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Our story begins just off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the ancient region of Ionia —- in modern-day Turkey.
Like most of the other Greek cities at the time, Ionia was subjected to the conquest of Cyrus the Great in 547 BC.
Although they were technically subject to Persian rule, the Ionians had quite a bit of autonomy under what amounted to a puppet government. Despite this, about 50 years later the Ionians revolted against their Persian overlords.
With support from the Athenians and the Eretrians, the Greeks managed to liberate Ionia as well as the regions of Thrace and Macedon from the Persian empire. Because of the success of this revolt, other Greek settlements all along the western coast of the Persian Empire were sparked to fight.
They wanted to find freedom from the Persians and after years of bloodshed, the Greeks finally freed themselves and defeated the Persians at the Battle of Mycale in 479 BC.
Persian king Darius I was furious as he saw both his pride and his kingdom take a major hit.
It took a few years to re-cooperate from their losses and formulate a plan, but in 492 BC the Persian army began their retaliation.
Darius wanted to wipe the Greeks off the map, so he assembled a specialty task force and ordered them to make their way to the largest city-states: Eretria and Athens.
But before they did that, they’d have to make it to those city-states, and there were a lot of Greeks between the Persians and Athens. By land, it was nearly 1,000 miles around the Aegean Sea.
The closest region and, by extension, the first on the list to recapture was Thrace. In fact, it took two years for the Persians to re-capture the regions of Thrace and nearby Macedon.
But the Persians were just getting started.
Organizing the second offensive in 490 BC, the Persian army either annexed settlements or just completely burned them down.
Eretria was the first of the two big city-states to fall to Persia. But Darius wanted to make a statement with the Eretrians. He razed the city to the ground and enslaved all of the citizens.
Making a final push toward Athens, which is just about 15 miles south of Eretria, the Persians were met by the Athenian army outside of the city near Marathon.
Despite the Persians having about 20,000 men, the Greeks managed to push them back with only 11,000 men. The Greeks were fighting for their homeland, and this gave them a boost that ultimately helped them force the Persian forces to retreat.
In fact, it was after this battle at Marathon that a Greek soldier by the name of Pheidippides ran from Marathon the 26.2 miles back to Athens to let the city know of the Persians’ defeat. That’s where we get the term “Marathon” for the long-distance endurance run today.
Although his army had nearly managed to wipe out the Greeks, Darius wasn’t happy. He had only almost managed to wipe them out. He wouldn’t be happy unless they were completely gone.
Persia’s second attempt at revenge
Even before his armies returned from the battlefield, back in Persia, Darius had heard of the impending defeat and had already begun rebuilding his army for another attempt.
This time, Darius wouldn’t accept defeat, and he made two huge changes to ensure his victory.
First, Darius wasn’t going to turn around and attack right away. This time, he wanted to make sure he had enough men and ships to win the war.
Secondly, instead of sending his generals Darius himself would lead the imperial armies. Darius wanted to see Greece burn with his own eyes.
Unfortunately for Darius, word had begun to spread that the Persians could be defeated. So before Darius could finish making his preparations to retaliate against the Greeks, the
Egyptians were fed up paying high Persian taxes and losing their men to build Persian palaces. So in 486, the Egyptians followed down the path of the Greeks and organized their own revolt.
Already in failing health, having to fight yet another revolt didn’t help. Darius died soon after at the age of 64.
And so, at the age of 32, Darius I’s son, Xerxes, took control of the Persian Empire.
Xerxes takes up his father’s plight
In the movie 300, Xerxes is portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro, and he’s referred to as a god-king. And he wanted to show the might of Persia.
Almost immediately, Xerxes squelched the Egyptian revolt.
But more than that, Xerxes came to power itching to make an example of someone.
He couldn’t have any more revolts.
Who better to make an example of than the people his father had tried to make an example of but had failed?
So Xerxes turned his eye to Greece.
In the movie, the Persian army is shown to be a massive force without equal of the time. And that’s quite true!
If you remember, Darius I had sent a force of 20,000 — and he had nearly been successful in conquering all of the Greeks.
When Xerxes took up his father’s campaign, he had amassed an army of over 40 times that size. That’s about 882,000 men and almost 5,000 ships!
As if that wasn’t enough, about 50,000 of those 882,000 men were Greeks from the Balkans who joined up with Xerxes both for the money but also because they didn’t want to leave the Persian Empire.
Failure was not an option for Xerxes. And he would defeat Greece with Greeks.
Or so it would seem.
Although they were a collection of city-states and settlements, the Greeks had a secret weapon up their sleeves: The Spartans.
