th-century Agia Panagia (Church of the Virgin Mary). The monastery is dedicated to a local hermit who was canonized for his healing and prophetic powers
The interior of the larger church, Agios Loukas, is a glorious symphony of marble and mosaics, with icons by Michael Damaskinos, the 16th-century Cretan painter. In the main body of the church, the light is partially blocked by the ornate marble window decorations, creating striking contrasts of light and shade. Walk around the corner to find several fine frescoes that brighten up the crypt where St Luke is buried.
Delphi was an important ancient Greek religious sanctuary sacred to the god Apollo. Located on Mt. Parnassus near the Gulf of Corinth, the sanctuary was home to the famous oracle of Apollo which gave cryptic predictions and guidance to both city-states and individuals. In addition, Delphi was also home to the PanHellenic Pythian Games.
MYTHOLOGY & ORIGINS:
The site was first settled in Mycenaean times in the late Bronze Age (1500 – 1100 BCE) but took on its religious significance from around 800 BCE. The original name of the sanctuary was Pytho after the snake which Apollo was believed to have killed there. Offerings at the site from this period include small clay statues (the earliest), bronze figurines, and richly decorated bronze tripods.
Delphi was also considered the center of the world, for in Greek mythology Zeus released two eagles, one to the east and another to the west, and Delphi was the point at which they met after encircling the world. This fact was represented by the omphalos (or navel); a dome-shaped stone that stood outside Apollo’s temple and which also marked the spot where Apollo killed the Python.
The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was famed throughout the Greek world and even beyond. The oracle – the Pythia or priestess – would answer questions put to her by visitors wishing to be guided in their future actions. The whole process was a lengthy one, usually taking up a whole day and only carried out on specific days of the year. First, the priestess would perform various actions of purification such as washing in the nearby Castalian Spring, burning laurel leaves and drinking holy water. Next an animal – usually a goat – was sacrificed. The party seeking advice would then offer a pelanos – a sort of pie – before being allowed into the inner temple where the priestess resided and gave her pronouncements, possibly in a drug or natural gas-induced state of ecstasy.
Perhaps the most famous consultant of the Delphic oracle was Croesus, the fabulously rich King of Lydia who, when faced with a war against the Persians, asked the oracle’s advice. The oracle stated that if Croesus went to war then a great empire would surely fall. Reassured by this, the king took on the mighty Cyrus. However, the Lydians were overpowered at Sardis and it was the Lydian empire which fell, a lesson that the oracle could easily be misinterpreted by the unwise or over-confident.
Delphi, as with the other major religious sites of Olympia, Nemea, and Isthmia, held games to honor various gods of the Greek religion. The Pythian Games of Delphi began sometime between 591 and 585 BCE and were initially held every eight years, with the only event being a musical competition where solo singers accompanied themselves on a kithara to sing a hymn to Apollo. Later, more musical contests and athletic events were added to the program, and the games were held every four years with only the Olympic Games being more important. The principal prize for victors in the games was a crown of laurel or bay leaves.
The site and games were managed by the independent Delphic amphictiony – a council with representatives from various nearby city-states – which asked for taxes, collected offerings, invested in construction programs, and even organized military campaigns in the Four Sacred Wars, fought to remedy sacrilegious acts against Apollo committed by the states of Crisa, Phocis, and Amphissa.
The first temple in the area was built in the 7th century BCE and was a replacement for less substantial buildings of worship which had stood before it. The focal point of the sanctuary, the Doric temple of Apollo, was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 548 BCE. A second temple, again Doric in style, was completed in 510 BCE. Measuring some 60 by 24 meters, the facade had six columns whilst the sides had 15. This temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BCE and was replaced by a similarly sized temple in 330 BCE. This was constructed with poros stone coated in stucco. Marble sculpture was also added as decoration along with Persian shields taken at the Battle of Marathon. This is the temple which survives, although only partially, today.
