A Greek force of 7,000 Greeks fought a delaying action to force a sea battle in the adjacent strait at Artemesion, hoping to destroy the persian fleet. This fleet threatened the Greek cities, stopping them sending their forces to concentrate against the Persian army, and also protected the Persian sea supply line necessary to sustain their army in Greece.

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The Greek force held the Thermopylai Pass while sea battles went on for three days, with the Greek fleet coming off worst and withdrawing, so there was no reason to continue holding the pass. The Spartan commander Leonidas sent the main contingents back to their cities and with his own Spartan force of 300 armoured warriors and 2,000 light infantry continued to hold the pass so that the others could get inside friendly walls before the Persian cavalry broke through and caught them in the open. The Spartans went down to a man in this final stand.

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