Why Does the Battle of Thermopylae Matter 2,500 Years On? | History Hit

Why Does the Battle of Thermopylae Matter 2,500 Years On?

James Lloyd-Jones

25 Nov 2020
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Battle of Thermopylae - Spartans and Persians (Image Credit: M. A. Barth - 'Vorzeit und Gegenwart", Augsbourg, 1832 / Public Domain).

The ancient Spartans are often remembered today for the opposite reasons that the ancient Athenians are. Both cities vied for hegemony over the rest of Classical Greece, and both cities have left lasting legacies.

My go to example for the legacy of Sparta in modern and contemporary life is always the Battle of Thermopylae. Unlike Athens, Sparta had no Plato or Aristotle, and while Athenian art is still admired, Spartan art is largely overlooked (but yes, ancient Spartan art does indeed exist).

But we do still like to draw on those 300 Spartans, who, in a last stand against the myriad troops of an invading Persian army, died at Thermopylae. It is a compelling image, but one that has outgrown its plant pot and is in need of a good pruning.

2,499 years ago one of the most famous battles in antiquity, indeed one of the most famous battles in history, was fought at the Pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. King Leonidas, his 300 (or so) Spartans and their Hellenic allies fought off against King Xerxes' mighty Persian army for three days. We're joined by Paul Cartledge, a professor from the University of Cambridge and one of the world's leading experts on ancient Sparta, to sort the fact from the fiction about this iconic clash.
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Thermopylae today

2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE (technically it is the 2,499th). In Greece, the occasion has been commemorated with a new set of stamps and coins (all very official). Yet despite the widespread acknowledgement of the occasion, there is a lot about the Battle of Thermopylae that is often misrepresented or misunderstood.

For a start, there were 301 Spartans at the battle (300 Spartans plus King Leonidas). They didn’t all die either, two of them were absent from the final battle (one had an eye injury, the other was delivering a message). Also, there were a few thousand allies who turned up to Thermopylae, as well as the Spartans’ helots (state-owned slaves in all but name).

And those pithy one-liners that you might know from the 2007 film ‘300’ (“Come and get them”, “Tonight we dine in hell”)? While ancient authors do actually attribute these sayings to the Spartans at Thermopylae, they were likely later inventions. If the Spartans all died, who could have accurately reported on what they said?

But the ancient Spartans were consummate brand-managers, and the bravery and skill with which they fought at Thermopylae did much to consolidate the idea that the Spartans were warriors without peers in ancient Greece. Songs were composed to commemorate the dead, and vast monuments were set up, this all seemed to confirm the picture.

Scene of the Battle of the Thermopylae, from ‘The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century’ by John Steeple Davis (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Misunderstanding Thermopylae

One of the most damaging (and ahistorical) aspects of the Thermopylae legacy is its use as a banner for those wanting to find legitimacy for their politics, often on some variation of ‘East vs. West’. There is of course a sliding-scale here, but the comparison is ultimately wrong.

The Persian army fought with many Greek cities on their side (most notably the Thebans), and the Spartans were famous for taking payments from eastern empires (including the Persians) both before and after the Persian Wars. But this is, of course, wilfully ignored by the groups that trade-in on the Spartan image, and the connotations of a Thermopylae-like ‘last-stand’.

Around this time 2,499 years ago the famous Battle of Thermopylae was raging. At the same time, the Battle of Artemisium was taking place, an often-overlooked and overshadowed military encounter of the Persian Wars. Its importance, however, was sizeable. Dr Owen Rees discusses this clash, explaining its significance and how it paved the way for one of the most famous naval battles in history: Salamis. Owen is the author of 'Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World.' (Some mildly-strong language.)
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The UK Conservative Party’s European Research Group, a bunch of hard-line Eurosceptics nicknamed ‘The Spartans’ is one example. The Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, recently ruled to have been run as a criminal organisation by the Greek courts, and which is infamous for its rallies at the modern-day site of Thermopylae, is another example.

The problem is that within this modern imagination of Thermopylae sit seemingly harmless and wildly eulogising cultural responses to the battle, and that these images have been appropriated in order to legitimise a range of political groups (often on the further right).

Enter Zac Snyder

The heaviest-hitting response to the Battle of Thermopylae is of course Zac Snyder’s 2007’s hit-film ‘300’. It is in the top 25 highest grossing R-rated films ever made (the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating that requires under 17s to be accompanied by a parent or guardian). It has grossed just under half a billion dollars worldwide. Let that sink in.

That’s quite a legacy in itself, but it’s an image of Sparta, and an image of the Battle of Thermopylae in particular, that is easily recognised and understood, and one that is very problematic.

In fact, 300 has been so influential that we should think about the popular image of Sparta in terms of pre-300 and post-300. Find me an image of a Spartan made after 2007 that doesn’t have them bedecked in leather speedos and a red cloak, spear in one hand, ‘lamba’ emblazoned shield in the other.

Poster for the film ‘300’ (Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Fair Use).

Past responses

The recasting of Thermopylae itself though, is hardly new. It was drawn upon during the Greek War of Independence (which marks its 200th anniversary in 2021), and in the United States, the Texan Gonzalez Flag proudly proclaims ‘Come And Take It”, echoing Leonidas’ apocryphal but still powerful words.

For the French painter David, his vast 1814 ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ was a chance to praise (or perhaps question) the supposed moral connections between Leonidas’ last-stand the emergence of a new political regime under Napoleon Bonaparte: at what cost war?

‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ by Jacques-Louis David (Image Credit: INV 3690, Department of Paintings of the Louvre / Public Domain).

This was also the question to which the British poet Richard Glover had turned in his 1737 epic, Leonidas, a version of the battle that is even more ahistorical than 300.

Today, in a post 300 world, the Battle of Thermopylae is increasingly used to justify extreme and violent ideologies. Historically, however, the legacy of the battle has been to remind us to ask, at what cost war.

I have, of course, only scratched the surface of the many ways in which the Battle of Thermopylae has been used across the centuries.

If you’d like to find out more about the reception of Thermopylae, you can read and watch a range of papers and videos about the legacy of the battle in ancient times, modern history, and popular culture, and how we teach this moment in history in today’s classrooms, as part of the Hellenic Society’s Thermopylae 2500 conference.

Dr James Lloyd-Jones is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Reading, where he teaches ancient Greek history and culture. His PhD was on the role of music in Sparta, and his research interests include Spartan archaeology and ancient Greek music.

James Lloyd-Jones

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