One of the greatest battles that ever took place was around 480 BC and it was between the Persian army, from the middle-east, with around 250,000 soldiers versus the king of Sparta (a territory in Greece), and his 300 Spartan warriors along with approximately 7,000 soldiers from around Greece.
Persia, not unlike the Roman Empire, had been conquering other countries creating a large empire. They set their sights on Greece thinking it would be an easy conquest. Their scouts told them Greece would be lucky to build an army of even ten thousand men, so Persia initially sent around 70,000 soldiers to quickly take care of business. There was barely a battle as much of the Persian fleet was destroyed in what would today be considered a massive hurricane. Those that survived the storm were annihilated by the Spartans. Citizens of Greece felt that it was their gods who saved them.
This was bad for Persia in many ways including: 1) They lost a lot of soldiers and ships. 2) Their soldiers were worried that the gods weren’t on their side thus creating dissention in their ranks. 3) Stories were getting back to Persia that the Spartans might be god’s themselves because they were physical specimens who could beat an opponent’s shield into the ground with just a few blows. You know how gossiping works, at one point word was going around that Spartan warriors were ten feet tall.
The truth was that Spartans were such great warriors because young boys were trained early on. Not all boys were selected for the army, most came from a long line of soldiers. Training was constant and they had to endure various forms of torture until they could handle pain without flinching. They learned to fight with anything that could be used as a weapon. They became highly skilled at hand-to-hand combat. They had to hold their swords above their heads for hours at a time. Early in their teens, they began training alongside the very soldiers they'd be next to in future battles. They learned to fight for each other. They also lived by Spartan law, which meant when they fought there was no retreat and no surrender. It's the code the Japanese used during WWII.
Persia wasn’t going to give up, so they went after Greece a second time with around 250,000 men. The second major battle was called: "The Battle of Thermopylae." King Leonidas heard the Persian army was coming to attack Greece with over one million soldiers (a common practice back then to scare the enemy), so he knew it was a lost cause, but he refused to surrender when the Persians sent an ambassador to try and convince them to put down their arms. Having already heard stories about the Persians, he knew that if they didn’t fight, they all would be killed anyway. The rest of Greece agreed and gathered an army of roughly 8,000 men realizing that it didn’t matter what they did, Persia would kill their men, rape the women and children, and then pillage their villages; so, they preferred killing as many Persians as possible before they themselves were killed.
Leonidas' plan was to build a wall to where when the Persian's arrived via their ships, their army would be forced to travel one path that would take them through a very narrow pass, called: The Hot Gates. In other words, the Spartan warriors wouldn't be fighting 250,000 men all at once, they'd be fighting small army divisions at a time. The Persian army was backed up all the way to the ocean and some ships couldn’t even unload.
One of the reasons why the Spartans were having so much success is that most of Persia’s army were slaves from conquered countries. Even though they were given training on how to use their shields, spears, and swords, it wasn’t exactly quality training. They had soldiers who were once blacksmiths, farmers, and merchants whereas the Spartans did nothing but train to be fighters. The Spartan army had endurance from their training and could wield swords for hours at a time while many of the Persian soldiers could only last a few minutes before they no longer had the strength to hold up their shields; the Spartans were picking them off right and left.
Military leaders in the Persian army didn’t care about these losses they just wanted to throw as many bodies at Greece as possible realizing they’d probably face massive casualties but would eventually wear them down through attrition.
The Spartans kept winning one fight after another and since there was a lot of fear back then regarding whether one army’s god was more powerful than the other, the Persian army began questioning how powerful their god was. The problem being that their god was the King of the Persian Empire (Xerxes), who presented himself as a god just as the Pharaohs did to their people. Xerxes was the fifth in his family line to be the ruler/god of the empire. So, if they were losing the battle, who else to blame but the king who apparently didn’t have the power he said he possessed. Losing god status wasn't an option for him.
King Xerxes became worried that his army was losing faith in him, so he changed their strategies and tactics. He pulled back the slave soldiers and sent in his best warriors. As they came around a bend in the path to attack the Spartans, they saw a wall about 15 feet tall. It wasn’t made of stones, but of the bodies of the Persian soldiers they killed. I’m sure some fear sank in.
As the Persians approached the wall, the Spartans launched a surprise attack. This time they experienced some losses as the opposing fighters were an elite fighting force filled with mercenaries. The Greek army saw what was happening and joined in the fight and they helped Sparta win the battle. Keep in mind, the Greeks, based on King Leonidas’ request, had been staying off the battlefield and allowing the Spartans to handle the fight. He did this for several reasons one being the battlefield was so small and two, he didn’t want any confusion as his men were trained to follow signals in battles. Basically, he wanted control over the situation.
King Xerxes was livid and began throwing everything at the Spartans. He sent war elephants from India, to help in the fight, but the pass was too narrow, and many elephants fell off the cliff before reaching the Spartans. Those that did get through were attacked by the Spartans from the side with spears; the dead elephants became even more obstacles for the Persian army to climb over. What made it even worse for the Persians is that many of the elephants trampled their own men on their way to the Spartans.
Day after day, the Spartans survived with very few losses. The Persian army became more and more worried as they were being told to attack the Spartans which meant they had to climb over thousands of bodies of their own army to get to them. In some cases, they were moving dead bodies out of their way only to find Spartans hidden among the dead. The Spartans jumped off the ground with their spears and swords and mowed down Persia’s front line.
A miracle was occurring and what the Persians didn’t realize is that every day the Spartans held their attention, the Greeks were getting their large fleet of ships out of the harbors to attack them at sea. For seven days, the Greek army and the Spartans held Persia’s massive army in check.
Then something terrible happened. A Greek citizen in hopes of saving his family when the Persian’s won the war and in hopes of receiving gold, betrayed his country by showing a Persian general a hidden path around the ravine so they could attack the Spartans from behind.
King Leonidas received word that the Persian army was working their way around them, so he knew they’d be trapped. He sent a messenger to let the Greek army know they should retreat and that he and his men would hold the Persians off as long as they could, allowing them more time to get away and help the Greek citizens. They were extremely brave men.
The Spartans got attacked on both sides and all of them were eventually killed including the mighty Leonidas. Their ability to hold off the Persians for seven days and allow the Greek army to escape was beyond heroism.
Having defeated the Spartans, the Persians pushed their way into Athens, but the city had already been evacuated. Then to their surprise, the Greek fleet attacked causing King Xerxes and his army to abandon their conquest of Greece and they sailed away. They lost a large part of their army during the retreat at sea due to a lack of food and water and disease. They did try to capture Greece again about a year later, but the Greek army prevailed with chants of “Sparta! Sparta! Sparta!” Kind of like: “Remember the Alamo.”
One last thing. The Persians, mostly King Xerxes, hated King Leonidas as he and his Spartan army had ruined everything for him, so they took his body back to his palace and mutilated it. Decades later, in an act of diplomacy, the Persian king sent Leonidas’ remains back to Sparta.