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THERMO´PYLAE (Θερμοπύλαι), or simply PYLAE (Πύλαι), that is, the Hot Gates or the Gates, a celebrated narrow pass, leading from Thessaly into Locris, and the only road by which an enemy can penetrate from northern into southern Greece. It lay between Mount Oeta and an inaccessible morass, forming the edge of the Maliac gulf. In consequence of the change in the course of the rivers, and in the configuration of the coast, this pass is now very different from its condition in ancient times; and it is therefore necessary first to give the statement of Herodotus and other ancient writers respecting the locality, and then to compare it with its present state. In the time of Herodotus the river Spercheius flowed into the sea in an easterly direction at the town of Anticyra, considerably W. of the pass. Twenty stadia E. of the Spercheius was another river, called Dyras, and again, 20 stadia further, a third river, named Melas, 5 stadia from which was the city Trachis. Between the mountains where Trachis stands and the sea the plain is widest. Still further E. was the Asopus, issuing from a rocky gorge (διασφάζ), [p. 2.1162]and E. again is a small stream, named Phoenix, flowing into the Asopus. From the Phoenix to Thermopylae the distance, Herodotus says, is 15 stadia. (Hdt. 7.198-200.) Near the united streams of the Phoenix and the Asopus, Mt. Oeta approached so close to the morass of the gulf as to leave space for only a single carriage. In the immediate vicinity of the pass is the town of Anthela, celebrated for the temples of Amphictyon and of the Amphictyonic Demeter, containing seats for the members of the Amphicytonic council, who held here their autumnal meetings. At Anthela Mount Oeta recedes a little from the sea, leaving a plain a little more than half a mile in breadth, but again contracts near Alpeni, the first town of the Locrians, where the space is again only sufficient for a single carriage. At this pass were some hot springs, which were consecrated to Hercules (Strab. ix. p.428), and were called by the natives Chytri or the Pans, on account of the cells here prepared for the bathers. Across this pass the Phocians had in ancient times built a wall to defend their country against the attacks of the Thessalians, and had let. loose the hot water, so as to render the pass impracticable. (Hdt. 7.200, 176.) It appears from this description that the proper Thermopylae was the narrow pass near the Locrian town of Alpeni; but the name was also applied in general to the whole passage from the mouth of the Asopus to Alpeni. Taking the term in this acceptation, Thermopylae consisted of the two narrow openings, with a plain between them rather more than a mile in length and about half a mile in breadth. That portion of Mt. Oeta, which rises immediately above Thermopylae is called Callidromon by Livy and Strabo, but both writers are mistaken in describing it as the highest part of the range. Livy says that the pass is 60 stadia in breadth. (Liv. 36.15; Strab. ix. p.428.)

In consequence of the accumulation of soil brought down by the Spercheius and the other rivers, three or four miles of new land have been formed, and the mountain forming the gates of Thermopylae is no longer close to the sea. Moreover, the Spercheius, instead of flowing into the sea in an easterly direction, considerably W. of Thermopylae, now continues its course parallel to the pass and at the distance of a mile from it, falling into the sea lower down, to the E. of the pass. The rivers Dyras, Melas, and Asopus, which formerly reached the sea by different mouths, now discharge their waters into the Spercheius. In addition to this there has been a copious deposit from the warm springs, and a consequent formation of new soil in the pass itself. The present condition of the pass has been described by Colonel Leake with his usual clearness and accuracy. Upon entering the western opening, Leake crossed a stream of warm mineral water, running with great rapidity towards the Spercheius, and leaving a great quantity of red deposit. This is undoubtedly the Phoenix, which probably derived its name from the colour of the sediment. After crossing a second salt-spring, which is the source of the Phoenix, and a stream of cold salt water, Leake entered upon that which Herodotus calls the plain of Anthela, which is a long triangular slope, formed of a hard gravelly soil, and covered with shrubs. There is an easy descent into this plain over the mountains, so that the western opening was of no importance in a military point of view. Upon reaching the eastern pass, situated at the end of the plain of Anthela, the traveller reaches a white elevated soil formed by the deposit of the salt-springs of the proper Thermopylae. There are two principal sources of these springs, the upper or western being immediately at the foot of the highest part of the cliffs, and the lower or eastern being 200 yards distant. From the lower source the water is conducted in an artificial canal for a distance of 400 yards to a mill. This water emits a strong sulphureous vapour, and, as it issues from the mill, it pours out a great volume of smoke. Beyond the hill are conical heights, and in their neighbourhood are two salt ponds, containing cold water; but as this water is of the same composition as the hot springs, it is probably also hot at its issue. Leake observes that the water of these pools, like that of the principal hot source, is of a dark blue colour, thus illustrating the remark of Pausanias, that the bluest water he ever saw was in one of the baths at Thermopylae. (Paus. 4.35.9.) The springs at this pass are much hotter, and have left a far greater deposit than those at the other end of the plain, at the opening which may be called the false Thermopylae. Issuing from the pass are foundations of a Hellenic wall, doubtless the remains of works by which the pass was at one time fortified; and to the left is a tumulus and the foundations of a circular monument. Upwards of a mile further is a deep ravine, in which the torrents descending from Mt. Callidromon, are collected into one bed, and which afford the easiest and most direct passage to the summit of the mountain. This is probably the mountain path by which the Persians, under Hydarnes, descended in the rear of Leonidas and his companions. This path, as well as the mountain over which it leads, is called Anopaea ( Ἀνόπαια) by Herodotus, who does not use the name of Callidromon. He describes the path as beginning at the gorge of the Asopus, passing over the crest of the mountain, and terminating near Alpeni and the rock called Melampygus, and the seats of the Cercopes, where the road is narrowest. (Hdt. 7.216.) The history of the defence of Thermopylae by Leonidas is too well known to require to be related here. The wall of the Phocians, which Leonidas repaired, was probably built a little eastward of the western salt-spring. When the Spartan king learnt that Hydarnes was descending in his rear, he advanced beyond the wall into the widest part of the pass, resolved to sell his life as dearly as possible. Upon the arrival of Hydarnes, the Greeks retired behind the wall, and took up their position upon a hill in the pass (κολωνός ἐν τῇ εἰσόδῳ), where a stone lion was afterwards erected in honour of Leonidas. This hill Leake identifies with the western of the two small heights already described, as nearest to the position of the Phocian wall, and the narrowest part of the pass. The other height is probably the rock Melampygus.

