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By Emperor Barbarossa, 20 March 2007; Revised
The movie 300, released in early March, is perhaps the most extreme movie that is based off history. Unlike other movies (such as The Patriot and Braveheart), this movie is obviously cannot even pretend to look 100% accurate. One must note that before criticizing the movie’s accuracy, it was based off of a Frank Miller graphic novel. This is clearly shown by an attack rhino, elephants, a giant, a man with half-arms that are axes, and a Persian shah being over seven feet tall. As well, the depiction of pro-Persian leaning Greeks as lepers and deformed people is not based on actual history. 300 takes place during the Persian Wars in Greece and covers two battles, the Battle of Thermopylae, and the Battle of Plataea. Though the movie has many notorious inaccuracies, it still is correct in its results of the movie’s two battles.
The uniforms of the Spartans, the other Greeks that fought at the battle, and the Persians are inaccurate. The movie is accurate in its portrayal of Spartans with shields and helmets, but it does not show the breastplate that the Spartans wore. The Thespians are shown as very lightly clad, but they actually would have been armored very similarly to the Spartans. The Persians are shown as accurate except for the Immortals. The Immortals did not actually have metal masks (though they did put a black cloth over their face), and they did not have two short swords. Their uniform in real history is much more similar to the rest of the Persians in the film, a wickerwork shield, a spear, and a dagger. The Persian archers, however, would have never possessed such strangely shaped arrowheads as they would have taken too long to make and would not have been much more efficient than normal-shaped arrowheads.
The depiction of the Persians varies greatly from history. The Persians did control a part of North Africa, Egypt. However, the Egyptians were not blacks (though there was a very small Nubian population in the country), and there is a very small chance that any Egyptians were hired as diplomats for the Persian Empire. Therefore, the portrayal of two prominent diplomats as black Africans is unfounded. Persian diplomats would have most probably looked very similar to the final diplomat during the third day of the battle. Another exaggeration is the height of the Persian Shah Xerxes. was nowhere near to as tall as he was portrayed in the film. He was actually of normal height for his day. As the many Persian oddities, most of them either did not exist or were never used in the Persian War. The Persians never used rhinoceros to attack the enemy, nor did they ever have giants or men with half-sword-arms. On the contrary, they did have elephants, but they never used them in Greece due to the fact that elephants were hard to transport across a sea. The Persians were never as brutal as shown in the film, and they thus would have never made a tree of dead Greek civilians.[i]
The Greeks are depicted somewhat accurately in the movie. There are a few deviations on some individuals. Ephialtes, the man who betrayed the Spartans, is depicted horribly in the movie. Though some modern-day Greeks may not mind this due to the fact that the man’s name is synonymous with traitor (such as Benedict Arnold is to Americans), the man was not deformed in any such way. Also, he never asked Leonidas to join the Spartans in battle. It is unclear why exactly the man betrayed the goat trail, but the depiction of the meeting with Xerxes is a little extreme. The depiction of the high priests at the Oracle as lepers and perverted men is not based on any historical facts whatsoever. There were many more other Greek soldiers than portrayed in the 300 (there were originally 7,000 behind the 300 Spartans), of which were trained to fight in combat, and were not completely inexperienced.
There is some confusion over on which day that Xerxes sent in his Immortals, the first or the second day. At no point during the battle did Xerxes try to negotiate with Leonidas, conflicting again with the movie. This article will assume that he sent in his Immortals on the second day of the battle.
On day two the Persians sent in their elite unit the Immortals. The Spartans had never made a wall of Persian dead. Instead, they were in the same position as they were on the first day. The Immortals were slaughtered by the Spartans, just as the Medes had been beforehand. Many tried to retreat, but as portrayed in the film were flogged by their officers. The movie deviates from actual history when it puts cavalry, giants, rhinos, and elephants all attacking the Spartans. Late during the second day of the battle, the Greek man Ephialtes betrayed the goat trail, which led to the Spartan rear. As portrayed in the movie, Leonidas sent 1,000 Greeks to defend a position on the trail. Unlike the movie, the defending Greeks did not retreat; on the other hand, they were defeated by showers of arrows. This set in place the encirclement and defeat of the Spartans and their Greek allies.
The Persians now decided to attack the remaining Greeks. The Spartans and 700 Thespians covered the retreat of the rest of the army. The Persians surrounded the 1,000 man army. The Persians charged, and then later fired a shower of arrows until every last enemy soldier was dead. There was no plea from Xerxes to Leonidas to surrender, and there was also no throwing of a spear at Xerxes. At the battle’s end, every Greek soldier in the last stand was slaughtered.
Two very decisive naval engagements are completely ignored by 300. The first naval engagements were under Themistocles, an Athenian naval admiral. These occurred during the same days as Thermopylae, and saved the Spartans from being flanked early in the battle. Though Themistocles was defeated as the Battle of Artemisium, he had a few successes against the Persian fleet before his defeat. The other important naval engagement was once again lead by Themistocles at the Battle of Salamis. This decisive Greek victory crippled Persian morale, and later the war was ended by the Battle of Plataea.
The Battle of Plataea was a decisive victory for the Greeks. It is portrayed by the 300 as a battle with 10,000 Spartans and 30,000 Greeks, which by some estimates is true. This battle ended the Persian invasion, and Xerxes I finally accepted that he could not conquer Greece.
Leonidas’s wife Gorgo was not portrayed in any way accurately in the movie. She never was involved so much in politics as shown in the 300, though she was respected. She was never involved in a sexual way with any of the men of the war council. She never stabbed any member of that council.
In conclusion, the movie 300 is a great, but grossly inaccurate movie. Its use of modern day special effects leaves many audiences impressed. Its main message is accurate, that 300 Spartans stood against a much larger army of Persians. Though each and every Spartan died in the end, they took many more Persians with them. This battle is now known by many millions of people more due to this movie.
There has been some controversy over the use of the word barbarian to describe the Persians. This is one of the reasons many Iranians think that 300 had racist intentions. The Greeks in fact called any foreigner the Greek word barbaros, from which the word barbarian derives. Therefore, it was not a specific degradation or insult to the modern Iranian people.