The Final Charge at Thermopylae...


Wargames Atlantic plastic 28mm Persian Multi-part set

The above vignette shows off the Wargames Atlantic 28mm plastic multi-part box set.  The set allows one to build a 40 figure group, and allows various arms and legs and head variants to construct different style of units in the early Persian army of the wars with Greece.  This vignette is constructed out of one sample sprue sent to me. I decided to make them into a vignette of a combined group of different Persian units, on the last day of Thermopylae. This is the final successful charge after three days of setbacks.

  Thermopylae 480 BC

"The loftiest spot [in Greece]"
~ Philostratus

In the fall of 480 BC the Persian army of Xerxes poured into Greece to punish the Greek city states who had defied the Great King. The invading Persian army was a huge throng (Myriads) of soldiers,
camp attendants, and logistical support, gathered from all parts of the empire. A small force of Spartans (300 Royal bodyguards plus 900 attendants) joined about 4000-7000 other Greeks at the pass at Thermopylae to block the Persian advance into the indefensible open plains to the south.

Xerxes was completely vexed that such a small force would dare block him, and after days of waiting for them to just give up,  he sent his army against the Spartans and their allies. Each massive assault was driven back. Even his most seasoned troops, the vaunted Immortals could not dent the Greek defenses. Numbers could not beat a better armed and armored foe, entrenched in a narrow space where their flanks were secure. Persian archery was limited by the channeled terrain and slippery ground.

But after two days of fruitless assaults,  a goat path
around the Spartan's position was found, or betrayed by a Greek to the Persians. Xerxes dispatched a column of Immortals over night to surround the Greeks. Early in the morning the Spartan King Leonidas learned that the Persian's were about to cut off the Greek's retreat. He ordered most of the Greeks to flee, while he and his Spartans plus some reluctant Thebans and more enthusiastic Thespian volunteers rushed out to attack and act as a rear guard for the rest of the Greek army to slip away.

  The final charge at Thermopylae

"Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth." ~ Diodorus XI, 28-34

This vignette represents a mixed group of Persians about to close in on the surrounded Greeks making their last stand on a knoll. These troops represent forces bloodied and muddied by the hoplites in  the previous two days of futile attacks. At the start, the Medes and Cissians were cut down in the first wave. A section of the Immortals was sent in only to be routed in the close confines of the muddy pass, crossed by streams emanating from the hot springs. The next day was even worse as the Greeks had sufficient troops to rotate the defense. Each time various Persian contingents advanced they were thrown back by fresh armored defenders. Some of the hapless attackers were pushed off cliff sides in the stampedes to the rear in the confined space. It was a bloody stalemate, with tremendous casualties on the Persian side. The Greeks stood solid  behind a stone wall, and in their heavy bronze armor they were mostly impervious to attacks by the lightly armed Persians.

The Final Charge photos represent the these Persian survivors of the previous day's massacres now closing in to overrun the surrounded Greeks. King Leonidas fell, and the Greeks rear guard was destroyed or captured to the last man in this final assault on their last stand.

Battle of Thermopylae


   The Sparabara, archers and the gortyos

This group has two sparabara (pavisse holders), one is an Immortal, one is a more generic Persian. A Median officer leads them forward. Two archers, one Persian, and one Cissian (or Kissian) shoot over the spara (also know as gerrha) . The spara shield was a tall wicker barrier that could be carried then set up with a stake and held in place by a spear man. Behind the spara wall the often unarmored archers were protected the fighters in the front ranks.

The typical arrangement of troops in Persian armies is based on tens. There was one sparabara fighter and up to nine archers in a rank, another officer or non-com ranker may have been in the rear as a file closer. Units were grouped into major formations of a thousand.

The Median officer carries a diplyon shield for his personal defense. According to Herodotus, Persian fighters would rush out in groups from the behind the spara walls. The heavily armored Greeks were able to survive the missile fire and break down the walls, and kill the sparabara. Once the spara barrier was knocked down, the unarmored Persian archers were mostly helpless victims.

