The movie is based loosely on the account of the 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus, “the father of history” and recounts the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) fought between the Persian King Xerxes and an alliance of Greek states. Coming from a classicist, the movie is a lot more watchable than Herodotus’s account is readable. Herodotus has that tedious tendency to provide lengthy, logorrheic lists of which city-states participated in the battle and how many men they provided. But while Herodotus was careful in presenting the numbers, “300”‘s Zack Snyder shows a blatant disregard for them: leaving out completely the 7,000 other Greeks who dutifully guarded the pass along with Leonidas’s Spartans.
The movie does well in capturing certain aspects of Spartan life. One of its most famous lines: “come back with your shield or on it” is for all intents and purposes accurate. The Greek historian Plutarch wrote that it would often be a mother’s parting words to her son, so the dynamic changes in the movie when it’s said from wife to husband. But it certainly captures the deeply ingrained militarism of Spartan culture. The battles themselves are also really well done. The movie effectively captures hoplite tactics and is loyal to Herodotus’s account in showing the waves of Persians being sent crashing against the Greek wall with no success.
Quite why Zack Snyder had to make Xerxes look like a piercing artist on his way to Studio 54, or Ephialtes look like Gollum’s ugly brother, is beyond me. With Ephitlates, Synder doesn’t even get his ethnicity right: he wasn’t Spartan but came from Malis, a tribe near the river Sperchios some 250 miles northeast of Sparta. He did betray the Greeks by telling Xerxes about the mountain path that circumvented the army. But according to the ancients he was murdered by another man, Athenades, for another reason (not that the Spartans were any less grateful).
The final issue is with the character Aristodemus, the man with the eye patch who survives the ordeal. Instead of coming back to Sparta and giving a rousing motivational speech to the Spartan council about how bravely Leonidas and his men died, Herodotus tells us that he was received as a coward. No Spartan would talk to him or give him fire (presumably for his hearth). He was only able to rehabilitate his reputation after fighting so bravely at the following Battle of Plataea.