The Amazing Truth Behind the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae

Last updated on January 25th, 2023 at 03:56 am

In 480 BC, a force of Spartans, along with many other Greeks, held off the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. Thermopylae is a famous battle in ancient history and endures in movies and books to this day. But what happened at Thermopylae?

Why did the Spartans choose to make their stand there? Let’s take a closer look at the battle and explore the true story of the 300 Spartans.

300: What The Movie Got Right

While the Battle of Thermopylae events happened long before the movie, you can’t forget the events of 300.

However, the 2006 movie got some things right. The Persians outnumbered the Greeks, and they didn’t stand a chance against the Persians in a head-on battle.

The movie accurately portrays the Spartan soldiers as the best warriors in Greece. They were highly trained, disciplined, and resilient.

Spartan soldiers were known for their bravery and were not afraid to die in battle. Spartans valued honor and glory; spartan boys trained to be soldiers and served their state.

The movie 300 also gives a good sense of the fighting at Thermopylae. It was brutal, and there was some hand-to-hand combat where the Spartans and their forces initially suffered minor casualties.

The Spartans used their shields to block the arrows of the Persian army using the Phalanx method. However, to diminish their vulnerability of low numbers, the Spartans did engage the sheer numbers of the Persian army in the pass on the Thermopylae coast, also known as the “Fire Gates,” named after the hot springs located there.

The Persian army was too vast, and it could not utilize its numbers to overwhelm the Greeks and, therefore, resorted to a new plan.

Eventually, the Persians could flank the Greeks, and this is where the horde ultimately defeated the Greeks. Although they were outnumbered and outflanked, King Leonidas and the Spartan soldiers fought to the last man, remaining behind to halt the Persian army’s advance.

The movie 300 is a great story, but its origins come from a graphic novel by Frank Miller and not the true story of the Battle of Thermopylae. Let’s look at what happened outside of the sensational story.

The Truth: The Life Of The Spartan Boys

To understand the Thermopylae, we must first understand the Spartans’ way of life. Spartan boys were taken from their families at seven and sent to the Agoge System. Historically, the program was formed by Lycurgus in the 9th century BC and was the foundation of Sparta’s military strength and political power.

Spartan boys were “raised” by the agoge and would train daily, learning how to fight and survive as a unit. After many helot uprisings, the Greeks first instilled the system to help Sparta maintain its power. 

Helots were Spartan slaves who made up most of the population. The agoge system kept the helots in line and prevented any future rebellions.

The Spartan boys learned how to be stoic and unfeeling. They were not allowed to show any emotion, complain, and were expected to suppress any pain or suffering. The harsh curriculum was necessary to make them tougher and more resilient in battle. Spartan boys were also given very little to eat so that they would learn to steal. 

Stealing was considered a skill that every Spartan boy needed; however, the boys received beatings if caught. The boys learned to read and write, speaking in modern-day laconic as Spartans believed that any action or routine that wasted time was discouraged.

The agoge system forced Spartan boys to endure pain and hardships, such as sleeping outside in the cold winter months and running long distances, to form their uncanny resilience.

Spartan boys would train for years in the agoge system, and if they passed all the tests, they would become Spartan soldiers. Each boy passed through three separate stages of training: paides (seven to seventeen), paidiskoi (seventeen to nineteen), and hebontes (twenty to twenty-nine).

Boys were grouped into “herds” and encouraged to fight and compete with one another. As a result, spartan soldiers were some of the best in Greece. Known for their bravery, they were not afraid to die in battle. 

The Greek historian Xenophon recorded much of Spartan history, and through his writing, we get a good sense of Spartan culture. He also talks about the Spartan way of life and how soldiers lived simple lives without luxury.

Spartan boys also dined in communal mess halls known as Syssitia, where they ate with men of different ages to instill layers of wisdom and experience throughout their upbringing. As a militaristic society, Spartans valued honor and service to their state. 

More Than One King Of Sparta

The movie 300 also depicts Leonidas as the only king of Sparta. There were two kings at the time, Leonidas and his co-regent Leotychides.

Leonidas wasn’t the first son of King Anaxandridas. Urged by the elders and against Spartan customs, Anaxandridas was allowed to take a second wife due to his first wife having issues conceiving.

From his second marriage, Anaxandridas had one heir named Cleomenes. Eventually, his first wife produced three heirs, DorieusLeonidas, and Cleobromtus.

Leonidas would endure the Agoge like his brothers, while the Cleomenes did not have to participate. In this way, Leonidas endured years of military training, honing his physical discipline.

According to Spartan customs, the eldest son would inherit his father’s position, so when Anaxandridas died, Cleomenes ascended to the throne.

However, Dorieus went to Sicily to establish colonies during his brother’s reign, eventually ending his life. Cleomenes died shortly after leaving no heir, making Leonidas next in line to take the throne. It’s important to note that although Leonidas was the ruling king, it didn’t give him full power as there was a second king, as it was customary in Sparta, named Leotychides

The Truth About The Battle: It Was More Than 300 Spartans

It’s easy to see why the story of the Batte of Thermopylae because so popular. It’s a great story – a ragtag group of heroes outnumbered and outgunned, fighting against the odds to defend their homeland. And while the basic facts of the battle are accurate, some details have been embellished over the years. 

For example, the famous movie 300 portrays the Spartans as a group of 300 men who were hand-picked for their strength and skill. In reality, while many Spartan men trained from an early age to be Hoplite warriors, the Spartan force at Thermopylae totaled between 700 and 1,000 men.

