Several folks have asked me about the historicity of the new movie, 300, so I figured I’d do a recap of Herodotus’s Histories, in particular Book 7.
Herodotus tells us that Leonidas was the direct descendant of Heracles, and he had come to be king quite unexpectedly; both of his older brothers had died, one in battle in Sicily, and one of unknown causes.
He chose the 300 Spartans himself, and picked men who were all fathers of living sons. Originally the force was 300 hoplites from Sparta, 500 from Tegea, 500 from Mantinea, 120 from Orchomenus in Arcadia, 1000 from the rest of Arcadia, 400 from Corinth, 200 from Phlius,80 from Mycenae. In adition there was a Theban/Locrian contingent, consisting of 1100 men.
These 4100 men consisted of an advance guard, because the Carneia, a festival of Sparta, was being celebrated at the time, and the Olympic Games were already underway. Both of these events could not be interrupted for something as unimportant as warfare. The religious observances, at the right time, were far more important. Nevertheless, upon seeing the size of the Persian army, the Peloponnesians, who were the entire force other than the Thebans, proposed retreating to hold the line at Corinth and the Isthmus. The Thebans, outraged, proposed surrendering to Xerxes at once.
Leonidas voted to remain and hold the pass, while sending a request for reinforcements. The Greeks remained. A short while later, a Persian spy visited the site of Thermopylae, which was defended by a wall. At the time of his visit, the Spartans were on guard duty outside the wall; some had stripped for exercise, and some were combing their hair. A Greek informer, when Xerxes asked him the meaning of this behavior, reported that the Spartans always combed their hair before a battle where their lives were at risk.
Xerxes waited four days for the Greeks to retreat. When they did not, he sent in the Medes and the Cissians. The battle heated up, reinforcements were sent in, and in spite of terrible losses the Greeks refused to retreat. All day the battle raged, and finally the Medes were withdrawn. In their place came general Hydarnes and the King’s Immortals. At the end of the day, Herodotus says, the Greeks “made it plain enough to anyone, and not least to the king himself, that in his army he had many men, indeed — but few soldiers.”
The second day of combat ran much as the first, and each division of the Spartan army fought in turn. Herodotus says they were men who understood war, pitted against an inexperienced enemy, and they performed many feints, including pretending to retreat before turning into a new formation for the counterattack.
On the third day, a Greek man from Malis, Ephialtes, approached Xerxes with news of a mountain route which led by a back route over the hills to the rear of Thermopylae. Ephialtes was lated hunted down by the Amphictyons for his treachery, and the assassins were rewarded by the Spartans — though all that was years in the future. Xerxes sent the Immortals up this track about the hour of sunset.
The Phocians were set to guard this pass, and they resisted for a time. However, they made a tactical error; believing themselves to be the subject of the attack, they withdrew to a high place, where a contingent of the Persians hemmed them in, while the main force continued on.
News of the flanking manuever reached the Greek camp on the main road quite rapidly, and a hurried council of war was held. Many of the Greek commanders argued, some for retreat to their home cities, others for a last stand, but Leonidas urged them all to retreat. At the same time, he admitted that he had no orders permitting the Spartans to retreat under any circumstances from this post — honor forbade him from deserting a post he had promised his city to guard.
The Thebans were at this point intercepted from going over to the enemy, and Leonidas detained them as hostages, while allowing the other cities’ troop contingents to depart. Another group of soldiers, the Thespians, resolved to stay behind, as well, out of loyalty to Leonidas. All of them perished with the Spartans.
In the morning, Xerxes poured a libation to the rising sun, and ordered his army to advance at the hour when the market-place is full — call it 9am. The Spartans, knowing they were about to die, advanced from the wall and fought beyond the narrows, where they had less of a defensive advantage, but had more freedom of movement. The Persians’ commanders had to advance their soldiers under the barbs of whips, and many of them were pushed off the cliffs and into the sea in the army’s haste to enter battle. By this point, most of the Greeks’ spears were broken, and the Spartans were killing the Persians with their swords.
At some point during this onslaught, Leonidas fell and died. The Spartans fought off an advance by the PErsians to his body four times, until they could recover the Spartan king’s body. At this point, the character of the fighting changed again, and the Spartans withdrew to a little hill just beyond the wall, where the monument to the battle stands today. Here they resisted, first with their swords, and then with their hands and teeth, until the Persians totally cut them off front and back. The invaders swarmed around the hill, and finally overwhelmed the Spartans with missile weapons.
