Although the exact size and composition of the vast Persian horde that invaded mainland Greece in 480 BC continues to be the subject of debate—Herodotus, eager to underscore his overarching theme of imperial hubris, puts the number of Persian land forces alone at nearly two million, although modern historians suggest it was likely to have numbered only a tenth as many, at the most—it is probably safe to say that the teeming Asiatic multitudes of the Persian emperor Xerxes did not include a corpulent, nose-pierced mutant humanoid with lobster-like claws in place of hands. Nor, as far as we know, did the barbarian host include bald giants, their teeth filed into points, who were kept in chains by their Persian masters until released, like antique weapons of mass destruction, on the unsuspecting Greeks; nor, at least as far as our ancient sources indicate, was Xerxes himself an androgynous, eight-foot-tall shaved-headed Brazilian with a penchant for cheek-piercings and a weakness for metallic eye shadow.
Such fanciful creatures are, however, likely to be indelibly associated henceforth with the Persian Wars in the minds of the millions of moviegoers around the world who have spent over $400 million to see 300 since its release in March. This hugely popular new movie, adapted from the cartoonist Frank Miller’s short 1999 comic book of the same name, takes as its Herodotean subject a historically pivotal and culturally loaded episode from the Persian Wars. In 480, as Xerxes’ grande armée, having crossed from Asia over the Hellespont (which the grandiose monarch famously lashed for its recalcitrance), was inching its destructive way south through upper Greece, the ever-fractious coalition of Greek city-states, uneasily led by Athens and Sparta, decided to send a force to hold the enemy at a choke-point in Central Greece called Thermopylae—the “Hot Gates” beyond which lay easy access to the region of Attica, Athens, and the whole of Greece to the south. Not untypically, some of the perennially parochial Spartans had pressed to abandon the pass in favor of defending the Isthmus of Corinth much further to the south—a strategy that would have guaranteed the destruction of Athens while ensuring a more cogent defense of the Spartan homeland in the Peloponnese, below the Isthmus.
In August of 480, the two armies met. Xerxes did nothing for three days, in order to let the comparatively puny coalition forces get a good look at the immense enemy they were to face; then he sent the first wave of troops in. (The Persian emperor had the canny idea of including in that first batch of warriors relatives of the Persians killed by the Greeks at Marathon, during the first Persian invasion ten years earlier.) The Greek forces, numbering around seven thousand, among them just three hundred Spartans under their king, Leonidas—the full Spartan army of some eight thousand citizen-warriors declared itself unable to attend, since a religious festival was taking place back at home—held the pass with surprising success …