Battle of Thermopylae in popular culture

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The Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC has long been the topic of cultural inspiration, as it is perhaps the most famous military last stand of all time. This "against all odds" story is passed to us from the writings of the Greek Herodotus, who was not present at the battle himself. He relates the story of 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians defending the Pass of Thermopylae against almost "2 million" Persians on the third day of the battle.[1] (For the first two days, the Greek force had numbered somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000.)

Although modern historians have questioned the numbers presented by Herodotus, with most at around 100,000 to 250,000 invaders, the story has resonated with authors and poets for centuries over the inspiring bravery and resolution of the Spartans.

The performance of the defenders at the battle of Thermopylae is often used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain to maximize an army's potential,[2] and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds.[2] Even more, both ancient and modern writers used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the superior power of a volunteer army of freemen defending native soil.[3] The sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians has captured the minds of many throughout the ages and has given birth to many cultural references as a result.[4]

The words "MOLON LABE" (ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ) in Greek as they are inscribed on the marble of the modern era monument at Thermopylae.

Cultural references[edit]

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David (1814)
  • Thermopylae has been used as a name for ships; for example, a clipper ship 212 feet in length displacing 91 tons was launched in Aberdeen in 1868. Christened Thermopylae, it established speed records and was also notable for having a male figurehead wearing Greek armor, helmet, shield and sword.
  • The Greek phrase "Μολών λαβέ" ("molon labe", or "come and take them"), a quote attributed to Leonidas at the battle, has been repeated by many later generals and politicians in order to express an army's or nation's determination to not surrender without a battle. The motto "ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ" is on the emblem of the Greek First Army Corps. Both the original Greek phrase and its English translation are often heard from pro-gun activists as a defense of the US constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
  • The phrase was written on the flag fashioned by the Texans during the Battle of Gonzales.
  • The Luftwaffe Leonidas Squadron under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Heiner Lang, flew "Self-sacrifice missions" (Selbstopfereinsatz) against Soviet held bridges over the Oder River from 17 April until 20 April 1945 during the Battle for Berlin.
  • Australian groups seeking to get greater recognition for the heroic acts of soldiers in the World War II Battle of Isurava (September 1942, in New Guinea) have dubbed that battle "Australia's Thermopylae" and established a website setting out in detail the grounds for making such a comparison (see [1]).
  • The Battle of Thermopylae has also been compared to various battles of the Anglo-Zulu War.[5]

Poetry and song[edit]

Verse(s) Notes

Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!


Lord Byron
Don Juan
Canto iii, Stanza 86, 7

The King with half the East at heel is marched from land of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.


A. E. Housman,
The Oracles (last verse)
from his book "Last Poems".

I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.


Observation by
the decaying, regretful speaker
of T. S. Eliot's "Gerontion".

O love, O celibate.
Nobody but me
Walks the waist high wet.
The irreplaceable
Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae.


Sylvia Plath,
suicide at 31,
faces her own Thermopylae
walking in the garden
in the poem
"Letter in November".

"Go tell it"—What a Message --
To whom—is specified --
Not murmur—not endearment --
But simply—we—obeyed --
Obeyed—a Lure—a Longing?
Oh Nature—none of this --
To Law—said sweet Thermopylae
I give my dying Kiss --


In Emily Dickinson's
"'Go tell it' — what a message".

When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient free men
In Greece and in Rome where bravely stood
300 men and 3 men


The first verse of
Thomas Osborne Davis'
"A Nation Once Again".

Now considered a prime example of Irish rebel music and sung by the Wolfe Tones and many other Irish singers. The "3 men" are the Horatii

When You Go Home,
Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow,
We Gave Our Today
The epitaph inscribed on
the Commonwealth cemetery war memorial at Kohima.[6]
It was probably inspired by the epitaph of Simonides and is attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds.
Verse original Verse translation Notes
“Exercitus noster est magnus,” Persicus inquit, “et propter
numerum sagittarum nostrarum caelum non videbitis!”
Tum Lacedaemonius respondet: “In umbra, igitur, pugnabimus!”
Et Leonidas, rex Lacedaemoniorum, exclamat: “Pugnate cum animis,
Lacedaemonii; hodie apud umbras fortasse cenabimus!”
“Our army is great,” the Persian says, “and because
of the number of our arrows you will not see the sky!”
Then a Spartan answers: “In the shade, therefore, we will fight!”
And Leonidas, king of the Spartans, shouts: “Fight with spirit,
Spartans; perhaps we will dine today among the ghosts!”
Wheelock's Latin
Inspired by Cicero's, Tusculanae Disputationes, 1.42.101
Τιμή σ' εκεινους όπου στην ζωή των
ώρισαν να φυλάγουν Θερμοπύλες.
Πότε από το χρέος μη κινούντες΄
δίκαιοι κ' ίσοι,σ'ολες των τες πράξεις,
αλλά με λύπη κιόλας κ' ευσπλαχνία,
γενναίοι οσάκις είναι πλούσιοι κι όταν
είναι πτωχοί, πάλ' εις μικρόν γενναίοι,
πάλι συντρέχοντες, όσο μπορούνε΄
πάντοτε την αλήθεια ομιλούντες,
πλην χωρίς μίσος για τους ψευδωμένους.


