While there are certain facets of the Battle of Thermopylae which are without controversy, there are also perplexing aspects which have been the source of debate for centuries. One such conundrum which merits further examination is Herodotus' account with respect to the contingent of 400 Thebans who fought during this iconic three-day conflict. When one reads the historian's account of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), it seems to contain an anti-Theban sentiment. We must then wonder, was the 'Father of History' (c .484 BC - c. 425 BC) biased against Thebes, or is there an alternate theory which would explain the apparent condemnation against the 400 Thebans who fought at the 'Hot Gates'?
To summarize, three specific points require an evaluation which may shed some light on why the Thebans are cast in such an unflattering light. Therefore, the hypotheses included will follow the paraphrasing of each of Herodotus' passages.
I - Herodotus wrote that Thebes was strongly suspected of exhibiting pro-Persian sympathies. Consequently, when King Leonidas of Sparta marched through their country on the way to Thermopylae it was with the intent of ascertaining where the Theban alliance would lie. The primary historian of the Greco-Persian Wars recorded that even though they sent a contingent of 400 warriors under the command of Leontiades, their underlying sympathy was still with Persia.
By providing only a fraction of their available army, the perception was that the Thebans had not and wouldn't resist Xerxes the Great's advance into Greece. Thebes', Boeotian neighbor, the
city of Thespiae, on the other hand supported the Greek defense with 700 warriors, an allotment of hoplites (heavily armed infantry) which comprised if not all of their available warriors, at least a good majority of them.
The historian Diodorus Siculus (circa 1st century BC) asserted that this Theban force was 'of the other party'. A reasonable explanation would imply that they were a minority faction whose allegiance was with the Greek confederates rather than the majority of their countrymen in Thebes who had 'medized'. Therefore, an assumption could be made that they were integral to the defense of Thermopylae along with the other Greek city-states represented.
II - On the third and final day of fighting, after the majority of the Greek troops were dismissed, the Thespian contingent by their own accord remained, while the Thebans were detained by Leonidas and held hostage.
This perhaps is the most easily dismissive statement with respect to the 400 Thebans, especially in light of the dire consequences facing the remaining Greeks whom were soon to be surrounded. Those who remained behind included the remnants of the Spartan and Thespian contingents. To have kept the Thebans 'hostage' by using any of these Spartan or Thespian hoplites to guard them would have meant reducing valuable manpower where it was most important. Therefore, it would have been easier to allow this Boeotian force to withdraw with the other Greeks, prior to the commencement of battle on the third day.
III - The Thebans surrendered to the Persians by shouting that they had been brought to Thermopylae against their will. Their capitulation is what allowed them to survive rather than dying with the Spartans and Thespians in the famous last stand.
This chain of events has excoriated the Thebans as a result of what seems like apparent cowardice. While any one of these three scenarios may seem damaging, it is the third point which has stigmatized these 400 hoplites and is the main reason why there is no monument to them in Thermopylae, as there are for the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians.
A year after the battle of the 'Hot Gates' was fought, Thebes had in fact 'medized' by fighting with the Persians against the Greek allies during the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). While the Battle of Plataea seems to validate the position that Thebes, as a whole, took part in this treacherous behavior against Greece, it should not be inclusive of the 400. While Herodotus' writings do tend to be pro-Athenian, it is believed that since Thebes and Athens were sworn enemies, there may have been an anti-Theban bias in his writings which extended to the 400 hoplites who fought at Thermopylae. Furthermore, since the remaining Spartans and Thespians died on Kolonos Hill or the immediate area surrounding it, it is quite possible that through oral testimony with Herodotus several decades later, the source(s) (Athenian?) may have had a grievance with Thebes. Herodotus may not have intended any malice towards these Theban warriors, however, the authority behind these attestations may have.
The historian Plutarch has been credited as the primary source of the quotation attributed to King Leonidas (Molon Labe). However, what is ironic is that his belief that the 400 Thebans who acted honorably has been discounted by many who cite this same author of countless sayings attributed to Spartan royals and other Spartiates. Plutarch's contention is that these warriors who marched to Thermopylae exhibited true patriotism to Greece, especially in light of the 'medism' by the majority of the citizens of Thebes, or at least their ruling oligarchy.
While there is no reason to doubt the surrender of the Thebans since there is no definitive corroborating evidence to suggest otherwise, we must wonder that despite the self-sacrifice of the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians, was there a reason besides imminent death that necessitated the Thebans to lay down their weapons? We may never know the events as they happened with respect to these 400 citizen-hoplites, however, in all likelihood, these gallant warriors volunteered to stay and fight until the last stand, unlike the exodus of the other Greek warriors on the final day.
Ultimately, the Thebans were able to avoid perishing with the remaining Spartans and Thespians, who all died beneath the hail of arrows which were so numerous that they "blot out the sun". Greece has acknowledged their glorious actions in 480 BC by erecting monuments in tribute to the warriors from both Sparta and Thespiae, while those of Thebes' hoplites are ignored.