Recently, I watched the movie 300. As a student of History I wondered about the historical background of the movie and it’s accuracy. No, I’m not someone to point out all the mistakes and wrong facts in a movie. I just find it interesting to know the story behind a film – if there is a story. In this case there is one. So, if you’re interested in the battle fought by the real 300 Spartans read on.
300 – The Movie
300 is a movie by director Zack Snyder published in 2006. The movie is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley from 1998. It depicts one episode of the Greco-Persian Wars (499 BC – 449 BC), namely, the Battle of Thermopylae. Both the comic and the movie are not too historically accurate but at least the latter is entertaining (as I haven’t read the comic).
The movie tells the story of a boy brought up by ways of the Agoge, the rigorous Spartan education system. During his initiation ritual the boy is sent into the wilderness and fights a wild wolf. Thirty years later he is to be revealed as Leonidas I., King of Sparta.
During the Greco-Persian Wars (often called Persian Wars) the Persian King of Kings Xerxes (in the movie he is called the God-King) sends an emissary to Sparta to offer the city to be annexed without a fight. Leonidas I. is insulted and kicks the emissary down a well screaming: “This is Sparta!”
The Spartans know that Xerxes is on his way to Greece with a big army, so Leonidas decides to go to war to hold off Xerxes. With 300 of his men he marches until they reach Thermopylae, a narrow coastal passage, to stop the advancing Persian army. Because of the narrow passage the Spartans can compensate for having a much smaller army.
During their journey the Spartans meet Ephialtes, a handicapped Spartan who lives in exile as the Spartans killed weak and handicapped babies shortly after birth. Ephialtes warns Leonidas of a hidden path that would enable the Persians to surround the Spartans and asks him to be allowed to join him in battle. Leonidas refuses as Ephialtes cannot raise his shield properly, thus endangering the Spartans’ defense.
Xerxes offers the Spartans to lay down their arms one last time. Leonidas, however, refuses and so the battle begins. Of course the Spartans can win the first of many fights to come. Ephialtes, tempted by wealth and women, tells Xerxes about the secret passage and so the Persians surround the Spartans, killing them in a final battle.
Only Dilios survives the massacre as Leonidas sends him home once he knows about Ephialtes’ treachery. Dilios gets the task to tell the story of the 300. At the end of the movie he can be seen as the leader of a new army of 10,000 Spartans.
So far, so good. But what was it really like to be a Spartan? And what about the Battle of Thermopylae? Was it really that significant for ancient Greece?
Ancient Greece was not a united country but consisted of several city-states. Sparta was one of them, however, special in its own way. The city-state of Sparta lay in the ancient country of Lacedaemon, named after Zeus’ son. Sparta was Lacedaemon’s wife whom he honored by naming the country’s capital after her (cf. Bos, 300).
The city was located in the valley of the Eurotas River which was actually an agricultural wonderland. However, the image of the city and its surroundings was mostly dominated by the outsiders’ perception of the Spartans: a culture pursuing rigid discipline and disdaining luxury (cf. Schrader, Sparta). Therefore, ‘Spartan’ still today describes someone leading a harsh life. So, the inhabitants of ancient Greece must have seen Sparta as living at the back of beyond surrounded by nothing but dry lands. That was not the case.
The Eurotas valley was, as mentioned above, good for agriculture. Furthermore, it was full of natural and mineral resources, with big forests and lead and tin, among other minerals, being quarried.
It was not the Spartans themselves who build their industry. On the contrary, and this is quite special, the Helots (Slaves) build the industry while the Spartans, as full citizens, focused on their military training. This was important as Sparta was a powerful city-state commanding a large territory (approx. 4,000 square miles). She, Sparta, was also the leading nation of the Peloponnesian League, a coalition of Greek city-states that was formed in the 6th century and became most important fighting the Persian invasions (480-479 BC).
The people of Sparta had a special relationship to their state as they were willing to die to defend it. Furthermore, they worshipped the goddess Artemis who symbolizes the change from childhood to adolescence. Maybe this is why the Agoge was so important concerning the education of young Spartans.
