The battle of Thermopylae is one of the most prolific battles in history. Fought in the late summer of 480 BC, it has became one of history's most famous last stands. The everlasting symbol of a native force holding out against an oncoming oppressor, King Leonidas of Sparta led an alliance of Greek city-states against the Persian Empire of Xerxes I during the second Persian invasion of Greece.
In a 1998 Frank Miller wrote and illustrated a comic book limited based on the events, revolving around the famous 300 Spartans and their King Leonidas. Fast forward to 2006 and director Zack Snyder helmed the critically acclaimed movie adaptation "300", consisting of an all star cast featuring Gerrard Butler, Lena Headey and Michael Fassbeneder to name but a few. Shot in the aesthetic of the iconic graphic novel, Snyder introduced the battle of Thermopylae to a new generation of fans and embedded it firmly into our pop culture. The film took liberties with the truth, as expected in creating a spectacle for screen. Some ring more true than others, such as the emissaries from Persia being thrown into a well in Sparta, but there where no stalking giants or creatures with cleavers for arms on the plains of Thermopylae...
So what truly happened on that fateful day?
Adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, the film had a highly stylized aesthetic and featured countless monsters and hyperbolic scenes. Yet some of it still rang true with the accounts of history. Our best account of the battle is from Herodotus, a Greek historian widely referred to as "The Father of History". Thus you shall see his name pop up now and again throughout this piece. This article will seek to delve into some of the main points, looking at the individuals behind this iconic battle pitting Hollywood against History. First up, the battle itself.
The Last Stand
Leonidas did indeed go to war the Xerxes with a small force of 300 Spartan men, but the reason he did so is largely unknown. Herodotus recorded:
[T]he Spartans sent the men with Leonidas on ahead so that the rest of the allies would see them and march with no fear of defeat, instead of medizing like the others if they learned that the Spartans were delaying. After completing their festival Carneia, they left their garrison at Sparta and marched in full force towards Thermopylae. The rest of the allies planned to do likewise, for the Olympiad coincided with these events. They accordingly sent their advance guard, not expecting the war at Thermopylae to be decided so quickly
Yet many modern scholars dispute the idea of the Olympic Games taking place. Whatever the reason, Leonidas did only bring 300 Spartan troops, but the total force assembled for the defense of the pass of Thermopylae is cited to be between 4,000-7,000 Greeks. In the Zack Snyder film, the Spartan heroes look into the face of their impending doom and see millions of Persian troops, Herodotus initially numbered the army to be over 2 million (including the naval force), but modern scholars now refute that fact and estimate Xerxes forces to be from 70,000 to 300,000.
As in the film, the battle was a drawn out affair with Xerxes waiting four days to engage the Greeks. On the fifth Xerxes resolved to attack the Greeks, doing so by firing a barrage of arrows from 100 yards away, as seen in the film. When this failed, Xerxes sent his hordes upon the Greeks, and wave upon wave smashed against Spartan/Greek shield. Finally, upon hearing news from the Greek traitor Ephialtes (we'll get to him later) that there was a road to outflank the Greek resistance, Xerxes sent his commander Hydarnes and a force of 20,000 (including the immortals) to finally annihilate the Greeks. Hearing the news, Leonidas sent the Greek army into a retreat and remained in the pass with his 300 Spartans, 900 Helots, and 700 Thespians who refused to leave. Of the small Greek force that remained, all where killed in the battle or finished off by a volley of arrows (except the Thebans who surrendered). Leonidas was killed, and his bones where returned to Sparta a full forty years after the battle where he was buried with full honors and commemorative games where held for him annually. A Greek hero cult also developed around him for many years.
King Leonidas I
Thankfully, the hero of the story is a true historical figure and not a Hollywood protagonist. The inspirational Leonidas was indeed a Greek warrior king of the Greek city-state of Sparta. He was the third son of Anaxandridas II, and thus part of Agiad Dynasty, a line thought to be descended from Heracles (Hercules) himself.
Leonidas was a competent military strategist and soldier. He was assured of his superior capability in the competitive environment of Spartan training and society, with Plutarch (Greek historian) recording the following: "When someone said to him: 'Except for being king you are not at all superior to us,' Leonidas son of Anaxandridas and brother of Cleomenes replied: 'But were I not better than you, I should not be king."
Like King Leonidas, Xerxes too is a product of history. The fourth of the king of kings of the Achaemenid Empire, Xerxes ruled from 486 BC until his murder at the hands of a member of the commander of the royal bodyguard Artabanus, in 465 BC. Xerxes truly was a larger than life character, proclaiming himself to be King of Persia and Media, Great King, King of Kings (Shahanshah) and King of Nations (i.e. of the world). So it's not hard to believe that like in Snyder's film, Xerxes seen himself as a God amongst men.
