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Greek text fragment Thermopylae
Credit: Vienna, Austrian National Library

Another Battle of Thermopylae

Parts of an ancient Greek text have been discovered in the Austrian National Library describing another Battle of Thermopylae.

Details of the battle were found among several other fragments, all initially recorded by the Athenian writer Dexippus in the 3rd century CE'Common era', the non-religious way of saying AD ('anno Domini', or 'the year of our lord'). and copied probably during the 11th century. Although originally found, and printed in German, in 2014, this is the first time the tale has been told in English, thanks to the work of Christopher Mallan from Oxford University and Caillan Davenport from the University of Queensland.

In the fragment, Dexippus tells of the struggle of the Greeks and Romans (who at that point controlled Greece) to fight off a wave of Gothic invasions. During the 260s CE, and as part of a larger Gothic invasion of southern Europe, a Gothic group called the Heruli attempted to capture the Greek city of Thessalonica, but 'those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands.' Tiring of Thessalonica, the Gothic force turned south towards Athens, but were met by the Greeks in the narrow pass at Thermopylae in about 267CE.More infoThermopylae in ancient times was a narrow pass, flanked by a steep mountain on one side and the coast on the other. Its name, meaning 'the place of hot springs' comes from the sulphurous springs within it, and was considered in Greek mythology as the entrance to Hades. The narrowest part of the plain, and the likely site of the 480BCE battle, was probably just 100m across, although deposition has since moved the coastline by up to 9km in some places.

View of the Thermopylae pass
View of the Thermopylae pass

Despite the defensible position, it must have been daunting to the band of local Greeks who, carrying 'small spears...or whatever each man could arm himself with...completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste.' Dexippus records a stirring speech given by the commander of the Greek force, Marianus, to inspire the troops with other great deeds conducted there, including the holding back of the Persian army by the Spartans, Thespians and Thebans in 480BCE:More infoThis is not the only time a battle has been fought at Thermopylae: the pass was defended on at least five separate occasions in ancient history, as well as during the Greek War of Independence and the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945.. 'O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state. In previous attacks, you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On this account of these things, future events do not appear to me not without hope...' Sadly, we don't know what else Marianus may - or may not (as the speech was probably an invention of Dexippus) - have said, as here the text runs out.

For all the encouraging words, it would seem those defending the pass fell, and the Heruli went on to sack Athens, Corinth, Argos and Sparta. Dexippus, as both a historian and a man who reinvigorated Greek patriotism, was remembered, and the base of a statue erected to honour him still exists in Athens.

Find out more here.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).