300: History vs. Myth

by Andrew Dansby

The Houston Chronicle

The battle of Thermopylae has been well represented in books - historical fiction and nonfiction - and films. Its brutal bloodletting and horribly stacked odds make it tempting as fruit for storytellers seeking to put their spin on an epic tale.

Frank Miller, who wrote the popular graphic novel "300," the source material for the new film of the same title, cited the 1962 film "The 300 Spartans" as an early inspiration. Another fine text is Steven Pressfield's gripping novel "Gates of Fire."

All of these tales present a heroic stand made by 300 Spartan soldiers who held off a much-larger Persian force, allowing an overwhelmed Greek army to retreat, regroup and ultimately win the Greco-Persian War, keeping Persia from sweeping through Europe.

Having taken place thousands of years ago, Thermopylae accounts are part history, part myth. We checked in with Dr. Barry Strauss, an esteemed Greek historian at Cornell University, to shed some light on the facts, the fictions ... and the factions.

The time: 480 B.C.

There's no disputing the battle took place in 480 B.C. Some historians believe it was August, though many, citing lunar cycles, put it in mid-September.

The historian: Herodotus

Herodotus is our main source for information on the battle, Strauss says. Do we like him as a historian?

"If 'we' is me, we do like him as a historian," Strauss says. "Not all of my colleagues agree. They'd say he's not the father of history, he's the father of lies. But by and large, he's a very good, reliable storyteller. He did take some poetic license, as all historians did."

The leaders: Leonidas and Xerxes

Xerxes followed his father, Darius the Great, as king of Persia in 485 B.C. Five years before the power shift, the Persians got walloped by a smaller Greek force at Marathon. Xerxes decided to carry on his father's plan to conquer Greece.

Spartan king Leonidas, who Herodotus suggested was a descendant of Hercules, believed the Delphic oracle's suggestion that Sparta would either lose its leader or be defeated, which Herodotus suggests played some part in his decision to take on such insurmountable odds at Thermopylae.

The "good guys": The Spartans

The size of the Spartan force has given it an air of noble underdog. But it should be noted Sparta had its fair share of questionable traits. Strauss mentions that they practiced eugenics to create "better, fitter Spartans."

He also says the Spartans were big on secrecy and often spread false information to scare neighbors. As Sparta grew, it conquered nearby areas, giving it "more land and a captive labor force."

The challenge: Suicide mission

Strauss describes Greek land warfare of this era as such:

"A very Hollywood affair, two armies meeting on a relatively level plain, marching toward each other and smashing into each other like two uncreative football teams. That's the basic idea."

Thermopylae was different. Outmanned on the ground, the Greeks hoped to prove victorious at sea. This required slowing the mammoth Persian land force until Xerxes was defeated on the water. Thermopylae was a tight valley close to the coast. The Spartans rebuilt a wall there and made their stand.

When a traitor revealed to the Persians another route that would make the Greek forces vulnerable, Leonidas kept a small fighting force and dug in, allowing larger numbers of Greeks to safely retreat.

Many historians question why the Greeks were caught at Thermopylae. Or why their numbers weren't greater. Given the resources, a suicide blockade was the only option, which sends many back to myth (the oracle) for justifying such a rash decision.

Strauss thinks Sparta's decision was "political" as well as a mistake. He suggests its presence was to strengthen other Greek states and support Athens, which had the strong navy.

He doesn't think the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae planned to be "kamikazes.

"I suspect that it was a blunder to which the Spartans reacted heroically."

The number: 300

Despite his earlier praise for Herodotus, Strauss says the historian was probably off - way off - with some of his numbers. Herotodus estimated the Persian force to be in the millions. Most historians today estimate the Persian army at about 150,000. But "that's no small thing," Strauss says. "The Greeks couldn't muster anything like that. It was the biggest threat they'd ever seen."

The 300 Spartans were elite, valiant warriors, but Sparta's penchant for enslaving neighboring areas added hundreds of soldiers (some more willing than others) to its ranks.

The quotes: "Come take them"

Hollywood's pre-battle dialogue - and for that matter, years of cinematic tough-guy commentary - springs straight from accounts at Thermopylae. When Xerxes ordered the Spartans to lay down their arms, Leonidas, according to legend, dared him to "come take them." Another Persian threat promised flying arrows in numbers that would "block out the sun." Legend has it, a quip was returned about the Spartan's preference for fighting in the shade.

It sounds great, but do we believe it?

"Whenever there's a speech reference by an ancient historian, you have to remember they thought it was their job to write beautiful speeches," Strauss says. "Your best hope is to get the gist of what was said. Sometimes they made things up."

He does say the clipped, tough-guy lingo was in character for the Spartans. "Laconia is the area where Spartans were educated, and `laconic' implies being short and to the point. They have a history of saying short, witty things."

The epitaph: "Go tell the Spartans..."

It's been translated a variety of ways, many of which begin, "Go tell the Spartans ... " The words, written by Greek poet Simonides, typically include reference to the Spartan soldier's sense of duty. It was carved in stone and placed at the burial mound at Thermopylae. The original stone is gone, but Strauss says the words, written after the battle, are not myth, even if some translations vary.

The graphic novel: Historical fiction

Author Miller has acknowledged the liberties taken in the film 300. An obvious one is that the Spartan force is bare-chested, rather than armored. Its king, Leonidas, is the only one with a plumed helmet. These alterations were to make identities easier to track through the action. In a way, they're a contemporary version of the liberties the original historians like Herodotus took with storytelling.

Strauss has no qualms with it. He hasn't seen the film, but thinks Miller's series was "very well done."

"I certainly agree with the idea it's fine to take liberties, especially if you remain true to the heart of the story. From what I've seen from the trailer and having looked at the comic book, they take very big liberties. But they also have the basic story right."

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Thermopylae: Sources, Illustrations and Notes for Further Reading


The name, "hot gates", is derived from the sulfurous spring on this photo.


The Spartans and Thebans retreated to this small hill, where they were killed by Persian archers.

Photos courtesy of www.livius.org

On Film:

"The 300 Spartans" (1962, Twentieth Century Fox.) directed by Rudolf Mate. Richard Egan as Leonidas, Ralph Richardson as Themistocles of Athens.

"Go tell the Spartans: History is Alive, and Kicking, and Exciting and Fun" Documentary (2004 U.K.) Host Bettany Hughes

Primary Source: Herodotus . Histories , Book vii, 207-229

Printed Sources: Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire

                          Frank Miller, 300 (a graphic novel)

(For scholarly resources, consult Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd edition, volume 4)  

Literary references: references to the battle are numerous and include:

Simonides (c. 556-468 BC):

Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by

That here obedient to their laws we lie.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, supporter of Greek Independence:
Earth render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three
To make a new Thermopylae!
"Don Juan" Canto iii, stanza 86