480 BC - The Battle of Thermopylae & the 300 Spartans...and a bunch of other guys
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
AUGUST 17 - 480 BC. The Persians have invaded Greece, and this time they’re serious. As their massive army makes its way south, it is brought to a halt at the famous chokepoint of Thermopylae. Standing against Xerxes, King of Kings, are only 300 Spartans – and almost 7,000 other Greeks, but no one ever talks about *them.* The ancient world’s most famous battle is about to be fought – and history’s most resilient myths are about to be forged.
How much background do you guys need? I think most people have either seen the movie “300” or read the novel Gates of Fire, or even *gasp* read about this in a history book somewhere. I covered pretty much all the buildup to the Greco-Persian Wars like a week ago in my Marathon post anyway, and I will post that link if you REALLY need it here: (LINK)
If not, you guys know the score. Persians invade Greece, Leonidas and his Spartan warriors, the pass at Thermopylae, epic battle, slow motion, we get it. If I just repeated what we all “know” this would be boring. So I’ll talk about the reality…and how different it is from the myth.
Now, when I do a historical post that involves a movie in some way, I typically talk about how flawed the movie is, and that is usually for a very good reason. My wife and coworkers know that just mentioning “The Patriot” or “Braveheart” will send me into indignant rambling. But surprise, surprise: I am NOT going to lay into the movie “300.” Why? Because the movie is very obviously not depicting reality, but instead depicting the myth as seen by the Spartans. 300 is derived from a graphic novel of the same title, and if you’re getting your history from comic books (which can be very good pieces of art, but maybe not history) there may be no hope for you.
The graphic novel and movie 300, though, are the retelling of a *myth* - a myth that holds about as much to reality as Watchmen or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Forgive me, but I don’t think the Persians had prehistoric rhinoceroses as assault animals, or that Xerxes was nine feet tall, or that there was a giant obese man with blades for hands who served as the Persian executioner. The sequel 300: Rise of an Empire goes from mythical to ludicrous, but that’s a whole different story.
The broader point here is that the version of the Battle of Thermopylae told in this comic book and film is accurate in that it holds to the MYTH that the Spartans portrayed about THEMSELVES. The narrator of the story is a Spartan soldier, one of the only survivors of the battle, and the media make clear that he is an unreliable narrator. He promotes the Spartan system as superior to everyone else’s, makes sure everyone knows how much better and superior the Spartans are to their enemies, and portrays the Persians as a rampaging eastern horde, a vast tribe of barbarians ruled by effete feminine kings with vague homosexual overtones and accompanied by a harem representing sexual depravity. The dramatization of every event, the heroism of Leonidas, and the poetic nature of the Spartan struggle against insurmountable odds are all components to this enormous myth that has hung over the Battle of Thermopylae since…well, since days after it ended.
The Spartans are a people with a reputation that lasts to this day, to the point that every other unit in the U.S. Army has them as a motto. The Spartans had many qualities that made them a military power, but their most lasting advantage is the one that survives – their reputation. Sparta was one of the early experts at propaganda, milking every single battle it fought or even participated in as proof of its military superiority. This reputation is so strong that it survived the curb-stomping that Sparta received multiple times from the Persians, the Athenians, the Thebans, the Macedonians, and the Achaeans, before the Romans finally put them down in the 2nd Century BC. The Spartan government and military state, as interesting and fascinating as they are, have never been imitated for two reasons: the first is that it is terribly inefficient, the second is that it was a horrific dystopian nightmare to live in.
Soon after the Battle of Thermopylae was over, the Spartans were already making bank off of it. Only a city so devoted to its own self-promotion could turn what was obviously a terrible defeat into a symbolic victory. All those famous quotes that probably never happened, for instance, are imbedded into even 21st-Century American pop culture, which tells you something about the enduring quality of Spartan propaganda. I once had to convince someone that the Battle of Thermopylae was a defeat (?!?). Of course it was a defeat! The Greeks were wiped out and the Spartan King was killed! What do you call that? A tie?
So what really happened? Well since we almost all know the general narrative, I’ll address the myths one by one. I’ll use the words that my friends and loved ones have come to know and dread: “well actually…”
The Spartans: “We are fighting for our freedom!”
