HISTORICAL INACCURACIES IN 300
Entertainment and history often cross because most of the time life is much more interesting and stranger than fiction. However, entertainment often takes liberties with the real story to dress it up or make it more “sexy”. That’s fine, since most of us know that a fictional movie is not a documentary. In the movie 300 we are discussing today, the creator Frank Miller was up front about it. He said, “The inaccuracies, almost all of them, are intentional.” and in the same interview, “I was looking for more an evocation than a history lesson. The best result I can hope for is that if the movie excites someone, they’ll go explore the histories themselves. Because the histories are endlessly fascinating.”
That’s true. Fiction can be a great jumping off point for study. However, sometimes there are those little things that nag at us. Little things that take anyone who has some knowledge about the time period out of the suspension of disbelief. That is what I’m going to discuss today.
The Spartans were the amazing warriors they were portrayed as in the movie, however, there were some significant differences. Spartan babies were inspected for “defects” at birth, as shown in the movie, and if they were not perfect they were exposed to the elements. Plutarch described as “If after examination the baby proved well-built and sturdy they [the state] instructed the father to bring it up, and assigned it one of the 9,000 lots of land. But if it was puny and deformed, they dispatched it to what was called ‘the place of rejection’, a precipitous spot by Mount Taygetus, considering it better both for itself and the state that the child should die if right from its birth it was poorly endowed for health or strength.” Only the strong survived in Sparta.
Young boys left home to live in the barracks at seven years old to begin a rigorous education to become a warrior called agoge. The agoge also cultivated a sense of group belonging. The boys were divided into herds, or agelae, each under a leader. For the boys that they would honor even above their family. The boys ate together, hunted and trained together. Men did not even eat dinner with their wives until they were 25. The agelae was everything.
A coming of age ritual for a Spartan boy was not the killing of a wolf as in the movie. A Spartan boy was expected to kill a helot or slave. If the boy was caught murdering a helot, he was severely punished. Not for taking a life, but for getting caught. The murder was an exercise in stealth. Helots were a dime a dozen and the Spartans were some of the largest slaveholders in Greece. To be a helot in Sparta was the lowest of the low. According to Plutarch, they would get the Helots drunk and torment them to show the boys the evils of drink. They were also forced to till the soil for their Spartan masters, but were forbidden to make a profit. Xenophon said the helots would happily eat the Spartans raw if they got a chance.
Since the men were together in the barracks training to be soldiers, Spartan women had an unusual level of rights. Women could own property, the only place they could in the Greek world. They could also speak freely and were quite active in politics. However, in the movie Queen Gorgo is shown killing a council member. This did not happen, although, I’d place good money that she probably knew how as Spartan girls often were as athletic as their male counterparts. Gorgo was as formidable as her husband, Leonidas. Plutarch recounts this story, “When asked by a woman from Attica, ‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’, she said: ‘Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men.’” Damn.
Since eugenics was such an ingrained part of the culture, a young wife with an older husband could have children with a younger virile man. Plutarch describes it as such, “If an older man with a young wife should take a liking to one of the well-bred young men and approve of him, he might well introduce him to her so as to fill her with noble sperm and then adopt the child as his own. Conversely, a respectable man who admired someone else’s wife noted for her lovely children and her good sense, might gain the husband’s permission to sleep with her — thereby planting in fruitful soil, so to speak, and producing fine children who would be linked to fine ancestors by blood and family.” No wonder Spartan women had a reputation among the other Greek city states for licentiousness.
King Leonidas did defend the Thermopylae Pass with 300 men and said a lot of the awesome pithy sayings attributed to him in the movie. However, it wasn’t just Sparta alone. It was an alliance of Greek city states working together to defend against the Persians. The Spartans were buying time to evacuate the bulk of the army. They also did not fight nearly naked. They had body armor to protect them. The traitor Ephialtes did exist, however, he was not hunchbacked as he was portrayed in the movie. There was no record of Leonidas rejecting Ephialtes and sending him to the Persians. In real life he did it for the plain old motive of money. The character of Dilios was fictional. There were soldiers who were stricken with an ophthalmic injury and were sent home. One was a helot, who came back and died with Leonidas, the other was named Aristodemus who went home and was called a coward. He only redeemed himself at the Battle of Plataea by fighting with courage. Also, the general at the Battle of Plataea was Pausanias not the fictional Dilios. This is particularly egregious to some as Pausanias is regarded as one of the greatest generals who ever lived.
And that is just the Greek side of the movie! There were discrepancies enough on the Persian side to have the movie cause outrage in Iran. However, I’d love to hear what nagged at you!
Sources available on request