300 is a popular film retelling of the historic Battle of Thermopylae -- not a history lesson. Writer Frank Miller owns up to this, advising those looking for historical accuracy to "catch a documentary". How much of what we see in 300 is truth, and how much is fiction?
The historian Herodotus is responsible for nearly everything we know today about the Battle of Thermopylae and the Persian and Spartan warriors who fought there. His writings, collected as The Histories, are crucial to our understanding of life in ancient Mesopotamia, though there is much controversy surrounding what Herodotus had to say. For instance, it is well known that Herodotus often wrote multiple versions of historic events, later choosing which one to keep, based both on what made a better story and what was more politically expedient. Still, there is no better source than the writings of Herodotus, and in general archaeologists and anthropolgists back up Herdotus' claims.
Frank Miller's 300 Historical Accuracy
There are some crucial differences in what we see in Miller's film and what "really happened" (at least according to Herodotus), and these differences are worth exploring as an interesting lesson in history as well as a lesson in what makes a good film. Interestingly enough, there are a few dramatic moments in the movie that align with history, and we'll start with these.
First of all -- the Spartan warriors did exist, and in some ways they were similar to Miller's vision. Not all Greek citizens were warriors, or even interested in war. Miller's Spartan warriors were a select group of fighting men sworn to protect their homeland. History holds this up -- Herodotus' writings teach us that not all Greeks were war mongerers, and that in fact many were against the conflict with Persia, preferring a treaty of some sort instead. In the film, we see King Leonidas questioning citizens about their employment -- the citizens offer a variety of answers, none are soldiers -- none even work in any field related to war. It is only when Leonidas turns to his gathered Spartan warriors do we realize that some Greeks were willing to fight to the death.
Another factual event in the film is the betrayal of the Greeks by a man named Ephialtes. While it is not known whether or not Ephialtes was jilted by Leonidas (which would explain his betrayal), it is more likely that Ephialtes was driven by greed or lust to give away the secret of the mountain pass that led to the Spartans doom. He is just one of many Greeks that Herodotus (and fellow historian Plutarch) claim betrayed Greece, although in the end the betrayal did little to keep the Persians from being driven out of Greece.
Also, King Leonidas could turn a phrase. His catchphrase "Tonight we dine in hell" was not a creation of Miller -- historians from Herodotus to Plutarch record Leonidas' various enthusiastic words, including the infamous "dine in hell" phrase as well as his request that Xerxes "come and get" the Spartans weapons. One slight change in history -- when told that the Persians arrows will "blot out the sun", Leonidas suggests "Then we will fight in the shade". This phrase is historically attributed to a Spartan named Dienekes, and not Leonidas himself. Still, it is historically accurate, and no less badass for the change of character.
Spartan Warriors of History
There were many key differences between the Spartan warriors of history and those of Miller's vision. For one thing, no Spartan warrior ever went into battle bare chested. Real Spartan warriors were known for their chest-plates and leather armor, and in fact it was one reason they were so feared. This kind of armor is difficult to move in, but the Spartans were trained to be agile and effective even under the weight of all that material. Frank Miller has said he made the change so that audiences could distinguish between characters -- and truly, it would be hard to tell one Spartan in full battle regalia apart from another.
Also, the Spartans in the film 300 are made to seem like heroes -- even though the reality is far different. Spartans took large numbers of slaves, and were big believers in slavery in general. Not only did they want to own slaves, but they would attack neighboring lands to acquire land and peasants who could then be driven into slavery. One strange twist to their personality -- Spartans were known for a strange equality between male and female. You would think that a society driven by slavery would be quick to keep their females "in check", but as far as we know from the writings of Greek historians, Spartan women enjoyed nearly equal rights to their men. Frank Miller knew the true nature of the Spartans, but wisely decided to tone down their evil a bit -- after all, the audience is supposed to be on the side of the 300 Spartans, aren't they? And who would root for the bad guy? Maybe a couple of you out there -- the type of person who cheers for Jason or Godzilla. To have mass appeal, the film had to tone down the Spartans wicked side, and the film is better for it.
300 Spartan Misconceptions
Another misconception portrayed in the film -- it took more than just the 300 Spartans to hold back Xerxes assault. While 300 Spartan warriors did sacrifice their lives to keep the Persian army at bay, there was an entire naval battle that took place in order to slow the Persians assault, and thousands of other Greek warriors who fought (at least 1,000 at the battle of Thermopylae alone) and bravely defended Greece. The idea of 300 men holding off a massive invading force was probably just too romantic for the filmmakers to pass up.
One final (important) similarity to note -- King Leonidas, the historical king, did in fact consult a mystical Oracle to decide how best to attack the Persians. The Oracle at Delphi was seated in a remote temple, and was often consulted for matters both consequential and trivial. As in the movie, the Oracle would say something cryptic which Greek elders would take to heart. When the Oracle said that a king would have to die for Greece to survive, many believe Leonidas took this to mean he would have to sacrifice himself in order to save his homeland. And this is exactly what happened -- Leonidas did die from wounds he received at Thermopylae (arrow wounds to be specific), and his decision to stay and fight with his Spartan (and Greek) warriors allowed the Athenian navy time to build a fleet and hatch a plan to turn the Persians back. It worked, and Persia never again attacked Greece.
300 is not the first film to portray this brave and heroic battle -- a film Frank Miller saw as a child and mentioned as an influence (1962's The 300 Spartans) is an excellent example of how this event has been shown through time. Though 300 is not entirely accurate, it does include many historically accurate facts, and sacrifices some only in the interest of good storytelling. The Spartan warriors, while more than a bit evil and probably not as heroic as Miller's film would make you believe, will continue to have an impact both on military strategy and popular culture.
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