Και περισσότερη τιμή τους πρέπει
όταν προβλέπουν (και πολλοί προβλέπουν)
πως ο Εφιάλτης θα φανεί στο τέλος,
και οι Μήδοι επί τέλους θα διαβούνε.

Let honor be to those in whose life
it was set to guard Thermopylae.
Never moving away from duty;
Just and equals in all of their acts
But with sadness and compassion
Brave once they are rich and when
They are poor, again brave
Coming to aid as much as they can;
Always speaking the truth
But without hate for those who lie.


And even more honor they deserve
When its predicted (and many predict)
That Ephialtes will appear in the end
And the Medes will finally pass through

The Greek poet Kavafis who lived in Alexandria

of Egypt at the turn of the 20th century
wrote one of his more famous poems entitled
Thermopylae in 1903. The poem actually created
the expression guarding Thermopylae and has been
told in honor of other dead, such as those of
the Imia crisis.

Przechodniu powiedz Polsce
żeśmy polegli
wierni w jej służbie
Passerby, tell Poland
that we fell
faithfully in her service
Inscription on the Polish war cemetery at Monte Cassino:
La patria así se forma
Termópilas brotando;
constelación de Cíclopes
su noche iluminó
And so the nation forms
Thermopylae springing;
a Cyclops constellation
its night enlightened
The National Anthem of Colombia, IX Stanza IX:
... едно име ново, голямо антично,

като Термопили славно, безгранично,
що отговор дава и смива срамът,
и на клеветата строшава зъбът.

... A new name, its roots to antiquity tracing,

As great as Thermopylae, all fame embracing,
A name to wipe shame away, with its plain truth
Smashing to smithereens calumny's tooth.

The volunteers at Shipka, by Ivan Vazov
  • Dimitris Varos Ω ξείν… (O stranger) is a poetic book written in 1974.

Literature[edit]

Author Novel Description
Heinrich Böll Wanderer, kommst Du nach Spa... This short story takes its title from the German translation of the inscription on the Spartans' tomb. In it a young German soldier at the end of the Second World War is wounded on the Eastern Front and is brought to a field hospital, which had been a school. He wonders if it could be his school, which he had only recently left to become a soldier. On seeing in his own writing the truncated quotation of the title on a chalkboard, his question is answered. ("Sparta" was truncated because the narrator had run out of room at the edge of the board.)
David Gemmell Lion of Macedon Discusses the Battle of Thermopylae several times as part of the studies of the lead character, a Spartan named Parmenion who idolizes Leonidas and owns his sword.
The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend The Battle of Thermopylae very lightly re-sprayed into Gemmell's Drenai fantasy setting.
Stephen King The Dark Tower Includes a comparison with the Battle of Thermopylae when a character fights alone against a series of enemies coming through a single doorway.
Valerio Massimo Manfredi The Spartan Gives an account of the Battle of Thermopylae. The novel uses the battle to set up one of the protagonists who is apparently sent out on a mission by King Leonidas before the final Persian attack.
Steven Pressfield Gates of Fire Depicts the battle as told by the Spartan helot Xeones, who had been wounded during the fight, but was revived to tell Xerxes of the Spartans' heroism.
Mary Renault The Lion in the Gateway Tells the story of the conflict between the Persians and Greeks across the reigns of Darius and Xerxes, including Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae.
John Ringo Ghost, 2004 Includes a description of the battle fought at Thermopylae and a quote of the epigram by Simonides'.
Eric Nylund Halo: The Fall of Reach, 2001 The series' main protagonist, John, is one of 75 children selected for the SPARTAN-II program, a secret project to create an elite corps of supersoldiers. Also, a direct reference to the 300 is made in 2 situations: First where they are watching a holographic image of the battle in their class, and when Dr. Halsey thinks of the Spartans as 'more effective than Homer's gods had ever been' incorrectly labeling them as gods.
Greg Donegan (pen name of Bob Mayer) Atlantis: Gate In the fourth volume (2002) of a Science Fiction series, Leonidas and Thermopylae are part of an interdimensional battle to save all earths from a trans-dimensional race bent on stealing resources from other worlds and destroying them in the process.
John Ringo The Hot Gate (Troy Rising, book three) The second "troy"-class massive SAPL-converging-point nickel-iron inflated asteroid battlestation is called Thermopylae, and the name of the third book in the series is named after the translation of Thermopylae.
Eric Nylund Halo: Ghosts of Onyx,2006 In the book the SPARTAN-III program,orphans of the raging war with the Covenant are conscripted into three companies: Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Each company contained around 300 SPARTANs, and both Alpha and Beta companies were slaughtered in a last stand, with the exception of those pulled out before the suicide operation, as well as two other survivors from Beta company.