Young children were trained in the Agoge which will be explained in more detail later on. What can be said already is that the Agoge aimed to train body and mind. So, Spartan children – girls to a lesser extent – got military training as well as elementary education. That’s why they were called “Warrior Philosophers” (Lindsay Wheeler). However, the Agoge was only one of many ‘special features’ of Sparta.
Sparta was the only city-state ruled by two kings who pursued a policy of defense treaties and democracy. Those treaties were much more successful in maintaining peace than the Spartan army (cf. Schrader, The Spartans). Therefore, Sparta developed a system of mutual defense treaties throughout Greece.
People think of Athens when thinking of democracy – that is not correct. Sparta was the first state to claim and live democracy about 50-100 years before Athens which is a hell of a lot of time. Democracy included women’s rights. Of course, Spartan women’s rights were still limited but they enjoyed elementary rights which was something new for women at the time. Girls got public education and women tended to speak their opinion in public and they also possessed economic power. So, they were quite influential.
In his essay Lacaenarum Apophthegmata Plutarch collected the sayings of Spartan women and he quotes Queen Gorgo – wife of King Leonidas I. When asked by a woman from Attica: “Why is it that you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men”, Gorgo is said to have replied: “Because we are the only women that are mothers of men.” (Plutarch, Lives, Vol.3, p.457)
The city-state of Sparta was also famous for its architectural sights and Spartan dance and music were known throughout the ancient lands.
Especially after having watched the movie 300 people will automatically associate war and an army with Sparta. As the only city-state Sparta had its very own army (cf. Bos, 300) which main purpose was not fighting wars. The Helots were the danger as they could turn to enemies attacking the state from within. Therefore, the army had the purpose of suppressing the slaves if necessary (cf. Cartledge, Thermopylae, 65). Still, it was ready to defend the city against enemies from the outside. Its soldiers (Hoplites) were equipped with spears and shields (hoplon, the word from which the soldiers’ name derives).
Sparta today, obviously, is not what it was back then. The ancient city has vanished and only ruins from later periods (Roman, Hellenistic) can be found. Today there is a town where the ancient Sparta once was located (cf. Schrader, Sparta).
The Spartan Agoge was kind of a public education program. Sources are rare: Only Xenophon and Plutarch write about the Agoge of the 5th century. However, Xenophon was born in 430 BC and Plutarch in 45 AD. While Xenophon was at least born in the 5th century, Plutarch has no connection to that century. Still, both writers were far too young to have had any personal experience of the Spartan Agoge. German historian Ernst Baltrusch confirms this, stating that there are no reliable sources on the Spartan Agoge (cf. Baltrusch, Sparta, 63)
The Agoge was “developed” or rather introduced by the famous Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus. Concerning Lycurgus it is still debated whether he even existed. His reforms were undoubtedly enacted – the Agoge is the best example. The Spartans never wrote down their history so all that is known about Lycurgus “comes from later, often wildly contradictory sources.” (Andrews, 6 Figures)
Public education for boys and girls was a feature that made Sparta special among the Greek city-states. The education was paid for by fees and its focus lay more on austerity and discipline than intellectual content (cf. Schrader, Spartan Agoge). Still, Spartans were not trained killing machines knowing nothing but war. Literacy and music were also taught to the children.
Sparta had a well developed system of diplomatic treaties and diplomacy does not need soldiers but diplomats – people who “fight” with words rather than weapons.
Although not being focused solely on fighting Spartan culture was no bed of roses. It was rather harsh to which we might not be able to relate. Babies with birth defects or who were just too weak were simply killed (cf. Evans, 8 Reasons).
The Spartans had a strict moral code, a sense of duty, they endured hardship and deprivation. This, of course, was taught to the children besides or as part of their military training. The training and their way of life made Spartan soldiers an outstanding military unit. It is no wonder that surrender in battle was seen as the ultimate disgrace (cf. ibid.).
At the age of seven the children were taken from their homes and put into the public education system. The aim for the boys and girls was to become good citizens while the boys were also trained to become skilled soldiers.
