In this article, we will take a look at the true story of the Spartan 300 and separate fact from fiction. Based on the true history of the Greco-Persian Wars, the 2006 Zack Synder movie 300 is an adaptation of a comic book by the same name written by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.
The epic historical action film brought the legend of the Spartan 300 to the big screen. It was sensationally popular with audiences during its widespread release in 2007 and continues to be a staple of pop culture to this day. Some parts of 300 are historically accurate, but others not so much. The plot of the movie revolves around one battle during the long Greco-Persian wars, the Battle of Thermopylae.
Is the Spartan 300 Movie Fact or Fiction?
The movie is not directly based on the historical event, but instead is based on a comic book that is a fictional retelling of the story of the Spartan 300 loosely based on fact. Both the movie and comic book do a good job of depicting what life might have been like for soldiers during the Greco-Persian Wars, but they aren’t 100% historically accurate. A lot of elements of the film are either exaggerated or completely made up to add to the plot.
While writing the graphic novel 300, author Frank Miller traveled to Greece to immerse himself in history. During his time in Greece, he walked the battlefield that the Spartan 300 fought on for himself, seeking inspiration for how to incorporate fact into fiction. He clarified that the novel was a work of fiction and that he took certain liberties to make it more entertaining while drawing on true events.
It took a lot of distillation of the genuine history and I’m taking an awful lot of liberties with everything, but that’s my job. If you want reality, catch a documentary.Frank Miller, Author of 300 Graphic Novel
The Real Battle of Thermopylae
The Greco-Persian Wars started in 499 BC and lasted until 449 BC. The Greeks would be engaged in a long series of violent conflicts with the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire.
The leader of the Persian army, King Xerxes I wished to subjugate the Greeks under his rule. There had been multiple unsuccessful attempts to invade Greece prior to the Battle of Thermopylae. King Leonidas I of Sparta led around 7,000 soldiers, including the Spartan 300, from the alliance of ancient Greek city-states in the epic battle against the Persians.
During the real Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans were celebrating “Carnea“, a religious carnival held in honor of Apollo Carneios. During the festival, no armed conflict was permitted. This left the city-state vulnerable to the incoming invasion and with a difficult decision to make.
They made the decision to send King Leonidas and his personal army to hold off the Persians until the festival ended, at which point they would be joined by the rest of the Spartan army. However, in the movie 300, they show King Leonidas as defying authority by leading the Spartan 300 into battle. That is not accurate to how it really happened and was done to add to the development of Gerard Way’s character.
Thermopylae is a narrow coastal passageway in Greece, called “The Hot Gates” in honor of the hot springs in the area. This is where the Spartan 300 intercepted King Xerxes I and the Persian army. The narrow passageway was the perfect location to ambush the massive army headed their way. At the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greeks also needed to block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium. The Spartan 300 were outnumbered by the Persians by at least 100,000 men.
They battled at Thermopylae for two whole days, and at first, the Greeks were successful at keeping the Persian army from crossing the passageway. The narrowness of the passageway was a huge advantage to the Spartan 300. Things started to go downhill for the Greeks when a local betrayed them by showing the Persian army a way to bypass Thermopylae via a secret shepards trail. The Persians were able to incircle the Greek army.
When the Greeks realized that their invaders had found an advantage point that would leave them outnumbered, King Leonidas I instructed the majority of the troops to go on without him. He stayed behind with the Spartan 300 to fight one of the most magnificent last stands in history.
Most of the Greek army retreated and fled, knowing the battle was hopeless at that point. It is unclear whether or not the Spartan 300 knew they were on a suicide mission or if they believed they would be successful.
The Spartan 300 fought to the death on the third day of battle alongside 700 Thespians, and a number of remaining Helots and Thebans. The Helots and Thebans were not professionally trained in battle the way the Spartan 300 were, making their choice to stay perhaps even more heroic.
How Historically Accurate Is the Spartan 300 Movie?
During the real Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC the soldiers were donned in their finest armor to protect against enemy weapons, but in the graphic novel, Frank Miller chose to leave the Spartan 300 shirtless and mostly uncovered. He did this for obvious aesthetic reasons, and audiences of 300 the movie were not complaining when Gerard Way took the screen shirtless to lead the Spartan 300 into battle.
Another notable difference between the physical appearances of the real Spartan 300 versus their movie depiction is their plumed helmet. In 300 the movie, King Leonidas is the only one out of the Spartan 300 to wear a plumed helmet as an intentional choice from the writers to make him stand out from the other Spartan soldiers.
