Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none.
Thomas Jefferson Green
The heroic last stand at Thermopylae of the 300 Spartans under King Leonidas, along with a few thousand other Greek hoplites in 490 BC, has long fascinated Americans. Fighting to the last for freedom has served to inspire Americans in times of war. The recent movie 300, although I greatly enjoyed portions of it, especially the final speech which may be viewed here, was more a comic book brought to the screen, Mark Miller’s graphic novel, rather than any attempt to be historically accurate. Perhaps the finest living expert on classical Greek warfare, Victor Davis Hanson, points out just a few of the inaccuracies in the film:
300, of course, makes plenty of allowance for popular tastes, changing and expanding the story to meet the protocols of the comic book genre. The film was not shot on location outdoors, but in a studio using the so-called “digital backlot” technique of sometimes placing the actors against blue screens. The resulting realism is not that of the sun-soaked cliffs above the blue Aegean — Thermopylae remains spectacularly beautiful today — but of the eerie etchings of the comic book.
The Spartans fight bare-chested without armor, in the “heroic nude” manner that ancient Greek vase-painters portrayed Greek hoplites, their muscles bulging as if they were contemporary comic book action heroes. Again, following the Miller comic, artistic license is made with the original story — the traitor Ephialtes is as deformed in body as he is in character; King Xerxes is not bearded and perched on a distant throne, but bald, huge, perhaps sexually ambiguous, and often right on the battlefield. The Persians bring with them exotic beasts like a rhinoceros and elephant, and the leader of the Immortals fights Leonidas in a duel (which the Greeks knew as monomachia). Shields are metal rather than wood with bronze veneers, and swords sometimes look futuristic rather than ancient.
However, Hanson was a fan of the film:
Again, purists must remember that 300 seeks to bring a comic book, not Herodotus, to the screen. Yet, despite the need to adhere to the conventions of Frank Miller’s graphics and plot — every bit as formalized as the protocols of classical Athenian drama or Japanese Kabuki theater — the main story from our ancient Greek historians is still there: Leonidas, against domestic opposition, insists on sending an immediate advance party northward on a suicide mission to rouse the Greeks and allow them time to unite a defense. Once at Thermopylae, he adopts the defenses to the narrow pass between high cliffs and the sea far below. The Greeks fight both en masse in the phalanx and at times range beyond as solo warriors. They are finally betrayed by Ephialtes, forcing Leonidas to dismiss his allies — and leaving his own 300 to the fate of dying under a sea of arrows.
But most importantly, 300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story. The Spartans, quoting lines known from Herodotus and themes from the lyric poets, profess unswerving loyalty to a free Greece. They will never kow-tow to the Persians, preferring to die on their feet than live on their knees.
The story of the Spartans is somewhat ironic in that of all the Greek city states, Sparta was the least free. The Spartans ruled over a huge slave population, Helots, and would declare war on them each year, which would allow the Spartans to slay them as they thought fit in order to keep them subjugated. The average Spartan was no more free than his Helots, spending most of his adult life in the Spartan army, and living in barracks under ferocious discipline. Yet, I have no doubt that but for the brave stand of Leonidas and his men, that inspired the Greeks that the fight was not hopeless, Greece would have passed under the Persian yoke, and what we know as democracy would have been lost to the world. Additionally, Christianity benefited immeasurably from its Greek converts, and the impact of Greek philosophy on Jewish revelation helped lay the theological underpinnings of the doctrines of the Church. Freedom and Faith might both have been lost if Greece hadn’t remained independent from the Persian Empire. In that sense, the Spartans who fell with Leonidas deserve to be honored, and not solely for their military prowess and unmatchable courage.
A much more accurate film about the battle of Thermopylae, and the events leading up to it, is the film 300 Spartans (1962). Frank Miller saw the film as a boy and it inspired him to do 300.
Go tell the Spartans, passerby:
That here, by Spartan law, we lie