Death of King Leonidas: 300 and What It Got Wrong

Most of us know about King Leonidas because of the actor Gerard Butler who played him in the movie 300. In reality, he was a significant figure in Greek history, and this article will hopefully shed some light on who he was, how he died, and why you shouldn’t trust 300 too much.

Who was King Leonidas?

Depiction of King Leonidas standing in front of his 300 Spartans

Depiction of King Leonidas standing in front of his 300 Spartans (Drawing of 300 movie scene), via deviantart credits: Piestealer

King Leonidas I was a Greek King from the city of Sparta who passed away in 480 BC. According to the claims of his ancestors, he was descended from the Greek mythical hero Hercules himself. He was one of the first Spartan rulers to complete the infamous harsh training mandatory for the Spartans back then. Like his father Axanandrias, Leonidas also married his niece Gorgo. He was such a strong, capable leader, that the Greeks chose him to be in charge of the Greek resistance against the Persian invasion in 481 BC, a year before his demise at the Battle of Thermopylae.

What does the movie “300” say?

The 2007 movie 300 is about King Leonidas (portrayed by the wonderful Gerard Butler) and the 300 Spartans that he led into battle against the Persian warriors and their King Xerxes. The movie is famous for its visuals, action sequences and, unfortunately, the “This is Sparta” meme.

While the way it was shot is undoubtedly impressive, we don’t actually know that much about Leonidas’ early life to judge whether the movie was depicting true facts or not. According to 300, Leonidas was a central figure in the Spartan society, and that he only leads 300 citizens of Sparta into the Battle of Thermopylae, which goes against the idea that Leonidas was a skilled warrior. The movie also depicts the Persians as greedy, corrupt and, for the lack of a better word, “villain-y”.

Fifth century BC hoplite, or "heavy-armed soldier", possibly the Spartan king Leonidas

Fifth century BC hoplite, or “heavy-armed soldier”, possibly the Spartan king Leonidas, Credits: Wikimedia

In 300, King Leonidas dies at the Battle of Thermopylae from Persian arrows, but not before proving that King Xerxes isn’t the immortal “god-king” his people believe him to be.

What did the movie get wrong?

For starters, the genre of 300 is said to be historical fantasy. While King Leonidas might have thought that he was descended from Hercules, it’s hard for modern audiences to buy the magical elements present in the movie as historical facts.

It’s even harder to swallow the blatantly obvious racism of the movie and their portrayal of the Persians and the Spartans as paragons of “evil vs. good”. Historical accounts tell us that the Persian Empire was one of the world’s first contributors to human rights and democracy. There were many controversies surrounding 300 for its racist undertones and cultural appropriation. And they most certainly did not use black magic during battles, like in the movie.

Today, we know that Leonidas might have been a very important figure in the Spartan society, but he was actually one of the two kings of the city. He was also a much better warrior than the movie would have us believe – 300 Spartans weren’t the only people who were with him during his last battle. He was also joined by about 7,000 Greek warriors (and very few of them were youths like in the movie) from other cities.

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814. Credits: Wikimedia

History tells us that Leonidas died on the third day of the Battle of Thermopylae, and we don’t know the exact moment or by whose hand. What we do know is that he died fighting, after the Greeks already knew that they lost the battle.

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