The Battle of Thermopylae and the Iconography of Hate

by Bond Benton and Daniela Peterka-Benton

In 2007, the film 300 opened in theaters worldwide as a box office smash, but has since assumed an unexpected position in the iconography and propaganda of far right movements in Europe. The film depicts the Battle of Thermopylae and the final stand of an army of 300 Spartans. Historically, Thermopylae has been used to inspire those who face a struggle against overwhelming odds. For many viewers, however, the film embedded this historical narrative with elements of militant racism and xenophobia. Sparta, in this case, is seen the last outpost of Western civilization against a hoard of barbarians invading from the East. One critic described the film by stating, “If 300 had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.” The graphic novel upon which the film was based reflects this tone of “civilization versus the barbarians” as its author, Frank Miller, states, “Wake up, pond scum, America is at war against a ruthless enemy.”

While films exploiting narratives of heroic Westerners battling against the uncivilized are hardly novel, the impact of 300 in the broader political context has been profound. Specifically, the Battle of Thermopylae has become a central symbol of far right political parties in Europe and in hate groups throughout the world. The use of this narrative has been particularly important for the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn in Greece. The party and its loosely organized affiliated activists have recently been “beating and occasionally killing immigrants, terrorizing people who did not share their racist-nationalist worldview, organizing food distribution drives for Greeks only—the latter dubbed ‘soup kitchens of hate.’” More concerning, however, is that these views have regularly found purchase in the Greek electorate with the party gaining representation and receiving nearly seven percent of the vote in elections in 2012 and 2015. A central part of the party’s appeal has been its use of the Battle of Thermopylae as a rallying cry for nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Every September in Thermopylae, the group organizes a ceremony memorializing the battle with a “spectacle of nationalistic kitsch reminiscent of the ceremonies with lighted torches, bonfires, etc. of the famous American racist group the Ku Klux Klan.” At the ceremony in 2012, Golden Dawn MP and group spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris stated, “Those millions of illegal immigrants, racially, are the descendents of the first waves of Xerxes army. Those wretched people, with no military value, were smashed by the wall of Spartan fighters.  Now their descendants, bloodlessly, have taken over an entire country and an entire people.”

While more pronounced in Greece for historical reasons, this recontextualization of the Battle of Thermopylae has helped mobilize far right groups throughout the world including the American Nazi Party, the National Socialist Movement, and even groups in Australia. The iconography portrayed in the film 300 has provided a salient message for many of these groups. is considered the first significant online presence for hate groups and Thermopylae is regularly referenced in support of white nationalism. A Stormfront affiliated blogger who recently attended the ceremony at Thermopylae identifies their movement as “modern Spartans, in the midst of their own Battle of Thermopylae, with the invading hordes of the East already well within the gates…in this land where our civilization was born, so shall it be born again.” Referencing the power of Thermopylae as a symbol, a poster states, “This is exactly why the National Socialists in the 1930’s gained so many followers in such a short period of time…the theater is immensely valuable; it electrifies the viewers and creates the emotional bonds.” Still another forum at is devoted entirely to learning how to purchase Thermopylae themed Golden Dawn T-shirts.

The media has enormous power in energizing social movements for good or ill.  The Scottish independence movement, for example, was profoundly influenced by the film Braveheart. More insidiously, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic Birth of a Nationwas instrumental in the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  Writing about the implications of the film 300, Obasogie argues, “Persians are depicted as bloodthirsty savages thwarted in the Battle of Thermopylae by a small contingent of freedom fighters…this eerily resembles Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic celebrating the Ku Klux Klan’s rise during Reconstruction to defend Southern whites’ dignity and honor against what were then seen as recently liberated Black insurgents.” While it is folly to attribute the traction gained by far right organizations and hate groups to media images, history suggests that we would do well to consider how popular culture is capable of turning hate into heroism.

About the Author

Bond Benton is an Assistant Professor of Communication at SUNY Fredonia. A particular focus of Dr. Benton’s research is the interaction of media, popular culture, and cross-cultural communication as it relates to the values and decisions of constituencies. Daniela Peterka-Benton is an Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia where she serves as the Program Director and Internship Coordinator for Criminal Justice. Her current research focuses on transnational crimes, in particular the illicit trafficking of people and goods, and crime and media.

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