The number 300 is likely a mistake made by the ancient historian Herodotus.

Furthermore, Leonidas opposed Xerxes and his army with at least 7,000 men. While Athens and Sparta were the primary opponents of Persian rule, other Greek city-states joined them in the fight. 

Another popular misconception about the battle was that it was primarily Greeks against Persians. Instead, the Persian army consisted of Greek soldiers from states the Persians had conquered.

The other popular misconception about Leonidas’ entire force is that they were all professional soldiers. Most men who fought at Thermopylae were farmers or tradespeople drafted into service. Only the Spartan soldiers, conditioned for war from childhood, could be considered professional soldiers. 

The Heroes Of The Greek Forces At Thermopylae

When the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 BC, he brought a massive army. The exact size of the Persian army is unknown, but estimates put Xerxes’ army between 70,000 and 300,000.

In contrast, the Greek forces were tiny by comparison. For example, the Spartan force at Thermopylae consisted of between 700 and 1,000 men, while the Greek force numbered around 7,000.

While popular media depicts Leonidas fighting against corrupt bureaucrats to defend his country, the truth is more complicated. In reality, the War Council refrained from combat during the important religious festival of Karneia.

The council decided that a regiment of Spartans and helots would go to the pass to defend it while the remaining Spartan army remained home until the festival was over. Leonidas took his bodyguard along as he marched to meet the Persians.

While the movie depicts the 300 Spartans joining a small force of Arcadians led by Daxos, the truth is much different. Greek historians estimated that the army consisted of 3,800 Peloponnesians (Lacedemonians, Arcadians, Corinthians, Tegeans, Mantineans, Philians, and Myceneans).

In addition, 700 Thespians, 1,000 Phocians, and 400 Thebans joined the military. Finally, counting the helots who served each Spartan warrior is essential, putting their numbers around 900.

The Battle of Thermopylae: What Happened?

The Persian king Xerxes planned the invasion of Greece for years, but he was not the first king to have the idea. Darius I, Xerxes’ father, had already tried to send heralds in 491 BC to convince Greece to accept Persian rule.

The Greeks were offended by this message and refused. However, when Xerxes became king in 480 BC, he finally launched his attack. 

The Persian army quickly conquered much of Greece, including the city-states of Athens and Thebes, using their vast numbers to overwhelm their enemies. The Greek city-states had been at war for many years, but the Persians united them.

The Greeks realized they needed to put aside their differences to survive against the Persians. Therefore, King Leonidas led an army of Greeks to the narrow pass of Thermopylae.

In the movie 300 depicted him in his mid-30s and physically experienced. However, he was actually in his 60s and considered too old for battle.

The battle is also depicted as an all-out last stand to prevent the Persians from entering central Greece. While one part is genuine, the assault included over 270 Athenian ships defending the Artemisium against the Persian navy. 

The Spartans fought bravely against the Persians in Thermopylae alongside other Greek soldiers. However, while Leonidas and the Spartans used the Phalanx, it was more crucial to their fighting style.

In truth, Spartan soldiers rarely ever broke ranks, as doing so would make the Phalanx vulnerable and leave individual soldiers open to attack. So, while the movie’s action worked well for cinema, it wasn’t accurate in portraying the Spartan’s fighting style.

Persian Tactics

The Persians were a vast army with the numbers to overwhelm their opponents, and they used volleys of arrows to wear down their opponents. However, this tactic didn’t work against the Greeks at Thermopylae. Also, while Persians often rode horses into battle, it did not help them in close combat against the brutality of Spartan swords, spears, and shields.

Xerxes did not cross all of Greece with large elephants and other giant war animals; this was all for the movie. Even the fabled “Immortals” (a name given to the elite Persian soldiers) could not penetrate the Phalanx with their numbers and suffered heavy losses.

The Spartan’s Last Stand

Xerxes was desperate. His army was vast and time was not on his side. Soon, his army would suffer supply shortages and winter hardships. So, Xerxes searched for weakness; a betrayal revealed the flaw and allowed the Persians to break through the Greek lines.  

The betrayal was due to a local Greek named Ephialtes of Trachis, who betrayed his country for an enormous reward. Ephialtes led the Persians to a hidden mountain path that allowed them to avoid the Phocian wall and ambush them.

This path eventually led them to the city of Alpenoi, directly at Leonidas’ rear. The Persians took advantage of this opportunity. As they prepared to invade the pass, a runner informed King Leonidas of the imminence of the Persian attack.

The Spartans knew they could not win but could not retreat. So, Leonidas and the other Greeks decided that most of the army should withdraw and live to fight another day. However, he and the Spartans would stay behind and make their last stand at the Hot Gates, where they would buy time for the others to escape.

Despite the assumption, the Spartan warriors weren’t alone and were likely accompanied by their helots, Thebans, and 1,000 Boeotians.

It wasn’t long before the Spartans were surrounded and killed, including King Leonidas. While the Greeks lost and the Persian army advanced, the battle inspired other city-states to fight back against the Persians. 

The stand at Thermopylae also showed that a small but mighty army could take on a larger one and win. Thermopylae was a turning point in the war, as the Persians would eventually lose to Greece in the battle of Salamis.

The Battle Of Thermopylae Serves As A Inspiration

The stand at Thermopylae also showed that a small but mighty army could take on a larger one and win. Despite inconsistencies, the battle is still considered one of the most heroic last stands. It is a reminder that no matter the odds, anyone can find inspiration in the most unlikely places and that even in defeat, victory is possible. 

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