James Houser: “Well actually…”
The Spartan government was what might be generously described as a hell-state. It was a military dystopia of the highest order, where men were schooled from youth to be soldiers and the sickly and infirm were abandoned to die. Young men were schooled in war and separated from women until their wedding. Spartan marriage nights involved the young bride dressing like a young boy to appear less threatening to their new husband; she would be left alone in a darkened room to be ritually “captured” by her new husband, who had to sneak out of the barracks to visit her under pain of punishment. This was obviously not a culture that inspired healthy relationships or consensual sex, among other various social disorders, and by the 4th Century B.C. Spartan population decline was a serious problem. (Gee, I wonder why?)
So Spartan men weren’t free, and Spartan women could expect to be randomly set upon by their new husband who had to pretend she was a boy to perform the deed. Ok, cool, different strokes. Sparta REALLY loses its claim to the title of “fighting for freedom” when we get to the helots. Sparta had conquered local Greek peoples early in its existence, and ruled over them with an iron first. It was considered an initiation rite for young Spartan soldiers to go out and kill one of the helots for sport, and they were basically used as cattle and a slave people by the Spartan elite. So while the Spartans are ranting about how they’re fighting for the “freedom of the Greeks,” they were fighting for…some Greeks. Just not themselves, their wives, their slaves, or anyone they knew.
At the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans almost certainly had their helot slaves present at the battle, and this is of course never represented in the film. In a typical Spartan battle, the helots formed the rear ranks of the phalanx, clubbing the enemy wounded to death and assisting their Spartan masters should they be injured. Almost 900 helots would have accompanied the Spartan 300, and when the Spartans stayed to hold off the Persians, the helots remained to fight and die alongside them, which they did to a man. But no one ever talks about the 900 poorly armed noncombatants who fought to the death. No, we talk about their slavemasters. Freedom for the Greeks!
The Spartans: “The Persians were overwhelming, a great horde of barbarians!”
James Houser: “Well, actually…”
The Persians significantly outnumbered the Greeks at Thermopylae. In a sense, this is inevitable. The Persian Empire and its untested young King of Kings, Xerxes, would have been hilariously incompetent to bring equal numbers to any fight on purpose. The Persian Empire ruled almost the whole known civilized world, and since the Greeks had already beaten one of their invasions at Marathon, there was no reason not to bring many more troops for Round Two.
The Greek historians of the time put the Persian numbers at a million, which is not only hilariously untrue but literally impossible. The famous German historian Hans Delbruck pointed out that a million-man army was literally unsustainable in ancient conditions; they would drink every well dry, it would be impossible to feed them, and there would be so many men clogging up every road that an army of that size would starve and disintegrate before it got close to an enemy. Modern historians have revised “a million men” to about 300,000 – still GIGANTIC, but within the very highest limits of ancient capabilities – or even as low as 70,000. Considering there were 7,000 Greeks at Thermopylae, this does change the odds somewhat, especially when you consider that a large number of these men were transport/supply/support personnel. A big army has a big tail.
The heroic image of the few Greeks holding off the many Persians, though, neglects the much more impressive feat the Persian Empire performed to get its army to Thermopylae in the first place. An army of (let’s say) 300,000 men had marched in good order from modern-day Iraq across hundreds of miles and across a strait into Greece. It’s hard enough getting a platoon of modern soldiers moving in any direction at once (believe me, I know), can you imagine the organization and logistics it requires to move 300,000 people on foot to one location a thousand miles away? If anything, this makes the Persians look much more civilized than the Greeks. The bureaucracy, preparation and economy required to get this army to the campaign in the first place meant years of planning, prestaged food stocks and water stops, the assembling of thousands of horses and oxen and mules, the building of enormous pontoon bridges across the Hellespont, and a lot of diplomacy to ensure safe passage through multiple local areas. When you consider all the Persians had to do to GET to Thermopylae, it’s the Greeks that end up looking like barbarians.
Spartans: “300 stood alone against the Persian hordes! A couple other Greeks helped, but they weren’t important.”
James Houser: “Well, actually…”
Who today remembers that the Battle of Thermopylae was only one part of a bigger plan – a plan devised by all the Greek states in alliance against the Persians?
The Persians weren’t just marching a big army down into Greece. They were shadowed on the coast by an enormous navy that carried supplies, reinforcements, and provided transport for a possible amphibious assault. Given Greece’s dense and mountainous terrain, the navy was almost more of a threat than the Persian army, since it could negate any chokepoints or stalemates. The plan that the Greek states cooked up was as follows: the Athenian Navy would head off the Persian fleet as the Spartans led the land alliance to hold off the Persian army. The two battles would be fought within miles of each other, at Thermopylae and Artemisium: the only location in Greece where land and sea routes both narrowed into a chokepoint.
