IT HAS been 2,500 years since 300 Spartan warriors held off hundreds of thousands of Persian invaders at Thermopylae but it remains one of the world’s most famous battles.
Immortalised in hit movies, from The 300 Spartans in 1962 to 2007’s blood-drenched 300, featuring Gerard Butler’s chiselled abs, it has also been retold in graphic novels, books and songs.
For millennia the battle has been hailed as an inspiring example of heroic fighters willing to sacrifice their lives without surrender, the value of military tactics, and the advantage of maintaining a rigorously-trained professional army. Until now.
“It’s all a myth,” says military historian Myke Cole, whose new book The Bronze Lie claims to expose the truth behind the legendary Spartan fighting force.
“The Spartans have the reputation as history’s toughest warriors since that battle in 480 BCE…that they were the most fearless and indomitable fighters in history, put the survival of Sparta above themselves, fought to the death, and hated money.
“But that was a fiction spun by the Spartans to incite fear in their enemies. The truth is that they lost more battles than they won, often put their own lives first, and wouldn’t fight to the death if they could retreat or negotiate a treaty.
“At the battle of Thermopylae there weren’t 300 Spartans on their own. There were more like 1,000 Spartans, plus 7,000 Greeks, and up to 900 helots [Spartan servants].”
Though vastly outnumbered by Xerxes’s invading Persian army, King Leonidas cleverly chose to fight in the narrow Thermopylae Pass, a bottleneck some 100 miles north of Athens, where only a few soldiers could clash nose-to-nose ‑ thus levelling the odds.
“He only needed 30 to 35 men to hold the centre,” says Cole, a former US military intelligence officer who served three tours in Iraq.
“Thermopylae was never a suicide mission. Leonidas had every expectation of winning, and expected to be reinforced by a larger army. They didn’t expect to die.
“But when 1,000 Phocians fighting on their home territory failed to hold the Anopaia Path, allowing the Persian army to march around the Spartans to their rear, their Greek allies saw the Spartans had been cut off, and ran.
“Leonidas’s plan wasn’t bad, but Xerxes’s plan was better. Ultimately, the Spartans are famous for an embarrassing, disastrous defeat.
“They held the Persians off. “Brinkwire Summary News”.