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The Debunker: Did 300 Spartans Hold Off a Million Persians at Thermopylae?

by Ken Jennings

March has come in like a lion, and I hope that you're just as excited as I am to celebrate March 25, the Greek holiday that marks their 1821 war for independence from the Turks. Opa! "Greece" is the word! In honor of Greek independence, Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here all month to correct a lot of Greek mythology—things we thought we knew about the ancient land that gave us democracy, logic, and nude wrestling. It turns out a lot of this Socratic wisdom is all Greek to us.

The Debunker: Did 300 Spartans Hold Off a Million Persians at Thermopylae?

If your knowledge of Greek history come solely from the bombastic, slow-motion carnage of Zack Snyder's 300 movies, you probably deserve what you get. In a shocking twist, these 'roided-up fantasy bear little resemblance to actual history.

The Debunker

The film 300 tells the famous story of the Battle of Thermopylae, at which a small group of elite Spartan warriors defended a narrow coastal pass from a much larger invasion force. The Spartans' bravery and sacrifice were indeed as remarkable in reality as they were in legend…but the odds were not so overwhelming as you probably think.

It's true that Leonidas had only 300 Spartan hoplites (citizen-soldiers) under his command at Thermopylae, because Sparta declined to call up thousands of other soldiers due to religious observances and the truce observed at the time of the Olympic Games. But Herodotus records that an army of over 5,000 marched to Thermopylae, including Spartan non-citizens and soldiers from other Greek city-states. There were probably also a few thousand slaves, though snooty Herodotus would be loathe to count them among the army. In reality, well over a thousand of these non-Spartans stuck with Leonidas's band of 300 right up through their brave last stand.

Herodotus is also our source that the Persian invasion fleet at Thermopylae numbered over a million. But his math is a little fuzzy: that's at least ten times the actual number of troops a Persian fleet of 1,300 trireme ships could have carried. The 7,000 Greeks at Thermopylae would have been facing 80,000 Persians or so. Those are still long odds, and makes their pyrrhic victory very impressive, but they're not the three-thousand-to-one odds Hollywood would have us believe.

Quick Quiz: What university's Spartans won the 2014 Rose Bowl, also against long odds?


Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.