The rage that we see in 300 was always part and parcel of his personality. As we see in the film, the first attempt by the Persian fleet to bridge the Hellespont ends in ruin. In retaliation, Xerxes ordered the Hellespont whipped three hundred times, and had fetters (ankle cuffs) thrown into the water.
Ephialtes of Trachis
In Frank Miller's book, and Zack Snyder's film, Ephialtes is portrayed as a deformed Spartan exile, taken from his homeland by his mother who feared he would be put to death due to his inability to fight. In the film, upon being consigned to a non combative role, Ephialtes in a fit of rage defects to the Persian army and betrays his homeland.
In reality, there is no evidence to suggest that Ephialtes suffered from such deformities. It is alluded to that he was local farmer, who did indeed betray the Spartan army in hopes of gaining some form of reward from the Persians. In a big fat dose of karma, his hopes of rewards came to nothing as the Persian army were defeated at the Battle of Salamis. Fleeing to Thessaly following a bounty being put on his life, he was ultimately killed for apparently unrelated reason by Athenades, who in turn was rewarded by Sparta. Ever since Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks at Thermopylae his name has taken on a new meaning. In Greek "ephialtes" means nightmare, and like Judas it has become a synonym for traitor.
Seen in the film as the ultimate fighting force in all of Asia, these deformed, goblin like men truly did exist and where in fact the elite special forces of Xerxes' army. In Zack Snyder's film, the immortals wear Mengu-style metal masks and have all the style traits of samurai warriors. In reality, the immortals where a heavy infantry unit constantly kept at a strength of 10,000.
Herodotus claims that the name given to the force stemmed from the custom that every killed, seriously wounded, or sick member was immediately replaced with a new one. The immortals were indeed present at the battle of Thermopylae, and where instrumental in the final attack on the Greeks.
The Oracle at Delphi
Yes, there was an Oracle. No she wasn't a drugged up teenage girl from Sparta. Before going to war, Sparta and Leonidas did indeed seek the guidance of an oracle at Delphi. Here's what the oracle said in the Frank Miller/300 Movie:
Pray to the winds.
Sparta will fall.
All Greece will fall.
Trust not in men.
Honor the old Gods.
Honor the Carneia.
Below is the translation of what the oracle is said to have prophesied:
For you, inhabitants of wide-wayed Sparta,
Either your great and glorious city must be wasted by Persian men,
Or if not that, then the bound of Lacedaemon must mourn a dead king, from Heracles' line.
The might of bulls or lions will not restrain him with opposing strength; for he has the might of Zeus.
From the outset then, the oracle proclaimed that a Spartan king must die in order for Sparta to be saved. Naturally, Leonidas saw this as his chance for glory. A chance to die at the same place as Heracles; The Hot Gates. In the context of the film, the Ephors are seen as corrupt and deformed creatures. Keeping only the most beautiful girls in Sparta in a manipulated, hallucinogenic state. In reality, it was the Oracle's job to predict the future, and seeing the vastness of the oncoming army, it is thought that the oracle had foreseen the inevitable defeat of Leonidas and his troops.
The Spartans where famous for their Laconic use of language. Their wit has lead to some of Histories boldest replies, and memorable quotes that we see in Snyder's film. A monument to Leonidas was erected at Thermopylae in 1955, featuring a bronze statue of the King and a sign that read: "ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ" ("Come and take"). The famous line which Gerrard Butler says in the film, in response to the Persians asking them to put down their weapons at the start of the Battle of Thermopylae.
However, the line "then we will fight in the shade" delivered by fictional character Stelios (Michael Fassbeneder) in 300 in response to a Persian taunt, was actually delivered by Dienekes to a fellow Greek. Bizarrely, Dienekes does not feature in either Frank Miller's graphic novel, or Zack Snyder's film, although being acclaimed to be the bravest of all the Greeks who fought in the battle; "the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all." A pivotal exchange in Spartan lore, happened when Gorgo asked for instructions upon Leonidas marching to die at Thermopylae. His answer was a final goodbye and piece of Spartan wit, summarizing the character of Spartan men; "Marry a good man and have good children."
Ultimately the tale is one of courage, defiance, loyalty and selflessness.
The Spartans were defeated, and Leonidas was ordered to be beheaded and crucified by the enraged Xerxes. Yet history remembers Leonidas and his brave fellow greeks, who in the face of overwhelming odds, stood defiant against the oncoming sea of Persian oppressors. This was a story that deserved to be adaptedfor modern cinema, and even with all the added hyperbole, Zack Snyder's film depiction of the event ultimately tells the same truth.