300 is the kind of film that seems too good to be true. It gets us pumped up, but we don’t believe it — not really. The Spartan soldiers in the film stand for Greece’s freedom against Persia’s colossal empire. they do it with elegant nobility and boisterous relish. They lift their spears into the air and charge onward to glory. So most of us in the audience decide it has to be a fairytale. Things as they really are, we think, are rougher around the edges than that. We don’t believe in that kind of slick, glamorous heroism.
But Herodotus, the Ancient historian whose writing is the source material for 300, did believe. He believed the battle in 480 BC at Thermopylae was mythic in its grandeur and titanic in its importance. When he wrote his Histories, that’s what he was trying to preserve: that monumental sense of glory. So even though 300 takes some poetic license, it strikes right at the core of the valor and drama that Herodotus wrote his Histories to convey. That’s why 300, for all of the facts it gets wrong, is more true to Herodotus than any history textbook.
Herodotus didn’t hide what he was up to. Right in his introduction, he explained the purpose of his history: “so that the things done by men don’t become faded with time, and so that great and marvelous deeds . . . don’t lose their glory” (1.1). In the Greek, the word “faded” is literal — it’s the word for paintings that have worn away and lost their intensity. So Herodotus didn’t write history the way modern scholars do, with the intention of faithfully reporting as many pure facts as possible. Herodotus wrote to preserve the quality of the moment, to keep the past saturated in glowing technicolor. He wanted us to know what it felt like to be there.
The way he did that was by telling stories. He traveled everywhere he could, and wherever he went he talked to people, listened to the legends they told. He heard about headless men, giant ants, and tyrants who hacked men in half. He wrote all of it down, no matter how insane it sounded. “My job is to report what people say,” he insisted. “It’s not my job to believe it all” (7.152). That’s because he wasn’t interested in the facts and figures so much as in the impressions they left on people: not how many people died in each battle but what grief meant for the survivors they left behind. The only way to preserve that — the only way to record human experience — is with myths and metaphors. The number of soldiers in an army says nothing about the triumph they felt when they won; statistics don’t capture emotion. But stories do.
Herodotus has been catching flak for that approach since day one. His most damaging critic was Thucydides, a razor-sharp new historian from the next generation down. Thucydides wanted just the facts, Jack, and he wanted them “checked with as much thoroughness as possible.” He thought stories and legends were child’s play, cheap fairytales that pandered to “the applause of the moment.” His job wasn’t to sell copies — his job was to tell the truth. You can almost hear him sniffing at Herodotus, the washed-up old man peddling tall tales. Entertainment comes and goes, Thucydides wrote. History should last “for all time” (1.22).
Thucydides won. These days, we’ve bought into his definition of history completely. Any writer who tried to pass off a myth about headless men as history would be laughed out of his job. Ancient critics called Herodotus the “Father of History”; modern ones have called him the “Father of Lies.” We’ve sided with Thucydides: we don’t believe legends anymore.
And so we don’t believe 300. Professional eggheads have been gleefully nitpicking at the movie’s inaccuracies ever since its release: there were no rhinoceroses at Thermopylae. Xerxes wasn’t eight feet tall. A few of the characters are made up. As an aspiring professional egghead myself, I get it: it’s important to get your facts right.
But only if that’s what you’re trying to do. Herodotus knew that there’s another way to preserve the past — another story to tell. In reality, the 300 Spartans weren’t alone like they are in the movie — they had reinforcements from other cities. And the Persian army couldn’t possibly have been “so vast it drinks the rivers dry.” But Herodotus didn’t get his numbers right either. What he did get right was what the Spartan sacrifice meant for Greece, how outnumbered the Spartans felt and how valiantly they stood their ground in the name of freedom. There’s truth to that, too: we get a sense, from the exaggerations and metaphors, of the visceral reality that facts can’t convey. We feel what it was like to be there.
That’s what 300 gets right, too. We’re not supposed to literally believe that Leonidas had the presence of mind to deliver a rousing speech in the heat of battle, or that 300 Spartans charged against 5,000,000 Persians. But we are supposed to know that it was as if they did, that their bravery was that heroic. We’re supposed to feel the rush of adrenaline they felt, to leap out of our seats and cheer them on.
History, we assume, is dry. It never quite achieves that sleek action-movie polish. When real generals lead real men into battle, there’s no orchestra swelling to life behind them. Speeches don’t come out right. There’s fear and pettiness and despair. That’s all true, but it’s only half of the truth. The other half isn’t in the facts. It’s in the pit of our guts and the core of our hearts, where the music does swell and the legend is real. That’s the truth Herodotus wanted to keep alive, and that’s what makes 300 faithful to his vision. So 2,500 years after Thermopylae, we feel the true scope and power of Sparta’s courage, preserved by the Histories and revived by the film. Herodotus would have been thrilled.
This is the third installment in a trilogy, bringing together my two earlier posts about 300 and Herodotus. You can find those posts here and here. So now I’m done talking — what do you think? Is the movie true to the book? What’s your favorite scene? And most importantly, how can we convince our history teachers to show it in class so we can goof off in the back? Have at it in the comments, and tune in next week for the start of a new series on Mount Olympus, where the girls are gorgeous and the party lasts all night long (unless you get turned into a spider).
Images via here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here