The heroic stand of the 300 men of Leonidas from Sparta (the number according to the movie 300) was one of best examples of Spartan courage against overwhelming odds. This tiny number of defenders was all that stand between hundreds of thousands of invading Persians and the Greek city-states. The battle was located in a very narrow pass in Thermopylae. Let us check some real facts about the background of this movie here.
Reasons for Persian Invasion
During the battle of Thermopylae, the Persian Empire was still young and prone to revolts. Some of these revolts occurred in many Greek city-states. Darius, wanting to expand his empire and being a usurper, gladly used this excuse to mount an expedition to punish the rebels and conquer ancient Greece. He sent ambassadors in advance to each city-state to ask for a gift of “earth and water” as a token of submission. These ambassadors were thrown into a pit and well in Athens and Sparta respectively.
The initial invasion force which landed in Marathon was repulsed resulting to a decisive victory, prompting Darius to withdraw to Asia. The Persian king raised another larger army but this time his Egyptian subjects revolted against him. This delayed his plan to go try to conquer the Greeks. While preparing to march against Egypt, Darius suddenly died passing on the mission to his son Xerxes I. When finally the Egyptian revolt was put down, Xerxes proceeded to ancient Greece by landing at the Hellespont.
The Battle of Thermopylae
Modern scholars would put the number of Xerxes men to be between 70,000-30,000 although ancient sources said that up to 4 million soldiers made up the Persian invasion force. Whatever the real figures were, it can be safely assumed that the Persians had an overwhelming numerical advantage over the Greeks. This is also true for the Persian naval fleet that would be beaten at Salamis.
The Greek land forces guarding the pass at Thermopylae totaled 5,200 led by Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. Strategically, the defense at Thermopylae was a force multiplier for the inferior Greek forces, negating the numerical advantage of the Persians. From a tactical point of view, the pass at Thermopylae was also greatly suited to the Greek style of warfare. They could employ their hoplite phalanx formation without fear of flanking cavalry attacks. At the time of the battle, the pass at Thermopylae was so narrow that only one chariot can pass at a time. This made it the ideal spot to defend for even a tiny number of defenders. The north was bordered by the Malian Gulf while the south stood the cliffs that overlook the pass. In the pass itself were three gates erected by the Phocians a century earlier to help in their defense against Thessalian invasions. For 2 full days, the pass was successfully defended by allied Greeks but during the 3rd day, a disgruntled local resident told the Persians that there was a parallel pass that led to the rear of the Greek lines. After learning that the Persians had outmaneuvered him, Leonidas dismissed the main body of defenders but retain a few hundred to help hold the pass. Almost all those who remained were killed.
Although the movie 300 was, at best inaccurate, especially in depicting the real number of defenders at Thermopylae, it was still one of the best Entertainment news to hit the screen.