Off to the side of the larger statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae, there is a monument to the 700 Thespians who died alongside the Spartans.
Unveiled in 1997, it depicts Eros, the oldest of the gods. The Romans knew him as Cupid. The Thespians held Eros above all other gods, likely because he had no parents. Nearly 600 years after the battle, the Greek geographer Pausanias (c. 175 AD) described how the Thespians worshiped Eros first above all other gods and they still had images of him throughout the city (9.27.1-4).
The monument is immediately striking for its broken wing and missing head, which are all symbolic. A nearby stone slab explains the missing head represents the anonymous sacrifice of the Thespians, the chest is bravery, the open wing is the spirit of freedom, and the broken wing is voluntary sacrifice.
The front of the monument reads
Which translates roughly to “In Memory of the 700 Thespians.”
The Thespians are wholly absent from the 300 movie. The 300 graphic novel does depict them briefly defending the goat path, but this was not where the Thespians fell, at least not according to any of the ancient accounts.
I suppose Frank Miller wanted a smoother climax with just Leonidas and his Spartans fighting to the last man, as opposed to Leonidas, his Spartans, the willful Thespians, and the unwilling Thebans.
It’s complex, but that’s history.
Herodotus tells us that after two days of fighting, Leonidas learned that the Persians were aware of a goat path that led to his army’s rear (7.222). Leonidas dismissed his roughly 5,000 Greek allies to retreat except for the 400 Thebans who he believed were sympathetic to the Persians (they were). In addition, roughly 700 Thespians volunteered to stay and fight alongside the Spartans during their last stand.
Unfortunately, we have no idea how many of these Greek soldiers were left, as the numbers are based on what Herodotus counted as the total participants during the entire Battle of Thermopylae. Were all 700 Thespians still alive by the third day? Probably not. We do know that at least two Spartans had left the battlefield for different reasons (7.229-232).
If, by the third day, there were no casualties among the Spartans, Thebans, and Thespians, then Leonidas’s last stand was with an army just shy of 1,400, not 300.
Leonidas died well before the last Greek at Thermopylae and those still alive fought the Persians over his body, recouping it on several attacks. Herodotus describes them retreating back to a hill where they made their last stand.
Today, the famous Kolonos Hill sports the modern recreation of the Go Tell the Spartans epitaph.
Herodotus describes the Spartans and Thespians proving their bravery that day, calling out Dithyrambos by name as one Thespian “who earned the highest distinction” (7.227). We tragically know nothing else about him.
For the Thespians, Thermopylae was devastating to their city-state Thespiae where 700 hoplites represented at least one-third of the fighting-age male population. ((Some estimates have this at the whole fighting-age male population. Victor Davis Hanson, “Hoplite Obliteration: The Case of the Town of Thespiae,” in Ancient Warfare, eds. John Carman and Anthony Harding (The History Press, 2009), 210.))
The tragedy for the town didn’t stop there, as the Persians razed it to the ground after the Thebans convinced the Persians that Thespiae would never join their cause (Hdt. 8.50).
With such recognized bravery and sacrifice, Herodotus makes no mention of a monument for the Thespians at Thermopylae.
Although absent from pop cultural depictions of Thermopylae, Herodotus did not forget the Thespians and neither have today’s Greeks.