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'300': Why the Spartans kind of deserved to lose
They should've let Ephialtes fight with 'em.
Almost 2,502 years ago, 300 Spartans put up a valiant last stand against a massive Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. And, 15 years ago, Zack Snyder's 300 told their story in an extremely stylized, graphic, “Dudes Rock” sorta way.
I’m just a humble entertainment journalist, not a historian, so I will not be making calls about what happened two and a half millennia ago. However, I am qualified to look back at the film 300 a decade and a half after its March 9 release, and admit that the Spartans deserved to lose.
Did they deserve to lose because King Xerxes, despite being a conquering invader, arguably offered a more evolved and multicultural civilization than Greece? Did they deserve to lose because 300, despite kicking ass, is inherently kinda racist and fascist and homophobic? Those are bigger ideological questions for another piece, but this one is coming at the movie from a pure tactics level. As seen in the film, the Spartans deserved to lose because King Leonidas explicitly turned away Ephialtes. Why? Because the hunchback couldn’t hold his shield high enough to be a part of the phalanx formation.
The 300 Spartans proceed to use this phalanx formation, like, one time, and then spent the rest of the battle just kinda standing around in the open looking cool as they fight immortals and bomb-throwers and whatnot. Turns out the phalanx wasn’t all that essential to your fighting strategy after all so maybe you should’ve let Ephialtes stick around and stab some Persians!
Ephialtes — the fictional character in 300, not the real person from history, who as far as we know was not born with deformities and was just a traitor — is actually kind of the hero of 300. We learn at the beginning of the movie that Sparta’s warrior culture mandates that weak or disabled children be thrown to the wolves. Ephialtes should have been marked for death at birth just because of his appearance. Instead, his parents fled Sparta in an act of shame that spared their child from infanticide. So, it’s pretty admirable that when Ephialtes sees King Leonidas and 299 other Spartan soldiers, his first instinct is to join them.
Ephialtes owes the Spartans nothing. They come from a culture that views him as a mistake. They would have had him killed within hours of taking his first breath. And yet Ephialtes gets his father’s shield and spear and finds his would-be executioner to offer his help and give them a heads up about a passageway that the Persians could potentially use to outflank them.
Leonidas, to his very mild credit, does not have Ephialtes thrown over a cliff the way he will later chuck some elephants. Instead, he somewhat patronizingly compliments Ephialtes on his strong spear thrust, right before explaining that Ephialtes’s inability to raise his shield high enough would be an unconscionable weak link in the Spartan’s phalanx — a difficult-to-break formation of interlocking shields and spears.
Surely Leonidas could have said “but you can assist us behind the lines” in some capacity, just to reward Ephialtes for his initiative, but he didn’t, probably because Leonidas can’t help but view him as unworthy and less than because he is disabled through no fault of his own. But, sure, whatever.
If Leonidas said the phalanx was essential to Spartan war strategy, then he has a point that Ephialtes can’t join. We see how effective the phalanx is when the Spartans use it to fend off the first Spartan onslaught.
But this entire line of logic falls apart when the Spartans spend the rest of the movie just kinda charging out into the open and fighting Persians as individuals. Look at this fighting. They're just out there by themselves, no phalanx formation whatsoever. There’s no reason why Ephialtes couldn’t have joined in. He could have stabbed some Persians. If he died trying, well, he would’ve died with honor and Leonidas wouldn’t have really cared. No harm in letting him join in the killing. (Perhaps that’s why he wasn’t allowed to fight, because Leonidas didn’t deem him worthy of dying with honor.)
Basically, Leonidas’ entire reason for turning Ephialtes away turns out to have been bullshit. It’s no wonder that my guy goes to Xerxes. The God-King may be a brutal weirdo, but he’s not going to discount Ephialtes just because of the way he looks.
So, sorry not sorry that the Spartans all died. They should’ve had 301 Spartans — even if that 301st Spartan couldn’t participate in a not-that-essential phalanx — and this wouldn’t have been a problem.
The Spartans brought this L on themselves, and Ephialtes deserves a nice life enjoying Xerxes’ cool harem with goat-headed people and amputee ladies and various orgies. You earned it, king.