The idea of the noble last stand is rooted in history and folklore. It is always enthralling to read tales of how small groups of warriors stared a much larger force and death, in the face without flinching. One wonders what went through the minds of these brave individuals as in many cases; they knew that there was no hope of survival. Only a sense of pride, honor, and duty kept these men and women fighting, in many cases to the last person, as they prevented their enemies from having things easy. In this article, I will look at 5 remarkable last stands although not all of them involved combat and in some cases, the heroic warriors won the day.
1. Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)
In many ways, this was the original ‘last stand’ as it involved 7,000 men from various Greek-city states heroically facing at least 60,000 Persians and they held their own until treachery was their undoing. The battle marked the beginning of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece as their first attempt was foiled with defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The failed attempt was conducted with Darius as monarch, and when he died in 486 BC, his son, Xerxes, who was determined to avenge the earlier defeat, succeeded him.
After dealing with other matters, Xerxes was finally ready to invade in 480 BC. The initial Greek response when it learned of the invasion was to amass an army of 10,000 hoplites who were ordered to hold a position at the Valley of Tempe. However, these men withdrew once the vast size of the invading army became known.
Eventually, the Greek city-states, who did not trust one another, managed to cobble together an army of around 7,000 men. The group was a mixture of Spartans and their helots, Phokians, Thebans, Corinthians, and others. They were ordered to defend the all-important pass of Thermopylae as it was through there that the Persians had to travel to invade Greece.
The pass of Thermopylae had a 15-meter gap which soldiers could march through, and it was protected on the left by a sheer cliff and on the right by the sea. In other words, once the Persians arrived, they had no choice but to try and go through the assorted Greek troops who had no intention of surrendering. Xerxes waited four days to attack because he believed the Greeks would flee in terror once they saw the size of the Persian army. He sent an envoy who offered the enemy a chance to surrender but the Greek army, led by Leonidas I of Sparta, dismissed the offer out of hand.
On day one of the Battle of Thermopylae, the initial Persian sortie was fought off, so Xerxes sent in his famed Immortal warriors; they too failed to penetrate the Greek defenses. The Greeks used a very clever tactic; they pretended to flee chaotically only to quickly turn on the enemy in a phalanx formation which was very effective against Persian arrows. The Greeks continued to hold the pass on day two and were faring well until a traitor by the name of Ephialtes told the Persians about the Anopaia path. By going down this route, the Persians could circumnavigate most of the Greek forces and surprise the main army’s southern flank.
When the Persians emerged behind the Greek army, all seemed lost, and Leonidas ordered most of the men to withdraw. On day three, Leonidas gathered together the remains of the original 300 Spartans, 400 Thebans, and 700 Thespians. The goal of this small bunch of brave warriors was simple: Defend the pass and prevent the Persians from getting through at all costs. They knew they had to fight until the last man, but no one considered deserting. In a desperate last stand, the Greeks fought bravely, and Leonidas was killed. Eventually, the remaining hoplites were massacred by Persian arrows. There is a suggestion that the Thebans surrendered, but many historians dispute it.
The Persians were now free to march into mainland Greece, but they lost up to 20,000 men at Thermopylae. Xerxes’ plans to achieve what his father didn’t lay in tatters after a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The Persians struggled with a small army at Thermopylae, so when it faced the largest hoplite army ever assembled (estimated to be at least 80,000 men); it crumbled and lost up to 90,000 men. The Persians apparently lost the Battle of Mycale on the very same day, and with his army in ruins, Xerxes had no choice but to abandon his invasion.