The real 300: Historical films and the Battle of Thermopylae explained!

So I was sitting down with my friend a few weeks ago and we were watching the film 300 Spartans, I was pointing out why the film was so good, and why I hate the excuse of a film that is 300.  The thought occurred to me to share with you, the reader about the actual battle, and though I focus on the Early Modern to the Modern period in history, I can hopefully show you that I do like the Classics too!  By the way, this blog contains spoilers of both the original 300 Spartans and the newer 300 films.  So if you don’t want to know about these films, then do not read on!

So let’s go through some basic facts, was there just 300 Spartans at Thermopylae?  No, in fact there would have been several thousand Greeks, with the Spartans at the head of the force, the original film shows this well, noticing the Thespians at the battle, and the greatly important part that they played.  Because let’s face it, the Spartans were good fighters, but no general would be stupid enough to turn away fresh troops, the Thespians offered around 700 , eager troops ready to fight, they would have been respected, especially at a battle where death was likely.  The several thousand Greek troops would have held the pass (there was no stupidly steep cliff like we see in the modern film!) until a local resident, most likely a sheep herder (not a hunchback, seriously I don’t get why change these things) showed the Persians a way round the pass of Thermopylae, this betrayal meant that the 300 Spartans, the 700 Thespians, and 400 others would act as the regard whilst the rest of the army escaped to the main army being assembled just before Corinth.

So now we have learnt that the Spartans weren’t alone, and that the Thespians fought just as bravely along with the other Greeks, we can start to see why some films do need to be historically accurate, otherwise, as has happened here, people and nations will be forgotten to history, there deaths ignored for the basis of entertainment.

The Spartans would have to wear armour, not like in the film, where they seem to wear as little as possible, that would be incredibly stupid, and would probably mean they would have been cut to ribbons rather quickly.  The Spartans were great fighters, but they weren’t dumb, they knew they needed armour and thus they wore decent armour.  Also the Spartans and the Greeks would have fought in battle formations, and would not go off on their own fighting, their tactics was to be a unit, forming phalanxes, with their spears meaning it was hard to get in close quarters with them.  The moves they use in the new 300 film are just stupid and over the top, if that had happened, then the Spartans and their fellow Greeks would have lost the battle of the first day.

It is also most likely that the Spartans would have brought javelin men with them, or at least they would have been present in the army of the Greeks, these would have been an added bonus to the Greek defensive.  Yet they are not in the film, which doesn’t surprise me I guess.

The Greeks would have used a large variety of tactics to benefit them in the battle.  On the first day, The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall (made of stone and not human bodies, I mean please the thought of that is just sickening, why would the Spartans do that?), at the narrowest part of the pass, in a strategic attempt to use as few soldiers at one time as possible.  This allowed them to use the full strength of the phalanx.  This meant that the Greeks would have formed a wall of overlapping shields (most likely circular shaped) and spears protruding out from the sides of the shields.  A highly effective wall wouldn’t you say?  The Spartans and their fellow Greeks also fought against the elite troops of Xerxes (who wasn’t a 10ft giant or whatever the film portrays him to be), they would not do any better than our beloved Spartans, whom apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning and killing the enemy troops when they ran after the Spartans.  This meant that the immortals were out of formation and disjoined, making it easier to cut them down.

On the Second day, the Greeks held again, this made Xerxes ponder if he should go home.  He in fact was close to issuing the order to his men to withdraw, but with the sheep herder offering his allegiance, Xerxes sent the immortals around the back of the Greek troops.

On the third day, the Phocians who were guarding the pass, encountered the Persians, they fled to a nearby hill to make a final stand, however they were soon to be bypassed, and the Persians went straight to encircle the Greek army, nonetheless, the Phocians managed to get a runner to the Spartan King Leonidas.  With this encirclement happening, Leonidas ordered most of the Greek army to flee , whilst he stood with his bodyguard and the other Greeks, around 1000 in total to act as a rearguard.  This action allowed the others to flee safely.  This time, the Greeks were not going to defend, instead they attacked, unlike the film 300, Leonidas is one of the first to die, which led his bodyguard to surround his body and claim it back from the Persians.  The Spartans and Greeks then tried to flee, especially the Spartans as their job was to protect the Kings body, this was their sole job.  They were however surrounded, and were killed by arrows, rather quickly one can imagine, they would not surrender, as it was not the Spartan away (the first time Spartans troops surrendered wouldn’t be for a considerable time after, which brought complete shame to the state).  They died with their King.  As the prophecy stated that a King of Sparta would have to die, or Sparta would be engulfed in flame, his sacrifice, along with the other Greeks certainly delayed Xerxes, and killed a lot of his men (some sources say 20,000).

To conclude, the Persians didn’t have weird monstrous creatures, and neither was Xerxes a giant.  It was a battle between men, with a huge number of casualties.  It’s amazing that we can twist history so much for entertainment, whilst forgetting thousands of men died at the battle, which, in a way tarnishes their memory in the modern-day portrayal.  History has become docile to the fact that these men lived and breathed like us, we threat statistics of deaths in war as just numbers, something that we can compare, rather than actually appreciate the amount of individuals who have lost their lives.  The film 300, to me glorifies violence, as do many films in today’s society, something which we need to be careful of, didn’t we do the same before World War One?  I am a firm believer in films and historical accuracy, sure history can be stretched and such, but when you change it as much as 300 or other films, I do wonder what is the point of historians, we might as well make up anything and say yeah that is what happened.  This post is dedicated to all of those who died in the battle of Thermopylae, both Persian and Greek who died for their King, and for freedom of their state.  They say that films show more about the time they were made, than what they actual portray, I do wonder what the future will think about us when they see things such as 300.


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