There are very few historians who doubt the tenacity and military skill of the Greek defenders who faced the invading army of Xerxes. The 300 movie displayed the equipment of the Spartans relatively well, considering that the producers were intent on reproducing the images of a comic book, leaving little room for consultation with modern scholarship. If the portrayal of the Greek side was adequate, that of “the Persians” was pure fantasy. This being said, there are already a large number of viewers who have taken these images in a very “literal” and historical context … the human mind is indeed a very impressionable organ.
The discussion here is a very quick and overall analysis of the actual military factors that were in place during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC – however we will digress into the post-Alexandrian eras, notably the evolution of the Persian knights during the Parthian (238 BC- 224 AD) and Sassanian (224-651 AD) eras. I will closely scrutinize the veracity of whether Xerxes actually wielded 1,700,000 troops during his invasion of Greece. By no means is this discussion adequate, however it is hoped that the reader’s curiosity will be sufficiently evoked as to encourage further research and readings.
Greek spears and swords were longer than their Achaemenid counterparts. This meant that in hand to hand combat, the Spartans held the advantage and were able to “outrange” their opponents with their swords and spears, which were primarily used for thrusting (see Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, 2007, Chapters 4-5). The swords of “the Persians” in the movie are of no historical relevance – many of the Iranian swords of that era were short and dagger-like. These were known as the “Akenakes”.
Scythian (left) and Mede (right)
Saka Tigrakhauda (Tall-capped Scythian to the left) and a Mede (round cap to the right) appearing before the Achaemenid kings at the Imperial palace of Persepolis. Note the short size of the Akenakes daggers, which proved inadequate in hand to hand combat against Greek warriors.
For a thorough examination of the Akenakes daggers, as well as all Iranian military gear from the Bronze Age to the 19th century, consult Manoucher Moshtagh Khorasani’s comprehensive book on the subject:
Greek troops were far better armored than their opponents, although it is not clear if all the Spartans wore heavy armor at Thermopylae. Greek helmets, body armor and greaves provided excellent protection against blade weapons in hand to hand combat, whereas the vast majority of the Achaemenids lacked significant armor protection. Scale armor was available, but not to the majority of troops. When engaged in hand to hand combat, Achaemenid troops were exposed to deadly spear thrusts as well as hacking/thrusts against their faces, limbs and torso (see Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, 2007, Chapters 4-5). The movie portrayal of Achaemenid armor, was pure fiction and has no resemblance to that issued among Achaemenid troops.
The Martial Arts Tradition of Greece
The 300 movie did capture the camaraderie, zeal and “esprit de corps” of the Spartans very well, and represented the contemporary military culture of ancient Sparta in a fairly realistic manner.
Greece (as a whole) was the heir to an excellent martial arts tradition. According to legend, the newborn child in Sparta would be washed by his mother in wine to ensure that the child was strong and fit (the weaker baby would reputedly die from the bathing). The father would then bring the baby to advisors who would ultimately decide if the newborn child was fit to be raised as a Spartan. If the baby “failed” the test, he would cast off a cliff or gulley at Mount Taygetos, known as the “Kaiada“.
As shown in the movie, the boys of Sparta began training from the age of 7. Formal military service would begin at the age of twenty. Examination of Greek vases clearly shows Greek warriors engaged in very “modern” training methods: kicking, boxing, wrestling, Pankration, using “speedbags”, etc.
Training and drills were at least as brutal as combat situations. Sparta was very much a warrior society; it was the Athenians and their ethnic cousins in Ionia (modern western Turkey), then under Persian rule, who were at the forefront of the Hellenic Democratic tradition.
The Greek Phalanx System
The Greeks in general had developed the phalanx system, where soldiers fought as one unit in a single formation. Central to this system was the use of overlapping shields which formed an impenetrable barrier against javelins, spears and arrows. The Macedonians of northern Greece, perfected the phalanx and adopted the 12 foot long pike or “sarissa” used with devastating effect by Alexander the Great during his invasion of Persia.
Recreation of a Spartan Phalanx
The Greeks often engaged in close quarter combat and had been doing so for centuries before the Achaemenid invasions. Suffice it to say that when it came to hand to hand combat, the Spartans held the advantage. Thanks to their training, the Spartans were os disciplined that they were able to collectively maneuver the phalanx at a single command. With their shields locked together, the phalanx was able to march and put forward all of their spears simultaneously. There was no breaking of formation in acts of battlefield individualism – all warriors were expected to adhere strictly and steadfastly to the phalanx. The spears protruded in deadly fashion towards the onrushing enemy, with deadly results. The Greeks testify to the bravery of the lightly armored Iranians who tried to break the spears of the Spartans with their bare hands in an endeavor to get close to the warriors within the phalanx.
The Evolution of cavalry
The portrayal of “Persian cavalry” was totally wrong in the movie with respect to weapons, equestrian gear and uniforms. Superficially, these resembled more the Arab horsemen seen during the Arabo-Islamic conquests over a thousand years after the Battle of Thermopylae and bore little resemblance to either the Iranian cavalry of the Achaemenid era (559-333 BC), or the armored knights of the later Parthian and Sassanian eras of Persia (238 BC – 651 AD). Below is a reconstruction of Iranian heavy cavalry of the Achaemenid period.
Despite their formidable armor, Achaemenid cavalry had yet to solve the problem of rider stability, especially against well-trained, heavily armored, lance/spear wielding infantry fighting in phalanxes (see Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, 2007, Chapters 4-5). This is mainly because the Iranians had not yet invented saddle technology advanced enough to keep the rider stable enough as he fought on horseback. As a result, Iranian cavalry during the Achaemenid period was vulnerable to unseating by Greek heavy infantry, a fact that was duly observed by Xenophon in the early 400s BC.
Nevertheless, Iranian cavalry continued to evolve, even after the Alexandrian conquests of the Persian Empire. It was the cavalry which had posed the greatest challenge to the Greeks during their conquests of Persia, and the Greeks were duly impressed by them. Xenophon warned about the dangers of the Iranian cavalry, a prophecy which was to prove true with the rise of the Parthians and the Sassanians. It was these new Persian knights who finally defeated the Seleucid successors of Alexander and who scored dramatic victories against Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae (53 BC), and against Roman Emperors Severus Alexander (Ctesiphon in 233 AD), Gordian III (Mesiche in 244 AD), Phillip the Arab (Barbalissos in 253 AD), Valerian (Carrhae-Edessa in 260 AD), and Julian (inside Persia in 363 AD). By the 5th century AD, the Turks had arrived from the North of China into Central Asia and Europe, and were influencing the Iranians and the Romans: the Turks were probably the first to invent stirrups.
Very few are aware of the positive references to the military skill of the later Persian knights. One example is Libianus who, referring to the Sassanian knights, notes that Roman troops “prefer to suffer any fate rather than look a Persian in the face”