Plutarch writes that the boys were organized in troops that had a chosen leader (cf. Schrader, Spartan Agoge). So, the boys learned at an early age how military units were organized and got the feeling of already belonging to one.
A new stage in the course of the Agoge was reached at the age of twelve. From then on the boys were deprived of their clothes and only allowed to keep a red cloak. They were also made to sleep outside on beds build from reeds (cf. Evans, 8 Reasons). Although some people might like to believe that the boys wore nothing but a cloak this cannot be confirmed. Most historians assume that all the boys wore undergarments.
In the movie 300 the audience can see young Leonidas walking through a snowy landscape, wearing nothing but a loincloth, holding a spear and fighting a big wolf. This, one might assume, was his Phouxir (cf. Schrader, Spartan Agoge), the time when the boys were expected to live outside society to learn to rely on themselves (cf. ibid). This is was Leonidas does in the movie. However, no one knows when the Phouxir began or how long it lasted. Schrader determined it to be 40 days but numbers exist claiming the boys had to be “outsiders” for up to a year (cf. Schrader, Greek Terms).
The Agoge was completed at age 21.
Leonidas I. – King of Sparta
Little can be said about Leonidas for sure (cf. Bos, 300). Even his date of birth is not definitive. Historians think he was born ca. 535 BC. Only the year of his death is known, namely, 480 BC. Compared to the movie he was pretty old when he fought at Thermopylae. When 300 was shot Gerard Butler was 36 or 37 which could well be Leonidas’ age in the movie. Suppose, the real Leonidas was born in 535 he would have been in his mid-fifties in 480.
Leonidas’ father had two wives – no, not at the same time – and he was the son of his father’s first wife. His father was king Anaxandridas II. who had three children with his second wife. This constellation led to a sibling rivalry (cf. Schrader, Smile of Leonidas). Leonidas is even said to have had a hand in the death of his half-brother Cleomenes. What speaks against this thesis is that Leionidas married Cleomenes’ daughter and even accepted him as king (cf. ibid.).
As Leonidas was never destined to be king (cf. Cartledge, Thermopylae, 128) he was educated in the Agoge of which the king was exempt. However, the strict education of the Agoge helped Leonidas to form bonds with other children and maybe even establish himself as a leader in his early years. At least he did not have any problems finding volunteers who’d die for him when going to Thermopylae.
Cleomenes’ died after reigning in Sparta for 30 years. As he had no male heir Leonidas’ older brother Dorieus was expected to become king. He, too, died at an early age and so Leonidas became king. Though unexpectedly, he was not unprepared for his role. Being at Cleomenes’ side for over 30 years he had had enough time to gain experience in governing a city-state and had already amassed a certain amount of power.
Leonidas was married to Gorgo, Cleomenes’ daughter, who was a special woman. She did not have a problem to voice her opinion publicly (cf. Schrader, Smile of Leonidas). Although women had certain rights in Sparta, voicing their opinion publicly must have led to some shocked expressions among the Spartans. Leonidas and Gorgo had a son called Pleistarchus.
In 490 BC Leonidas I. became King of Sparta. His reign lasted only ten years. He did not rule Sparta alone. The city-state had two kings which is called a diarchy. Leonidas I. and Leotychidas ruled simultaneously. Leotychidas became king in 491 and ruled until 469 BC. Both kings descended from different dynasties. Leotychidas came from the Eurypontid dynasty while Leonidas descended from the Agiad dynasty, both dynasties being named after one of their kings.
Besides being King of Sparta, Leonidas was a trained soldier. Although he became most famous for fighting at Thermopylae, he was also captain of the Hellenic League: an association of Greek city-states, formed to fight the Persians in the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century.
