Today, people have a complicated relationship with history. While there are many like myself who have no problem dubbing themselves as “history nerds” and expressing their love of learning about the past, there are many who will adamantly deny any sort of interest in history. When I tell people that I am studying history at the university, nine out of ten times I will get the same reaction: the person will immediately make a face (kind of like they have eaten recently expired food) and proceed to inform me how boring history is. However, while many may think that they think history is unexciting and a complete bore, pop culture seems to suggest otherwise. Just consider, for instance, the huge popularity of Ancestry DNA testing right now. It seems as though everyone that I know (and their dog, for that matter) are sending away various bodily fluids in the hopes to learn a thing or two about their ancestral history. Or even just consider how many movies and television series are based on history. Some of the more recent productions off the top of my head include: Outlander, The Crown, The Last Kingdom, Hidden Figures, Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Misérables. Basically, the point is that pop culture definitely suggests that most people dolike history. And while most may not engage in formal historical studies, various modes of pop culture can actually inform people about some true historical events and figures.
This blog post, however, is not about how much people secretly love history and how people seem to have this innate fascination about the past… Instead, this blog post is about how pop culture takes academic historical knowledge and translates it into something that is intended for consumption by the broader public (whether for better or worse). Using the film, 300,as a kind of “case study,” this process of translation will be the primary focus of my discussion. Unfortunately, history is often twisted or sacrificed in order suit what producers of pop culture deem appealing to consumers. And sadly, it seems as though the greater the intended market the more “true history” is compromised. But why? I have been studying history academically for five years now and let me tell you this: history is absolutely crazy enough – and at times, almost unbelievable – all on its own.
The film 300depicts the Battle of Thermopylae that occurred during the Persian Wars of the fifth century BCE. This movie has obviously been quite fictionalized and there are numerous historical inaccuracies, but ultimately, the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian Wars, and characters like Leonidas and Xerxes were very real historical events and figures. Basically, in the fifth century BCE, the Persians had launched two separate invasions of the Greek mainland. It was during the second invasion, which was ultimately in response to the failure of their first, that the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) occurred. Quite like the movie, the battle was fought at a strategic mountain pass located in Central Greece between the Persian force of Xerxes I and the Greeks.Although vastly outnumbered, the Greeks led by the Spartan king Leonidas, were able to block the southward advance of the Persian army for a nearly a week (including three days of actual battle).However, as portrayed in the movie, the Greeks were ultimately betrayed when a hidden path was exposed to the Persians. Sending his main force in retreat, Leonidas and a small contingent (including 300 Spartiates) remained and were completely overcome.
There are multiple historical truths within the film 300. In addition to all of the aforementioned, what I appreciate most about this film, in terms of historical accuracy, is that is quite accurately reproduces the values of Spartan culture. In antiquity, Sparta was an extremely militaristic society. In fact, Sparta had a large enslaved population (helots) that performed all the agricultural labour so that the Spartans might devote their efforts entirely to military training and campaigning.At the age of seven, Spartan boys were forced from their homes to undergo intense military training in the Spartan education system (agoge). This education is briefly portrayed in the opening minutes of film! These two elements of Spartan society (helots and the agoge) were unique to the Greek world and were responsible for producing the finest and most effective Greek soldiers in antiquity. Perhaps the most accurate summary of Spartan values in the film is when Leonidas’ wife tells her husband, as he is departing for Thermopylae, to either return with his shield or on top of it. You know, basically telling her husband to return to Sparta victorious or to die trying; cowardliness (or what other Greeks may term “surrender”) was not an option.
I would now like to briefly discuss the 300 Spartan soldiers who participated in the Battle of Thermopylae; the 300 who evidently became the namesake for this film. Here, the transition between between academic historical knowledge and pop culture is best exemplified. Basically, producers took a historical fact and twisted it in order to create a “more exciting” representation of history. First, let me further explain the historical truth to the 300. Yes, there were only 300 Spartiates at the Battle of Thermopylae.And as stated in the film, these 300 Spartiates were selected because they all had sons that would be able to carry on their family name.The Spartiates were brave and confident in their abilities, but they were committed to laying down their lives and realized that the odds were against them in this campaign against Persia. But here is the twist; the Greek force at Thermopylae numbered around 7000, not 300.And even after Leonidas sent away the bulk of the Greek army, the remaining force was still not 300; it was somewhere closer to 2000.Although the Spartiates likely contributed significant prowess and effectiveness to the Greek cause, they never comprised the bulk of the Greek force at Thermopylae. A force of only 300 Spartiates battling a Persian force numbering in the hundreds of thousands, however, certainly makes for a much more exciting story.
