A new movie looks pretty interesting, about the story of the 300 Spartans who fought Xerxes army of 1.7 million men. The trailer to the movie "300" is here, and this is one I want to see. Below is an update of a post on the subject, with new information added.
In 481 BC when the Persian king Xerxes was going to
invade Greece for conquest, he assembled a huge army from his tributary
states. They were so numerous that it was hard to count them. So they
counted out 10,000 and had them stand in a densely packed circle. Then
they built a waist high wall around them. Then they had the rest of the
enter the walled circle until it was full, and called it 10,000 per
filling. The Persian army filled the circle 170 times, for a head count
of 1,700,000!! Of these there were 80,000 cavalry, 20,000 charioteers
and camel riders.
This was and is the largest army ever assembled in
the history of the world. The Persian army was made up of armies from
each province or satrapy of the kingdom, and my theory of the purpose
of the head count is that this technique was to verify the number of
soldiers that each provincial governor said he had contributed, which
might have been an inflated number.
This illustration from The History of the World, by Ridpath, 1915. The Persian navy sailed through a specially built canal in the Athos peninsula which had been in preparation for three years.
Persians continued via a land march to the Pass of Thermopylae, where
they were faced by 300 Spartans and 8700 Greek soldiers from allied
cities. These were an advance force representing the Greek cities, because troops from the other cities were occupied and could not assemble in time. Xerxes demanded the surrender of the Greek force, proclaiming that the Persian arrows would fill the sky. The king of the Spartans replied "Good, then we'll fight in the shade."
The Spartans, including the king of Sparta, held off the Persians assaults one after the other, with great slaughter of Persians. The Persians finally got through the pass, at a loss of 20,000
killed, and the Spartans killed to a man. The Persians found a mountain trail around the pass, and assembled a force behind the Spartans lines, and attacked from both sides. Before the final assault the Spartans sent most of the other Greeks to rally the other Greeks to oppose the Persians, but all the Spartans stayed to face the final Persian assault, and perished.
One thing the Spartans did, besides buy time for the Greeks to get organized, was to throw off the Persian plans. Xerxes had spent years preparing for the invasion, and had filled vast stores of food warehouses along the route. When a marching army of 1.7 million men has to stay in one place and be fed, that can be a logistical problem.
The Persians then met the Athenian fleet, who they greatly outnumbered. The Athenian fleet mauled the Persian fleet, and the main force of the Persians returned to Persia, leaving an army of 260,000 to finish the conquest in the Spring. They were routed by a Greek force of 108,000 soldiers at Platea. What the Greeks had discovered was a new strategy of fighting, the phalanx, and they had perfected its use during decades of Greek against Greek warfare.