History vs. Hollywood: Factual Errors in Pompeii and 300: Rise of an Empire

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A Brief History

This weekend, two epic films set during Greco-Roman history vie for box office dominance: 300: Rise of an Empire (total worldwide gross as of March 10, 2014: $132,850,000) set during the Greco-Persian Wars and Pompeii (total worldwide gross as of March 10, 2014: $78,168,000) set during the height of the Roman Empire, but how accurate are they historically speaking?

Digging Deeper: 300: Rise of an Empire

Quite a bit of well put together articles have addressed the factual accuracy and inaccuracy of 300 (see for example here and here), but less has been written about the prequel/sidequel/sequel currently in theaters (a notable exception is the article found here).  So, then, what does the current film get wrong?

Well, the most obvious is the depiction of Xerxes, the Great King of Persia.  No ancient sources depict him as a beardless god-man around 9 feet tall!  Nor did he undertake an expedition to a special site to transform into some kind demigod due to the death of his father, because…

Unlike in the film, Xerxes’s dad, Darius I the Great, did not die at the Battle of Marathon at the hands of a Greek in 490 B.C., but rather some four years later in 486 B.C. of more natural causes.

As for Xerxes’s right hand woman, Artemisia, there is no evidence that she had “violent sex” with her nemesis Themistocles of Athens during the Greco-Persian Wars and nor did she die during the Battle of Salamis.  How exactly she died is a bit of a mystery, but it is clearly not what the film depicts.  Also, according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University, she also was not the commander of the Persian fleet, but rather a commander.

Speaking of inaccurate depictions of women, Sparta’s Queen Gorgo (played by Cersei Lannister…no just kidding, I mean Sarah Connor…okay, seriously, Lena Headey) did not show up to turn the tide of the Battle of Salamis leading a Spartan fleet.

Those are some of the most glaring factual errors beyond the stylistic choices, but imagine the article we would have to write if they ever make the proposed sequel set during the American Revolution…

Digging Deeper: Pompeii

Set nearly 500 years after the events of 300: Rise of an Empire, Pompeii concerns not an epic battle, but an epic natural disaster, namely a devastating volcanic eruption.

The film actually does a decent job recreating in stunning 3D visuals what ancient historian Pliny the Younger described occurred: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices.  People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”  Moreover, according to this article, Rosaly Lopes, a volcanologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Califronia, supports the film’s recreation of a volcanic eruption, noting that the movie “realistically captured the earthquakes that preceded the eruption, the explosions and the pyroclastic flows of hot ash and gas that buried the city and its residents.”  Furthermore, in another article, Sarah Yeomans, an archaeologist at the University of Southern California, offers praise for the movie’s  accuracy in showing raised paving stones in the streets, political graffiti on the buildings, and a realistic amphitheatre in which gladiatorial combat takes place.

Nevertheless, the film does invent many of the main characters rather than focus on the lives of real Romans who actually lived through the catastrophe, which means that the main plot (beyond the eruption) and dialogue are generally the inventions of the film’s writers.  What is more, Yeomans disapproves of inaccurate portrayal of Roman women as more independent both in terms of actions and clothing than would have been acceptable at that time in Roman history.  As such, the scenery and terror does capture what occurred with regards to the disastrous volcanic eruption, but some of the costumes and characters are not directly drawn from history.

If you would like to see a concise historically accurate summary of the events that occurred, please watch the following video:

Question for students (and subscribers): Despite their factual inaccuracies, do you think either of these films are still useful for learning about Ancient History?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

While I do strongly urge our readers to see both movies in 3D if possible, for those wanting even more on these events, please check out all of the following:

300: March to Glory.  Warner Bros. Games, 2007.  Video Game.

Bonnard, Mario, dir.  Last Days of Pompeii.  Allied Artists, 2016.  DVD.

Herodotus, John M. Marincola, et al.  Herodotus: The Histories (Penguin Classics).  Penguin Classics, 1996.

Maté, Rudolph, dir.  300 Spartans, The Blu-ray.  20th Century Fox, 2014.  Blu-ray.

Miller, Frank.  300.  Dark Horse Books, 2008.

Padrusch, David, dir.  Last Stand of the 300: The Legendary Battle at Thermopylae.  A&E Home Video, 2007.  DVD.

Snyder, Zack, dir.  300 (The Complete Experience Blu-ray Book Packaging + BD-Live).  WarnerBrothers, 2009.  Blu-ray.


About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.