300: Fact, Fiction and Historical Accuracy

Like many Hollywood movies which are ‘based on a true story,’ 300 (2006) takes its share of artistic liberties in retelling the events of Thermopylae.  Less historically accurate than might be wished, and clearly indulging in comic-book style hyperbole, the movie nevertheless entertains and captures the climactic clash between the Greeks and Persians.  Here we address just some of the main questions which may arise in the viewers mind regarding the historical authenticity of 300. This article is replete with spoilers – so watch the movie first!

 

Did Leonidas pass through the agoge?

Yes.  Leonidas did pass through the agoge although this was unusual for kings of Sparta.  Because he had not been first in line for succession, Leonidas was sent to the agoge but his older half-brother, Cleomenes, had not trained in the agoge, as he was heir to the throne.  Cleomenes died in 490 BC, and when Leonidas became king he may well have been in his fifties already.

 

Was the Persian ambassador really killed?

Yes.  The killing of the Persian ambassador did occur and it was critical.  Killing an emissary was considered sacrilegious, and the event was a slap in the face to the Persian Emperor Xerxes.  It would have political ramifications for years to come. As it occurred in 491 BC while Cleomenes was still king, he may have been the one to give the order and not Leonidas as depicted in the movie.  Persian envoys did return again in 481 BC, and their demands were refused more cordially the second time.

Leonidas meets the Persian envoy who demands a symbol of submission: earth and water.

Were the ephors really misshapen, corrupt priests to the gods who forbade Leonidas to go to war?

No.  300 diverges strongly from history in this scene.  Ephors were Spartiates elected for a term of one year to lead the government and administer Sparta.  They were proven hoplites like the ones who fought with Leonidas at Thermopylae, but their political role strongly counterbalanced that of the kings.  Thus they would likely have had the decisive word with regard to delaying full mobilization until after the Carnea, and this decision would likely reflected the Spartan consensus position. Leonidas and the 300 would have traveled north with their permission most probably.

The actual corrupt priests were those at the Oracle of Delphi whose prophecies were open to bribery.  These priests took a highly ambiguous position on the Persian invasion pre-Thermopylae which reflected the grave doubts in Greece that a resistance to the Persians could be successful.  After the battle, their prophecies became more pro-Greek.

 

Did the Carnea really prevent the full mobilization of the Spartan army?

Yes. The Spartans were known for being devout. The timing of both the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae were close to the Carnea which was usually held in September, and both times the festival prevented the Spartans from fighting at all or in any great number.  Historians speculate that this is no coincidence, and that the Persians in both cases chose to deploy at the most inopportune time for their adversaries.

 

Were the 300 chosen because they all had sons and heirs?

Yes.  Sparta was very careful about risking its Spartiates, and the expedition to block the Persian advance at Thermopylae was considered high-risk, although perhaps not explicitly a suicide mission.  It was intended that a main force would eventually reinforce or relieve Leonidas contingent, should he be able to buy enough time. So the 300 knew that they faced difficult odds and an uncertain fate.  They were selected because they had sons who could grow to replace them if they died.

Did Leonidas really ask the Arcadian allies to declare their occupations?

No.  This scene is inspired by an encounter a century later between the Spartan king, Agesilaus, and Peloponnesian allies who, just as in the movie, inquired as to the small number of Spartan warriors.  Agesilaus bade the entire army sit down; he then called out each civilian occupation and told them to rise; in the end, only the Spartans remained seated.

Did the Spartans encounter the devastation wrought by an advanced party of Persians on their march to Thermopylae?

No, almost certainly not.  For this to have occurred meant that the Spartans and their allies at Thermopylae would have been fighting with Persians to their rear which would have been highly problematic tactically.  More likely, the creators of 300 wished to illustrate the fate of those cities who defied the Persians and lost. After Thermopylae, Athens and Boeotia were ravaged by the Persians.

 

Did the Persians really lose around 400 ships to a storm prior to the battle?

Yes.  The weather played a key role in the gradual defeat of the Persian navy.  The Persians lost 400 ships in storms before the sea battle at Artemisium, and another 200 ships in an unsuccessful attempt to circumnavigate Euboea and surround the Greek navy.

 

Did Ephialtes ever meet Leonidas?

No.  This scene is completely invented for entertainment purposes and to dramatize the treachery of Ephialtes.  Ephialtes was a local shepherd; there is no record of him being disfigured, nor of him having Spartan roots.  Many Greeks sided with the Persians and even fought with them.

Ephialtes and Leonidas meet before the battle

Ephialtes and Leonidas meet before the battle.

Were rhinoceroses and elephants used by the Persians in the battle of Thermopylae?

No.  Including exotic creatures in combat was just of many artistic liberties taken by the producers of 300.

 

Did the Spartans fight in capes and bare torsos?

Certainly not.  Spartans wore a full panoply of bronze armor which reached down to their thighs.  They did wear red capes and garments, but removed them for battle.

 

Was Gorgo raped, and did Theron conspire against her and Leonidas?

These scenes are entirely fictional.  While Sparta had its share of political intrigue, there is no suggestion that Leonidas was at odds with other Spartans over the decision to stand at Thermopylae.  Nor is there any evidence that Gorgo had to fight nasty political battles against schemers who would bend the knee to Persia.

At home, Queen Gorgo faces intrigue, deceit and worse…

Was Leonidas refusal to retreat actually based on a Spartan law of ‘no retreat, no surrender?’

Not really, as other considerations played a greater role, such as covering the retreat of the allied forces.  Cowardice was despised by Spartans and punished too, but their notions of martial honor seldom led the Spartans to take suicidal actions.  The legend of ‘no retreat, no surrender’ arose not least due to Leonidas decision to fight to the bitter end at Thermopylae. In the many wars prior to and after the Persian war, Spartans would retreat and surrender and be captured on several occasions.  While some of these events were greatly frowned upon by other Spartans, there was also a pragmatic aspect to Spartan thinking, which resisted ‘fighting a lost battle,’ and preferred to ‘fight another day’ when the odds were better.

 

What of the personal animosity between Xerxes and Leonidas… did they ever meet?

The two leaders never met as depicted in the film, but Xerxes’ anger at Leonidas was very real.  At first, the Persian emperor had expected the Greeks to submit. When they refused and proceeded to trounce his forces and even kill two of Xerxes kinsmen in the battle, the emperor was enraged.  Remember, he was already carrying a grudge against the Spartans for murdering his ambassador, and now Leonidas was ‘impudently’ resisting the massive Persian army with a force which was but a tiny fraction of its size.  Xerxes would exact his revenge on Leonidas at the end of the battle…