The Persian army had come to the Pass of Thermopylae; and Xerxes, seeing that it was guarded by only a few men, sent them a haughty message, bidding them surrender their arms.
Instead of seeing a meek compliance with this request, as they expected, the Persian heralds were amazed to hear Leonidas reply with true laconic brevity, “Come and take them!”
The Spartan king, however, had quickly seen that it would be impossible for him to do much more than stop for a while the advance of this mighty host. As a Spartan never drew back, he made up his mind to die on the field of battle, and bade his warriors comb their hair, don their choicest armor, and dress themselves in their richest attire, as was the custom when some great danger threatened them and they expected to die.
The Persians, seeing this, were greatly surprised, and advanced confidently, for they fancied that men who took so much trouble to curl and perfume their hair would not be hard to conquer. They soon found out their mistake.
As they advanced, the archers shot a volley of arrows, and in such numbers that they fairly darkened the sun. One of the allies, seeing this, ran to warn Leonidas; but he received the startling news with great coolness, and merely said, “Very well; then we can fight in the shade.”
When Xerxes saw that the Greeks would not yield without striking a blow, he gave orders for the battle to begin. The Persians pressed forward, under the eye of their king, who sat high up on the rocks to see them conquer; but, to his surprise, they were driven back by that mere handful of men.
Again and again they tried to force the pass, but all their attempts proved vain. The Persian soldiers, amazed at the courage of the Greeks, were filled with superstitious fears, and began to refuse to advance, except when driven onward under the stinging blows of the lash.
The king was furious to see their close ranks give way time after time, and finally ordered his own Immortals to march on and scatter the army, which, although so small, was keeping millions of men at bay. He expected that everything would of course give way at the very first charge of these troops.
Imagine his wrath, therefore, when he saw the Immortals also retreat, after many useless efforts to drive away the enemy. The Persians did not know what to do. They could not advance, and were ashamed to retreat.