Prepare for glory and leather briefs.
There are a lot of reasons that 300 is a unique film–dramatic cinematography, dynamic fight choreography, excessive use of leather tighties–but probably one of the least cited reasons is the historical accuracy.
Wait, what? Historically accurate? Actually, yes–the story of Leonidas, and his 300 Spartans is true. At least, to the best of our knowledge, it is. The only reason to doubt the historicity of the story is that it first came out of Herodotus. While the western world owes him a tremendous debt for taking the time to write stuff down, it remains true that Herodotus’ methods were not especially rigorous.
That being said, the story that Herodotus tells us is pretty much the same one that we get in 300: Xerxes’ Persian armies invaded Greece in 480 B.C., and the Spartan king, Leonidas, took 300 soldiers to defend the pass at Thermopylae, unable to bring the whole army, since Sparta was in the middle of a religious festival(or national festival; pick your poison–everything was religious in the ancient world), called the Carnia. Xerxes sent wave after wave of Persian soldiers at the Greeks, each one failing to break their phalanx, even the fearsome Immortals, until, finally, the Greeks were betrayed to their end.
In its telling of the story, 300 is guilty of dramatizing some details, of course, while inventing more, but including others with faithful accuracy.
At the outset of the film, Leonidas makes a comment about Athenians, calling them “philosophers and boy-lovers.” It’s true that male homosexual relationships were common in ancient Greece, but in Sparta, they were more than common–they were institutionalized. Spartan training of young soldiers had them paired with older men, as both mentors and “mentors.” Also, Athens had not yet gained the reputation as the center of Greek philosophy–Socrates had not yet been born–and that honor was probably still held by Miletus, though the city had been burned down preceding the first Persian invasion, 10 years earlier. Athens had, however, gained a reputation for being strong, having stunningly defeated the Persians at Marathon, in 490 B.C.–no one would have expected a Greek army to pull off such a feat, especially if the Spartans were not involved (they weren’t, though; the Athenians had sent a runner to ask for their help, but the Spartans were delayed by, yes, the Carnia, and ended up arriving the day after the battle). So, if Leonidas ever said something like that to a Persian emissary, he was simply being dramatic, much like this film does in this scene.
There are a number of such details, in 300, which fall into the category of exaggerations and misrepresentations, including the namesake numbers in the armies, the film’s tendency to turn everyone into monsters, and the general presentation of Spartan warfare.
The film does mention that there were others, mostly Arcadians, that joined the 300 Spartans, though it fails to mention that there were thousands of them. Herodotus’ tally brings the total of the Greek army to 5,100–much more than 300, but still insignificant, compared to the Persian numbers, which Herodotus counts in the millions. …Herodotus is probably not to be believed, on that last count, but it’s not improbable that Xerxes’ army numbered in the hundreds of thousands, which is a lot more than five thousand.
More than simply omitting details, 300 plainly lies about the character of the Ephors. Not only were the Ephors not inbred mutants, but they did not run the oracles, at all. The Ephors were a governing body in Sparta, comprised of everyday Spartans. While the senate, called the Garousia, was run by elected Spartan elders of some prestige, any male citizen could be an Ephor for a year, and then never again. Perhaps the best modern American analog would be a jury–ordinary people, gathered temporarily, to be decision makers in legal affairs. The Ephors were much the same, but held their role for a year, and oversaw the 2 kings(yes, 2 kings, simultaneously). The film’s traitorous character, Theron, fits the profile of an Ephor, more than anything else, being both politically influential and too young to sit in the Garousia.
The character of Ephialtes–the man who betrays the Greeks–is another example of invented detail, in 300. The film depicts him as a deformed man, whose parents fled Sparta, because he would have been killed at newborn inspection; his motivation, then, is to regain his Spartan honor, as part of Leonidas’ army. Herodotus, however, simply says that there was a man, named Ephialtes, who is looking to sell valuable information. He first approaches Leonidas, but then goes to Xerxes. Given Herodotus’ penchant for the dramatic, physical deformity is a detail that he would be sure not to omit, if anyone ever thought it to be real.
Also, the Persians were not grotesquely deformed monsters. They were just people.
One of the most eye-rolling of the film’s dramatizations, though, is in the presentation of Spartan warfare. Even after Leonidas’ speech, to Ephialtes, describing the phalanx, the film only shows it once. Then, after their first clash, the Spartan phalanx dissolves into single combat, each soldier summoning doom with his short sword. Doom notwithstanding, this is not at all how the Spartans would have fought. Not only would such bravado have been a really bad idea, at the outset of such an important battle, against such an enormous army, but it contradicts Greek ideals. 300 shows how much our modern culture adores dramatic combat with swords, but for the Greeks, the phalanx was the noble tradition, and the spear was the noble weapon–just ask the Iliad.
The Spartans, in reality, would have fought just as Leonidas described–shields interlocked, acting as one gleaming, armored wall, bristling with spears. Greek hoplite battles were fought as such, and if the phalanx broke, it meant that that army had lost the battle. There were moments when Greek hoplite armies would have dissolved the phalanx, if their victory was so complete, that they were just mopping up, but they wouldn’t have done this for very long, because the shield(called a ‘hoplon’, where we get the word for this particular type of Greek warrior: ‘hoplite’) was simply too heavy to go chasing leftovers. …which is why Queen Gorgo tells Leonidas to “come back with your shield, or on it.” Running away means dropping your shield, while winning and losing honorably both involve keeping your shield; you would be on it, if you were injured.
