It’s a different Leonidas, but Michael Phelps last year tied a record for winning 12 solo events in Olympics previously held by a man called Leonidas of Rhodes. The record had stood, as best historians can tell, for 2,168 years.
That was August 10, 2016. On August 11, we remember Leonidas of Sparta, for events in war, not peace.
300 popped up on some movie channel back in 2008 as I was preparing to teach world history again. I did not major in history, and my high school history instruction featured no AP courses (Pleasant Grove High, in Utah, didn’t offer such things then; I assume they do now, but I don’t know).
What I knew about Sparta and the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae came from my reading encyclopedias as a child, and culture. Never had an occasion to write a speech about the events, though had I known the history better, I might have found some opportunity. Sen. Orrin Hatch would have loved a compare and contrast speech between the stand of the Spartans and his work against the labor law reform bill in 1977 and 1978; more likely, we could have used the simple historical facts that the stand of the 300 at the same place today would be impossible due to poor soil conservation practices of the local farmers, which has created a plain broad enough for a Persian Army to march through with impunity, never fearing drowning in the sea that no longer exists there. Thermopylae is a grand historical metaphor for a good orator. The simple facts of history are important, too — Churchill knew Herodotus’s stories well, and considered them when planning military actions in the area in two world wars.
The movie came up from students in the previous year; it offered, perhaps, a hook for an introduction to world history, explaining why we bother to study it at all.
I 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, more than an instruction about history. We might doubt that the Persians had trained and armored rhinoceroses in their armament. Dialogue — well, this is Hollywood. It would have been in some dialect of Greek, and no Hollywood scriptwriter would have been able to reproduce it.
What about the battle itself. World history courses in U.S. high schools should pay attention to this battle, I think.
A monument to Leonidas I – Inscription, “Molon Lave,” which roughly translates to “Come and get it!”
Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2,497 years ago. (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 we know?
How do you handle that question? (Tell us in comments, please.)
I like this battle for the way it ties together many of the loose threads that vex high school sophomores. Is history exciting? It can be, as the Frank Miller graphic novel and and the Zack Snyder movie demonstrate. How important is accuracy in making the story exciting? (Do the rhinoceroses improve the story of the courage of the Spartans, or merely offer a good graphical metaphor for the overwhelming forces of the Persians?) What happens when one nation invades another — who has the advantage? Is knowledge of geography important — in battle, for example? The philosopher Santayana notes that those who do not remember history are “condemned” to repeat it. Xerxes tried to apply the lessons of the history of his father’s failed invasion; was he successful? Remember this point: Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia in 1812; Adolf Hitler assigned his generals to study Napoleon’s failure, for Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941; so convinced were the Germans that they knew the lessons, they invade Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion. Did it go any better? George Washington consciously patterned his life on the great Roman warrior and leader, Cincinnatus — especially in turning over rule once the task was done, as Washington did twice. What if Washington had, instead, patterned his life after Leonidas? How might the American Revolution have turned out, and how might the United States have developed, had Washington sacrificed himself as Leonidas did?
The story of the Battle of Thermopylea, the bravery and cunning tactics of Leonidas and the 300, the wars between Persia and the Greek City States, form a good foundation for a study of history at any point after. It is the stuff of great history, and the stuff of great rhetoric. It could be the stuff of great AP essays and good writing exercises in general. Damn the Common Core State Standards*, and damn the misguided Texas critics of CSCOPE, this is a topic I wish more world history teachers would spend some good, profitable time on
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. A lucky teacher will have a student ask if this landscape change relates to climate change; the answer is that it is related in that it shows what happens when civilizations do not act to stop the destruction of their environment. The soil that now forms that plain was, most likely, once the fertile soils of farms and vineyards that produced the food that kept the Greek civilization alive and trading, inventing, and philosophizing. How do civilizations deal with losing their farmland? (That’s a question that will keep on giving through a year of world history study.)
- Choke points, people. Especially in Texas, be sure to relate to the geographical issue of choke points; Thermopylae was a classic choke point, a narrow pass which could be defended with (according to legend) 300 well-trained troops, against a force perhaps a thousand times larger. The later Battle of Salamis is another lesson in choke points, on the sea. (The NEH Edsitement lesson planning material includes an aerial photo of modern Salamis — a great resource to have.)
- Yes, of course this is very much an encore post.
Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Note that, in purple, the map shows where a plain now exists, which was an ocean the Spartans could use to squeeze the Persian Army, about 25 centuries ago. What a difference 25 centuries can make.
* Common Core State Standards in social studies actually would support what I’m asking here, if only they weren’t filtered through state school boards who do not value scholarship, but instead wish history to be a checklist of faux-patriotic bullet points to regurgitate. Here in Texas, we are not affected by Common Core — but we are affected by meddling in history standards by people whose agenda does not include making history exciting and good. Common Core standards — technically — do not mention Thermopylae. However, this is the sort of material, including the original texts of Herodotus, whose study the Common Core standards encourage, especially for analysis of the sort I think Thermopylae invites. Texas TEKS allow mention of the battle, though the Battle of Thermopylae has been purged from the actual standards; Texas lesson plans frequently suggest “watching a film on the Battle of Thermopylae,” and “Answer questions on the battle; trade and grade.” Teachers infuse those dull words with life — we hope. Teachers’ actual practice in the classroom is the saving grace for this important history, in Texas; Texas world history teachers face their own Xerxes. The Texas Lege recently removed the requirement that students study world history, instead giving them a choice of either world history or world geography. And so the dumbing down of history by (probably well-meaning, but not well-thinking) legislators continues.