The following article was originally found on the Dark Horse website. It has been reproduced here for posterity’s sake. So, if it’s ever removed from the original site, you will still find it here.
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The Persian-Greco war
Frank Miller’s latest adventure series is a riveting story of one of the most under-reported and glorious battles of the Persian-Greco war. While Miller has taken substantial creative liberties in reporting the details of his version of the Spartan King Leonidas and his army of 300 valiant soldiers, the events he describes are remarkably accurate.
“There’s a scene where the Persian ambassador asks for a token gift of land and water, and a Spartan leads him to a well, and shoves him in, to his death. Like so much that is in this book, that actually came from reality,” Miller attests, laughing. “I mean, I moved it around. I take all the liberties any fiction maker does, but the Spartans actually did treat tyrants that way.”
Most comics readers, being literate and generally interested in adventurous stuff, probably have some background in Greek history, and might even know something about the Persian invasion of Greece. Still, not much is known on a general level about the specific battle depicted in 300, so we thought it might be a good idea to provide a simplified timeline of sorts for readers who are interested in learning more about the history behind what Miller calls “the best damn story I’ve ever gotten my hands on.”
An early history of the rise of Persia and its great King Xerxes reveals a relatively rapid growth of the Persian empire. The empire was founded around 550 B.C. by Cyrus the Elder, who in a very short time managed to incorporate Babylon, Syria, Phoenicia, and every other land adjacent to Persia into the growing nation. Within twenty years, Cambyses, who succeeded Cyrus in Persia’s rule, incorporated Egypt into the empire, and with another twenty years, then-Persian leader Darius established a firm bridge-head into Greece by conquering and claiming both Scythia and Thrace. By the time the great Xerxes took reign of Persia, some sixty-five years after its founding by Cyrus, Greece had already defeated the expanding empire during one attempted invasion, and was steeling itself against any further attacks. And further attacks were a guaranteed prospect, given the Persian army’s unprecedented numbers.
Despite the strength of the individual Greek societies at this time, there was not yet any notion of there being a Greek nation. Athens was inarguably the most sophisticated of the city-states, but Sparta, with its almost primal customs and infused warrior mentality acted as a great potential threat against the advancing Persians. In the face of the imminent Persian invasion, a makeshift alliance grew between the Greek states, loosely uniting the strong Athenian navy, the vicious Spartans, who knew the intimidating Greek terrain better than anyone else, and various factions from smaller cities.
Still, problems arose between the more academic and civilized Athenians and their Spartan counterparts. Since Athens had by far contributed the most troops to the confrontation, Athenians understandably wanted their leader Themosticles named commander-in-chief. Sparta, on the other hand, claimed superior knowledge of battle and warfare, therefore its preferred leader was the Spartan Eurybiades. An informal resolution named Eurybiades admiral, despite the widely recognized fact that Themosticles made most of the pertinent decisions.
When Xerxes initiated the Persian offense from Susa in 481 (BC), he sent forth messengers with demands for submission from all the Greek states, including Sparta, and his messengers were met with resounding refusals to comply. By the spring of 480, smallish advance forces were being deployed by numerous Greek states, including Sparta, in efforts to thwart the imminent invasion of the Persian army.
In mid-August of the same year, at a time when most Greek city-states were withdrawing from their holding positions for religious observation of the Carneia and for Olympic competitions, a small force of 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, marched north to Thermopylae to fortify that important pass. This force was reinforced by factions from neighboring cities, but the total number of Greeks involved never topped seven thousand.
While the Persian navy was suffering formidable losses at sea due to a terrible storm and the subsequent attack of the Athenian navy, Xerxes ordered his land troops forward to attack the Spartan’s defense of the Hot Gates at Thermopylae. For the first two days of the battle at Thermopylae, the Persians were badly defeated by the steadfast Spartan-led troops, but on the third day, Xerxes’ imperial guard found access to a previously undiscovered pass (revealed to them by a turn-coat Greek) that allowed them to outflank Leonidas’ guard. Xerxes ordered yet another frontal attack — of the same caliber that had been defeated the previous two days — but this time, he also commanded a second attack from the rear mountain pass. Leonidas and his Spartans were defeated after two glorious days of battle, and Xerxes’ troops eventually advanced into Southern Greece, despite the heavy losses dealt by the 300 Spartans.
The following year was tumultuous for the allied Greek states, as the invaders took Attica, and the Acropolis at Athens fell to Persian troops. Nevertheless, Greece managed to prevail over the tiring Persians in key battles, and by late 479, a fortified alliance between the remaining Spartan forces and Athens proved formidable enough to reclaim the lost Greek territories and defeat Persia.
Revisit this most remarkable and under-reported battle of the Persian invasion of Greece with Frank Miller’s latest Dark Horse series, 300.