In real life, all of the Spartan soldiers would have worn the iconic plumed helmet. What the movie and comic book did get right is the Spartan 300’s round bronze shields as well as their weapons of choice: a short sword and a long lance. The Persians would have been more heavily armed, but their shields were weaker which would have given the Spartan 300 a slight advantage if they had not been so outnumbered.
Their battle strategy in the movie versus in real life also differs. In order for the Spartan 300 and the alliance of Greek city-states to hold back the massive Persian army, they would have had to stay in a strict formation called the phalanx. The movie shows the soldiers breaking formation many times, but in real life, they would not have been able to hold off the Persian army in this way.
How Does the Spartan 300 Movie Compare with History?
Hollywood is the world of “good guys” versus “bad guys”, but in real-life conflicts, there is more of a gray area. In order to keep audiences rooting for the Spartan 300, the writer chose to leave out any details that would cast the Spartans in a negative life. The movie has also come under fire for the depiction of the Persians as crude and bloodthirsty, which some have called xenophobic. In real life the Persians were well-trained, educated soldiers who had respect for the Greeks.
No historians from the past ever recorded anything about armed rhinos or elephants fighting in the Battle of Thermopylae, but director Zack Synder included them in the Persian camp for shock value. This fantastical element of the movie is fun to watch, but it did not really happen.
The movie also makes it seem like the Spartans were the only ones leading the resistance against the Persian invasion. In reality, many of the Greek city-states had formed alliances and Sparta was just one of the many city-states that rallied against the invasion. Along with the Spartan 300, thousands of soldiers from other city-states joined King Leonidas in the Battle at Thermopylae.
King Xerxes and King Leonidas were real kings that lead armies during the Greco-Persian Wars, but the 300 movie draws a lot from imagination when it comes to portraying their characters. They never spoke face to face in real life, and King Xerxes was not actually 9 ft tall like in the movie. The kings both probably looked a lot different than the actors when they were alive..
King Leonidas was one of two kings of Sparta at the time, a fact that the movie conveniently leaves out. Another notable difference between Gerard Butler’s character and the real King Leonidas would be age. During the real Battle of Thermopylae, King Leonidas would have been at least 60 years old, but Gerard Butler was only in his early 30’s when he took to the big screen to utter the unforgettable line: “This is Sparta!”
Did King Leonidas really shout “This is Sparta!” when killing King Xerxes messengers? Most likely not. This critical plot point of the film is not completely made up though. Long before the Battle of Thermopylae, King Xerxes had sent his messengers to ask for “earth and water” (a symbol of the Greeks accepting their rule and surrendering), and his messengers were killed. He never sent messengers after that.
“This Is Sparta!” What Life Was Like In Ancient Sparta
Audiences were shocked when one of the opening scenes of the movie 300 shows a newborn baby being inspected. It tells us that if a newborn was sickly, small, or malformed it would be discarded. According to the writer and historian Plutarch, the Spartans believed that it was a favor to both their society and to the child for it to die as a baby if it were weak or sick.
The truth behind this legend is debated by historians. Inspections of supposed dumping sites of newborn babies have shown only the skeletons of adolescents and adults. This leads many to conclude that Plutarch may have exaggerated or made up his claims in order to throw dirt on the name of the Spartans, who he saw as immoral and violent.
Sparta was a society that revolved around the military. Spartan men were raised to be soldiers and kept slaves to do other work for them. They trained for war their entire lives, making them one of the most formidable armies of the time. In addition to training for battle, they also had a well-rounded education learning how to hunt, sing, and dance.
The movie 300 shows King Leonidas completing a rite of passage by slaughtering a wolf in the wild. The real Spartans did not hunt wolves, rather they were instructed to kill a slave and not get caught. This was to train them in the art of evasion. If they got caught, they were only punished for getting caught and not for taking the life of a slave, which they called Helots. Helots were slaves that were assigned to a specific Spartan, who was not permitted to free the Helot or to sell him.
From the age of seven, boys were vigorously trained. Sparta had no walls, which was uncommon for cities at the time. Instead, their soldiers were their walls. Boys who did not complete their training, called the agoge, were not allowed to become official citizens of Sparta. If they did complete their training, at the age of 20 they would become soldiers for the next 40 years of their lives. Only warriors could call themselves Spartan men.
The women of Sparta also played an important role by giving birth to warriors. There was a saying that only Spartan women could give birth to men. They also received a rounded education both at home and from the state. They were encouraged to participate in training the soldiers by publicly humiliating them and insulting them as they exercised.
The Battle of Thermopylae was not a deciding moment during the war, but it was a moment that showcased the bravery and grit of the 300 Spartans to take on a huge army knowing they would likely perish. It just goes to show that quality matters over quality.