Before the Battle of Thermopylae Leonidas supposedly led the Spartan army in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). It was the first invasion of Greece by the Persians under Darius I. father of Xerxes. Among the defenders of Greece was Athens. Realizing the Persians were too strong, Athens asked Sparta for help. However, at this time, no Spartan king was fit to lead an army (cf. ibid.). It is not known how Leonidas came to lead the army; i.e. if he did lead it in the first place. What is known is that the Spartan army came too late to help Athens. In the end Athens did win but Marathon might have left Leonidas with a psychological trauma. At least this is how some historians try to explain his stand at Thermopylae. Leonidas simply did not want to be too late again to save Greece from the Persians (cf. ibid.).
At Thermopylae Leonidas was Commander in Chief of his army. Sparta, known for her army, was to lead the Greek resistance in the battle against Xerxes’ troops (cf. Bos, 300). According to Carole Bos (cf. 300) 6,300 soldiers took part in the battle – 300 of them Spartans. Leonidas only took volunteers into battle under the condition that they had living sons, so their line wouldn’t die out. Thermopylae was ill-fated from the start. The Oracle at Delphi is said to have prophesized the following:
O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.
He cannot be withstood by the courage of bull nor of lions,
Strive as they may; he is mighty as Jove; there is nought that shall stay him,
Till he have got for his prey your king, or your glorious city (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7.50)
So, either Sparta falls or one of her kings will die. As Leonidas was the king who fought in battle, he was the one to die if Sparta was saved.
To hold back the Persian army as long as possible his men built the first line of defense at Thermopylae. The place was not chosen at random as Heracles is supposed to have fallen there (cf. Schrader, Smile of Leonidas).
At Thermopylae Leonidas was offered by Xerxes to be made king of all Greece if only he surrendered. He refused, knowing he might die. Still, even the Thespians, supporting the Spartans, stayed with him when he offered them to run. It shows what a great leader Leonidas must have been.
The King of Kings, or Great King, considered himself to be a god. This might be the reason why he is called God-King in the movie 300.
Xerxes was born in 519 BC in what is Iran today. At the Battle of Thermopylae he was merely 39 and, therefore, much younger than Leonidas. Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Xerxes in the movie, was 31 years old when portraying the God-King.
Xerxes became King in 486 BC, four years after his father Darius I. was defeated at Marathon. In 465 BC the Persian King, also Pharaoh of Egypt, was murdered. There exist varying accounts concerning his death. The Greek historian Ctesias of Cnidian wrote:
Artapanus [a powerful Persian politician] and Aspamitres the eunuch, the confidential advisers of Xerxes, resolved to kill their master. Having done so, they persuaded Artaxerxes [one of Xerxes sons] that his brother Dariaeus had murdered him. Dariaeus was taken to the palace of Artaxerxes, and, although he vehemently denied the accusation, he was put to death. (Ctesias, Persica, 20)
Aristotle gives another account of Xerxes murder where Artabanus (Artapanus) killed Darius (Dariaeus) before murdering Xerxes:
Fear too is a cause which produces the same effects, as well in monarchies as in other states: thus Artabanes conspired against Xerxes through fear of punishment for having hanged Darius according to his orders, whom he supposed he intended to pardon, as the order was given at supper-time. (Aristotle, Politics 5.1311b)
The Battle of Marathon left the Persian Empire with some ugly scars. In 490 BC the Persians, under command of Darius I., marched into Greece to subjugate the city-states; e.g. Athens, Sparta. However, they were defeated by a much smaller Greek army (cf. Bos, 300). There is a legend saying that after the Greek victory at Marathon a messenger called Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to report the victory and dropped dead immediately afterwards.
After his father’s death Xerxes inherited a big empire. It seems he wanted to expand it, so why not conquer Greece? Nevertheless, a personal motive must have played an important role as well: revenge. Xerxes wanted to revenge his father’s defeat at Marathon (cf. Bos, 300).
In 480 BC he ordered his troops to build a boat bridge so they could cross the Hellespont on foot. Hellespont was the ancient name for the Dardanelles, a strait in the Mediterranean.
