The 300 Spartans movie - fiction or reality ?

I know, it’s not the latest movie but for me it is since I couldn’t manage to see it before. I bought the DVD almost 1 year ago but no time to see it since my movie collection at home is really big. And by the way this is an informational blog not a news blog so I am excused. Like many of you who saw the movie I started to put myself questions about the real story. And I found many, many more than interesting historical things to share. In case you don’t know already let’s see what is all about. I really start to think history is cool, not boring at all. I hope you enjoyed the history of condiments I shared with you a while ago. If not visit the detailed archive when you have the time. In this article it’s about some more heavy action type of history.

Who were the amazing 300 ? The most well-known hoplites of the Greek Empire, who were trained from childhood in combat and warfare to become an exceptionally disciplined and superior fighting force. So the movie subject is true. The “Hoplite” term goes back in the Ancient Greek history. First this was related to a more simple type of army related to normal citizens who were train with easy methods to become in a very short time soldiers. But of course this never meant they were also good, just manageable. Almost all the famous men of Ancient Greece, including philosophers and playwrights, fought as hoplites. In time the methods become more and more developed and than Spartans were really specials since they started early in life to breath like warriors. Their method was the most efficient and amazing through all Greece. So the exceptional performance of their skills in the movie it’s not so far from the truth.
Let’s dig more !
All this army culture started when the Spartans could really afford to focus just on the art of war. They managed that by conquering the nearby lands and ussing the people called Helots like farmers on their lands, so they could sustain whole Sparta with food. The helots were used as unskilled serfs, tilling Spartan land. Helot women were often used as wet nurses. Helots also travelled with the Spartan army as non-combatant serfs. This happened in the 8th-7th centuries BC. So Sparta became millitarized.
Like in the movie the hard training started from the age of seven for every spartan boy. Their biggest power was fueled by their unfearness of death. Their big threat was just humiliation from a potential victory of the enemy. In the movie the wife of Leonidas tells him before he went to war “ to return with his shield or upon it”. This quite I admired but didn’t understand it. Now I do, because seems like this was their saying every time they went to war. Because throwing away a soldier's aspis was not acceptable.

“The Spartans did, unusually, have a standard-issue equipment, including a shield called the aspis, featuring the Greek letter lambda (Λ), in reference to their homeland Lacedaemonia and the bronzed cuirass that was bestowed upon all of the Spartans with their helmet. Every Spartan wore a scarlet robe to represent them as Spartans, though the cape was never worn in combat. The Helots would usually accompany the Spartans in battles and provide ranged support, for the Spartans thought of archery as a job unfit for a true warrior. The Helots also set camps and performed labour for the Spartans whilst on campaign.”

The big battle from the movie in reality is called Battle of Thermopylae. Here indeed the legendary 300 were present but along with Thespian, Theban troops and a lot of Helots.
Interesting but also not so flatering thing about Spartans was how they treated the helots, so a bit different like we would think from the movie. Ok they were trained indeed to be perfect warriors and this made them less sensitive to others, but still. Anyway history shows that defending freedom and fighting against slavery like in the movie it’s not exactly true. They treated the poor helots like their slaves and did everything to remind them their status. Let’s see how:

"According to Myron of Priene[39] of the middle 3rd century BC,
"They assign to the Helots every shameful task leading to disgrace. For they ordained that each one of them must wear a dogskin cap (κυνῆ / kunễ) and wrap himself in skins (διφθέρα / diphthéra) and receive a stipulated number of beatings every year regardless of any wrongdoing, so that they would never forget they were slaves. Moreover, if any exceeded the vigour proper to a slave's condition, they made death the penalty; and they allotted a punishment to those controlling them if they failed to rebuke those who were growing fat".[40]
Plutarch also states that Spartans treated the Helots "harshly and cruelly": they compelled them to drink pure wine (which was considered dangerous - wine usually being cut with water) "…and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs…" during syssitia (obligatory banquets)[41]
Helots did not have voting rights, although compared to non-Greek chattel slaves in other parts of Greece they were relatively privileged. The Spartan poet Tyrtaios refers to Helots being allowed to marry.[42] They also seem to have been allowed to practice religious rites and, according to Thucydides, own a limited amount of personal property.[43]
Relations between the helots and their Spartan masters were hostile. Thucydides remarked that "Spartan policy is always mainly governed by the necessity of taking precautions against the helots."[44][45]
Each year when the Ephors took office they routinely declared war on the helots, thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without the risk of ritual pollution.[46] This seems to have been done by kryptes (sing. κρύπτης), graduates of the Agoge who took part in the mysterious institution known as the Krypteia.[47]
Around 424 BC, the Spartans murdered two thousand helots in a carefully staged event. Thucydides states:
"The helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went round the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon afterwards did away with them, and no one ever knew how each of them perished."[48][49]"

