Miller depicts the Spartans more accurately than they are in many neoclassical works, such as Jacques-Louis David's painting Leonidas at Thermopylae. In 300, the Spartan warriors, or hoplites, are drawn bearing spears, period-specific helmets, and red cloaks. Their shields are large, bronze, and circular, with a lambda, the symbol of Sparta, emblazoned on each.
All these details are mentioned in Xenophon's Spartan Society, and Miller even shows the Spartan troops coolly combing their long hair before battle, a habit they were known for according to Herodotus (Histories 7.209).
As for Xerxes himself, the Persian despot is portrayed in all his regal splendor, with bejeweled finery and ear- and nose-rings. 300 effectively shows the effeminate excess and hubris of Xerxes, especially in comparison with the frugal Greeks, which is well in keeping with the classical Greek (and later Roman) disdain for "orientalism."
Miller Captures the Laconic Spirit of the Spartans
300 is also faithful to the Spartan ethos, as passed down in the Greco-Roman tradition. For instance, Plutarch's Sayings of the Spartans records some of the terse, "laconic" quips attributed to famous Spartans. Plutarch reports that when Xerxes wrote to Leonidas to surrender his arms, Leonidas replied, “Come and take them.” Miller interprets this anecdote into modern English idiom when his Leonidas tells the Persians to “come and get it.”
Plutarch also notes that at Thermopylae, “When someone was saying: ‘It isn’t even possible to see the sun because of the Persians’ arrows,’ Leonidas said: ‘How pleasant then, if we’re going to fight them in the shade.’” While this particular exchange is left out of 300, the idea of Persian arrows blocking out the sun is included in a descriptive caption.
Moreover, Miller invents some sarcastic Spartan dialogue of his own, which would not be out of place in Sayings of the Spartans. In one scene, Xerxes tries to convince Leonidas to surrender after the first day of fighting at the pass of Thermopylae. But Leonidas refuses.
“Brave words,” Miller has Xerxes say. “Spartan words. Yours is a fascinating tribe. There is much our cultures could share.”
Leonidas replies, “We’ve been sharing our culture with you all morning.”
The Irony of the Three Hundred
Ancient Sparta, a culture renowned for such epigrammatic wit, left no record written by its own authors. Yet other Greeks, and those who came after them, made up for this by retelling the story of Thermopylae. Frank Miller's 300, in following this tradition, convincingly reinterprets Sparta for the modern age.