Xerxes did not come to Greece unprepared, for he had a former Spartan king – Demaratus – as his advisor. Xerxes wanted to know what to expect from the Greek enemies and Demaratus told him so:
After [Xerxes] passed by all his fleet and disembarked from the ship, he sent for Demaratus1 son of Ariston, who was on the expedition with him against Hellas. [Xerxes…] said, “Demaratus […]. You are a Greek, and […] a man from neither the least nor the weakest of Greek cities. So tell me: will the Greeks offer battle and oppose me? I think that even if all the Greeks and all the men of the western lands were assembled together, they are not powerful enough to withstand my attack, unless they are united. Still I want to hear from you what you say of them.” […]
Demaratus […]said, “O King, since you bid me […]to speak the whole truth, and to say what you will not later prove to be false, in Hellas poverty is always endemic, but courage is acquired as the fruit of wisdom and strong law; by use of this courage Hellas defends herself from poverty and tyranny. […] [T]he Lacedaemonians […] will never accept conditions from you that bring slavery upon Hellas; and second, they will meet you in battle even if all the other Greeks are on your side. Do not ask me how many these men are who can do this; they will fight with you whether they have an army of a thousand men, or more than that, or less.” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7.101f.)
Xerxes did not believe Demaratus. He thought his answer to be rather ridiculous:
When he heard this, Xerxes smiled and said, “What a strange thing to say, Demaratus, that a thousand men would fight with so great an army![…] (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7. 103)
And so, Xerxes and his army marched towards Greece, among them the 10,000 immortals.
They were Xerxes’ elite military unit and his personal bodyguards. Their name was given to them because the number of soldiers was always 10,000 (cf. Andrews, Military Units); i.e. fallen or wounded immortals had to be replaced immediately. For Xerxes’ enemies this created the impression that no matter how long they fought they could never decimate the immortals’ ranks.
The members of the unit were always of Persian or Medic ancestry (cf. ibid.) while the rest of the Persian army was multi-national. Soldiers of Persian ancestry were considered the best in the army (cf. Herodotus, Histories, Book 7.83). They were equipped with spears.
The immortals became famous when they ambushed and massacred the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.
The Battle of Thermopylae
Thermopylae, the “Hot Gates”, got its name from a sulfurous spring located nearby. It was the place of one of the most famous battles in Greek history. But why did the Greek coalition choose this very place and how did they know Xerxes was coming?
To answer the second part of the question we have to take a step back in Spartan history. When Leonidas half-brother Cleomenes I. was king (520-490 BC) he did not rule alone. Cleomenes was of the Agiad dynasty while his counterpart Demaratus (515-491 BC) came from the line of Eurypontid kings. Demaratus tried to manipulate Cleomenes’ plans. They rather ruled against each other instead of together. Finally, Cleomenes bribed the Oracle at Delphi to help him make Leotychidas king. Demaratus had to abdicate and flee. His flight led him to Darius I. father of Xerxes.
Demaratus is said to have sent a hidden message that Gorgo, wife of Leonidas, discovered – at least she hinted at the possibility that such a message could exist (cf. Bos, 300).
Herodotus, who wrote about Demaratus’ deed in Book 7 of his Histories, is unsure why Demaratus did what he did: “from good-will or from insolent triumph”? (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7).
Now the Greeks knew that Xerxes planned to attack them. So why did they choose to offer their resistance at Thermopylae?
Thermopylae lies in today’s central Greek and there is a narrow passage between the surrounding mountains. As the resistance army had much fewer soldiers than the Persians it needed the passage to compensate for the disadvantage in numbers. Herodotus claims the number of Persian fighters to be approx. 3.18 million while the Greek army had only 4,200 men – among them the 300 Spartans (cf. Herodotus, Histories, Book 7).
As the Greeks were waiting in the narrow passage the Persians could not attack in numbers as big as on an open battlefield.
Before the battle Xerxes had sent emissaries to Athens and Sparta demanding earth and water. If the city-states had agreed they would have been annexed by Xerxes. His father used the same system. However, both Sparta and Athens refused. In the movie this is shown in the famous scene where Leonidas kicks the emissary down a well screaming: “This is Sparta!”
