If you’ve never seen Zack Snyder’s 300, do yourself a favor and drop everything to go pick it up right now. It’s the story of a tiny coalition of Spartan rebel fighters who make a heroic stand against the massive Persian hordes threatening to enslave them. With unflinching courage, the soldiers battle valiantly and die nobly for the freedom of Greece. The best part? It’s all true.
Well OK, some of it is. Snyder based the film on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. But the comic book is a stylized retelling of the battle of Thermopylae during the Persian War of the 400s BC, as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus. If 300 seems too epic to be real, it’s because Herodotus fudged a lot of details himself. But he got the outline right, and most of all he captured the feeling of one of the West’s most spectacular triumphs. Some of the most intense moments in 300 are lifted right out of Herodotus’ Histories. Here are the five most fist-pumping quotes from the movie, from awesome to awesomest, along with the true(ish) anecdotes from Herodotus that inspired them.
5. “SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?!”
Marching into battle, our Spartan heroes run across an army from another Greek district. The rival general turns up his nose at the size of Sparta’s ranks — they’re no match for an unstoppable Eastern empire. With a knowing look, the Spartan King Leonidas stares down the Arcadian fighters and asks them, “What is your profession?” One by one they answer: potter, sculptor, blacksmith. But when Leonidas turns around and bellows, “Spartans! What is your profession?!” his troops instantly respond with a resounding war cry. Leonidas grins. “You see old friend,” he growls, “I brought more soldiers than you did.”
The Old-School Version:
Herodotus doesn’t record any rousing pump-up cheers. But he confirms that Sparta ran the most skilled army in Greece by a long shot — 300 soldiers were enough to make Xerxes, lord of Persia, break into a cold sweat. The Greek traitor Demaratus told Xerxes, “You’re up against the noblest kingdom and city in Greece, and the best men.” He wasn’t kidding: Spartan men were trained to kill ruthlessly from the age of seven onwards. Other Greek cities enlisted volunteer armies — farmers and bakers with no experience. So Lenoidas was right: the Spartans were Greece’s most professional soldiers.
4. “Then we will fight in the shade”
No one keeps his cool like a Spartan. Stelios, the young firebrand itching for his first taste of glory, hacks off the arm of one of Emperor Xerxes’ chief Persian officers. Seething with pain and rage, the enemy general vows that the tiny Spartan force will be crushed under the heel of a titanic Persian onslaught. “Our arrows,” he hisses, “will blot out the sun. With a casual grin, Stelios shoots back, “Then we will fight in the shade.” It’s the kind of pithy comeback people only think up in movies. Surely it can’t possibly have happened in real life?
The Old-School Version:
As it happens, this really was one of the slickest one-liners in Western history. But it wasn’t Stelios who said it — in fact Stelios was a made-up character for the movie. A real Spartan, Dienekes, gets the credit. Herodotus (who, to be fair, liked cool stories better than true ones) claims that when Dienekes heard the Persians’ arrows covered the sun, “he said [that was] great news, because . . . the fight against them would be in the shade.” He said it to another Greek, not to a Persian, but still: the guy knew how to turn a phrase.
3. “Zeus stabs the sky with thunderbolts . . . glorious.”
Whatever else the ancient Greeks may have accomplished, they definitely didn’t have the CGI to pull off what Snyder does in this scene. Trapped in the perilous crags of the unfamiliar Greek shoreline, the Persian fleet is ripped to shreds by expertly rendered gale-force winds and lightning. As Persian warships plummet to the bottom of the ocean, the Spartans cheer ferociously. It seems like divine providence — a gift from the gods. But, the narrator says, “only one among us keeps his Spartan reserve.” Steely-eyed, King Leonidas watches over the shipwreck without flinching, rock solid against the hurricane.
The Old-School Version
Chalk this one up to poetic license. There’s a kernel of truth to the scene: the Persians weren’t prepared for the vicious Greek seas, which decimated their fleet and drowned hundreds of their fighters. When they docked at Magnesia bay, “a huge storm fell on them with a massive wind.” Four-hundred Persian ships were obliterated. But Magnesia is miles away from Thermopylae, where the 300 fought — they couldn’t possibly have watched their enemies being swallowed into the ocean. If they had, though, it’s a fair bet they would have celebrated just as wildly as they do in the film.
2. The Epitaph
Even King Leonidas couldn’t lead 300 men alone to victory. But the Greek soldiers fight like heroes and die like free men. They refuse to surrender. For that they earn immortal glory: one of the 300, Dilios, escapes to keep their memory alive. When Dilios leads a triumphant army of 10,000 to crush the Persians, he does so in the valorous name of Leonidas and his 300. The movie ends with Dilios, rallying his troops, reciting the famous verse that has become the legacy of Leonidas’ men: “go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, by Spartan law, we lie.”
The Old-School Version:
Dilios’ speech is almost a direct translation of the monument that, according to Herodotus, really did commemorate the 300’s sacrifice. The epitaph reads, “traveler, tell the Spartans we are laid here, in obedience to their laws.” Dilios, though, never existed. He’s based on Aristodemus, who, like Dilios, got sent home with a wounded eye. Herodotus’ version is less squeaky clean: Aristodemus returns obediently home, only to be executed by the Spartan government for desertion. They were a tough bunch. But the glory of the 300 really did live on: here you are, reading about them. Keeping their memory alive.
1. “THIS. IS. SPARTA!!!!”
How could this scene be anything less than number one? It’s an iconic moment. Carrying severed heads and threats of annihilation, bejeweled Persian messengers come to King Leonidas to demand Sparta’s submission to Persia. Leonidas considers the offer deeply — refusal means war with an army that “shakes the ground with its march” and “drinks the rivers dry.” But Sparta, Leonidas decides, pays tribute to no one. The warrior-king draws his sword, backing the messenger against a cavernous pit in the ground. “This,” he roars, “is Sparta.” Leonidas thrusts his foot into the Persian’s chest, and the war begins.
The Old-School Version:
Turns out you can’t make up a scene that good: most of this is straight from Herodotus’ Histories. The Persians really did demand tributes from the territories they colonized, and Sparta really did tell them where they could stick their precious tribute. Then they “hurled the men making the demand into a pit.” Athens did the same thing, and in the movie Leonidas mentions to the envoy that “rumor has it the Athenians have already turned you down.” That’s not actually what started the war, but it sure didn’t improve international relations. And it’s still one of history’s gutsiest moves.
Now: what did I miss? There are so many killer scenes in the film, it feels like a crime to choose just five. Which one is your favorite? Chances are good it’s got some solid ancient Greek source material — most of the film’s best moments do. Root for your favorite scene in the comments, or tell me why a different scene should have been number one. And if you love this movie as much as I do, you’re in luck: I’m just getting started. This is part one of my series on Herodotus and 300 — come back next week for a list of some of the wildest parts of the Histories that the movie leaves out.