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Ephialtes is the real name of the Greek citizen that betrayed the Spartans and revealed the secret path that led to the Thermopylae; however, he wasn’t a Spartan himself and he definitely wasn’t a hunchback. On the other hand, his betrayal did jeopardize indeed Leonidas’ plan and it almost cost the whole Greece and, as a consequence, the western world as we know it a massive defeat.
That being said, the 300 Spartan soldiers’ achievement did happen pretty much as it’s portrayed in Zack Snyder’s movie. The personal guard of the king of Sparta, alongside 7.000 free Greek men, managed to contain a 200.000 soldier army using the Thermopylae narrow path. Once Ephialtes did what he did and managed to get his name in the history books, the Greeks retreated to try reassembling and mustering a force that could resist against Xerxes massive army. However, the 300 Spartans stayed and stood to: A-make a point that every Greek citizen would never forget; B-give the Greek army time to reorganize; and C-get their own version of the Marathon battle (a clash in which the Athenians spectacularly beat a contingency of the Persian army down at the Marathon valley).
Much to a big part of the movie’s audience disappointment, the Hoplites, the Spartan warriors, didn’t fight bare chest. They would wear a copper armor that’d cover their, most definitely, perfectly defined abs, as well as a helmet and the big shield, spears and swords we see in the film. The way they fought though, it is pretty much as Snyder portrayed it; for it was a matter of getting the best fighters in the front lines while the ones behind would push and replace any fallen men. Actually, the Spartans invented the military formation, discipline and training as we know it nowadays. Armies around the world still teach, train and practice most of the tactics and techniques the Spartans created.
Even though Xerxes wasn’t bald, there were no mythical creatures in his army and he didn’t have Batman’s voice, his army was the largest the ancient world had ever seen and he indeed had a personal guard called the Immortals. Who, by the way, got undeniably beaten by the Spartans once they were sent to the battle by the infuriated king of Persia. Moreover, the Spartan steel, armor and weaponry in general were way better than the Persian soldiers’ equipment which contributed to the massacre that took place at the Thermopylae.
Which bring us to another interesting point: remember that cool line “Spartans, what’s your profession?” Even though it’s obviously impossible to tell if that dialogue between Leonidas and a Greek soldier actually happened, the truth is that the Spartans were a race of soldiers. That’s what they were trained for and that’s what they did; nothing else. The Spartan society was organized as a pyramid: at the bottom there were the Helots, slaves that worked the land and basically served for one of the most famous and infamous introductory rites into adulthood of the Spartans: to murder someone in cold blood. After them came the Periokoi: laborers who made sure everything was taken care of so the Spartans wouldn’t have to worry about anything but training, fighting and reproducing. At the top of the pyramid were the true Spartans; individuals that had to be ready to fight and die for their nation at any point. But there were hierarchies amongst them too: first off, there were two kings (in the 300 day and time, those were Leonidas and Demaratus who was exiled in Persia and who, by the way, like Ephialtes would ally with Sparta’s biggest enemy, Athens aside of course); below the kings there was a council of a few Spartans who would take the most important decisions in society acting as a council; and after them a variable number of “free” men: soldiers.
In this case, the term free is relative so, as we see in the movie, it wasn’t easy to make it to adulthood in Sparta during those days. The first test took place right after being born: only the strongest were allowed to live. After that, you would spend seven years living with your mother and being an actual kid. Though at the age of seven you’d start a training that would last until the age of twenty during which you were supposed to survive by your own means, i.e. stealing and what not, defend yourself from the older students, and finally killing a Helot. At the age of twenty, the students were officially part of the army and were ready to defend their land should the time come.
Speaking of cool lines: “This is Sparta” Leonidas yells to a Persian ambassador before throwing him in the pit. Well, actually, according to a rune from that time, Leonidas did have a badass answer to Xerxe’s ambassador once this one tried to convince the Spartans surrender their weapons. According to that rune, Leonidas answered: “come get them yourself”. Which, to be honest, is pretty cool too, right? However, Leonida’s wife message right before his departure to a certain death: “come back with your shield or on it” doesn’t seem to be quite true; since apparently, what Leonidas told her was to marry another man, have children and be happy. He knew he would not come back alive. Furthermore, Leonidas was making a statement; the most memorable statement of all times. It is true that there was reluctance amongst the Spartans to fight during a particular festivity and it is also true that Leonidas bribed the oracle (as it was usual) before getting a negative premonition from her, since she foresaw a Persian victory. What is not true though, is that Leonidas decided to disobey the oracle and “take a stroll” with his personal guard knowing that he had to do it for Greece’s sake. Leonidas did what he did because he needed to make a point. He needed to tell Greece a tale, to bring the whole country together and to show that if you are united, have a good plan and know the ground you’re fighting on, you can face any kind of army; including one that’s literally fifty times yours.
“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to our laws we lie”. Now this one, one of the coolest lines of the movie (which is quite an achievement considering the film we are talking about), it actually is true. The sentence can be read in a humble plaque that can still be visited nowadays in the Thermopylae. Finally, the Greek nation decided to remember and honor the Spartans for, most likely, one of the bravest, most epic and heroic episodes of the story of civilizations. And, exactly as the Spartans, the plaque is austere, simple and effective.