The commander of the Greek fleet at Artemisium was an Athenian named Themistocles, who we WILL see again when he, not Leonidas, saves Greece at the Battle of Salamis. Even if 50% of the plan was Athenian, though, even the land battle wasn’t a wholly Spartan affair. Much is made of the 300 Spartans, but this doesn’t just skim over the 900 helots that were fighting for their slavemasters. It also glosses over the nearly 6,000 other Greeks that fought at Thermopylae. The cities of Mantinea, Tegea, Thespiae, and Corinth all sent more men than Sparta. Sparta, in fact, held most of its army back even as some cities sent all they had. The Spartan King Leonidas took command of the combined army since – well – he was a Spartan. In reality, Sparta had less on the line than many other Greek cities at Thermopylae. At the very end, the 700 Thespians – who had sent every single hoplite their city could muster – would also stay and fight to death alongside the Spartans. But the movie wasn’t called “700.”
Spartans: “Thermopylae was really a victory, even if it was a defeat on paper, since it was a moral triumph and bought Greece time to prepare for war.”
James Houser: “Ha.”
It wasn’t. The Greek defeat at Thermopylae wasn’t meant to buy time for the Greeks; it was supposed to stop the Persians in their tracks in combination with the naval standoff at Artemisium. The Persians were not supposed to find a flanking route through the mountains. In the Greek histories, Xerxes’ discovery of this route is usually ascribed to the traitor Ephialtes, who betrayed the Greeks in exchange for some kind of reward. This narrative is a bit dubious, since two other men are also listed as having been the possible traitor, though blame was pinned on Ephialtes. When he was finally killed in 470 BC for unrelated reasons (it’s ancient Greece, there are tons of reasons to kill someone), the Spartans paid a reward to his killer.
So it’s not even known who betrayed the Spartans and Ephialtes is just everyone’s favorite suspect. In any case, my gut tells me that the “traitor” narrative is a distraction from military incompetence. The Greeks had not left the flanking route unguarded, but the Persians caught the Phocian Greek guard force sleeping and drove them into the hills. How embarrassing! No, it can’t be because the Greeks just screwed up, it had to be that traitory-looking guy. So when Xerxes actually pulled a good military move and flanked the stubborn Greek force standing him off at a chokepoint, he doesn’t even get credit for it.
Either way, when Leonidas learned that the Persians were coming around his flank, he made the self-sacrificing move that lies at the heart of the narrative of Thermopylae. He ordered the rest of the Greek army to escape while he and his Spartans (and their *cough* slaves) stayed to delay the Persians. The Thespians volunteered to stay as well, along with 400 Thebans – you know, those guys who would later wipe the floor with Sparta in 371 BC at Leuctra. Either way, they stood together now and died to a man.
This is part of the “Sparta never retreated” legend (a lie, the Spartans usually retreated whenever they were clearly losing, they weren’t idiots), but this legend misses the point. The Spartan sacrifice wasn’t out of their laws, but out of Leonidas’s recognition that Greece needed to live to fight another day – even if he wouldn’t. It wasn’t a Spartan sacrifice, it was a sacrifice of about 1400 Greeks who made a glorious last stand, the most famous last stand in world history, so that the rest of the army could get away. This cannot change that Thermopylae was a DEFEAT, a disaster, that only due to Leonidas' leadership and the sacrifice of his rearguard was not much worse.
The myth surrounds Thermopylae, holding it up as an example of everything it wasn’t and denigrating everything it was. 300 does not showcase reality, it showcases what Sparta as an institution wanted reality to be: a people fighting for freedom, standing alone against a tidal wave of barbarians. It’s a seductive, inviting myth, one that has inspired a thousand cultural interpretations and reflections. So much of this myth hides the true human heart of the story of Thermopylae: a commander deciding to let his army escape by holding the enemy off with a force of volunteers. It could be a story from any culture, any time. It wasn’t a fight for Spartan ideals, or for civilization, or for chauvinism or pride or prestige – it was a few men sacrificing themselves for their comrades in arms.
For all the glory that Thermopylae has brought to Sparta, it should bring much more to the men – Spartan, Theban, Thespian, Helot – who stood and died for their comrades, instead of a military myth that concealed a broken dystopia.