Rise of an Empire: Much Fiction, Little History

Despite its similarities in style to the original “300,” the sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,”  doesn’t stick to the actual historical events to any great extent. Instead, it reinvents large sections of the storyline following the comic book “Xerxes” upon which it is based.  The story, as it is told, revolves mostly around the Athenians and their brilliant admiral, Themistocles, whose military strategy and ardent effort to defend Greece from the Persians made him a legend.  Taking place both concurrently with and after the events of “300,” “Rise of an Empire” describes the Greek naval campaign to block, and then destroy the Persian fleet as it moves south towards Athens. 


Appropriately, the beginning of the movie explains the background for the events of 480 BC: a decade earlier, the Athenians and their allies had faced off against a Persian force which had landed near Marathon.  Led by the Persian emperor, Darius, father of Xerxes, the invasion was a response to the Ionian Revolt in Asia Minor in which Athens had played a role, but it was also a result of the expansionism inherent to the Persian Empire’s world view.  The storming of the Persian beachhead is depicted with the glorious slow-motion violence and gore which is a hallmark of the “300” movies. Immediately though, the plot departs from historic events – Themistocles did not mortally wound Darius in the battle as depicted in the movie; in fact, the emperor only died years later of ill-health.  And the architect of the Athenian victory at Marathon was the general Miltiades, and not Themistocles.

The Athenians charge the Persian beachhead at Marathon.

After the introduction of Themistocles, the scene turns to the imperial court in Persia: the death of Darius, the machinations of Artemisia and the rise of Xerxes to the throne.  Artemisia, the Greek queen of Caria, was indeed a local ruler within the Persian Empire who owed fealty to Darius and afterwards to Xerxes. However, her actions at the Persian court and her complex relationship with Xerxes are wholly invented in “Rise of an Empire” where she is portrayed as the vengeful foe of Themistocles.  Her backstory, which involves the slaughter of her family and her rape, are also entirely fictitious. In his Histories, Herodotus presents the real Queen Artemisia as a brave leader and cunning advisor to Darius. Had the Persian emperor followed her advice, the invasion would probably have turned out differently. While she was not the commander of the Persian fleet as depicted in the film, her martial prowess did impress Xerxes.

In the film, Queen Artemisia commands the Persian fleet.

In Athens, the decade after the battle of Marathon saw political upheaval, as the citizens debated what to do about the future return of the Persians to Greece.  The divisions of the periods are portrayed in the movie scene where Themistocles addresses a raucous assembly, but the actual political events which led to the consolidation of Themistocles leadership are too complex to explain in an action movie.  


Eager to establish an alliance with Sparta, Themistocles travels there to learn the intentions of the Lacedaemonians.  Leonidas has gone to the Oracle of Delphi, so the Athenian consults with Queen Gorgo. His fears are partially assuaged when the queen tells him that the demands of Xerxes were rejected.  The exchange between Themistocles and Gorgo is fictional, but still highly illustrative of the suspicions and lack of trust which characterized relations between Sparta and Athens, two cities who differed so greatly, socially and philosophically.  Themistocles knew that he needed the Spartans to stop the Persians, and to help unite the other Greek city-states, some of whom were or had been at odds with one another. There were extensive discussions between him and the Spartan leaders which resulted in an agreement on strategy, and the forming of an alliance.  Ultimately, Themistocles went as far as to accept Spartan military leadership of the Greek alliance, the Hellenic League, both on land and at sea. Despite the fact that the Spartan navy in 480 BC was miniscule (a mere ten Spartan triremes fought at Artemisium), and that the Athenians triremes comprised more than half of the entire fleet, the fleet would serve under a Spartan admiral, Eurybiades.  To be sure, Themistocles was the true genius behind the naval strategy, but the Spartan commander would be critical in maintaining the unity of the fleet. Eurybiades however is not in the film at all, nor are there any Spartan vessels present in the naval battles in the movie until the very end, which gives the wrong impression entirely. The Spartans and other Greeks fought alongside the Athenians from the first.  

Themistocles meets Queen Gorgo to learn Sparta’s intentions.

The battle at Artemisium was the first contest between the Greek and Persian navies.  As mentioned in the film, the Athenians were farmers and craftsmen, not sailors, and the city had taken a monumental decision to invest heavily in building a large fleet and then to train itself in naval combat through a process that took years.  It was all part of Themistocles’ grand strategy. He had also picked the location of the battles – Thermopylae on land, and the nearby Malian Gulf where the navy could protect the army from being cut off by a Persian naval landing to its rear. Artemisium lay at the northern entrance to the Malian Gulf at the tip of the island of Euboea.


The Persian fleet was enormous, and may have surpassed a thousand triremes in number.  Their chief problem was the diversity of peoples represented which caused command and control issues; in effect, the Persian navy was not one navy, but a collection of units.  Sailing south down the coast of Magnesia through storms, they anchored on the peninsula opposite the Greeks.   


The Persians were in no hurry to engage, and instead sent two hundred triremes to circumnavigate Euboea, hoping to trap the Greek navy.  For their part, the Greeks wished to skirmish and test the strength of the enemy. They succeeded in drawing out the larger and heavier Persian ships over the same three days that Leonidas and the 300 fought at Thermopylae.  There were clear contrasts in the tactics used by each side. The Persians preferred to swarm the enemy, grappling and boarding with their large marine contigents, while the Greeks wanted to use their superior maneuverability to close, ram their opponent and then withdraw.  The Greek fleet had been practising maneuvers for several weeks (and the Athenians for over a year). The Persians managed to encircle the Greeks, but the latter arranged themselves in a smaller circle with their bows pointing outward toward the Persians, and when the signal was given, they leapt forwards to ram the Persians.  The Persians withdrew with minor losses.