I will now provide a brief synopsis (rant) regarding the other “historical twists” that can be found throughout the film 300 that make the battle more “exciting.”Yes, Spartans wore red capes, carried round shields, and fought with long spears. But no, Spartans did not wear Ancient Greek “battle speedos” to war. I don’t care how much you like looking at Gerald Butler’s chiselled abs… They were nice though, I will not lie. In fact, Greek soldiers at this time (including the Spartans) would have been quite heavily armed. Modern estimates suggest that their battle armament could have weighed as much as 50-70 pounds.Yes, Spartans fought in tight battle formation known as a phalanx (likened to a rugby scrum by some scholars) and jabbed at their opponents with long spears. But no, they rarely ever threw their spears.Yes, warfare was an incredibly bloody and violent affair in Ancient Greece. But no, it’s really not that easy to chop off heads and various limbs. It’s far more likely for a soldier to be stabbed in the groin. In fact, Homeric and Greek lyric poets seemed to love singing about Greek soldiers holding their bloody testicles in their hands after a particularly penetrating spear thrust. Yes, war elephants were a thing. But no, they were not at the Battle Thermopylae and would not become a regular feature of Ancient warfare until the much later Hellenistic Period. Yes, Xerxes had an elite fighting unit known as the Immortals. But no, they were not half-human nor had any sort of supernatural prowess. Instead, they were quite similar to the Spartiates in terms of their high level of training and profound effectiveness in battle. Finally, yes: Xerxes was a powerful figure in the fifth century BCE and controlled a pretty humongous empire. But no, he was not a God and definitely did not dress that way.
The movie 300 is just one example of pop culture taking inspiration and content from history. I want to be careful that I don’t overgeneralize pop culture because there are so many different mediums and intentions behind its production. Furthermore, some forms of pop culture definitely reproduce history more accurately than others. But looking at movies like 300, it seems as though history is often altered in order to increase the interest of the masses and the profit for producers. Consequently, movies like 300will not necessarily reproduce “good history” in terms of academic knowledge and standards. Although with that said, pop culture can absolutely inform people about some true historical events and figures. Look at 300, for instance, there were many historical inaccuracies but there were also many seeds of historical truth. Although the inner “history nerd” in me wishes that pop culture would reproduce history a little more accurately, I still watch movies like 300 all the time. And guess what? I love them, despite knowing the inconsistencies. Pop culture brings history to those that don’t want to engage in formal historical studies; it makes history easily accessible and exciting. I can engage my family and friends – those who usually deny any interest in history – in conversation about historically-based pop culture. And for once, they are actually interested in the historical insight that I can provide on a specific movie, or book, or video game. So while pop culture should not necessarily be taken at face value and cited in any sort of scholarly research, it is a great way of engaging people in historical discourse and discovery.
Hammond, Nicholas G. L. “Sparta at Thermopylae.” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte 45,
No. 1 (1996): 1-20.
Hanson, Victor Davis. Wars of the Ancient Greeks. Smithsonian Books, 2004.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., et al. A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Sarah B. Pomeroy, et al. A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 148.
Nicholas G. L. Hammond, “Sparta at Thermopylae,” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte 45, No. 1 (1996), 4.
Victor Davis Hanson, Wars of the Ancient Greeks(Smithsonian Books, 2004), 80.
Hammond, “Sparta at Thermopylae,” 13.
Hammond, “Sparta at Thermopylae,” 16.
Pomeroy, A Brief History of Ancient Greece, 148.
Hammond, “Sparta at Thermopylae,” 17.
Hanson, Wars of the Ancient Greeks, 57.
Hanson, Wars of the Ancient Greeks, 61.