I don’t know if it’s just me, but over the past few years I’ve seen an uptick in movies and television shows about past eras and events. From the movie “300” to the recently ended “Spartacus” series on Showtime, and even the new “Vikings” series on the History channel, people everywhere seem to be interested in making entertainment of the past. As a man who spends a good deal of his time reading about history and studying history, it always interests me to watch these types of shows and movies from an historical accuracy perspective. (Addition: I wrote this piece about a year ago, but I think that with the release of the follow up movie this weekend it’s a good time to re-release the piece on this site. I’ll write a follow up on the new movie once I see it)
“300”, the story of 300 Spartans who stood against hundreds of thousands of Persians, eventually perishing while paving the way for an ultimate Greek victory against the Persian invaders is a favorite in my house. When my son was 3 years old he came into the room one day and I was watching it, and ever since it’s been his favorite movie. I think some of the values in the movie are great to teach him, and so I’ve always let him watch the movie as long as he didn’t just watch the fighting scenes (which is of course what he always wanted to watch). Over the years we’ve watched the movie hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and over that same time period I’ve done some reading and studying of the Spartans and their way of life. A good deal of the movie was historically accurate, and the principles behind the movie were also pretty much accurate, but a good deal of Hollywood went into it as well. Let me separate the two for you: Sparta from Hollywood.
The first thing that I find important to mention is the depiction of Leonidas as sole king of Sparta. This is not true, Sparta governed themselves under a dual kingship, descendents of the same two families inherited the throne. Those two family lines were believed to trace back to Heracles-or Hercules as you might know him-himself, and they were known as the Agiads and the Eurypontids. Leonidas was of the Agiad dynasty-as was his wife Gorgo, it was common to marry within the same bloodlines to keep the bloodlines strong and inheritances within the family. Since women in Sparta (as opposed to most of the Greek and rest of the world at that time) could inherit and own property, Gorgo was a prized bride. At the time of the Battle of Thermopylaes (the “Hot Gates”) Leonidas’ co-king was Leotychidas. Leotychidas was about 5 years older than Leonidas, and came into the throne a year prior to Leonidas. He also lead the Spartan forces to victory over the Persians following the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persian messengers would have spoken with both kings, not just Leonidas.
The next major historical inaccuracy was the depiction of “the Ephors”. In the movie “300” you’ll remember Leonidas climbing treacherous cliffs to speak to deformed religious advisors of some sort. This is not at all what the actual Ephors were. The Ephors were a 5 man council, elected annually. Spartan citizens over the age of 65 were eligible for election, and after being elected once you could not be re-elected. The Ephors actually really ran Sparta, turning the kings into figureheads, and more like generals than kings in the sense the title would mean anywhere else. Actions the kings took DID need approval by the Ephors, and one or two of the Ephors would occasionally accompany a king to a particularly large or important battle. They were not, however deformed religious mystics translating the word of the gods through drugged up teenage girls. In fact, the maker of the movie may have been more close to depicting “Delphi” where the oracle resided. The Spartans were famously pious-more so than almost any other civilization before or since-and were often set upon a path or deterred from it by the Oracle. This was a well known fact by their friends and enemies alike, and more than once the Oracle was bribed to manipulate the Spartans onto a desired path.
The last major difference in the movie and reality was the amount of soldiers sent to stand at Thermopylaes and face Xerxes and his forces. The movie (and title) would have you believe just 300 Spartans stood strong, with the possible help of a few Greek potters and farmers. This is not entirely true. While there were only 300 Spartan warriors present-and they WERE the best, all with born sons, and all expecting to die-the other Greeks joining them numbered about 7,000. This is the force that stood against Xerxes’ military might, until it was obvious they would all perish, when the foot path behind them was revealed by the traitor (that part was true). At that point, 298 Spartans stood, and the other Greeks left. It is believed that upon his death, the body of Leonidas was disfigured and mutilated by the Persians who hated him so much by the end of his stand. 2 Spartans were unable due to eye disease to stand with their brothers that day. Both ultimately died however, one hanging himself due to shame and the other in a heroically suicidal death at Platea the following year.
Four famous lines have managed to survive the ages and found their way into the movie;
1) When the Persians told the Spartans to lay down their weapons, Leonidas is believed to have actually said “Come and get them.”
2) When the Greeks discovered they were about to be annihilated by the Persians, King Leonidas stood up and told his men “eat a hearty breakfast for tonight we dine in Hades”. This would have been significant because Spartans typically did not eat breakfast, partaking in one meal (dinner) each day.
3) The Spartan Dieneces, one of the 300 DID in fact say “So much the better-we shall fight in the shade” when told the Persian armies were so great that their arrows would blot out the sun. Spartans viewed arrows as the weapon of the weak, the womanly even. They felt that a real man used a sword and spear to battle his opponents close up, and that only a coward would stand a distance off and rain down arrows.
4) The final line comes from before the battle, when Gorgo tells Leonidas “Come home with your shield-or on it”. This is something of a famous Spartan wife line. Spartan wives were well known for their resiliency and ability to deal with the loss of a husband or son. Sparta was a very community driven society, and wives or mothers as well as the men were expected to act that way. In reply to Gorgo’s request as to what she should do while he was gone he replied “Marry a good man, and bear good children.” In an even more shocking example of this attitude, another Spartan woman Argileonis was being visited by citizens of Amphipolis after the death of her son Brasidas. When the visitors told her what a great man her son had been, she replied “My friends, it is true that my child was a fine and good man, but Sparta has many men better than he.”
The final contradiction that strikes me about the movie “300” was the idea that the Spartans fought “for freedom”. They did technically-their own freedom. For few societies throughout the history of the world-if any-have been more dependent upon slaves and slave labor than the Spartans were. The Spartans were truly dedicated to war. You may remember a point in the movie when Leonidas asks the Greek soldiers what their profession was, and then asks his men what their profession is. His men were all soldiers, they trained all day, fighting and killing was the only thing they did. Spartan society revolved around “Helots” captured slaves from local areas, enslaved by the Spartans to run their lives for them. Helots were almost the equivalent of butlers, nannies, landscapers, gardeners, laborers. Upon their backs the society of Sparta ran.
Between the Spartans and Helots was another race known as “Perioeci”. They were essentially the tradesmen and artisans of the society. They were not slaves, but they weren’t Spartan citizens either, and weren’t afforded the rights Spartans were. Spartans were perhaps the most vicious and heartless masters as well. Their most elite soldiers formed a police force whose sole job was to terrorize Helots. Spartans lived in constant fear of rebellion (and often faced it) and so this police force would routinely murder, assault, or maim Helots they viewed as a problem. In fact, each year when the Ephors took office they made two proclamations, one of which was to declare open war on the Helots just in case any Spartan citizen felt like killing one throughout the course of a normal day. Interesting to think that these were the men who “stood for freedom”.
As we all know, Hollywood romanticizes every story, making them more attractive for the viewer. But if you’re interested in checking the historical accuracy, keep up with us here at major history. Have a request for a historical accuracy check on a movie? Let us know!