Back to


quality posts: 17 Private Messages WootBot


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.


quality posts: 3 Private Messages robakabobbo

It's Michigan state


quality posts: 0 Private Messages stevenmgregory

Yes, Michigan State.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Spartans were helped out by their naval forces as well, which prevented the Persians from landing troops behind them and sealing them off at Thermopylae. Oh, and a storm too, which probably did more damage to the Persian fleet than the Greek navy. :-)


quality posts: 49 Private Messages moles1138

Yay! the discuss button is back!


quality posts: 49 Private Messages moles1138

My knowledge of Greek history came from Frank Miller's 300 comic books that Zack Snyder based his movie on.


quality posts: 0 Private Messages davesundstrom

I thought Xerxes built a pontoon bridge to get his troops there and wasn't limited to using ships to transport his army.


quality posts: 1 Private Messages ronlevyca

The Thespian, Theban, and Boetian forces are mentioned in 300 and the movie - the backup troops who come in when the Spartans are tired and mix it up, the 'splendid brawlers'. Just long enough for the Spartans to get ready enough to do it again.

In the real battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans actually knew about the little climbing path that Ephialtes showed to the Persians and they set a lightly-armed group of slingers, the Phocians to guard it. But it was terribly hot (you should imagine 100-110 degrees) and they retreated to the shade on a nearby hill; by the time they realized someone was coming up the goat path there were too many heavily armed Persians holding the top (whereas if they had remained at their post, they could have rained down rocks at anyone climbing the goat-path.)