Thermopylae is immortalised by the heroic defence of Leonidas; but it was also the scene of some important struggles in later times. In B.C. 279 an allied army of the Greeks assembled in the pass to oppose the Gauls under Brennus, who were marching into southern Greece with the view of pillaging the temple of Delphi. The Greeks held their ground for several days against the attacks of the Gauls, till at length the Heracleotae and Aenianes conducted the invaders across Mount Callidromon by the same path which Hydarnes had followed two centuries before. The Greeks, finding their position [p. 2.1163]no longer tenable, embarked on board their ships and retired without further loss. (Paus. 10.19-22.) In B.C. 207, when the Romans were carrying on war in Greece against Philip, king of Macedonia, the Aetolians, who were then in alliance with the Romans, fortified Thermopylae with a ditch and a rampart, but Philip shortly afterwards forced his way through the pass. (Liv. 28.5, 7; Plb. 10.41.) In B.C. 181, Antiochus, who was then at war with the Romans, took up his position at Thermopylae, which he fortified with a double rampart, a ditch, and a wall; and, in order to prevent the Romans from crossing the mountains and descending upon his rear, he garrisoned with 2000 Aetolians the three summits, named Callidromum, Teichius, and Rhoduntia. The consul Acilius sent some troops against these fortresses and at the same time attacked the army of Antiochus in the pass. While the battle was going on in the pass, the Roman detachment, which had succeeded in taking Callidromum, appeared upon the heights, threatening the king's rear, in consequence of which Antiochus immediately took to flight. (Liv. 36.15-19.) There are still. remains of three Hellenic fortresses upon the heights above Thermopylae, which probably represent the three places mentioned by Livy. Appian (App. Syr. 17) speaks only of Callidromum and Teichius, but Strabo (ix. p.428) mentions Rhoduntia also. Procopius relates that the fortifications of Thermopylae. were restored by Justinian (de Aed. 4.2).

(On the topography of Thermopylae, see the excellent account of Leake, Northern Greece, vol. ii. pp. 5, seq., 40, seq.; there is also a treatise by Gordon, Account of two Visits to the Anopaea or the Highlands above Thermopylae, Athens, 1838, which the writer of this article has not seen.)


aa. Present line of coast,

bb. Present course of the Spercheius.

cc. Ancient line of coast.

dd. Present course of the Dyras.

ee. Present course of the Asopus.

ff. Track of the Persians under Hydarnes.

g. Hot springs at the western entrance, or the false Thermopylae.

h. Hot springs at the eastern entrance, or the real Thermopylae.

i. Phocian wall.

hide References (13 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (13):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.176
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.198
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.216
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.200
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10.22
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10.19
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 4.35.9
    • Appian, Syrian Wars, 4.17
    • Polybius, Histories, 10.41
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 28, 7
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 28, 5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 36, 15
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 36, 19
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