This angle shows the quiver known as a gortyos provided in this Wargames Atlantic set. This is a Scythian style quiver. Persians also used a round quiver strapped to their backs. The Greek shield being trod over is a Warlord plastic shield.

How do these plastic figures compare to other ranges

Here we see the Persian group in my glass case. On the left is a Vendel large scale 28-32mm metal officer, this is in the high rage of jumbo 28mm figures. Next is a Wargames Foundry classic range figure which is very compatible with the new plastics. On the right is a Victrix plastic hoplite, which is very compatible in scale.  I would use these new figures in their own units, but they fit in well with my older collection of Persians gathered over the eons.

Because of the mix of arms and heads, one can make a combined unit of archers and spear men out of these, since there are five models per sprue one can build three archers or other armed models.

"There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes, considering it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural lust from the Greeks."
~ Herodotus


  Close ups - The Medes and Cissians (Kissians)

The Mede officer with the bulbous leather cap has his sagaris (war hammer) out and is ready to charge. He wears padded armor, and the violin shaped dipylon shield. His Median style outfit includes the tunic and trousers that are more practical on campaign than the flowing robes shown on the Persepolis reliefs.

Persians famously copied styles of weapons and outfits. The Medes were one of the first empires they absorbed, and they copied them copiously. There are enough Median style heads to create a whole unit of this style- although some will be unarmored. Three shield types are included per sprue, two spara, two dipylon, and two peltae (crescent style similar to Thracian style shields).

The Cissians were from the ancient land of Elam and Susa at the north end of the Persian Gulf. Elamites were highly regarded archers. I've taken the liberty of giving them a blue tunic, just because I like it. There are enough bare heads to make a nice unit of these as well.
The dots are painted with tooth pick ends, which goes fairly quickly.

  Close ups - The Persian Immortal, Sparabara and archers

The Immortal is using his spear two handed underhanded to prod while his spara shield is propped up by a stake. This is taken directly from the Richard Scollins artwork (see below). This torso has a heavier armor style that seems appropriate for an Immortal. It is likely that Immortals were equipped with spears and bows. I've tried to capture the feeling of the Duncan Head  Montvert art here, this would make a great looking game unit if I am ever able to collect enough of them.

The Sparabara  Persian is a front ranker and stabbing over head with his spear. He also wears the quilted style armor seen on the Mede. Both this figure and the Immortal had some putty added to lengthen the back portion of the tiara caps. Again, all dots were added with toothpicks. Persian are all about dot dot dot and the dash dash dash. Some Persian zigzag stripes are too crazy in this scale.

Ancient History Encyclopedia   Ancient Persian Warfare   Joshua J. Markby

  The Achaemenid Army
  by Duncan Head, art by Richard Scollins

Ever since it came out in 1992, The Achaemenid Persian Army, by Duncan Head, illustrated by Richard Scollins, Christopher Rothero, and Niki Head, has been the premier go-to guide for anything Persian. The color plates by the late, very talented Scollins are reproduced on the web in abundance. The detailed line art and meticulous text that Duncan provides make this a one of a kind brilliant work for gamers and miniaturists alike. You can see why I used this as guidance for colors and style, since the Wargames Atlantic sculptor referenced them as well.

Ancient History Encyclopedia
Herodotus: On The Customs of the Persians

The Spara Wall

The Persian shield wall formation has became known in gaming terms as a “spara wall,” but this terminology is based on scanty references. The file-leader called a sparabara, usually armed with a spear, defended the shield barrier. Behind him there were probably nine ranks armed mostly as archers. The archers would often be unarmored but some could wear some light armor, quilted corselets, or later Greek style “thorax lineos” armor. The more elite the formation the better chance the soldiers would have some armor. A file closer was posted behind the archers to keep everybody in line. Most soldiers of some service length were awarded a side sword called an akinaka that was strapped to their leg. Officers and file leaders could also carry pick-axes, war hammers called a sagaris, and swords.The file closer's gear is hypothetical. Artwork (Page 24, Figure:11) originally by Christopher Rothero or Niki Head.

