Analyzing reports from four sources, both primary and secondary, fifth-grade historians developed educated opinions on a specific subject: Just how many Persian soldiers fought in the Battle of Thermopylae?
On the famous battlefield in Greece circa 480 BCE, Spartan warriors fought bravely against a much larger Persian army that had invaded Athens. The Greeks were eventually defeated after holding off their enemies for several days while inflicting heavy casualties. The 2007 movie starring Gerard Butler, “300,” was based on this conflict.
In an exercise led by history teacher, Mike Willis, students reviewed the written accounts of historians from different eras to compare and contrast the “facts” depicted about the battle. Throughout the lesson, students were also introduced to new vocabulary such as armament and trireme.
“Historians look at primary sources to identify the facts of history,” explained Mr. Willis. “The problem is, you get completely different stories and it takes discernment to come to educated conclusions.”
One source the class examined was Greek historian, Herodotus, who based his account on interviews with Greek veterans of the battle. He put forth a number of 2.3 million Persian soldiers against 5,200 Greeks. Other historians have unanimously rejected Herodotus’s “facts” and Mr. Willis’s students agreed, deeming his account “biased.”
“I don’t think Herodotus is a believable source,” said Aidan Hodges. “The Greeks might have said the number of Persians they fought was higher to make themselves sound better.”
In contrast, another primary source with access to Persian war archives declared the number of invading soldiers was only 10,000. Ctesias of Cnidus was also determined to be unreliable.
While modern historians haven’t the advantage of first-hand accounts, they are often seen as more objective. In Ernle Bradford’s “The Year of Thermopylae,” published in 1980, a World War I general and military expert is credited with estimating the number of Persians at 250,000. Major-General Sir John Frederick Maurice’s tactical knowledge of battles led him to conclude that available water sources and logistic complications of the invasion would have made it impossible to field a larger number of troops.
Student historians largely agreed that Maurice’s figure was more plausible than Herodotus or Ctesias. “It’s more reliable because it is based on the facts of the area and war strategy,” said Aidan. “But I also wonder if maybe there were more water sources back when the battle happened than there are now. In that case, the number of soldiers could have been higher than 250,000.”
Further, fifth-graders examined another source, modern-day English author and politician, Rupert Matthews. Along the lines of Maurice’s reasoning, he argues that it was physically impossible to move and supply more than 350,000 Persian soldiers during the invasion. After discussing each account, students were left to make up their minds based on historical evidence. For homework, they wrote short paragraphs defending their opinions.
Bianca Morris definitively rejected Herodotus’s figure of 2.3 million but wanted to thoughtfully consider the other accounts before deciding. Classmate Coco Chism concluded that Matthews had the most reasonable estimation. “Herodotus’s number was so much higher than the other accounts that it makes me think it was exaggerated,” she said. “But 10,000 seems too low of a number for a powerful army to send into an important battle. I think 300,000 to 350,000 is more realistic.”
Later, Mr. Willis reflected on how his students’ ability to analyze sources had matured quite a bit since the beginning of the school year. “They are able to think more critically,” he said. “They understand that even primary sources should be questioned for validity.”