Potent Hollywood version of the historic battle at the Hot Gates
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].”
Gerard Butler in 300
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 for three measly days, and then the Persians went on to burn Greece and Athens.
“The Greeks turned that defeat into a PR coup by selling the myth of self-sacrifice: a defeat greater than victory. But it was a military disaster.”
Zack Snyder’s hit film 300
Sparta, in the Peloponnese area of southern Greece about 130 miles south of Athens, developed a reputation as a city-state that honed every citizen into an unbeatable fighting machine.
“The truth is the Spartans were flawed and human, not superheroes,” says Cole. “They could be cowardly, took bribes, and were self-serving.
“They could be heroic, but obviously they never fought to the death in every battle, or there would have quickly been no Spartans left.
“It’s worth remembering that the battle they are most famous for is one they lost, with no survivors.”
Yet thanks to their enduring PR, the Spartans have become synonymous with victory and courage.
The name has been adopted by a rugby team in Sutton Coldfield, and at least 39 towns in America. Hundreds of self-help books promise to teach readers to train, eat and think “The Spartan Way”.
“It’s nonsense to think that the Spartans never retreated,” says Cole. “At the battle of Sphacteria with their backs to a cliff, the Spartan army surrendered. The survivors returned home and went unpunished.”
Hollywood has further perpetuated the myth that Spartans were a muscle-bound fighting force permanently ready to fight.
Not so, says Cole. “Aristotle said they trained in sports ‑ they ran, threw javelins and the discus ‑ but there’s no evidence they trained in military drill.
“Aristotle said they were better fighters not because they trained more than other Greeks, but because they trained at all.
“They fought mostly against amateur armies ‑ and still often lost. The word ‘spartan’ today is synonymous with austere simplicity, and the Spartans had a reputation for shunning wealth and luxury, but many Spartans lived a leisurely life, enjoying good food and wine.
“They supposedly hated money, but the Spartans gave and accepted bribes in war.” And they didn’t outperform their enemies, claims Cole.
“I’ve looked at their wins, losses and draws in battle, and the Spartans were remarkably average.They just had great PR, promoting their victories and keeping their losses quiet.
“They didn’t fight to the death. That’s complete bunk, a legend that comes from [ancient Greek historian] Herodotus.
“And contrary to lore, they didn’t throw weak and deformed babies into a chasm to die. One Spartan who went on to become king had a club foot.”
By reputation, Spartans put the state’s needs above their individual interests, but Cole claims: “They often celebrated themselves. King Lysander had his own cult, and created a festival in his name.
“One Spartan king attacked and captured Thebes just for personal glory.”
Spartans drive the Persian army over a cliff in film 300
The Spartans also had a large slave class, the helots, who were oppressed and kept in bondage, always threatening to rebel.
“Their slaves ploughed the fields, baked the bread and performed all the artisanal tasks,” says Cole.
“The Spartans also helped set up other tyrants, rather than fighting for freedom for all. There are many examples of them attacking cities and setting up dictators sympathetic to their own interests.”
And their army stuck to outdated practices. “They were also slow to adapt to changes in warfare,” says Cole.
“They failed to develop their naval capability, focused on heavy infantry while failing to develop light arms, never fully developed their siege warfare, and relied on Athens or mercenaries to provide these.”
Unsurprisingly, Cole is no fan of the hit Zack Snyder film 300, starring Gerard Butler as King Leonidas and retelling the battle of Thermopylae.
“It’s racist, xenophobic, and I’m really troubled by the myths it perpetuates,” he says. “I’m not doing this to bash the Spartans, but to show their humanity ‑ their flaws as well as their bravery.”
Despite the harsh reality, the romanticised myth of Sparta as a paragon of selfless dedication to country and victory is likely to endure, because people want it.
“Sparta is still revered because of human insecurity,” says Cole.
“People love to be galvanised to do better, try harder, and push their limits. That’s the Spartan myth, and even if it’s not true, it still inspires many people today.”
The Bronze Lie: Shattering The Myth Of Spartan Warrior Supremacy by Myke Cole (Bloomsbury, £25) is out now. For free UK P&P, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832
The statue of King Leonidas of ancient Sparta stands over the battlefield of Thermopylae
No… they lost battle but ultimately won war
It’s not absolutely clear to me what is or are the source(s) of Myke Cole’s book, says Paul Cartledge.
But his principal claims are clear enough: the Spartans lost as many battles as they won, they often put their own lives first, and, if they could retreat or negotiate a treaty, wouldn’t fight to the death as we have long been told.
The world-famous battle at Thermopylae ‑ or Hot Gates ‑ in 480 BCE is taken as, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a killer counter-proof.
Well, yes, Thermopylae was indeed a defeat ‑ but it wasn’t a disastrous defeat, since it had some positive consequences at the time, quite separately from any posthumous mythification.
It enabled a joint land-sea resistance to the Persians, cemented the Spartans’ leadership status, and bought the loyalist Greeks time to build their coalition which would eventually throw back the Persians in 479 BCE.
Did the Spartans as a matter of fact lose more battles than they won so far as the extant record goes?
Only, perhaps, if relatively minor skirmishes and engagements are added into the mix ‑ as against what really mattered historically, which is that the Spartans in the three centuries between 669 and 371 BCE lost possibly only one major battle apart from Thermopylae.
The great Athenian historian Thucydides sagely observed that the Spartans “were slow to go to war unless compelled of necessity to do so”.
That is, unless nothing but a full-scale physical encounter would meet the bill. As for often putting their own lives first ‑ yes, they did, and on the line too, especially when fighting, as they normally did, with allies beside and behind them.
Mr Cole is an amateur historian with a more than robust record of personal military service but also a published author of popular fantasy and science fiction.
To suggest he stick to writing fantasy fiction would be too harsh but it is not too much to suggest he should get his facts, and his targets, straight.
Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge (Picador, £9.99) is out now in paperback