A Persian ship is rammed by two Greek triremes.

The Greeks soon learned that a storm had destroyed the two hundred Persian ship sent to encircle them, but they also received the grave tidings from Thermopylae where Leonidas and his men had fought to the last.  On this last day of the battle, the Persians sailed out in force, and formed a huge crescent to envelope the Greeks. Little is known for sure, but there is speculation that the Greeks responded by dividing their squadrons so that one could attack any ships trying to envelope the other.  The fantastic flame-throwing ships and suicide-bomber swimmers in “300: Rise of an Empire” are of course completely fictitious. Whichever way the battle was fought, the Greek losses were considerable, even though the they controlled the waters at the end of the day. With Thermopylae fallen, it was time to withdraw south toward Athens and Salamis.


With the road south now open, Xerxes’ army ravaged Boeotia and then Attica, pillaging and burning Athens.  Themistocles and the Athenians watched their city burn from the island of Salamis. Meanwhile, cracks had appeared in the alliance – some Peloponnesians favored taking a stand on the narrow Isthmus of Corinth where a wall was being built, but this would effectively abandon central Greece and Athens to the Persians.  The Athenians countered that if the southerners wouldn’t fight for them, then they would leave Greece in their ships, effectively denying the Hellenic League its navy. Such an outcome would have been disastrous for the Greeks. In the end, it was decided that the navy would stay in the straits of Salamis… but how to bring the Persians there?


Victorious on land, and at least undefeated at sea, Xerxes now paused to consider his options.  It was September 480 BC, and the weather would soon change and make campaigning too difficult. He had achieved his goal of destroying Athens, but his vengeance on Sparta was still incomplete.  Consulting his advisors, they almost unanimously told him to press his military advantage and destroy the Greek fleet at Salamis. Demaratus, the former Spartan king but now an exile, advised Xerxes to sail for the Peloponnese and thereby divide the Greeks.  Artemisia also thought along similar lines: she advised the emperor to wait out the Greeks until they ran out of supplies on Salamis, or alternatively to march his army on the Isthmus, forcing the members of the Hellenic League to consider their own cities before the interests of the alliance.  Had Xerxes listened to Artemisia or Demaratus, the war would have likely ended in defeat for the Greeks, but he did not. Curiously, the movie does present a debate between Xerxes and Artemisia but with the roles reversed: Xerxes preaches caution, while an insubordinate Artemisia decides to attack and finish the Greeks at Salamis.  History, turned on its head.

When the two fleets faced off at Salamis, the Persian ships outnumbered the Greeks by a factor of 2:1.  These were poor odds and many of the Greeks worried that they faced defeat. Themistocles on the other hand was confident, having noted the advantages that the Greek fleet had demonstrated at Artemisium.  He argued that in the narrows of Salamis, rather than somewhere else, the Greek fleet stood the best chance of winning. The Persians could not bring their numbers to bear there, and might even damage each other for lack of room.  While the Spartan admiral Eurybiades supported Themistocles strategy, others were unconvinced and feared disaster. With the Hellenic League sharply divided, Themistocles set in motion a plan which the movie echoes only faintly. He did not travel himself to the Persian fleet anchored at Phalerun but instead sent his slave, Sicinnus.  In a master stroke of psychological warfare, Sicinnus told the Persian court, and even Xerxes himself, that the Greek fleet was on the verge of dissolution, and would slip away soon. He may also have suggested, as Artemisia proposed to Themistocles in the film, that his master might change sides. The Persians, already in favor of attacking the Greeks at Salamis, could not resist the temptation to crush their dithering foes.  And so Themistocles got the battle he wanted.


Themistocles tactics aligned with what Sicinnus had told the Persians.  At first light, the Greeks feigned a withdrawal deeper into the straits and thus managed to lure the pursuing enemies into the narrowest waters.  The Persian fleet was commanded by Ariabignes, son of Xerxes, who led from the front. Immediately as the fighting began, his ship was rammed and hand-to-hand combat ensued, and Ariabignes was killed attempting to board the Greek ship.  Now leaderless, the Persian fleet struggled on in confusion, but began to take losses from the Greeks who had turned around to engage. Some of them began to take flight or beach themselves on the Attican shore, while Persian ships to the rear tried to enter the narrows and engage the Greeks.  The result was chaotic as the Persians floundered about trying to avoid colliding with each other, and not always successfully… The battle lasted all day, devolving into a general melee in which the Greeks got the upper hand. They captured and sank more than two hundred enemy ships according to some sources.  It was the final blow to the Persian navy for whom the Greek campaign now ended (the Persian army would winter in Greece to campaign again in 479 BC).


In the aftermath, Xerxes returned to Asia Minor with the remains of his navy.  Artemisia survived the battle, and she was rewarded and praised by Xerxes, who poured scorn on the other admirals.   Themistocles was the hero of the Hellenic League and he received great honors in Sparta. The Athenian navy, which had been the core of the fleet, was now the most powerful naval force in the Aegean.  The city would eventually recover, and begin a decades-long ascent to power in Greece, setting it on a collision course with Sparta.