Diodorus on the Battle of Thermopylae

Historians of the Battle of Thermopylae

Reference Map of Attica, showing Thermopylae.
Reference Map of Attica, showing Thermopylae. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd

Although we usually turn to Book VII of Herodotus to read about the Persian Wars, there are other accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae where the 300 Spartans famously sacrificed themselves for the good of all the Greeks. Ephorus of Cyme, a fourth century B.C. student of Isocrates and historian, was probably the source for another Greek historian -- Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 - c. 30 B.C.), who wrote about the Battle of Thermopylae in his Bibliotheke Books 11-16.

The following ideas, with supporting passages from the works of various Greek historians, come from on Michael A. Flower's 1998 article "Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae."

Diodorus' Account of Thermopylae

Diodorus' account of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) in the Persian Wars is different from that of Herodotus. Diodorus says the men under Leonidas, most of whom had previously undergone the Spartan krypteia, attacked the enemy under cover of nightfall, preventing the Persians from knowing how small their number was. A side result was that in the confusion, Persians killed each other. Herodotus describes the events differently and says the battle was by day.

(Diodorus)
"Leonidas was warned by a Ceymean named Tyrrhastiades... who deserted from the Persian camp, that an enemy force was soon to appear in his rear. Leonidas then led a valiant night attack on the Persian camp and even came close to killing Xerxes himself in the royal tent. Indeed, if Xerxes had been found in his tent, 'the whole war would have reached a speedy conclusion' (11.10.3)."

This night attack may have been an invention, or it could contain some truth, but Justin in his Epitome of Pompeius Trogus (2.11.12-18) and Plutarch (whose source may also have been Ephorus or the poet Simonides, whom Diodorus quotes) in his On the Malice of Herodotus 866a also mention the night attack.

Justin - Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus Book II

At the beginning of the war, when the Spartans consulted the oracle at Delphi, they had received the answer, that "either the king or their city must fall." King Leonidas, accordingly, when he proceeded to battle, had so fixed the resolution of his men, that they felt they must go to the field with minds prepared for death. He had posted himself in a narrow pass, too, that he might either conquer more gloriously with a few, or fall with less damage to his country. The allies being therefore sent away, he exhorted his Spartans "to remember that, however they struggled, they must expect to perish; to take care not to show more resolution to stay than to fight;" adding that, "they must not wait till they were surrounded by the enemy, but when night afforded them opportunity, must surprise them in security and at their ease; as conquerors could die nowhere more honourably than in the camp of the foe." There was no difficulty in stimulating men determined to die. They immediately seized their arms, and six hundred men rushed into the camp of five hundred thousand, making directly for the king's tent, and resolving either to die with him, or, if they should be overpowered, at least in his quarters. An alarm spread through the whole Persian army. The Spartans being unable to find the king, marched uncontrolled through the whole camp, killing and overthrowing all that stood in their way, like men who knew that they fought, not with the hope of victory, but to avenge their own deaths. The contest was protracted from the beginning of the night through the greater part of the following day. At last, not conquered, but exhausted with conquering, they fell amidst vast heaps of slaughtered enemies. Xerxes, having thus met with two defeats by land, resolved next to try his fortune by sea.

(From On the Malice of Herodotus)
Now Herodotus, in his narration of that fight, hath obscured also the bravest act of Leonidas, saying that they all fell in the straits near the hill. (Herodotus, vii. 225.) But the affair was otherwise managed. For when they perceived by night that they were encompassed by the barbarians, they marched straight to the enemies' camp, and got very near the King's pavilion, with a resolution to kill him and leave their lives about him.
Next: Where Diodorus May Be More Accurate than Herodotus

Previous Page: Historians of the Battle of Thermopylae

There is at least one point about the Battle of Thermopylae on which Diodorus seems to be more accurate than Herodotus -- which shouldn't be a surprise considering Herodotus' reputation.

Herodotus mentions 300 Spartan soldiers (Spartiates) and a total of 3100 Peloponnesian hoplites (7.202). In 7.228.1 Herodotus says 4000 men from the Peloponnese were at Thermopylae, a figure that doesn't add up when you add in the allies.

(Herodotus)
The Hellenes who awaited the Persians in that place were these: three hundred Spartan armed men; one thousand from Tegea and Mantinea, half from each place; one hundred and twenty from Orchomenus in Arcadia and one thousand from the rest of Arcadia; that many Arcadians, four hundred from Corinth, two hundred from Phlius, and eighty Mycenaeans. These were the Peloponnesians present; from Boeotia there were seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans.

Diodorus says there were 300 Spartiates plus 700 Lacedaemonians. His force of 4000 men included 3000 other Greeks (11.4.5-6). Isocrates, in his Panegyricus 90 and Archidamus 99 also mentions a total of 1000 Lacedaemonians.

Isocrates Panegyricus 90
It was one, then, of such lofty pride and such great achievements, master of so many men, that they went to encounter, dividing the risk between them,--the Lacedaemonians to Thermopylae against his land forces, choosing a thousand of their number and taking a few of their allies with them, intending in the narrow pass to bar their further advance, and our ancestors to Artemisium,68 having manned sixty triremes against the whole fleet of the enemy.
Isocrates Archidamus 99
Remember the men who at Dipaea fought against the Arcadians, of whom we are told that, albeit they stood arrayed with but a single line of soldiery, they raised a trophy over thousands upon thousands; remember the three hundred who at Thyrea defeated the whole Argive force in battle; remember the thousand who went to meet the foe at Thermopylae, [100] who, although they engaged seven hundred thousand of the barbarians, did not flee nor suffer defeat, but laid down their lives on the spot where they were stationed, acquitting themselves so nobly that even those who eulogize them with all the resources of art can find no praises equal to their valor.

Herodotus says that of the allied troops, the Thebans were kept against their will:

Herodotus 7.222
Those allies who were dismissed went off in obedience to Leonidas, only the Thespians and Thebans remaining with the Lacedaemonians. The [400] Thebans remained against their will and desire, for Leonidas kept them as hostages. The [700] Thespians very gladly remained, saying they would not abandon Leonidas and those with him by leaving....

Diodorus says Leonidas used 200 Thespians from among the allies as well as 400 willing Thebans to go against Xerxes at Thermopylae. Justin (2.11.11-15) says only Lacedaeomonians remained after Leonidas dismissed the allies before confronting the Persians, and their number was 600. Herodotus said Leonidas had 700 Thesbians and 400 Thebans with him when he dismissed the allies.

As with most stories from ancient history, so also with the story of the 300 there are conflicting reports; however, the battle at Thermopylae epitomizes the bravery of the Spartans and their allies under Leonidas.

References for the Battle of Thermopylae

  • Simonides, Fragm. 92 William C. McDermott The Classical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3. (Dec., 1944), pp. 168-170.
  • Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae Michael A. Flower The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 2. (1998), pp. 365-379.