I’m sure very few people have not seen Zack Snyder’s film “300.” After the movie was released, interest in the Spartans and their story increased. Units began adopting hoplite helmets as their unofficial logos, and supporters of the second amendment adopted the phrase “ΜΩΛΟΝ ΛΑΒΕ” — King Leonidas’s famous taunt to his Persian adversaries.

Their popularity is well deserved, as the Spartans are among the greatest warrior cultures in history. The comic book by Frank Miller, upon which the movie was based, is a masterpiece, although it is only an adaptation of the historical facts. Those historical facts are impressive, especially to anyone that has served, as they are the embodiment of honor and duty.

The Battle of Thermopylae

The Persian Empire under the rule of King Darius was expanding to Europe and had already conquered Thrace and Macedonia before attempting to subjugate the rest of Greece. To be sure, this campaign was not for economic gain, since the Greek city-states were not wealthy. It may have held been for strategic reasons due to Greece’s position in the Mediterranean, but the most plausible reason for the Persian expansion seems to be the pursuit of prestige or the need to quell potentially troublesome neighbors.

Anyhow, the Persians decided to send envoys to all southern Greek cities, asking for their surrender. The response of Athens and Sparta was clear and harsh; the envoys were killed. Athens and Sparta then formed an alliance.

Site of the battle today. the road is where the shoreline reached when the battle took place
The site of the battle. The road is where the shoreline was when the battle took place.

The first Persian invasion, led by Datis and Artaphernes, was crushed in the Battle of Marathon. The defeat at Marathon signaled the end of the Persian empire’s first attempt, and Darius began preparations for a second attack. This time, he planned to lead the invasion himself, but death got to him first. The task was passed to his son, Xerxes.

In late August of 480 BCE, Xerxes’ huge army stopped in the narrow passage of Thermopylae, which his army had to pass through on the road to Athens. The number of men comprising that army differs greatly from source to source and from scholar to scholar, ranging from millions, which I believe is a gross exaggeration, to 20,000, which I believe is a gross understatement. The safest bet is that they numbered somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000.

The Greeks that had been sent to stop them, on the other hand, numbered between five and seven thousand. The passage was the right choice for defense, as in the narrow pass, the numbers would not matter, and the light infantry used by the Persians would be at a disadvantage — forced to face head-on the armored machine of the Greek phalanx.

The Greek army consisted of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, most of whom were members of his personal guard. He only took with him men who had male descendants. This was a unit of fathers. Units like this were formed when chances of winning were slim. The average age of the 300 was around 40, and the king himself was in his late 50s or early 60s — a perfect example of the saying, “Don’t pick a fight with an old man; if he’s too old to fight, he’ll just kill you.”