Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Leonidas and the 300

On this day in 480 BC Spartan king Leonidas I, leader of the Greek forces facing Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae, dismissed all of his soldiers except for his personal retinue of 300 young Spartan men and engaged in his final battle against what may have been the mightiest army the world had ever seen.

Herodotus wrote that Xerxes' army was 5 million strong, and that when they encamped they drank rivers dry and exhausted the supplies of entire cities. Other historians state the size of Xerxes' land forces to be closer to 2 million, but either way they greatly outmbered the Greek forces, which might have had as many as 7000 soldiers at the start of the battle a few days before. When Xerxes saw the laughably small size of Leonidas' armies, he said "you have no hope of winning... my army is so vast that when my archers all shoot at once, the arrows blot out the sun"; to this the Greeks replied "then we'll fight in the shade".

Leonidas had chosen to fight the Persians on a narrow pass between the cliffs and ocean, where the land gave him and his soldiers a tactical advantage despite the huge disparity in numbers. The Persian army was getting whomped for two days until a Greek peasant defected to the Persian side and showed Xerxes a hidden mountain pass that skirted the Greek defenses. When Leonidas learned that his defenses had fallen, he let everyone go home except for his 300 "come back with your shield, or on it" Spartan guards and launched his final attack.

In three days of fighting, the Greeks had killed something like 20,000 Persian soldiers, including many of the elite 'Immortals', Xerxes best fighters. On the final day of the battle, surround by the Persians, the Greek hoplites knew they were going to die, but they made the Persians work for it. At the end of the day Leonidas and all of his 300 men were dead, but so were two of Xerxes' brothers and many of the Immortals.

When the rest of Greece heard the tale of Leonidas and the 300, they were inspired to rise up against Xerxes and drive him out of their lands, and a little over a year later the decisive battle was fought at Mycale. Xerxes returned to a Persia that had become disenheartened by the defeat and fallen into a decline from which it never recovered. Xerxes himself became more interested in his harem than in his heritage, and eventually he was killed by his own vizier.

This story was told in Herodotus' Histories, which I didn't read until after I'd seen the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, which in turn inspired Frank Miller's *excellent* graphic novel 300. The graphic novel is the way to go on this one... Herodotus is a bit thick in places, and while the film is good, it was still made in 1962, and the fight scenes (basically the whole movie) are lacking some of the sophistication and realism we've come to expect from similarly-themed films like Braveheart.