Even with the huge hoplon shield, though, wearing only leather underwear on the battlefield would be just stupid, which makes the costumes an even bigger misrepresentation than the fighting style. Actual Greek hoplite warriors wore bronze breastplates and bronze-plated skirts, in addition to bronze vambraces and greaves, for the arms and legs, because, yes, that helps you to not die. Not only is it very practical to wear these items for protection, but they were a source of pride for a Greek hoplite.
For most of status-crazy Greece, the role of a hoplite was a volunteer role, as a citizen-soldier, that was earned by being able to afford the armor; lesser armaments were the mark of lesser person. For Spartans, their armor was a greater pride, that they were simply born into the right to earn their glory–it meant that Sparta was just better than the rest of Greece. In Sparta, you see, no man volunteered to be a soldier–they simply were soldiers, if they were citizens. In every other polis, in Greece, ordinary working men who could buy armor, also bought their pride and the right to fight in the noblest tradition they knew. Spartans, however, did not need their farmers to fight, because they had already conquered enough other peoples, that those peoples did all of the everyday work, and the only thing that the true Spartan citizens did was train for war. As represented in the film, by Leonidas: “Spartans, what is your profession?” The response is clear enough–warriors, every last one of them. The Arcadian response to the question is dramatized, in the film, as ‘potter’, ‘sculptor’, ‘blacksmith’, but the more accurate answer would have been ‘farmer’, ‘farmer’, ‘farmer’.
It should be mentioned that ancient imagery often shows Greek warriors to be totally naked. Nudity, however, was simply a feature of the idealization in their art, and it is indicative that the most important figures are actually wearing armor. Sometimes they are actually depicted wearing the bronze breastplate, with no pants, which will probably come back into fashion any time now. It’s possible that the costumes, in 300, are an homage to this ancient imagery, but much more likely that it’s simply a dramatization.
While 300 takes a number of liberties with history, there is a lot that it gets right, as well. Mostly, these details concern Spartan culture, like their education system, the roles of women, and the oracles.
When first introducing Leonidas, the film also introduces Spartan culture, declaring that all Spartan newborns are inspected, and any found to be imperfect are simply killed, which is true. Sparta, of this period, was probably the most socialized society in history. Money was forbidden, the government owned and distributed the slaves, and babies were inspected, to see if they were fit to live, and grow up Spartan.
If Spartan boys were lucky enough to be born whole and healthy, they got to go to school. “School”, of course, is a grueling, torturous military training, called the Agoge.
The Agoge began at age 7, for Spartan boys, and lasted until they were 20. They were only given 1 cloak to wear, eventually deprived of even their underwear, given very little to eat, and encouraged to steal, but punished severely, if ever caught. It was a brutal experience, and goes a long way in explaining why these individuals so tough. If anything, the film undersells the harshness of Spartan childhood. …interestingly, for the film, the Spartan kings were actually exempted from the Agoge. The young princes more likely had private instruction, to keep them safe from harm and indignity.
Representing the ladies, in 300, is Queen Gorgo, who is as real as any other detail, in this film. Her quote, that “only Spartan women give birth to real men” is documented in the histories, although she apparently said it to a woman from Attica(probably an Athenian). This tidbit is an excellent representation of the boldness of Spartan women, especially in a culture where women were only valuable as mute mothers and wives. While Pericles, of Athens, addresses his local women, telling them that they can best serve by going home and being silent, Spartan women were never silenced. In Sparta, the women would train as the men did, even stripping down for athletic competitions. Here again, nudity is simply a Greek tradition–women would compete naked, because the men did. Being Sparta, though, the law-givers had other reasons; the women’s competitions would have revealed who the strongest women were, and the men would have found ways to watch, even though they were not allowed to. All this is really very ingenious motivation for making more and stronger Spartans.
The depiction of the oracle is also accurate to what we know, even if the Ephors are falsely presented: a young woman, in some state of possessed, would babble, and the priests would translate. The reality is more likely that she was drugged, and there is some evidence that young women were exposed to natural gas vents, at the oracles. One has to wonder how often the priests took liberties with the translations, though; Herodotus tells at least one such story, of a time when Athens was under the control of a tyrant, and every time the Spartans sought advice at the oracle at Delphi, they received the message “first, free the Athenians.”
Where we end the film is with the character of Dillios, who was sent away, along with the Arcadians, Phocians, and other Greeks who fought at Thermopylae. This is yet another accurate detail, as Herodotus tells us that Leonidas really did send everyone away, including a Spartan, who had an injured eye. This man was actually named Aristodemus, not Dillios, and his eye was infected, not injured. However, just as in 300, Herodotus has him regretfully leaving. In the Herodotus version, there were actually two men who were sent home, but one refused to leave, and instead died in battle, while Aristodemus went back to Sparta, and was accordingly scorned by the whole city, for his cowardice.
Here the differences stop, though, with film having Dillios lead the charge at the battle of Plataea, and Herodotus relating that, at Plataea, Aristodemus wiped away all of his shame. This seems like a nice analog for the film’s relationship to history: it takes some missteps, some slight and some grievous, but ultimately delivers. While Dillios/Aristodemus delivered heroics at the final pivotal battle of the Greco-Persian wars, 300 delivers insight in addition to action. It’s true that 300 is sometimes wrong–really, really wrong–but it is also right about many things that no other source has ever bothered to describe, outside of the documentary genre. …which is a shame, since Sparta was such an interesting culture.
What we get in 300 is valuable. Incredibly valuable as entertainment, but valuable as history, too, with some decoding. In the very least, it gets us to ask the question, which is a good step, when so much of our learning about ancient Greece is limited to “there were city-states, called Athens, Sparta, and Corinth. There was this guy, named Socrates, too; you won’t understand the things he talked about, but you should know his name.” …and if Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is the measuring stick for what we typically learn about Greece, surely 300 is an improvement.