Ephialtes son of Eurydemos, better known to history as Ephialtes of Trachis, was a member of ancient Greece’s Malian tribe, after whom the Malian Gulf in the northwestern Aegean Sea is named. He became one of the most – or perhaps the most – reviled Greek of his era. When King Xerxes of Persia invaded Greece in the fifth century BC, Ephialtes showed the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae.
Xerxes’ invasion of Greece was launched after decades of steadily mounting tensions, spurred by Athens’ support during the reign of Persia’s King Darius I of a failed rebellion by his Ionian Greek subjects in Asia Minor. That led to a Persian punitive expedition against Athens, that was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In 480 BC, Darius’ son and successor, King Xerxes, gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue the Greeks once and for all.
When they were faced with the approach of a vast Persian army, the Malians, at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans, were among the many Greeks who chose discretion over valor. They “Medised” – that is, submitted to and collaborated with King Xerxes of Persia against other Greek polities. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or the “Hot Gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north.
King Leonidas of Sparta commanded a small Spartan-led Greek force, that occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, who greatly outnumbered Leonidas’ men, were forced to attack directly up the pass and on a narrow front. That negated and neutralized their numerical superiority. The Persians were bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge.
King Leonidas and the Greeks under his command kept the vastly superior Persian army bottled up in front of the pass at Thermopylae, until Ephialtes struck. He informed King Xerxes that he knew of a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae, and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position. In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. When he discovered that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent his Greek allies away.
He stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out. Ephialtes was reviled from the ancient era to the present, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward: the Persian invasion collapsed when their fleet was defeated at Salamis later that year, and their army was crushed at Platea the following year. Ephialtes fled, with a bounty on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.
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