  Wargames Atlantic website

The place to go to get these new plastics Persians. Hopefully just a start to some alternative options. Persians are kind of lost as far as wargaming armies go. First off they were defeated and eventually rubbed out by the Greeks and Macedonians. They are also a large army to collect- especially if the large masses of levies are present. Third, they are a challenge to paint being both ornate AND great in numbers. There is need of a certain amount of grit to accept the fate of a Persian gamer, few game rules give your army much of a chance. Warhammer Ancient Battles was however great for both the Early and Later Achaemenid Persians, so that explains my bias. Sadly I never was able to take a Persian army on the road to Historicon- too many figures! (Plastic is lighter on an airplane though).

It takes a lifetime to collect large armies of nicely done Persians, I'm still at it. However, I reckon when I look at my to-do pile, I will never actually be done, that is the curse of the Persian army, there always more!

  The agony and the ecstasy of plastics

Now after all this, I have a confession. I really don't like plastic gaming figures. Too many bits to assemble. I realize that is part of the joy is the multi part freedom. But I don't like all the tiny bits, and the leftovers (including the sprues*).  Usually when I purchase plastic figures they sit and languish. However, these Persians kind of roped me in. I'm looking forward to assembling at least one unit of these, maybe 24-32 figures, or more.

Here is an example of what you get. As you can see, you get a lot of variety, bows, quivers, heads, including a helmeted head. Variable archer poses.

* At least one can melt the sprues and string the bows with stretched plastic filament. Something I did not do for this picture set, because I was in a hurry.

"Persians were taught to ride, to tell the truth and to use the bow"
~ Herodotus

  How to start the project

This reveals what the figures look like assembled and primed with white spray primer. You can see the abundance of detail that makes painting these quite fun. Mold lines are slight and not in places that mess up the details. They clean up nice and as I said before the only modification was the tiara cap back flaps on two of these, the archer has a back flap molded on. The spears are finely detailed with their in scale pomegranate end caps. However, like all plastic spears they are fragile. For game purposes I will replace them with wire, but I will lose some of their charm. OTOH a bunch of broken spears will ruin everyone's game day.

Despite my lamentations about all the parts- the parts do go together well. The plastic is high quality and the engineering is well done. The heads look comfortable on the necks. When I have more sprues I will build a standard bearer and musician and maybe do some of the other archer poses and post them here.

  Fleeting Glory

Thermopylae was a victory for the Persians despite all the comic books and "moral victory" propaganda from our western biased sources. The Persian army flooded south overrunning all opposition. The Spartans fled to the Isthmus of Corinth to build a wall. Athenians were driven from Athens and took refuge on the island of Salamis. Xerxes sent in his fleet to wipe the Greeks from Salamis, but the Greek allied navies rushed out and destroyed the majority of the Persian fleet. Xerxes declared victory and left Greece.  He left part of his army to occupy conquered Thebes and the surrounding plains of Boeotia. This was Persia's high water mark in the west.

The next year (479)  the largest ever alliance of Greek city states crushed the Persian spara walls at Plataea after a long struggle. The tide of the Persian Empire receded as the Greeks conquered the Aegean islands and carried the land and sea war into Asia Minor. The Persians survived to see the once unified Greeks turn on each other. They played this to their advantage, using their massive wealth and fleets - rather than armies - to keep the Greeks divided and mostly deflected them from meddling in Persian affairs.

After the failed Greek invasion, the Persians turned away from the spara wall tactics and developed their heavy cavalry and tended to hire mercenaries, including Greeks, to do their infantry work.  By the time of Alexander the Great's invasion, the Immortals once kept to a continuous strength of 10,000 were reduced to about 2000 men at the final battle at Gaugamela.

Peter Dennis, a brilliant illustrator, offers paper hoplites and Persian alternatives to metal and plastic
This really shows off the "Spara wall":


Giuseppe Rava paints some great inspirational hoplite and Persian paintings
Check out his Military art prints, I have this one on my wall.

Find his work at:

Further reading, a few inspirational books I own:

    Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars        

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