When it comes to the ancient world, it can sometimes be harder to disprove myths and prove facts due to a relative lack of evidence when compared to tales from the Middle Ages and modern era. There are myths which we can say are nonsense with near certainty and there are plenty of instances where fact and fiction get confused in the mists of time.
Ancient empires such as Egypt, Rome and Greece fascinate us because they thrived in a time so long ago that it almost feels as if these people lived on a different planet! In this article, I will look at 6 great myths of the ancient world that you may have believed once upon a time.
13 – The 300 at Thermopylae
You should know by now that Hollywood movies are economical with the truth when it comes to depicting historical events. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the blockbuster 300 is filled with more fiction than fact yet it still enraged a number of historians with expertise in the ancient world. The movie earned approximately $465 million at the Box Office and made the Battle of Thermopylae one of the most famous battles in ancient history.
This particular myth suggests that 300 Spartan warriors stood against hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The numbers of course are completely incorrect; while there were only a few hundred Spartans in the battle, they were aided by thousands of Greek allies.
It should be noted that even today, not everyone agrees on the number of combatants. Herodotus suggests there were 5,200 Greeks, Diodorus says 7,400, Pausanias says 11,200 while modern historians believe it may have been as many as 20,000 and no fewer than 7,000. On the Persian side, Herodotus claimed there were 2.5 million soldiers while recent estimates place their army in the 70,000-300,000 range.
Either way, the Greeks were comprehensively outmanned but they cleverly ensured the battle took place in a narrow pass between the sea and the mountains. This significantly reduced the impact of the Persian’s numerical advantage. Had the battle taken place on an open field, it would have been a quick and easy win for the Xerxes led Persian force. Instead, the Battle of Thermopylae lasted three days.
For the first two days, the Greeks held firm and used the phalanx formation to comfortably block the pass. The story of the traitor Ephialtes appears to be true although Herodotus said the treacherous Greek tribesman did not want to join the army and betrayed his countrymen solely for money. He told the Persians of a hidden path that would enable them to outflank their enemy. Ephialtes was ultimately murdered a decade later by a man called Athenades who was later honored for this deed by the Spartan authorities (even though the killing was for a completely unrelated reason according to Herodotus.)
It is also a myth that the entire Greek army died at Thermopylae. Once Leonidas realized the betrayal, he dismissed most of his army barring approximately 1,500 men who stayed behind to form a last stand. There were probably 300 or so Spartans in this group along with slaves, Thespians and Thebans. All of these men died trying to hold off the huge Persian army but those who had been dismissed were able to successfully flee and fight another day.
A couple of final points. Leonidas almost certainly did not have a face-to-face talk with Xerxes as there is no record of this among any of the ancient historians. Finally, the Spartans did not take to the battlefield dressed as the ancient world’s version of the Chippendales with leather underwear and a red cape. Spartan warriors wore several kilograms of iron equipment although they did wear red garments over their armor as a means of frightening their opponents.