ByMatt Carter, writer at Creators.co
If the zombie apocalypse kicks off you'll find me in the Winchester. @moremattcarter
Matt Carter

300: Rise of an Empire brings the fighting, battle cries and bloodshed to theaters this weekend when it opens nationwide. A sequel to Zack Snyder's hugely popular - and now iconic 300 - the action again takes place during the second Persian invasion of Greece and sees Xerxes attempt to conquer the Mediterranean.

Last time out Xerxes was thwarted in his quest for domination by Gerard Butler's Leonidas and his army of 300 souls who were fond of fighting in the shade and helpfully reminding people where they were (This. Is. Sparta!). Rise of an Empire takes place during the same war, but this time the fighting takes place on the sea in a huge navel battle between Themistocles of Athens (Sullivan Stapleton) and Artemisia I of Caria (Eva Green).

While the movie is a romanticized and highly-stylized version of this epic battle, it is grounded in historical fact, and like most history, fact is often more incredible that fiction. So I want to invite you to come with me and together we'll take a journey in time to discover the truth behind the legend of Rise of an Empire.

The setting

It is September 480 BC and while the Spartans are bravely holding off the Persian hordes at the battle of Thermopylae, an Alliance of Greek City States are taking the fight to Xerxes by sea.

This is the second attempt by the Persians to take the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, following the defeat by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. That invasion was led by Persian King Darius I, the father of Xerxes. Clearly the family has some unfinished business.

Led by the Athenian general Themistocles, the Allied Greeks have amassed a fleet of 271 triremes and lay in wait for the huge Persian flotilla at the Straits of Artemisium in an attempt to cut them off and meet them head on in naval warfare.

The Persian fleet numbers 800 ships and - despite the Greeks superior naval fighting ability - the numbers suggest a crushing Persian victory is inevitable.

The Players

Themistocles

Themistocles ready for battle
Themistocles ready for battle

In Greek his name translates to "Glory of the Law', and - despite making him sound like a unflinching bureaucrat - Themistocles was very much a man of the people.

He was a non-aristocratic politician who had the support of the lower class Athenians and often clashed with the nobility in parliament. He was also a war hero having fought against - and defeated - the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon.

Themistocles spent the intervening war years building the Athenian navy and growing an impressive beard. It was his skill and military strategy that led to him becoming the commander of the Greek allied navy during the battle of Artemisium and tasked with sending Xerxes and his giant fleet to a watery grave at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Artemisia

Artemisia loved a good navy battle
Artemisia loved a good navy battle

Not a much is known about Artemisia prior to the war other than she was queen of a province of Caria - which is Anatolia in modern-day Turkey - and was a loyal ally of Xerxes.

Artemisia commanded a sizable naval fleet which had a fierce reputation among the Persian forces and she was the only female commander in the battle. She was a brave-yet-canny warrior and, according to historian Herodotus, her influence on Xerxes was great. She was also the lone voice imploring Xerxes not to engage against the Allied Greek navy, due to their expertise in naval warfare.

However, Artemisia most probably didn't look anything like Eva Green.

Xerxes I

While the real-life Xerxes wasn't a gold-plaited god-king as portrayed in 300, he was still a ruthless and ambitious ruler. You only have to look at his many titles - King of Persia and Media, Great King, King of Kings and King of Nations - to see that the guy had a lust for power.

Following his father's defeat and subsequent death after the first Persian invasion of Greece, Xerxes set about building an army the likes of which the ancient world had never seen. With an army and navy numbering 500,000 men - 10,000 of which were an elite fighting unit named the Persian Immortals - Xerxes made his move by land and sea to take the Greek city states.

Queen Gorgo

Queen Gorgo was not a fan of the Persians
Queen Gorgo was not a fan of the Persians

Queen of Sparta, wife to a murdered husband, mother to a fatherless son: She will have her vengeance in this life or the next.

Or something like that.

Gorgo was the wife - and half-niece - of Leonidas and dutifully supported her husband during his mission to unite the Greek states against the oncoming Persian invasion.

Perhaps Gorgo's most significant contribution to the Spartan war effort was when she 'cracked' the code sent by a messenger to warn them of Xerxes' plan to attack. This, according to David Kahn's book, The Codebreakers, makes her the first recorded female cryptanalyst in history.

And that line in 300 she delivered about how "only Spartan women give birth to real men"? Turns out she actually said that - at least according to the notoriously unreliable Plutarch. Although she probably didn't say it in English. Or with a face like Lena Headey.

The Outcome

The Battle of Artemisium raged for three days with both sides suffering heavy losses. The winner? I guess you'll have to go and check out 300: Rise of an Empire and find out.

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