The Skeptical Samurai’s Guide to the Movies: 300

Time for another instalment of…

The Skeptical Samurai’s Guide to the Movies!

This week’s movie: 300

“300” spot lights the actions of King Leonidas and he leads his 300 Spartan warriors into what would eventually be known as the Battle of Thermopylae.  It is worth noting that the film “300” is actually an adaptation of Frank Millers graphic novel “300”.  The graphic novel was not only used as the basis for the script but also as a reference for how each scene was shot.  While the film is “based on real life events”, as any regular reader of the Skeptical Samurai blog will know, the phase “based on real life events” does not mean that a film is a accurate retelling of a historical event.  Often times a film that claims to be “based on real life events” will include numerous factual details about the story being told, but it will also embellish and expand upon actual events for the purpose of making a film more appealing to a commercial audience.  With that in mind, let us take a skeptical look at the movie “300” and separate the fact from the fiction.

Film: Did the Battle of Thermopylae really happen?

Reality:   Yes, the Battle of Thermopylae is a real life historical battle that took place between the Spartans and the Persian
army.  The battle took place in either August or September (depending on which scholar that you ask) of the year 480 BC.  Here is an artist’s rendition of what it would have looked like in 480 BC

And here is what the area looks like today

Film: Did just 300 Spartans really take on the Persian Army?

Reality:  Well, sort of.  As the story is told in the film it is a single brigade of just 300 Spartan warriors took on the entire Persian
army.  Well it is true that there were only 300 Spartan warriors, there were not alone.  More, specifically, the Spartans had the help
of multiple neighbouring Greek communities.  Greek historian, Herodotus estimated that the Spartans had the assistance of approximately 5000 additional soldiers.  Diodorus Siculus, another Greek historian, estimated that approximately 7000 additional soldiers helped the Spartans fight the mighty Persian army.  It is still impressive that such a comparatively small number of  warriors managed to remain competitive against the entire Persian army, but to portray the Battle of Thermopylae as a war between 300 Spartans and the entire Persian army is simply inaccurate.

Film: The Persian Army numbered one million soldiers!

Reality: Not quite.

Although ancient texts indicated the Persian army was one million soldiers strong, modern historians estimate that the number was actually closer to somewhere between 70,000 to 300,000.  Still quite impressive numbers, but quite far removed from the one million soldiers as portrayed in the film.

Film: The Spartans fought wearing only a helmet and a shield for protection/armour.

Reality: This is completely untrue.

Here is the Spartan warrior (specifically King Leonidas) as represented in the film “300”

Here is a statue of King Leonidas, which represents what a Spartan warrior actually looked like

Notice a difference!?

The Spartans wore body armour.  As most ancient warriors (and even modern warriors know) effective body armour is one of the best ways to ensure that you survive in battle.  Seeing as the Spartans were some of, if not the most, skilled warriors of the time period (if not of all time), they were well versed in the most modern (for the time period) weapons, armour, and battle tactics.  Accordingly the Spartan soldier was covered head to toe in armour.  Add a shield, spear, and short sword and you have one formidable warrior!

The Spartan armour (expect for the helmet and the shield) was removed from the graphic novel (and the film) for purely aesthetic reasons.  As stated by author graphic novel writer/artist Frank Miller (in an interview from Entertainment Weekly), “I took those chest plates and leather skirts off of them for a reason. I wanted these guys to move and I wanted ’em to look good. …Spartans, in full regalia, were almost indistinguishable except at a very close angle.”

Film:  Leonidas is held over a cliff by an elder for assessment/inspection.  The film indicates that this practice (that is the assessment/inspection of the young) was common place in Sparta.  If a child was deemed to be acceptable he is returned to his parents.  However if he was deemed to be unacceptable he will be discarded into the pit below and be left to die.

Reality: Surprisingly, the above representation appears to be true.  For lack of a better term, the Spartans practiced what would be known today as eugenics.  Eugenics is the practice of attempting to improve the genetic composition of a given population
as a result of direct human intervention.  This can be attained by a variety of different means, in the case of the Spartans it meant the killing of infants who had been deemed “unfit”.

When most people think of the term eugenics, they think of Adolf Hitler and the holocaust.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party where under the delusion that the Arian race was the “master race”.  In line with this train of thought, Hitler and the Nazi party killed millions of innocent people in the holocaust of World War 2.  If we use as an example of eugenics, Sparta should be considered as somewhat an exception to the rule. In the simplest terms, Sparta was a militarist state.  Emphasis on military fitness/preparedness began at birth.  From the time a child was born to the time he entered the military a Spartan warrior was tested to ensure that he met the proverbial grade.  This was to ensure the strength of the Spartan army, and the Spartan nation.  In order to promote this strength, infants deemed as not up to the Spartan measure would be discarded.  Accounts vary; some suggest they were left by
hillsides, while others suggest that infants were thrown off a chasm located on Mount Taygetos.