Sparta enters the war
In 300, the movie kicks off by explaining how Spartans breed warriors. While it was overly dramatic in the movie’s telling, the basic premise is actually true.
Throughout the ancient world infant homicide, which is referred to as infanticide, was quite common. So while this wasn’t unique to Sparta, the Spartans had turned this common task of weeding out the infants they didn’t think could be turned into future soldiers into a task of the state.
In the movie 300, you see a man holding a baby above a chasm of human skulls — implying that children who weren’t deemed worthy were cast into the chasm. This came from the ancient historian Plutarch, who made the claim that Spartan babies were tossed into the chasm at the foot of Mount Taygetus when the state determined they wouldn’t be able to live up to their future duty of being a soldier.
Remember — this is happening to children, usually infants under a year old. The government is deciding if the infant will be able to be a soldier when they grow older. If they’re deemed incapable, most historians dismiss Plutarch’s claim of dumping them into a chasm. Instead, it’s believed that the babies were simply abandoned on a nearby hillside. The child would then either be rescued and adopted by strangers or — more likely — the child would die from exposure.
The result of these despicable acts by the Spartan state meant that those children who did live were those deemed worthy of being a soldier. And centuries of this treatment, the Spartans had mastered the creation of warriors who would happily lay down their lives for Sparta.
Still, the Spartans weren’t necessarily in the fight for their entire country — in fact, shortly after this whole battle went down between the Persians and the Spartans, the Spartans would turn on Athens and conquer them to rule the southern tip of Greece.
This sort of struggle for power was common since Greek was a collection of city-states and not really a country at that time.
When Xerxes started his march in 480 BC, Sparta would have been one of the city-states to be razed in his mission to annihilate all of Greece.
Thanks to their location on the southernmost part of the peninsula, Sparta had a bit of time to prepare before Xerxes arrived.
In the movie King Leonidas, who’s played by Gerard Butler, consulted mystical priests known as Ephors – who told Leonidas he mustn’t go to war claiming it would violate the ritual of the Carnea.
There is some truth to this, although as you might expect it does differ slightly.
The Carnea was a ritual that took place once a year from the 7th to the 15th of the month of Carneus, or August. It was to celebrate the life of a man whom the month was named after, Carnus, who was a favorite of the Greek god of music Apollo.
Because Carnus was slain because of battle, Apollo was believed to punish the Spartan army with diseases during Carnea.
And since no warrior wants to get sick in the middle of battle, that’s why the Spartans refused to go to war during Carnea.
But with the Persian horde on their way King Leonidas, whose name means lion, knew Xerxes and his army would reach Sparta during both the Spartan ritual of Carnea but also the all-Greek Olympic ceremony as those two happened to overlap that year.
Something had to give.
Persia demands Spartan submission
In the movie 300, the Persians send a messenger to Sparta ahead of Xerxes’ army requesting earth and water. This is actually true, although Sparta wasn’t unique in this.
One of the ways Xerxes intimidated his foes was only to offer life if they would serve him. In which case, of course, their armies would fold into and fight alongside the Persians.
A lot of the Greek city-states fell to Xerxes this way, without blood being shed. These would give the Persian messenger earth and water from their soil as a token of their submission.
As two of the largest and most defiant city-states, both Athens and Sparta refused to submit.
In the movie 300, King Leonidas yells “This is Sparta!” as he kicks the messengers down into a well. In truth, history agrees the taunt was more along the lines of, “Dig it out for yourselves!” but the Spartans did throw the messengers into a well.
The Athenians, on the other hand, threw the messengers who came to them into a pit.
This act of defiance by Athens and Sparta caused other Greeks some confidence and a small alliance between Greeks was formed.
In this way, word was sent among the Greeks and an army was formed to meet the Persians. Because of Carnea, the Spartan council did refuse to send out the full army.
But the Spartans had refused to send soldiers to battle during Carnea when the Darius made his attack many years ago. While that had ended in Greek victory at Marathon thanks to the Atheans, this time, more Greek cities were submitting to Xerxes and hope was dim.
King Leonidas knew that even more Greeks would submit to Xerxes if Sparta didn’t offer their help and, by extension, Sparta would eventually fall.
But he couldn’t take the army. So he did what he could. In the movie, when King Leonidas leaves Sparta saying he’s leaving with his personal bodyguard, he says it with a bit of a smirk as if it’s a joke.
But this is actually true. You see, technically Leonidas’s bodyguard wasn’t a part of the army, and so they weren’t limited to the same restrictions as the army during Carnea.
So they were free to travel and meet the Persians.
Leonidas leaves Sparta
It was Leonidas’s bodyguard that he left Sparta with — and while it seems like a lot of men a bodyguard, history now tells us that only 300 men weren’t enough to fight the massive Persian army.