Other notable constructions were the theatre (with capacity for 5,000 spectators), temples to Athena (4th century BCE), a tholos with 13 Doric columns ( 580 BCE), stoas, a stadium (with capacity for 7,000 spectators), and around 20 treasuries, which were constructed to house the votive offerings and dedications from city-states all over Greece. Similarly, monuments were also erected to commemorate military victories and other important events. For example, the Spartan general Lysander erected a monument to celebrate his victory over Athens at Aegospotami. Other notable monuments were the great bronze Bull of Corcyra (580 BCE), the ten statues of the kings of Argos (369 BCE), a gold four-horse chariot offered by Rhodes, and a huge bronze statue of the Trojan Horse offered by the Argives (413 BCE). Lining the sacred way, from the sanctuary gate up to the temple of Apollo, the visitor must have been greatly impressed by the artistic and literal wealth on display. Alas, in most cases, only the monumental pedestals survive of these great statues, silent witnesses to lost grandeur.
In 480 BCE the Persians attacked the sanctuary and in 279 BCE the sanctuary was attacked again, this time by the Gauls. During the 3rd century BCE, the site came under the control of the Aitolian League. In 191 BCE Delphi passed into Roman hands; however, the sanctuary and the games continued to be culturally important in Roman times, in particular under Hadrian. The decree by Theodosius in 393 CE to close all pagan sanctuaries resulted in Delphi’s gradual decline. A Christian community dwelt at the site for several centuries until its final abandonment in the 7th century CE.
The site was ‘rediscovered’ with the first modern excavations being carried out in 1880 CE by a team of French archaeologists. Notable finds were splendid metope sculptures from the treasury of the Athenians (490 BCE) and the Siphnians (525 BCE) depicting scenes from Greek mythology. In addition, a bronze charioteer in the severe style (480 – 460 BCE), the marble Sphinx of the Naxians (560 BCE), the twin marble archaic statues – the kouroi of Argos (580 BCE) and the richly decorated omphalos stone (330 BCE) – all survive as testimony to the cultural and artistic wealth that Delphi had once enjoyed.
Meteora is an exquisite complex that consists of huge dark stone pillars rising outside Trikala, near the mountains of Pindos. The monasteries that sit on top of these rocks make up the second most important monastic community in Greece, after Mount Athos in Halkidiki. Out of the thirty monasteries that were founded throughout the centuries, only six of them are active today.
The history of Meteora goes back to many millenniums. Theories on the creation of this natural phenomenon are associated with the geological movements that occurred over several geological periods. Scientists believe that these pillars were formed about 60 million years ago, during the Tertiary Period. At the time, the area was covered by sea but a series of earth movements caused the seabed to withdraw. The mountains left were continuously hit by strong winds and waves, which, in combination with extreme weather conditions, affected their shape. This is why the pillars are composed of sandstone and conglomerate. In the Byzantine times, monks had the inspiration to construct monasteries on top of these rocks so that they would be closer to god.
The foundation of Meteora monasteries began around the 11th century. In the 12th century, the first ascetic state was officially formed and established a church to the Mother our Lord as their worshiping center. Activities of this church were not only related to worshiping God, but hermits used these occasions to discuss their problems and exchange ideas relating their ascetic life there. In the 14th century, Saint Athanasios established the Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration of Jesus and named this huge rock Meteoro, which means hanged from nowhere. This monastery is also known as the Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron, the largest of all monasteries.
For many centuries, the monks used scaffolds for climbing the rocks and getting supplies. As years passed, this method was followed by the use of nets with hooks and rope ladders. Sometimes a basket was used, which was pulled up by the monks. Wooden ladders of 40 meters long were also one of the essential tools for accessing the monasteries. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Meteora was at its prime with the arrival of many monks from other monasteries or people who wanted to lead an ascetic life in this divine environment. However, the prosperity of Meteora during that time started to fade away after the 17th century mainly due to the raids of thieves and conquerors. These caused many monasteries to be abandoned or destructed. Today, only 6 monasteries operate with a handful of monks each. The only nunnery (female monastery) is the Monastery of Agios Stefanos.
