In 2006, 300 took everyone by surprise. Nobody expected an adaptation of an obscure Frank Miller graphic novel to be a massive hit, but a massive hit it was, launching several careers and helping to cement the rise of the comic book movie in the popular imagination.
Too bad the movie itself is way more boring than what actually happened. Here are five reasons that 300 is ridiculously historically inaccurate.
The Persians Weren’t A Vast, Clever Fighting Force
To be fair to the movie, the primary historical source for the battle claims that there were millions of Persians on the beaches, and even more conservative estimates put it at 800,000. But modern scholars put it at 70,000 to 300,000; a lot of men, and undeniably outnumbering the Greeks by orders of magnitude, but not exactly the vast army of the movies.
Secondly, Xerxes was, in military parlance, “an idiot.” Thermopylae was nicknamed “The Gates Of Hell” for two reasons: One, the bubbling hot springs nearby, and two, the fact that it was a deathtrap. In fact, there have been a lot of battles at Thermopylae, and again and again, it did not end well for whoever was trying to chase someone up the pass.
So Xerxes was essentially sending his men into a death-trap, something everybody involved knew. Secondly, Xerxes spent a week farting around after demanding the Greeks give up and settle on nicer land before attacking, giving them plenty of time to fortify the pass. Oh, and did we mention the Greeks were much better armed?
Leonidas Wasn’t Prevented From Bringing More Men By Internal Corruption
In the movie, Leonidas is screwed by a slimy rapist in a town meeting. In reality, what screwed Leonidas was the Olympics.
Give this to the Persians: The timing was a complete accident, but it worked in their favor. They were planning to show up during the festival of Carneia and during the Olympic games, and getting the full Spartan army together to go kick some ass would have violated the Olympic truce and been sacrilege into the bargain. That’s why Leonidas only showed up with his “personal bodyguard,” that’s all he could bring under the law and by religious strictures.
Far More Than Just The 300 Spartans Showed Up At Thermopylae
The movie would have you believe “noble Sparta” was the sole defense for freedom against an overwhelming enemy. It makes a great story, but it’s also a crock, and not just because the Spartans were so “noble” they murdered slaves for giggles.
First of all, the Battle of Thermopylae was part of a larger defensive operation. The Athenians were going to attack via the sea, while a fighting force at Thermopylae would bottle up the Persians and starve them out. The primary historical source for the battle, Herodotus, actually pegs the 300 Spartan hoplites as just a small part of a 5,200 strong fighting force.
So what about that famous last stand? Only 300 Spartans stuck around for that, right? Nope. A fighting force of 1400 men stayed behind, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans in addition to the Spartans. The rest would have stayed too, but Leonidas specifically ordered them to retreat so there were more soldiers to deal with the Persians when they broke through.
Ephialtes Wasn’t A Deformed Spartan
Makes for a great story, but Ephialtes was actually from Trachis and as far as we know, was a completely normally formed guy. He had no profound, sympathetic reason to sell the Spartans up the river; he was just kind of a dick.
Essentially, he thought the Persians were going to win, and he wanted money and to be on the side of the people he thought were going to be enslaving people left and right. Ironically, he did manage to survive the battle, even with a price on his head: He died in 470 BC, killed by Athenades of Trachis, for unrelated reasons. The Spartans were so glad he was dead, they paid out anyway.
The Spartans Weren’t The Bravest
You know who got screwed in all the myth-building and legends surrounding Thermopylae? The Thespians. True, Leonidas could only muster a handful of Spartans and fought hard. True, the Thebans were there largely because they were anti-Persia rebels their own society disapproved of and they had nothing to lose.
But the Thespians sent their entire army. Furthermore, the Thespians had weaker armor, fewer weapons, and less training than the Spartans, but they stuck around anyway even when it became clear Thermopylae was about to be a death trap. In fact, they volunteered. Making them even more badass, Thespiae was dependent on Thebes, a city that was generally pro-Persia; win or lose, this wasn’t going to end well for Thespiae. This was, for the Thespians, a run at the table and it became their last stand.
But they stuck around anyway, and helped ensure the Persians lost 20,000 men at the pass. The Spartans got all the glory and a hit movie, and for their much larger sacrifice, the Thespians got a statue. In 1997.
So, yeah, call us back when they make 700. Because that will be a far more badass movie.
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