While the movie does make mention of there being more Greeks than 300, in the line where Leonidas asks the Greek soldiers what their professions are, the Hollywood version doesn’t really tell how many.
In truth, including the 300 Spartans, there were about 7,000 Greeks who went to battle against Persia at Thermopylae.
Ancient historian, Herodotus gives insight into the primary reason Leonidas led his personal bodyguard against the Persians with the other Greek forces:
“The force with Leonidas was sent forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, that the sight of them might encourage the allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes, as was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was backward. They intended presently when they had celebrated the Carneian Festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army.
The rest of the allies intended to act similarly; for it happened that the Olympic Festival fell exactly during this same period. None of them looked to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily; wherefore they were content to send forward a mere advance guard. Such accordingly were the intentions of the allies.”
Still, going against insurmountable odds, Leonidas knew he wouldn’t live through the battle. Another historian, Plutarch, makes note of what Leonidas said to his wife, Queen Gorgo – who’s played by Lena Headey in the movie – on the day before he left.
She asked what she should do when he’d left. His reply was to “marry a good man and have good children.”
It was clear he didn’t expect to return. But he wouldn’t go out without a fight.
Although the Persians had plenty of ships, they had more men than could fit in them so a bulk of the Persian force would have to make its way through Greece on land. Sparta would be one of the last stands of Greece since it’s geographically positioned on the same peninsula with Olympia and near modern-day Tripolis.
So Leonidas and the Greeks with him knew they’d have their best shot to defend the entire peninsula where Athens and then Sparta lay.
The best place to do this, Leonidas knew, was at the pass of Thermopylae.
One of the reasons it’s such a great defensive position is because on the northern side there’s the Gulf of Malis and on the southern side there’re impenetrable cliffs.
In the movie, they refer to the pass as the ‘hot gates’, which is what the Greeks called it at the time. The name came from the hot springs that were in the area along with a series of three holes in the cliffs that allowed passage.
Some of those passages were blocked by walls built by Phocians a century earlier.
What was left for Leonidas and the Greeks to defend was a single passage so narrow that it’s said only a single chariot could pass at a time.
Of course, the region has changed geographically since 480 BC. Today it’s near the Gulf of Malis, which has filled in the springs that used to be there, but it’s still a natural defensive position that armies have used in more recent times.
We shall fight in the shade
As the Persians neared Thermopylae, Leonidas and the Greeks met to determine their next action. With battle seeming imminent, many of the Greeks were getting antsy and wanted to retreat. They figured the Persians would have to defeat the mighty Athenians before they could conquer Greece. But two of the city-states were located near Thermopylae. They knew if they left things to the Athenians, their cities would be the next razed by the Persians. So the Phocians and Locrians pleaded their case of defending Thermopylae as they sent for more help.
King Leonidas liked this plan.
While the Greeks were meeting, a single Persian scout made his way to the Greeks. They let him live, with the idea that he would report their location to the Persians.
And he did. But he also reported that the Spartans and their tiny Greek force were combing their hair and doing calisthenics. Xerxes found this laughable and asked the Greeks who were in his army what this meant. That’s when he learned of the Spartan tradition of adorning their hair before battle.
Xerxes’ tone changed. The bravest men of Greece planned to defend the pass.
The Spartans would make a fine addition to his massive army, so Xerxes wanted to offer the Greeks a chance to join his side.
In the movie, Xerxes puts his hands on Leonidas as he offers him to rule over all of Greece. While he didn’t do it personally, this did happen. Xerxes sent a messenger to the Greek forces asking Leonidas to join him. In return, Leonidas would be king over all of Greece.
While Gerard Butler’s version of Leonidas mocked Xerxes as he blamed sore legs for not being able to kneel, the real response of Leonidas was even more telling into the mind of the great soldier:
“If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me, it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.”
Hearing of his reply, Xerxes decided to apply a little more pressure. Just like in the movie, he sent a messenger escorted by a battery of soldiers with the message for Leonidas to lay down his arms.
Now in the movie, it’s this messenger that’s about to whip the Spartans when Stelios, who’s played by Michael Fassbender in 300, lunges forward and cuts off the messenger’s arm. That’s when the messenger says the Spartans don’t have a chance, and the Persian arrows will blot out the sun.
Although Stelios is a fictional character, this exchange is based on truth. As historian Herodotus wrote, after Leonidas’s refusal of Xerxes’ first offer the Greek morale was high. It was Dienekes, a Spartan soldier, who was talking with another Spartan soldier when he heard of tales that Persian arrows would be so numerous as to blot out the sun. His reply to the Spartan was, “So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.”