For the first days of the battle nothing really happened which the Greeks must have welcomed. Their plan was to delay Xerxes’ army from entering Greece for as long as possible, hoping they would run out of supplies and withdraw (cf. Bos, 300). Still, the days must have been hard. The Greeks knew that their country was lost when Xerxes made it through the pass and the Persians realized they wouldn’t accomplish anything in Greece when they couldn’t get through the passage.
During the first days Xerxes hoped the Greeks would flee. Of course they did not and so he sent a directive ordering them to lay down their arms:
And Xerxes writing to [Leonidas] again thus, Send me thy arms, [Leonidas] returned, Come and take them. (Plutarch, Moralia, Book 1)
Thus, the fighting began on 17th August or September 480 BC (cf. Bos, 300). At first, Xerxes sent the Medes (an ancient Iranian people) into battle who were ordered to take the Spartans alive. The Spartans, however, knew their enemy’s tactic, waited until they broke ranks then killed them. Before the Medes attacked, a Trachinian told Dieneces the Spartan:
“Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude.” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7). Dieneces answer was the following: “Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” (ibid.). This quote is featured in the movie as well but in a different scene and context.
Afterwards, Xerxes sent the 10,000 immortals into battle who were befallen by the same fate. Of course not all 10,000 were killed but they must have suffered great losses.
It was at this time that Ephialtes turned traitor. Ephialtes was a Spartan who lived in exile because he was physically disabled and would have been killed as a baby. Consequently, his parents must have fled Sparta practically after his birth.
Rejected by Leonidas, Ephialtes saw his only chance to take part in the battle in betraying the Spartans. Leonidas rejected Ephialtes because the latter could not hold his shield properly and so would have endangered the Spartan defense.
There existed a rearward pass at Thermopylae allowing the Persians to cross the mountains and attack the Greeks from behind. Ephialtes told Xerxes about the pass and the Great King immediately took the chance to surround the Greek army.
On the third day of battle, i.e. the third day of fighting, the Greeks knew they had been betrayed (cf. Bos, 300). Attacking from two sides Xerxes’ army was practically invincible. Leonidas knew it was impossible to hold the Persians off and offered his army to flee. The 300 stayed as surrender in battle was the ultimate disgrace. Even the Thespians and 400 Thebans stayed to aid the Spartans, showing that not only Leonidas’ own people were willing to die for him. However, the Thespians and Thebans were dismissed by Leonidas in order to tell and spread the story of the battle.
Although their situation was hopeless the Spartans stood their ground and fought, killing as many enemies as possible – among them two of Xerxes’ brothers. During one of these fights Leonidas was killed, his body temporarily recovered by his soldiers.
On a small hill the Spartans made their final stand, forming a circle to be able to see the enemies all around them. When their weapons broke they fought the Persians with their bare hands. It must have been a brutal and desperate fight. Finally, the last remaining Spartans were overwhelmed by their enemies’ spears and, especially, their arrows. All but two Spartans died during the battle. The survivors suffered from eye ailments and were sent home by Leonidas as they were unable to fight (cf. ibid.).
When the battle was fought Xerxes dishonored Leonidas’ body. Normally, the leader an army was obliged to pay his respects to his adversary. Xerxes, however, decapitated and crucified Leonidas.
[F]inding the body of Leonidas, whom [Xerxes] knew to have been the Lacedaemonian king and captain, he ordered that the head should be struck off, and the trunk fastened to a cross. (Herodotus, Histories, Book 7)
Having cleared the pass, Xerxes marched further into Greece but because of the delay he suffered most people had fled their cities before the Great King reached them.
Later on, Themistocles took on Xerxes’ army. Themistocles was an Athenian who could defeat part of the Persian army in a naval battle in 480 BC. The Greeks ultimate victory was at the Battle of Salamis where Xerxes was finally defeated and left Greek shortly afterwards.
This victory would not have been possible without the resistance at Thermopylae (cf. Bos, 300).
The epitaph, attributed to Simonides (a Greek poet) and used in the comic as well as the movie version of 300 reads as follows:
Go tell the Spartans, passerby:
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.
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