Movie “300” and Battle of Thermopylae

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Have you watched the movie 300?

movie 300 poster 63073
300 movie poster, by Pencil Dragonslayer. image source 300

Its story is based on the famous Battle of Thermopylae, quote:

The Battle of Thermopylae (/θərˈmɒpɨliː/) was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. It took place simultaneously with the naval battle at Artemisium, in August or September 480 BC, at the pass of Thermopylae (‘The Hot Gates’). The Persian invasion was a delayed response to the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece, which had been ended by the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Xerxes had amassed a huge army and navy, and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Athenian general Themistocles had proposed that the allied Greeks block the advance of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae, and simultaneously block the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium.

A Greek force of approximately 7,000 men marched north to block the pass in the summer of 480 BC. The Persian army, alleged by the ancient sources to have numbered over one million but today considered to have been much smaller (various figures are given by scholars ranging between about 100,000 and 300,000), arrived at the pass in late August or early September. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for seven days in total (including three of battle), before the rear-guard was annihilated in one of history's most famous last stands. During two full days of battle, the small force led by King Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. After the second day of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines. Aware that his force was being outflanked, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the rear with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others, the vast majority of whom were killed.

After this engagement, the Greek navy, under the command of the Athenian politician Themistocles, at Artemisium received news of the defeat at Thermopylae. Since the Greek's strategy required both Thermopylae and Artemisium to be held, and given their losses, the withdrawal to Salamis was decided. The Persians overran Boeotia and then captured the evacuated Athens. However, seeking a decisive victory over the Persian fleet, the Greek fleet attacked and defeated the invaders at the Battle of Salamis in late 480 BC. Fearing to be trapped in Europe, Xerxes withdrew with much of his army to Asia (losing most to starvation and disease), leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. The following year, however, saw a Greek army decisively defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, thereby ending the Persian invasion.

Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending native soil. The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.


The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria had supported the unsuccessful Ionian Revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius I in 499-494 BC. The Persian Empire was still relatively young, and prone to revolts amongst its subject peoples. Moreover, Darius was a usurper, and had spent considerable time extinguishing revolts against his rule. The Ionian revolt threatened the integrity of his empire, and Darius thus vowed to punish those involved (especially those not already part of the empire). Darius also saw the opportunity to expand his empire into the fractious world of Ancient Greece. A preliminary expedition under Mardonius in 492 BC, to secure the land approaches to Greece, re-conquered Thrace, and forced Macedon to become a client kingdom of Persia.

In 491 BC, Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states, asking for a gift of ‘earth and water’ in token of their submission to him. Having had a demonstration of his power the previous year, the majority of Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were executed by throwing them in a pit to receive “earth”; in Sparta, they were thrown down a well to receive “water”. This meant that Sparta was also effectively at war with Persia.

Darius thus put together an amphibious task force under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC, which attacked Naxos, before receiving the submission of the other Cycladic Islands. The task force then moved on Eretria, which it besieged and destroyed. Finally, it moved to attack Athens, landing at the bay of Marathon, where it was met by a heavily outnumbered Athenian army. At the ensuing Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a remarkable victory, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Persian army to Asia.

Darius therefore began raising a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition. Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt, and very quickly re-started the preparations for the invasion of Greece. Since this was to be a full scale invasion, it required long-term planning, stock-piling and conscription. Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be bridged to allow his army to cross to Europe, and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos (rounding which headland, a Persian fleet had been destroyed in 492 BC). These were both feats of exceptional ambition, which would have been beyond any other contemporary state. By early 480 BC, the preparations were complete, and the army which Xerxes had mustered at Sardis marched towards Europe, crossing the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges.

The Athenians had also been preparing for war with the Persians since the mid-480s BC, …

Movie “300”, the Review

By the way, the film 300 is a fantasy fairy tale. It has little to do with actual history. Here's some bits from Wikipedia:

… Rotten Tomatoes's critics rates it 5.6 out of 10. Metacritic, rates it 51 out of 100.

A.O. Scott of The New York Times describes 300 as “about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid,”; Scott also poked fun at the buffed bodies of the actors portraying the Spartans, declaring that the Persian characters were “pioneers in the art of face-piercing” but that the Spartans had access to “superior health clubs and electrolysis facilities”.

Kenneth Turan writes in the Los Angeles Times that “unless you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a video-game-playing teenage boy, you will not be endlessly fascinated.

Roger Ebert, in his review, gave the film a two-star rating, writing, “300 has one-dimensional caricatures who talk like professional wrestlers plugging their next feud.

Some critics employed at Greek newspapers have been particularly critical, such as film critic Robby Eksiel, who said that moviegoers would be dazzled by the “digital action” but irritated by the “pompous interpretations and one-dimensional characters.

Variety's Todd McCarthy describes the film as “visually arresting” although “bombastic”.

Kirk Honeycutt, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, praises the “beauty of its topography, colors and forms.”

Empire gave the film 3/5 having a verdict of “Visually stunning, thoroughly belligerent and as shallow as a pygmy's paddling pool, this is a whole heap of style tinged with just a smidgen of substance.” 300 was warmly received by websites focusing on comics and video games. …

Ephraim Lytle, assistant professor of Hellenistic History at the University of Toronto, states that 300 selectively idealizes Spartan society in a “problematic and disturbing” fashion, as well as portraying the “hundred nations of the Persians” as monsters and non-Spartan Greeks as weak. He suggests that the film's moral universe would have seemed “as bizarre to ancient Greeks as it does to modern historians.”

In short, if you enjoy the brainless video-game of violence, fantastic heros and evil monster bad guys, this movie is for you.