So in truth, it was a chat between two Spartans instead of a taunt from Spartan to Persian. But the movie 300 did get the next part much closer to the truth.
When the second messenger came to tell Leonidas to lay down his arms, to this Leonidas’s now-famous reply came: “Come take them.”
This statement, or ones similar, are still used by soldiers to this day.
Xerxes waited for four days for the Greeks to leave the pass. When they didn’t, he ordered a portion of his force — the Medes and the Cissians — to take them prisoner. He didn’t want them killed, but he wanted them to bow before him in person.
According to historians, the Medes were picked to go in first because they had been the last to be conquered by the Persians. So it’s likely that Xerxes wanted them to bear the brunt of the fighting.
And so the Medes headed to the pass. While historians don’t know the specifics of how the battle went down, it’d be most likely that the Greeks formed a phalanx.
Like you see in the movie 300, a phalanx is essentially made up of a group of soldiers who work side by side to work as a unit instead of individual soldiers. In this case, with a limited width of the pass at Thermopylae, the Greek phalanx was made up of overlapping shields and layered spear points that spanned the entire width of the pass. They were a human wall of weapons and armor.
While the Medes approached, Xerxes set himself up a ways off so he could watch the fight. The Medes had arrows and short spears that couldn’t break the phalanx. Although according to Herodotus, the Greeks didn’t use the phalanx throughout the whole battle. Instead, they preyed on the inexperienced Medes by pretending to retreat in disorder. When the Medes pushed forward, the Greeks would shock them by turning around suddenly and attacking them with force.
Using this technique, the Greeks killed almost 10,000 Persians and infuriated Xerxes even more.
Try, try again
He withdrew the remaining Medes and sent in another force of more experienced soldiers. This force was referred to as The Immortals, and you see them in the movie 300.
Although in truth, the name Immortals was most likely given to them by the ancient historian Herodotus. Historians today think Herodotus confused the Persian name Anûšiya, which meant “companions” with Anausa. “An” meaning “non” and “auša” meaning “death,” so non-death or … immortals.
So while it’s unlikely Leonidas referred to them as immortals, these were still 10,000 of the most elite fighting force in Xerxes’ command.
Because of the limited space in the pass, the Persian elite forces weren’t able to have any more success than the Medes did. Before losing them all, and with the sun going down, Xerxes ordered them to withdraw.
Another thing the movie 300 got right was how many of the Persian forces must’ve felt when they went up against the Spartans. As the day wore on and the body count rose, the new Persian forces advancing through the narrow pass would have to pass over the growing number of dead to meet the Spartans. But they couldn’t retreat, either, because on the other side was their officers preventing them from withdrawal.
Leonidas and the Greeks had created a killing machine in the pass, and after thousands had perished Xerxes finally came to realize a head-on assault would be futile.
This is where the first day of battle ended, and both sides retreated to their camps to prepare for the next day.
The second day, Xerxes continued his head-on assault. Although he didn’t expect it to work because of the previous days’ losses, he didn’t have much choice. There was no way around, and a head-on approach was the only thing he could do. He had to hope that eventually the Greeks would break.
In the movie, fates of the Greeks change when they’re betrayed by a deformed man by the name of Ephialtes. This is true, although the details of it are different than in the movie.
While the movie makes Ephialtes out to be a deformed and outcast Spartan, who didn’t make the cut as a child, in truth, he wasn’t deformed at all. And he wasn’t even from Sparta, he was from Malis — a Greek tribe which was near Thermopylae.
While there’s no historical evidence to suggest Ephialtes ever met Leonidas as he did in 300, in truth the Greeks with Leonidas likely already knew about this trail as all locals did. Most of the locals in the area knew of the trail. In fact, the Malians had used this trail to raid their neighbors, the Phocians, who were now teaming together to help the Greeks against the Persians.
The small trail led over the mountains south of Thermopylae and joined back up with the main road behind where the Greeks were holding off the Persians.
Like in the movie, Leonidas did station some Phocian soldiers to help guard the path. There were about 1,000 men left on the path to guard it.
This just shows how the Greeks weren’t always friendly with each other, but they were teaming up to fight off a foreign enemy.
No doubt word spread to Ephialtes and many others around of the advancing Persian force and the Greeks who were making their stand at the hot gates. Seeking Persian riches, Ephialtes decided he could use his knowledge of the path to making himself a wealthy man.
Xerxes jumped at the chance to try something other than the head-on assault. He took up Ephialtes on his offer to guide them through the path that would flank the Greek position.
