The Second Battle of Thermopylae, fought in 480 BC between the Achaemenid Persian army of Xerxes and the Greek coalition led by the Spartan king Leonidas, is legendary.

Much less well known, however, are the 26 other combat actions fought in and around the pass, which date from before 480 BC all the way up to World War II.

In their new book The Killing Ground: A Biography of Thermopylae, authors Myke Cole and Michael Livingston cover all of these actions as comprehensively as the sources allow, detailing the thrilling history of the most storied battlefield on earth.



Captions for Timeline

1.) Little is known of this “first” (recorded) battle of Thermopylae between the central Greek Phocians and northern Greek Thessalians.

2.) This is the battle between the Greeks and Persians that made Thermopylae a household name, lionized by the Frank Miller comic 300 and the Zack Snyder film of the same name.

3.) The Phocians and Thessalians crossed spears again, this time in the Third Sacred War that set the stage for Philip of Macedon to make moves in Greece.

4.) A Greek coalition led by Athens held the pass, ready to defend it against Macedon’s rising power. Sensing the terrain’s defensive value, Philip backed down.

5.) Philip began to make his mastery of Greece felt, outmaneuvering a Greek coalition to take possession of Thermopylae, and with it, all hope of resistance.

6.) An Athenian-led Greek coalition makes one of the few successful defenses of Thermopylae, driving the Macedonians back. They retreated to Lamia, where they rallied and eventually won.

7.) When Aetolians held the pass against the Antipatrids (a successor dynasty carving off a piece of Alexander the Great’s empire), the Antipatrids elected to circumvent the pass by sea.

8.) Again, the Aetolians held the pass against the Antipatrids, but this time the Antipatrids assaulted their position and drove them out.

9.) The Gauls assaulted an Athenian-led Greek coalition in a relatively well-documented and dramatic battle. Ultimately successful in dislodging the Greeks, the Gauls ultimately met their defeat trying to plunder Delphi.

10.) The Aetolians again held Thermopylae against a successor dynasty – the Antigonids, who, like the Antipatrids in the seventh action at Thermopylae, decided discretion was the better part of valor and bypassed the pass.

11.) This time the Aetolians and the Antigonids clashed in the pass, and the Aetolians were driven out of it. A paucity of sources permits little detail other than that.

12.) The Roman Republic defeated the Seleucid successor dynasty in a dramatic and well-documented battle that evokes the legendary Second Battle of Thermopylae in fascinating ways.

13.) The Greek Achaeans elected to abandon the pass, possibly for the safety of the fortified city of Scarpheia, but the Romans crossed the pass and caught them outside.

14.) A garrison (or a levy of locals) under the now Roman Empire held the pass as a deterrent against the confederation of peoples known to history as “the Goths.”

15.) A local militia under Roman command fought a battle in the pass against the Goths, but a lack of sources means we don’t know the outcome.

16.) Alaric, the despoiler of Rome, crossed through the pass unopposed, aided (if we trust our sources) by treacherous Roman officials.

17.) The unidentified defenders, presumed Byzantines (the eastern half of the Roman Empire that became an empire in its own right) successfully held the pass against the famous Attila the Hun.

18.) The Getae, a Danubian people, ravaged south through Greece and stopped at Thermopylae, held by the Byzantines. Sadly, we have no further details.

19.) The Bulgar peoples attacked the Byzantines in the pass. After a failed direct assault, they flanked the Byzantine position by means of a path over Kallidromo.

20.) The Bulgar-related Kurtigurs attacked the Byzantine troops holding the pass, but were turned back. Byzantine success was probably aided by the fortifications of Emperor Justinian the Great.

21.) We have almost no details on this successful forcing of the pass by Bulgar troops overcoming Byzantine defenders.

22.) A rebellious Byzantine administrator, Leo Sgouros, bypassed the defenses of Thermopylae to cross the pass and set himself up as an independent warlord.

23.) Sgouros’s bid for power was shattered by the Crusader kingdom of the Thessalonicans, who drove him from the pass.

24.) The Greek revolt against the Ottomans was the backdrop for this moving and dramatic last stand at a famous (to the Greeks) nearby bridge.

25.) Allied forces fought a doomed holding action to slow Nazi forces and allow enough time for withdrawal and the evacuation of Greece.

26.) Operation Harling – A dramatic British special operations mission succeeded in destroying the viaduct over the Gorgopotamos in the face of Italian opposition.

27.) Operation Washing – A thrilling British-led sabotage mission that reads like a Bond film and succeeded in blowing the bridge over the Asopos despite a considerable German garrison.


You can learn more about the battles fought at Thermopylae throughout history in The Killing Ground.