Comic[edit]

Author Title Description
Frank Miller Sin City: The Big Fat Kill Dwight McCarthy, facing a fight against a large number of enemies, mulls on the Battle of Thermopylae, concluding that "a careful choice of where to fight" saved Greek civilization.
Frank Miller Hell and Back (A Sin City Love Story) During the comic, Wallace hallucinates and sees his friend appear as King Leonidas as portrayed in Miller's 300.
Frank Miller Batman: The Dark Knight Returns In Frank Miller's tale of an aging Batman, the translation of the name Thermopylae ("Hot Gates") shows up as the name of a porn star who is doing a new film version of Snow White "for the kids". In the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Hot Gates makes herself "Dictator of Ohio".
Frank Miller 300 A 1998 graphic novel series (later collected into a single hardcover issue) written and illustrated by Frank Miller with painted colors by Lynn Varley, a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae and the events leading up to it from the perspective of Leonidas of Sparta. 300 was particularly inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, a movie that Miller watched as a young boy.
Héctor Germán Oesterheld Mort Cinder A comic book from Argentina (1964) featuring an immortal character who had lived at many historical ages. He tells about the battle as having been a spartan warrior at it, who also would have been the one to say the famous quote of "In the shade, therefore, we will fight!". The author, however, focus the narrative more in the humanity of the small and unknown soldiers rather than in the main battle itself.
Max Bunker (Luciano Secchi) and Magnus (Roberto Raviola) Alan Ford In these Italian comic book series, Number One tells the story about Leonidas being fat, and the Persians were stopped when he got stuck in Thermopylae.

Films[edit]

Film Date Description
The 300 Spartans 1962 Depicts the Battle of Thermopylae. Starring Richard Egan and Ralph Richardson
Patton 1970 General Patton refers to the Battle of Thermopylae when talking with his generals and aides but does not tell them the result of the battle (defeat and massacre of the heroes) until after the U.S. troops have already been sent off to fight.
Go Tell the Spartans 1978 Set in Vietnam, the film includes a scene in which US troops come across the grave of French defenders of a Vietnamese village which has the famous epitaph to the Spartans written over its entrance and, by implication, forecasts the same result for a later generation of American soldiers.
Rambling Rose 1991 Robert Duvall's character refers to Thermopylae as he resists Rose's sexual advances.
Don't Tempt Me 2001 In a scene at the end, Fanny Ardant's and Gael García Bernal's characters refers to Thermopylae as a legal defense, where Demián Bichir's character chooses to fight for good and die, knowing that he won't win the battle.
The Last Samurai 2003 The main characters refer to the battle of Thermopylae twice, including right before engaging in a battle they are almost certain to lose. The Battle of Thermopylae parallels the main characters' situation, in which they are outnumbered and realize that victory is unattainable but choose to fight for a purpose beyond the battle itself.
300 2007 Based on Frank Miller's graphic novel 300, a retelling of the battle from the perspective of Leonidas. The original graphic novel was a mythical retelling of the story, told as if by the point of view of a Spartan reciting a story around a campfire.
Last Stand of the 300 2007 Documentary. Broadcast on The History Channel.
Meet the Spartans 2008 A parody movie of 300 in which the Spartans led by King Leonidas win the first day of battle against the Persians in a hip-hop dance competition.

