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The True Story of the 300 Spartans

With some of the best action scenes and characters that are larger than life, the movie 300 was a big hit. The story follows the 300 Spartan soldiers, an elite unit trained from a young age for war, and led by Leonidas, their warrior king (Gerard Butler, in the movie). But does 300 accurately represent the Battle of Thermopylae in the Peloponnese? How close was the movie to the actual events and characters? Who were the Spartans and Leonidas? 

King Leonidas in 300

The Real History of the 300 Spartans

In the real passage of events, an army of over 100,000 Persians under the rule of Xerxes set out to conquer Greece, both by land and by sea. The battle of Thermopylae – depicted in the 300 movie – was a real event during the siege of the Persians, but it was based on a comic book about the battle and the filmmakers changed a few facts to make 300 a more thrilling movie. In this article, we highlight the myths and reality of the 300 Spartans.

King Leonidas in 300

King Leonidas

Leonidas was not the only King of Sparta, like it shows in the movie. The other king of Sparta stayed at home to manage politics in the capital and to protect the city. Also, the real King Leonidas was about 60 years old when he went to Thermopylae, much older than he is shown in the movie. 

Events Before the Battle at Thermopylae

In the movie, Leonidas sets out to defend Thermopylae with his group of elite soldiers, like it was a brave solo mission. However, this isn’t exactly how it happened. When the Spartans learned that the Persians were coming and they needed to battle at Thermopylae, it was during a major religious festival called “Carnea.” The festival lasted for eight days and no conflict was allowed, much like was the case during the Ancient Olympic Games. So, Leonidas, one of the two kings of the Spartans, was sent to delay the Persians until the whole Spartan army could join them. 

Size of Spartan Army

Along with Leonidas’s 300 men, there were also 3800 Peloponnesians from the surrounding area – mainly Arcadians, Corinthians, Tegeans, Mantineans, Philians and Myceneans. All together there were about 6200 men in the army, plus another 900 if you count the three slaves for each Spartan warrior. This would still be impressive if we consider there were over 100,000 men in the Persian army. 

 

Similarly, this means that more than 300 men sacrificed their lives at Thermopylae. About 700 hoplites from Thespiae also joined the final fight to the death, meaning that more non-Spartans than Spartans gave their life in the battle.

The Persian Army

The Persian army in 300 are misrepresented as being disfigured in many ways, which was not true. The Emperor Xerxes I is depicted with many piercings. While it is true that Xerxes was worshipped as a God, he likely did not have so many piercings. 

Growing up in Sparta

Spartan boys were raised in a very specific way, living in common barracks and fed all the same amount of food, neither to starve nor to eat too much. As part of their education, they learned to fight, to gather their own food, and also to read, write, sing, and dance. In a particular challenge, every boy needed to wander alone in the wilderness for an entire year, barefoot, and to steal the food that they needed to live. 

 

Only by completing this education could they become members of Spartan society. This was represented well in the movie, except for the role of Leonidas. Leonidas, because he was the first child of the family and would become king, would in reality not be part of the same education system.

Battle Tactics

In the movie 300, the Spartan soldiers are sometimes shown charging the enemy alone, breaking from the formation. In reality, this would not have happened. The Spartans were strong especially because of their “phalanx” formation where nobody fights alone. If the formation is broken, they are much weaker. 

 

Spartan Armor

In the movie 300, Leonidas is the only warrior who wears a special headpiece with horse hair on top. This was done for theatrical reasons because there needed to be a way to make him look different than the common soldiers. In reality, every soldier in Leonidas’s army had this headpiece.

 

The soldiers are also depicted without armor, shirtless. This is not a correct representation because the real Spartan soldiers had heavy armor, and this was a secret to their success. Sometimes, the Spartan soldiers are even shown without helmets during the battle.

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