Among the brave deeds later reported, Dieneces of Sparta is said to have said, “what pleasant news: if the Persian arrows hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.”
Two Spartans, dismissed from the company for eye infections, were in the process of leaving Thermopylae when the news of the Persian flanking maneuver over the secondary pass came. One returned to the battle and was killed; the other. “No one would give him light for his house or a coal for his hearth, and he was called the Trembler ever after.” However, he later was in the first combat line at the battle of Plataea, where he died.
The Thebans surrendered and went over to the Persians the moment that the Spartans set their standard on the little hill beside the entrance to the pass.
Much later, three columns were set up at Thermopylae — one for the Peloponnesians, one for the seer Megistias who had traveled with the Greek army, and one for the Spartans and King Leonidas.
The column for the other Greeks read:
Four thousand here from Pelops’ land
against three million once did stand.
The monument for the Spartans reads:
Traveler, go and tell the Spartans
that obedient to their law, we lie here dead.
In anger over how the Spartans had savaged his army, Xerxes ordered Leonidas’s head cut off, and planted on a stake. The Persian army, now delayed five days by the battle, marched into Greece — short of water, short of food, short of supplies. “Are there many more warriors like these?” Xerxes asks his Greek informants.
“About eight thousand more,” comes the reply, “and many thousands more almost as good. Here’s the plan…” His informant suggests sending three hundred ships to occupy Cythera, an island off the Peloponnese, where the Persians will be able to strike at will against Spartan garrisons. But the Persian admiral doesn’t buy this strategy, because it will make the remainder of his fleet about the same size as the allied Greek fleet — “keep the ships together, your majesty, and they won’t dream of attacking us.”
Xerxes accepts his admiral’s thinking, thus setting up the situation at the battle of Salamis: big army, er, I mean, fleet, against little army, I mean fleet, in a tiny pass – I mean, strait. Hmmm. Tactics don’t matter much to the Persians, do they?
Herodotus concludes the tale by reporting the the Greek informant, Demaratus, was actually also the source of the information that Persia was planning on invading Greece. The message was written — carved, actually, into a student’s wax tablet, into the wood backing. Fresh wax was then applied over the message in wood, and left unscribed. In this way, the message passed from Demaratus in exile at the Persian court to Cleomenes’daughter Gorgo, who scraped away the wax and alerted the Spartans.
As a final note, the ambassadors of the Persian king to the Athenians and the Spartans were both treated with dirision and scorn. The customary gift when making submission to a foreign power at the time was earth and water. When the Persian messengers requested these at Athens, they were thrown into a pit with the common criminals, and at Sparta, they were pushed down a well, with instructions to get all the earth and water they wanted from the bottom.
Oh, and One More Thing…
All those reviewers who are like, “OMF WTF this is too much blood, guts and gore, there’s not enough story line, yawn, ho-hum, couldn’t they have put in some speeches or some love interest?”
I haven’t even seen the movie yet, and you guys are full of it.
Not only did every Spartan child learn the name of every one of the three hundred, Herodotus makes a point of saying that he knows the names of all three hundred. Everyone in Greece knew what they had done, and that they had provided freedom for Greece for a hundred years.
Their deaths probably made Greek democracy possible.
After the war, two Spartans were chosen by lottery to go to Persia and apologize for the treatment of Xerxes’ messengers — the guys who got pushed down the well. On the way, the governor of Sardis treated them to a lavish dinner and several days rest. He asked them, “you know, I have all this wealth and wonderful clothing and food and happiness because I bent my head to the King of the Persians. Why couldn’t you Spartans do the same?”
The Spartan answer should be instructive. “You have wealth but you know nothing but slavery. We have had only freedom in our poverty, and we are unwilling to sacrifice it so that we may have wealth.” When they finally reached Xerxes, they told the King. “Sorry for our treatment of your messengers. You can kill us now.” Xerxes’s guards told them, “press your head to the floor in front of our king, as is our custom.” The Spartans answered, “we apologized, but we don’t treat mortals like gods. You can kill us now.”