To the south of River Haliacmon, in the “land of Macedon”, as described by Herodotus, on the foothills of Pieria, the ancient “Macedonian mount”, lays Aigai, the first city of the Macedon, the land with many goats (“Aigai” in ancient Greek means “goats”). Aigai was a city formed by distinct villages, an “open” city having a central core and multiple settlements of various sizes developing around it. This multiplicity explains the plural suffix of its name (the diphthong “ai”).
In the mid-7th century BCE, Perdiccas I, a Dorian from Argos, a descendant, according to tradition, of the family of Hercules, became king of Macedonians. Aigai became the cradle of the Temenids, the dynasty that would rule Macedonia for 3.5 centuries and, give to humanity Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, who set off from Aigai and changed the history of Greece and the world.
The royal burials unearthed in the rich necropolis of Aigai verify the city’s prosperity. During the reign of Alexander I (498 – 454 BCE), Aigai became the center of the most significant Greek state in the north. During Archelaus reign (413 – 399 BCE), the court of Aigai was turned into hospitable heaven for great artists. The famous painter Zeuxis would decorate the king’s new palace, and Euripides would write his last tragedies here.
Macedonia and Aigai bloomed, after Philip II came to the throne he gathered around him the cream of the intelligentsia, turning his court into the model of cultural development, as Athens of Pericles once used to be. Philip II was the driving force behind the vast building project aiming at reviving Aigai, which resulted in a complete transformation of the city.
In the first half of the 4th century BCE, all kinds of political and military developments force the king of Macedon and his family to stay more in Pella, the port to the north of the Thermaic Gulf that was rapidly growing into a city. However, Aigai continued to be the traditional center, the land where kings choose to build their palaces and bury their dead, the place that hosted all major sacred ceremonies and city feasts of the kingdom.
In the summer of 336 BCE, Philip II, the elected leader, and commander of all the Greeks decided to celebrate in Aigai his supremacy by organizing an unprecedented in glory feast. The moment he entered the theatre, following the sacred procession, an assassin’s dagger struck and killed him in front of the gathered crowd. Alexander was proclaimed king after burying his father in the royal necropolis of Aigai in an unparalleled glorious ceremony.
At the beginning of the spring of 334 BCE, the young king will set forth from Aigai on the great campaign that will turn him into the ruler of the world. Alexander would hand down to the Hellenistic world the new trends and currents that arose in the environment of Philip II and will set the foundations of a new world.
The history of the world was changed, but the old seat of royalty was left to the margin. Following the fate of the kingdom, the city of Aigai was destroyed after the defeat by the Romans in 168 BCE and then fell into decline and was gradually forgotten. Until, in 1977, Manolis Andronikos excavated the site, gave it back its name and the history of Macedonia began to be rewritten.
The ancient city owes its name to the most important Macedonian sanctuary dedicated to Zeus (Dios, “of Zeus”), leader of the gods who lived on Mount Olympus. Thyia, and daughter of Deucalion bore Zeus two sons, Magnes and Makednos, eponym of Macedonians, who settled in Pieria at the foot of Mount Olympus. So on the foothills of Mt. Olympos, only 5 km. from the Pierian shores lay the city of ancient Dion which contains a number of Greek- and Roman-era ruins. Today it operates as an archaeological site and museum. At the site extensive archaeological excavations have been conducted by the University of Thessaloniki (under Professor D. Pandermalis) to discover the sacred city of the Macedonians.
Dion became the religious center of the Macedonian kingdom in the 5th century BCE as well as hosting important games. They used to gather to honor the Olympian gods with sacrifices and offerings. Especially at the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, inscriptions were set up referring to important state affairs such as peace treaties, regulation of boundaries, honorary announcements, etc. The Macedonians who crowded these festivals could read these texts and be informed.
King Archelaos (414-399 BCΕ) brightened these festivals with nine days of games that included athletic and dramatic competitions in honor of Zeus, whose organization was overseen by the Macedonian kings themselves. There Philip II celebrated his glorious victories. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great offered sacrifices at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, in Dion, before setting out on his campaign against the Persian Empire. He later donated a magnificent statue to the temple, portraying his fallen cavalry troops who had died at the Battle of Granicus. Heavily damaged by Aetolian invaders in 219 BCΕ, the city was rebuilt and survived into the Roman era – Emperor Augustus founded a Roman colony here in 31 BCΕ.
