Saturday, March 24, 2007

300 and the Battle of Thermopylae

Whoever coined the term "gratuitous violence" must have had a premonition of the movie 300. And you certainly get your money's worth watching the film. I'm sure all the girls (and gays) were ecstatic over the ripped abs and muscles of the Spartans ("Yummy!" as one of my girl friends exclaimed), and makes us guys wish we spent more time in the gym. The excellent cinematography and slow motion /stop frames during key fight scenes also make one feel as if one is watching a graphic novel come to life.

But beyond the beefcake and the special effects, how closely does the movie emulate the historical Battle of Thermopylae? For sure the monsters and deformed entities in the movie weren't there in the real battle, but what else was historical and what else is creative license?

Well, I'll try to list and compare them here but I would advise you to watch the movie first to avoid any spoilers.

1. Xerxes' demands

The first part of the movie shows a Persian messenger barging into the city of Sparta demanding "earth and water" as a sign of obeisance to Xerxes, with King Leonidas and his men later kicking the messenger and his escort into a deep well.

The demand of giving "earth and water" was an actual Persian custom when calling for the submission of subject peoples or about-to-be-attacked kingdoms. As to the Persian messenger being kicked into the well, according to Herodotus' The Histories, such incidents did occur but not in the same context as portrayed in the movie. Apparently, Darius (Xerxes' father) had sent messengers to Athens and Sparta 11 years prior to the Battle of Thermopylae demanding earth and water. In both Athens and Sparta, the messengers were hurled into pits, with the implicit message that if the Persian ruler wanted earth and water, the messengers could get them in the pits. Therefore, by the time of Xerxes, he had sent similar demands of earth and water to the other Greek towns and cities but not to Athens and Sparta, who had made their positions clear during the reign of Darius.

The actual history is about the Greek city-states, led by Athens and Sparta, banding together in order to stop the Persian invasion.

2. Thermopylae

There is such a place as Thermopylae and the topography as depicted in the movie more or less corresponds to the real thing. The pass at Themopylae was an east-west track so narrow that chariots could only pass one at a time. It was a natural chokepoint on which to establish a defensive line.

There were three natural chokepoints along the track called "gates" or pylai with the center gate having a wall constructed a century prior to the Battle of Thermopylae. To the north would be the sea, to the south would be cliffs and mountains. The Persians were coming from the west, so from the perspective of the Spartan soldiers, the sea would be to their right and the cliffs to their left, as was depicted in the movie.

3. King Leonidas

King Leonidas was actually one of two hereditary kings of Sparta. Yes, Sparta practiced dual kingship, but since this is not a thesis about Spartan society, I'm not going to go into that in detail here.

Leonidas believed he was going to his doom, thus for his picked bodyguard of 300 Spartans, he only chose those who had fathered children, ensuring that their legacies lived on despite their deaths (depicted in the movie). It is said that Leonidas' actions were due to a prophecy by the Oracle, saying that Sparta must sacrifice one of its two kings else Sparta would burn to the ground.

4. The defenders of the pass

Although the 300 Spartans did in fact play a big role in the defense of Thermopylae, they did not do it entirely alone. As mentioned earlier, the forces opposing the Persian armies were a collection of Greek city-states. Thus other cities contributed small numbers of soldiers (not just the Arcadians depicted in the movie) for a total between 7,000 to 10,000 men defending the pass. According to accounts, the battle happened during the time of the Olympic games, that's why the different cities could not send their full strength of warriors to Thermopylae (an interesting set of priorities, if you ask me).

It is said that Leonidas assigned troops to the front line in relays so that there were always fresh troops facing the enemy.

5. Size of the Persian army

Xerxes invaded Greece in order to punish the Athenians, Naxians and Eretrians for interfering in the Ionian revolt and the Persian defeat at the Battle of Marathon, which cost the Persian Empire a big chunk of territory. Therefore, Xerxes stacked the odds in his favor by building the largest army that he could muster.

Historians still debate the exact number of Persian troops, but numbers between 2 million to 5 million have been thrown about. The Immortals were also an actual unit, and they were the personal bodyguard of the Persian emperor. They numbered 10,000 men and it is said that casualties in the ranks are immediately replaced, hence the number of troops always remains the same (giving rise to the thought that the warriors must be immortal in order to retain their numbered strength). Whatever the actual number of Persian troops may have been, it was definitely enough to make the Greeks worried and make Leonidas foresee his doom. Enough said.