Film: While addressing his soldiers Leonidas yells “tonight we dine in hell”.  When told to surrender their weapons Leonidas
provokes the Persian army with the phase “come and get them”.

Reality: As seen in the movie 300

“Tonight we dine in hell!”

“Come and Get them!”

Our best evidence, specifically the writings from Greek historians such as Herodotus and Plutarch, indicate that King Leonidas did in fact speak these words.

So this begs to obvious question, how could the words spoken by King Leonidas’ on the battle field have gotten back to the people of Sparta if not a single Spartan warrior left the Battle of Thermopylae alive?  Well, as discussed above, the Spartans were not the only warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae.  The Battle of Thermopylae took place over a period of several days, on the final day of the battle Leonidas actually instructed some of the non-Spartan troops to retreat (Additionally, some sources indicate that several Spartans may also have escaped with their lives).  The exact reason for this is not clear and is most likely lost in the sands of time, but these soldiers would have returned to Sparta, and this is the most probable source of how King Leonidas declarations where passed on to the denizens of Sparta and eventually become something of legend.

Film: Xerxes, King of the Persian Empire, was a towering 9 foot tall, bald man, with an insanely deep voice, who paraded around in nothing more than jewellery and a loin cloth.

Reality: Not quite.

In reality, Xerxes, better known as King Xerxes the 1st, was quite different than the character seen in the film “300”.  In the film Xerxes looked like this

In reality he would have looked more like this

Similar to why he removed most of the armour from the Spartan warriors, Frank Miller has stated that he imagined Xerxes in the manner that he did, for visual effect.  More specifically, he wanted to portray Xerxes as the god-king that he claimed to
be.  Making him 9 feet tall, with a baritone voice and an eccentric wardrobe helped to accomplish this goal.  As pictured above, in reality Xerxes had longer brown/black hair with an accompanying beard, was of average height, and to the best of our knowledge did not have insanely low baritone voice capable of shattering glass!

Film: The Spartan army was betrayed by Ephialtes, a hunchback who tried and failed to join King Leonidas’ army, by alerting the Persian forces of a trail that allowed them to bypass the “Hot Gates” and thus negate the advantage that the Spartan army had created by funnelling the Persian forces through a small channel.

Ephialtes, better known as Ephialtes of Trachis, is based on a real character.  However his depiction in the film “300” is far from accurate.

Similar to other changes, noted above, in the graphic novel (and subsequent film, Ephialtes character was changed in order to emphasize a point in the film.  In this particular case, Frank Miller transformed Ephialtes into a deformed hunchback, who’s family had smuggled him out of Sparta as infant prevent his death by the hand of the Spartan elders would have deemed him as “unfit”, in order to highlight the Spartan practice of eugenics.  Ephialtes returns around the time of the Battle of Thermopylae and expresses his wish to join the Spartan army.  After demonstrating that he is incapable of properly protecting his fellow Spartan
warrior, King Leonidas is forced to deny Ephialtes request.  It is this rejection that fuels Ephialtes desire for revenge and ultimately results in his betrayal of Leonidas and the Spartan army, or so one would be lead to believe by the film.

Ephialtes did betray the Spartan army.  However, he was not a disfigured outcast, who was seeking revenge on King Leonidas as depicted in the film.  Instead he was a commoner who had no previous interactions with King Leonidas or the Spartan army, and for reasons that ultimately remain unclear, he betrayed Sparta. Greek historians indicate that there where at least two other men who also betrayed the Spartan army, but it was Ephialtes that informed the Persian army of the trail that allowed for the bypass of the “Hot Gates” which ultimately lead to the defeat of the Spartan army.

Film: The Spartan army battles against the specialize Persian fighting unit, The Immortals!

Reality: The Spartan’s did in fact fight against the Immortals.  However, the Immortals portrayed in the film
where much different than their reality based counter parts.

In the movie the Immortals look like this

In reality the Immortals looked something like this.

The Immortals received their name, not because there were not some mythical/super natural fighting unit, but instead because they always keep a force of men 10,000.  If one died or was wounded there was always another man to replace them, it was as if the
military unit was immortal, hence the name.  The Immortals also did not wear steel masks and heavy armour as depicted
in the film.  Instead they wrapped their faces in cloth, wore light armour, and used wicker shields.  It was there characteristics that ultimately lead to the Immortals defeat.  Put simply, the lack of effective armour and shields was simply no match for the Spartan war machine, and the Immortals were defeated with relative ease.

So there we have it…

As we have learned before, just because a film is “based on real life events” does not mean that it is an accurate description of a
historical event.

This has been the skeptical samurai

Working to serve…

Through the process of inquiry…



One Response to “The Skeptical Samurai’s Guide to the Movies: 300”

  1. 300 is a cool flick

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