300 popped up on some channel last night, and we got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly. Interesting stylization. Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it.
Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2488 years ago yesterday. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)
World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester. Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year. As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell! How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”
At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary. But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day? And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?
The short answer is “Herodotus.” The longer answer may resonate better: This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world. The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae). So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks. Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The Iliad. There’s an entré for discussion.
Turning points in history: Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different. The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)
How do we know?
How do you handle that question? Tell us in comments, please.
Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:
- Controversy – all characters in the movie have cadrtoonish portrayals. Cartoonish bravery and valor is easy to explain away. Persians are portrayed bizarrely, in often-offensive caricatures. This would be a good time to remind students of the achievements of various Persian cultures, and those of Xerxes I himself.
- Barry Strauss’s 2004 book, The Battle of Salamis, the naval encounter that saved Greece – and Western Civilization
- 10 things the movie didn’t tell you, from Mental Floss
- Interesting narrative, from Steve’s Famous On This Day; Thermopylae means “hot gates”
- Blog post from a Greek mother, about taking her son to see the movie, the place of the story of Thermopylae in Greek culture, and the history
- Warner Bros. released a video game, “300 – March to Glory” (what’s your view of the game and its historical accuracy?)
- Thermopylae is an area of great geologic and geographic transformation. AT the time of the first battle, the pass was very narrow, with steep cliffs above the pass, and a steep cliff falling to the ocean below the pass. Today there is a plain of about 3 miles to the ocean, the product of much sedimentation from erosion of the land in the past 2,000 years.