However, as the Empire weakened the threat of barbarian attack combined with natural disasters and slowly the city was abandoned. Though it survived into Byzantine times, there is no reference to ancient Dion after the 10th century AD.
Today Dion Archaeological Site is located just outside the modern town and contains a number of interesting ruins from the Greek and Roman periods. Chief among these are the many Greek temples, including the large Temple of Zeus as well as temples to Demeter, Isis, and Asclepius. These include the oldest known holy structures of the Macedonians, two small temples of the “megaron” type that is a building with an open antechamber and a cella. Located just outside (southeast corner of) the city wall is another great find the intact sanctuary of Isis which was succeeded by Artemis. Ancient Dion was a well laid-out city. A sophisticated network of roads, paved during Imperial times, separated the housing and allowed the free circulation of pedestrians and vehicles. Fourteen roads have been located. The site also contains the remains of a Hellenistic theatre, a partly-preserved 2nd century AD Roman theatre, ancient baths and the ruins of several ancient villas with beautiful mosaics. A rare and unusual find in the museum is a bronze “hydraulis” or hydraulic musical pipe organ and in 2006, a statue of Hera was found built into the walls of the city. The statue, 2200 years old, had been used by the early Christians of Dion as filling for the city’s defensive wall. A later-Roman church can also be found here, probably dating to the 4th or 5th centuries AD. Among Dion’s other treasures is an extremely well preserved Macedonian tomb.
Dion Archaeology Museum operates at the site and contains a fascinating selection of artifacts found within the ruins.
Thermopylae is a mountain pass near the sea in northern Greece which was the site of several battles in antiquity, the most famous being that between Persians and Greeks in August 480 BCE. Despite being greatly inferior in numbers, the Greeks held the narrow pass for three days with Spartan King Leonidas fighting a last-ditch defense with a small force of Spartans and other Greek hoplites. Ultimately the Persians took control of the pass, but the heroic defeat of Leonidas would assume legendary proportions for later generations of Greeks, and within a year the Persian invasion would be repulsed at the battles of Salamis and Plataea.
CONTEXT: THE PERSIAN WARS
By the first years of the 5th century BCE, Persia, under the rule of Darius (522-486 BCE), was already expanding into mainland Europe and had subjugated Thrace and Macedonia. Next in Κing Darius’ sights were Athens and the rest of Greece. Just why Greece was craved by Persia is unclear. Wealth and resources seem an unlikely motive; other more plausible suggestions include the need to increase the prestige of the king at home or to quell once and for all a collection of potentially troublesome rebel states on the western border of the empire.
Whatever the exact motives, in 491 BCE Darius sent envoys to call for the Greek’s submission to Persian rule. The Greeks sent a no-nonsense reply by executing the envoys, and Athens and Sparta promised to form an alliance for the defense of Greece. Darius’ response to this diplomatic outrage was to launch a naval force of 600 ships and 25,000 men to attack the Cyclades and Euboea, leaving the Persians just one step away from the rest of Greece. In 490 BCE Greek forces led by Athens met the Persians in battle at Marathon and defeated the invaders. The battle would take on mythical status amongst the Greeks, but in reality, it was merely the opening overture of a long war with several other battles making up the principal acts. Persia, with the largest empire in the world, was vastly superior in men and resources and now these would be fully utilized for a full-scale attack.
In 486 BCE Xerxes became king upon the death of Darius and massive preparations for an invasion was made. Depots of equipment and supplies were laid, a canal dug at Chalkidiki, and boat bridges built across the Hellespont to facilitate the movement of troops. Greece was about to face its greatest ever threat, and even the oracle at Delphi ominously advised the Athenians to ‘fly to the world’s end’.