6. The Battle

As was graphically portrayed in the movie, waves and waves of frontal assaults failed to budge the Greek line. The Greek hoplites with their heavier arms and armor and fighting in phalanx formation (the premiere tactical formation of that era) kept throwing the Persian soldiers back. Even the Immortals could not break them. They could probably have held on indefinitely if not for the betrayal of Ephialtes (see below).

I must say, totally contrary to the eye candy portrayed in the movie, the Greeks did not all fight bare-chested. During the time of the Greco-Persian war, the fighting equipment of a typical Greek hoplite consisted of a spear and sword, plus a helm, greaves, a large round shield called an aspis, and torso armor called the linothorax (it was a cuirass made of layers of linen glued together).

Of course, graphical attraction is a huge staple for the success of a movie, hence it's understandable that the movie would portray the Spartans as ripped and proud to show it.

7. Betrayal of Ephialtes

After 2 days of continuous combat, Xerxes was at wits end on how to break through the pass. At this point, a local Greek named Ephialtes revealed the existence of a path through the mountains that would lead to the encirclement of the Greeks. Ephialtes was motivated by the promise of wealth, and this was aptly portrayed in the movie. Today, the name Ephialtes is synonymous with "traitor" in Greek. This was alluded to in the movie when Leonidas told Ephialtes, "May you live forever", meaning may his name be remembered forever in infamy.

8. The Last Stand

After learning that the Immortals were about to encircle them, Leonidas dismissed most of the army except for his 300 Spartans. What the movie does not show is that 700 Thespians elected to stay as well, including about 1,000 to 2,000 Helots (Spartan slaves) and a handful of Thebans held against their will.

It is said that during this last stand, the Greeks sallied and assaulted the Persian line in order to take as many of the enemy as they could before they died. King Leonidas died in this assault (as opposed to the movie that showed him as the last man standing). The remaining Greeks retreated to a hill, ferociously defending Leonidas' body until they were finally felled by ranks and ranks of Persian archers.

9. Battle of Plataea

There were many concurrent and subsequent battles during and after the Battle of Thermopylae. But as mentioned in the movie, at the Battle of Plataea the remainder of the Persian army was defeated by a full force Spartan army at the head of a pan-Greek army. This battle effectively ended the Greco-Persian war.

10. Other interesting points

a. In the movie, the Spartan Stelios says, "Good, then we shall fight under the shade" in response to a Persian boast that their arrows would blot out the sun. The actual name of that Spartan is Dienekes, said to be the bravest of the 300 Spartans in Thermopylae.

b. Also in the movie, David Wenham portrays a Spartan who has lost an eye and is thus dismissed by Leonidas in order to tell their story. What actually happened is that Aristodemus and a fellow Spartan named Eurytus both developed eye infections, leading Leonidas to dismiss them and send them back. However, Eurytus went back and though blind, charged the enemy and met his end at Thermopylae.

Due to this, Aristodemus was regarded as a coward for returning alive and was shunned by his compatriots. At the Battle of Plataea, Aristodemus fought viciously (this is the final scene in the movie), thus redeeming himself in the eyes of the Spartans. But he was not awarded any special honors because he fought with suicidal recklessness instead of fighting with the will to live, which the Spartans accorded more honor (huh, so what was Thermopylae, then?).

c. Aside from Aristodemus, another Spartan named Pantites survived Thermopylae. Leonidas sent him as an embassy to Thessaly but Pantites failed to return to Thermopylae in time for the battle. Due to this he was disgraced in Sparta and thus hanged himself.

David Wenham's character seems to have combined the missions of Aristodemus and Pantites (sent away due to eye injury and as ambassador to the council). It would give the movie a bad ending if the disgrace of being a survivor was portrayed, so it's understandable that there's a different ending for that movie.


All in all, though there are differences with the actual history, the point of the movie is to entertain, which it does excellently. Still, it's sometimes interesting to see the differences between the history and the movie portrayal. Which reminds me, I better sign up for some melee combat lessons while I'm at it!

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