Television[edit]

Show Episode Description
Samurai Jack "Jack and the Spartans" A group of warriors, similar in appearance to Spartans, defend a narrow gateway against a vast robot army. Jack shows the Spartans the narrow path to allow them to obtain victory after 6 generations. At the end of the episode the King remarks the 300 and 1 (300 warriors and Jack) when retelling the tale on his death bed.
Xena: Warrior Princess "One Against an Army" Xena and Gabrielle have to defend the pass of Thermopylae from the invading Persian army. However, in this version of the story, Xena herself is up against 300 Persian soldiers, and not 300 Spartans against thousands of Persians.
Robot Chicken Moesha Poppins A highly stylized trailer for 1776 (film) that parodies the trailer for 300. Includes the line This! Is! AMERICA![7][8] Another Episode has Leonidas saying THIS IS SPARTA-like quotes in mundane situations, such as watching Two and a Half Men.[9]
seaQuest DSV "Spindrift" After being shot during a rescue mission of his shipmate Loonie Henderson, SeaQuest's chief of security Jim Brody's last dying words are "With your shield or on it", a reference to a saying attributed to mothers of Spartan men as they went to war. Captain Hudson later explains to Henderson that Brody meant his sacrifice for her, just like the Greeks at Thermopylae, was worth it.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "What You Leave Behind" Dr. Julian Bashir, who has a penchant for last stands, offers to take Ezri Dax on a date in a holosuite program depicting the Battle of Thermopylae.
South Park "D-Yikes!" In a parody of the aforementioned film 300, Mrs. Garrison goes to a "girl bar" which is being bought out by Persians. She is indignant about it, especially their tacky blue carpet and gold curtain rods. When the representative comes, she kicks him in the testicles and starts a war. They go tell their boss, Xerxes, who sends many more Persians in a wave. The Lesbians are able to fend them off, and they retreat. Mrs. Garrison then gets Mexicans, disguised as Persians, to infiltrate the Persian club. They find out that Xerxes is a woman and they use that to get him to keep Les Bos a girl bar. Lesbos is an actual island in Greece.[10]
Deadliest Warrior "Spartan vs. Ninja" During the explanation of the Spartan specs, Team Spartan talks about the Battle of Thermopylae, being a "rear guard action" similar to a "Greek Alamo".

Video games[edit]

Developer Year Video Game Description
Bungie Studios Marathon (computer game series) and Halo (series) Bungie games often contain classical references. Among the references to Sparta, Marathon 2 contains a level called "My Own Private Thermopylae" and in the Prologue of the Halo novel Ghosts of Onyx, Operation TORPEDO has 300 Spartans from the SPARTAN-III program, Beta Company, fighting against a Covenant force of more than 1000 ground troops supported by 10 Cruisers.
Collision Studios 2007 300: March to Glory Based on the film 300.
Realtime Games Software 1988 Carrier Command The Action mode starts with the opposing carriers facing off over an island named Thermopylae.
Slitherine 2004 Gates of Troy One of the scenarios is the battle of Thermopylae where you have to resist for 20 turns against the Persian army.
Red Storm Entertainment 2005 Rainbow Six Lockdown In the cutscene before the last mission, Rainbow sniper Dieter Weber briefly explains about the battle before getting himself into position, saying the Spartans were "outnumbered 800 to one, but they went down fighting."
Blizzard Entertainment 2008 World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King The Battle of Light's Hope Chapel, as played out in the quest "The Light of Dawn" (one of the last of the death knight starter quests), pits 300 Defenders of the Light against 10,000 undead of the Scourge, including player-character death knights. However, unlike history, the 300 defeat the much larger force, due to fighting on holy ground (Light's Hope Chapel).

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Histories
  2. ^ a b PARAMETERS, US Army War College Quarterly - Summer 1996
  3. ^ . . . almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and culture lesson. In universal terms, a small, free people had willingly outfought huge numbers of imperial subjects who advanced under the lash. More specifically, the Western idea that soldiers themselves decide where, how, and against whom they will fight was contrasted against the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy — freedom proving the stronger idea as the more courageous fighting of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and their later victories at Salamis and Plataea attested. http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson101106.html
  4. ^ "Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World", Paul Cartledge
  5. ^ J. Murray, 'An African Thermopylae? The Battles of the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879' Akroterion 54 (2009), 51-68.
  6. ^ It was also engraved near entrance the 5th Marine Division's temporary cemetery on the island of Iwo Jima.
  7. ^ ""Moesha Poppins", Robot Chicken episode #50". 
  8. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANpnPSlwm1M&feature=related
  9. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqQ-4DeUj8U&feature=related
  10. ^ Lesbos

Coordinates: 38°48′0″N 22°32′0″E / 38.80000°N 22.53333°E / 38.80000; 22.53333