THE PASS OF THERMOPYLAE
When news of the invading force reached Greece, the initial Greek reaction was to send a force of 10,000 hoplites to hold a position at the valley of Tempē near Mt. Olympos, but these withdrew when the massive size of the invading army was revealed. Then after much discussion and compromise between Greek city-states, suspicious of each other’s motives, a joint army of between 6,000 and 7,000 men was sent to defend the pass at Thermopylae through which the Persians must enter to access mainland Greece. The Greek forces included 300 Spartans and their helots with 2,120 Arcadians, 1,000 Lokrians, 1,000 Phokians, 700 Thespians, 400 Corinthians, 400 Thebans, 200 men from Phleious, and 80 Mycenaeans.
The relatively small size of the defending force has been explained as reluctance by some Greek city-states to commit troops so far north, and/or due to religious motives, for it was the period of the sacred games at Olympia and the most important Spartan religious festival, the Karneia, and no fighting was permitted during these events. Indeed, for this very reason, the Spartans had arrived too late at the earlier battle of Marathon. Therefore, the Spartans, widely credited as being the best fighters in Greece and the only city-state with a professional army, contributed only a small advance force of 300 hoplites (from an estimated 8,000 available) to the Greek defensive force, these few being chosen from men with male heirs.
In addition to the land forces, the Greek city-states sent a fleet of trireme warships that held position off the coast of Artemision (or Artemesium) on the northern coast of Euboea, 40 nautical miles from Thermopylae. The Greeks would amass over 300 triremes and perhaps their main purpose was to prevent the Persian fleet sailing down the inland coast of Lokris and Boeotia.
The pass of Thermopylae, located 150 km north of Athens was an excellent choice for defense with steep mountains running down into the sea leaving only a narrow marshy area along the coast. The pass had also been fortified by the local Phokians who built a defensive wall running from the so-called Middle Gate down to the sea. The wall was in a state of ruin, but the Spartans made the best repairs they could in the circumstances. It was here, then, in a 15-meter wide gap with a sheer cliff protecting their left flank and the sea on their right that the Greeks chose to make a stand against the invading army. Having somewhere in the region of 80,000 troops at his disposal, the Persian king, who led the invasion in person, first waited four days in the expectation that the Greeks would flee in panic. When the Greeks held their position, Xerxes once again sent envoys to offer the defenders the last chance to surrender without bloodshed, if the Greeks would only lay down their arms. Leonidas’ bullish response to Xerxes request was ‘molōn labe’ or ‘come and gets them’ and so battle commenced.
HOPLITES VS ARCHERS
The two opposing armies were essentially representative of the two approaches to Classical warfare – the Persians favored long-range assault using archers followed up with a cavalry charge, whilst the Greeks favored heavily-armored hoplites, arranged in a densely packed formation called the phalanx, with each man carrying a heavy round bronze shield and fighting at close quarters using spears and swords. The Persian infantry carried a lightweight (often crescent-shaped) wicker shield and were armed with a long dagger or battle-ax, a short spear, and composite bow. The Persian forces also included the Immortals, an elite force of 10,000 who were probably better protected with armor and armed with spears. The Persian cavalry were armed as the foot soldiers, with a bow and an additional two javelins for throwing and thrusting. Cavalry, usually operating on the flanks of the main battle, were used to mop up opposing infantry put in disarray after they had been subjected to repeated showers from the archers. Although the Persians had enjoyed the upper hand in previous contests during the recent Ionian revolt, the terrain at Thermopylae would better suit the Greek approach to warfare.
Although the Persian tactic of rapidly firing vast numbers of arrows into the enemy must have been an awesome sight, the lightness of the arrows meant that they were largely ineffective against the bronze-armored hoplites. Indeed, Spartan indifference is epitomized by Dieneces, who, when told that the Persian arrows would be so dense as to darken the sun, replied that in that case, the Spartans would have the pleasure of fighting in the shade. At close quarters, the longer spears, heavier swords, better armor, and rigid discipline of the phalanx formation meant that the Greek hoplites would have all of the advantages, and in the narrow confines of the terrain, the Persians would struggle to make their vastly superior numbers count.