Another interesting moment which catched my eye was the start of the movie when every child was tested if it’s really healthy and looking in order. In reality I found that was true. First test was made after birth by the mother who bathed the child in wine to see if survives. If this test was a succes and baby still alive than was brought before the Gerousia by his father. Here another checking was made to see if the child is fitt enough and good looking. If the child looked weird, was deformed or skinny he was thrown into a chasm in a place called “the place of rejection”. So Spartans really made a harsh selection to maintain their “fitt” reputation. They were a Military City-State in Greece and many of the greek laws were aplied, but we could say Spartans took everything literally and in the harsh sence. This kind of treatments were everywhere in Greek empire even in Athen but not so obviously like in Sparta. About boy’s right of passage the movie version with the wolf is not true. Indeed they had a test but another one, murder. And here again enter in the scene the already known helots, yes a boy needed to kill one without being caught, if he was than he couldn’t escape from punishement, but if he wasn’t caught than was considered initiated in the art of evasion.

Then when the child grow had to pass some other steps to can be called a citizen. Just the agoge were eligible, or translated those who finished their typical Spartan education process, no exceptions but 2. Foreign students invited to study in Sparta called Trophimoi and the Syntropoi, those helots who were adopted legitimally by their masters and payed their scholarhip. So life was not so easy to many.

Even in death you needed to have some special status to have headtsones - just the glorious soldiers and in case of women those who served for a divine cause or died in childbirth. This characteristics for me are indicators that very few had this headstones compared to the whole spartan nation.

If you think the hard things are over oh you are really wrong.
What do you think was the custom for the wedding night ?
“The custom was to capture women for marriage(...)The so-called 'bridesmaid' took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man's cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom—who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always—first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.[72] The husband continued to visit his wife in secret for some time after the marriage.”Nice.

Also the movie shows sort of sexual eguality – was this true ? Pretty much. This was pretty known about Spartans, that compared to other greek societes here women enjoyed a fair status. They could enjoye the power of property sameway if it was their own or their husband who were away with the army; had the same rights when came about divorcing; they could wear any kind of dresses and many times short ones without problems; were free to have children of other men for good of the city; could interfere in historical decission and we have a good example of that like in the movie. The wife of Leonidas who was in reality Queen Gorgo - heiress to the throne after his dead. She is unique for being the daughter of a king of Sparta, the wife of another king of Sparta, and the mother of a third king of Sparta. Her birth date is uncertain, but is almost certain to have been between 510 and 506 BC, based on Herodotus dating (Histories, 5:51). According to Plutarch, before the Battle of Thermopylae, knowing that her husband's death in battle was inevitable, she asked him what to do. Leonidas replied "marry a good man who will treat you well, bear him children, and live a good life."
Plutarch's Moralia contains a collection of "Sayings of Spartan Women", including a laconic quip attributed to Gorgo: when asked by a woman from Attica why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men, she replied "Because we are the only women who are mothers of men".
So Sparta was a very proud nation.

Girls as well as boys exercised nude, and young women as well as young men may have participated in the Gymnopaedia ("Festival of Nude Youths").

And at last let’s see more historical facts about the big battle. The battle really deserves his historical place and indeed was led against Persian Empire of Xerxes I of Persia alias Xerxes The Great. We find that many things from the battle are true. By the way, the battle took place in 480 B.C. We find the outnumbered spartans, the well known 300 + 1000 other Greeks. For 7 days Leonidas and his army resisted until the Persians broke Leonidas phalanx. The traitor story behind is also true, the real name of that grotesc character was Ephialtes and he really showed the secret pass around the mountains which led Persians to victory. We know from the movie that spartans were prepared to come and win against Persians. In reality the Persians succeded to capture Athens because of that delay and all the Athenians and Spartans were driven to their last line of defense in the Saronic Gold and Isthmus of Corinth. After this events many stories started about what really happened but we will rely on Herodotus. Seems like Xerxes distroyed Athens by setting it on fire which made the whole greek nation very furious since Athens was one of the most important centre of trade and commerce at that time. Even Xerxes found his own idea stupid and next day he ordered to rebuild Athens. After that persians tried to kept their victory but in the final they retreated when all their suplies were distroyed. Their withdrawal roused the Greek city-states of Asia.

About their uniform, I will quote Frank Miller himself who was questioned if was real that spartans were fighting without body armor: "I took those chest plates and leather skirts off of them for a reason. I wanted these guys to move and I wanted 'em to look good. ... Spartans, in full regalia, were almost indistinguishable except at a very close angle."
Like we see now Spartans can provide a big variety of good subjects to any clever film producer. But now we are even double winners since we know the history version too.


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