As the first light broke on the third day, the Phocians guarding the path were sleeping when they heard the rustling of leaves. The elite Persian forces — the Immortals — were advancing, and the Phocians weren’t even awake. They jumped up and hastily armed themselves, but it was too late.
The Persians pushed the Phocians back to the crest of the mountain where they made their own last stand.
After clearing the path, the Persians made their way to surrounding the Greeks at Thermopylae.
In the movie, before their final stand, some of the Greeks flee the battle as they sense the end.
In truth, Leonidas was kept apprised of the Persians’ attempt to flank his position by scouts. After he had found out the Phocians had fallen at the path, he knew he would soon be trapped between two columns of enemies.
He called for the Greek leaders to come to council to determine their next action. Retreat was the only action that would offer a chance at survival, but with the Persians so close even retreat wasn’t guaranteed life.
The sacrifice of the 300
While the movie made it seem like the Spartans were abandoned by the other Greek soldiers, that’s not entirely true.
Leonidas did decide that he and his Spartans would stay and fight to the death. But they did so in an attempt to hold off the Persians for as long as they could while the rest of the Greek forces retreated to safety.
And they weren’t alone. About 700 Thespian soldiers chose to stay with the Spartans, facing what would be certain death.
In fact, some historians have argued that the choice for the Thespians to stay outweighs the sacrifice of the Spartans. Since Spartans are raised as soldiers and trained to give their lives in combat as a matter of Spartan law, dying in battle was to be expected for them. The same isn’t true for the Thespians who chose to stay and fight alongside the Spartans to the end.
The Thespian general was actually an architect by the name of Demophilus. None of the Thespian were professional soldiers — they were citizens that had taken up arms only fighting to keep Persians out of their homelands.
While the movie 300 doesn’t mention it, historians have said the Spartans honored the sacrifice by exchanging cloaks with the Thespians and promised to be allies for eternity.
At dawn on the fourth day, all hell broke loose as the Persians attacked. It began from the same direction the Persians had been attacking head-on. Knowing they would soon be surrounded, the Greeks, this time, pushed their way forward to a wider part of the pass. This allowed more Persians in but also allowed the Greeks the opportunity to kill more Persians.
They knew the end was near, and they wanted to slaughter as many Persians as they could.
Behind the Greeks, the Immortals made their way off of the mountain from the trail along with Ephialtes. Expecting to surprise the Spartans, Leonidas had one more trick up his sleeve when he shocked them by not only being ready but forming an offensive and attacking them.
It was in this battle that Leonidas himself died, and although he didn’t actually hurl a spear at Xerxes himself as he did in the movie, Herodotus wrote that two of Xerxes brothers were killed in the battle as well. So in a way, he did make the god-king bleed.
Overwhelmed, the rest of the Greeks made their final stand on a small hill behind the wall an old wall Phocians had built a century earlier.
Xerxes ordered the small hill with the remaining Greeks surrounded. It was a vicious ending to one of the most heroic stands in history.
Writings tell of Greeks on the hill who had lost their weapons start tearing at Persians with their hands and teeth until, finally, the Persians rained down arrows on them until the last Greek had died.
While the Spartan bones have never been found, in 1939 archaeologists found the hill they believe was the final stand. Known as Kolonos Hill, archaeologists discovered a huge number of arrowheads in the ground similar to those that were used by the Persians during the Battle of Marathon.
Usually, the Persians would treat enemies who had fought bravely against them with honor, but after the Greeks had fallen at Thermopylae, Xerxes was furious at the Spartans who had caused so many of his soldiers.
When his men recovered the body of Leonidas, Xerxes ordered his head be cut off, and his body crucified for all to see.
While this may have helped Xerxes feel better, the brave stand of the 300 Spartans and their Thespian brothers helped muster courage for all of Greece. But Xerxes continued his conquest of Greece. By the time he reached Athens, he had found it deserted. The Athenians had fled to Salamis Island about 10 miles west of Athens.
As Xerxes fought a naval battle with the Athenians in the strait between Athens and Salamis Island, he also encountered the full Spartan army as it defended Corinth. With a two-headed approach, the Greeks managed to drive back the Persians — first losing the naval battle of Salamis in September of 480 BC.
The Persian army was then defeated at the Battle of Plataea by an army of Greeks led by the Spartans in August of 479 BC, forcing the Persians out of Greece once and for all.
Because of their route, Ephialtes never saw the fortune he was promised for betraying his people. Now an enemy of two peoples, he went into hiding. About nine years later, in 470 BC, Ephialtes was killed by a man named Athenades for something completely unrelated.
Still, the Spartans who had been looking for Ephialtes gave a reward to Athenades for ridding the world of the traitor Ephialtes.