On the first day, Xerxes sent his Median and Kissian troops, and after their failure to clear the pass, the elite Immortals entered the battle but in the brutal close-quarter fighting, the Greeks held firm. The Greek tactic of simulating a disorganized retreat and then turning on the enemy in the phalanx formation also worked well, lessening the threat from Persian arrows and perhaps the hoplites surprised the Persians with their disciplined mobility, a benefit of being a professionally trained army.
The second day followed the pattern of the first, and the Greek forces still held the pass. However, an unscrupulous traitor was about to tip the balance in favor of the invaders. Ephialtes, son of Eurydemos, a local shepherd from Trachis, seeking reward from Xerxes, informed the Persians of an alternative route –the Anopaia path– which would allow them to avoid the majority of the enemy forces and attack their southern flank. Leonidas had stationed the contingent of Phokian troops to guard this vital point but they, thinking themselves the primary target of this new development, withdrew to a higher defensive position when the Immortals attacked. This suited the Persians as they could now continue unobstructed along the mountain path and arrive behind the main Greek force. With their position now seemingly hopeless, and before their retreat was cut off completely, the bulk of the Greek forces were ordered to withdraw by Leonidas.
The Spartan king, on the third day of the battle, rallied his small force – the survivors from the original Spartan 300, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans – and made a rearguard stand to defend the pass to the last man in the hope of delaying the Persians progress, in order to allow the rest of the Greek force to retreat or also possibly to await relief from a larger Greek force. Early in the morning, the hoplites once more met the enemy, but this time Xerxes could attack from both front and rear and planned to do so but, in the event, the Immortals behind the Greeks were late on arrival. Leonidas moved his troops to the widest part of the pass to utilize all of his men at once, and in the ensuing clash, the Spartan king was killed. His comrades then fought fiercely to recover the body of the fallen king. Meanwhile, the Immortals now entered the fray behind the Greeks who retreated to a high mound behind the Phokian wall. Perhaps at this point, the Theban contingent may have surrendered (although this is disputed amongst scholars). The remaining hoplites now trapped and without their inspirational king, were subjected to a barrage of Persian arrows until no man was left standing. After the battle, Xerxes ordered that Leonidas’ head be put on a stake and displayed at the battlefield. As Herodotus claims in his account of the battle in book VII of The Histories, the Oracle at Delphi had been proved right when she proclaimed that either Sparta or one of her kings must fall.
Meanwhile, at Artemision, the Persians were battling the elements rather than the Greeks, as they lost 400 triremes in a storm off the coast of Magnesia and more in a second storm off Euboea. When the two fleets finally met, the Greeks fought late in the day and therefore limited the duration of each skirmish which diminished the numerical advantage held by the Persians. The result of the battle was, however, indecisive and on news of Leonidas’ defeat, the fleet withdrew to Salamis.
The battle of Thermopylae, and particularly the Spartan’s role in it, soon acquired mythical status amongst the Greeks. Free men, in defiance of their own laws, had sacrificed themselves in order to defend their way of life against foreign aggression. As Simonedes’ epitaph at the site of the fallen stated: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders and here lie dead’.
A glorious defeat maybe, but the fact remained that the way was now clear for Xerxes to push on into mainland Greece. The Greeks, though, were far from finished, and despite many states now turning over to the Persians and Athens itself being sacked, a Greek army led by Leonidas’ brother Kleombrotos began to build a defensive wall near Corinth. Winter halted the land campaign, though, and at Salamis, the Greek fleet maneuvered the Persians into shallow waters and won a resounding victory. Xerxes returned home to his palace at Sousa and left the gifted general Mardonius in charge of the invasion. After a series of political negotiations, it became clear that the Persians would not gain victory through diplomacy and the two armies met at Plataea in August 479 BCE. The Greeks, fielding the largest hoplite army ever seen, won the battle and finally ended Xerxes’ ambitions in Greece.
As an interesting footnote: the important strategic position of Thermopylae meant that it was once more the scene of battle in 279 BCE when the Greeks faced invading Gauls, in 191 BCE when a Roman army defeated Antiochus III, and even as recent as 1941 when Allied New Zealand forces clashed with those of Germany.
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