"Young men, fight shield to shield and never succumb to panic or miserable flight, but steel the heart in your chests with magnificence and courage."The Greek phalanx was first developed in the 8th century B.C. and lasted as the primary mode of battle for 4 centuries until the Roman legion began to take shape. The phalanx was defeated, once and for all, at the Battle of Pydna in 160 B.C.
-- Tyrtaeus, The War Songs of Tyrtaeus
The disposition of the forces was such that the effectiveness of the
phalanx depended on the execution: how well the soldiers could maintain the formation in combat, and how well they could stand their ground in the heat of battle. The opponent was not the main enemy of the phalanx. Fear was the enemy. The conventional wisdom of the time was that the side that was more disciplined and more courageous would win. The Greek word dynamis, which means "will to fight", expressed the desire that kept the soldiers in formation. In many cases, one side would flee before they could be engaged by the side with the greater will.
The formation was organized with soldiers lined up very closely to one another in ranks with their shields locked together. An individual soldier carried his shield, called an aspis, on his left arm, protecting not himself but the soldier to his left. He used his right arm to attack with his spear, called a doru, or sword, called a xiphos. Spearmen projected their spears over the outermost rank of shields. Essentially, the phalanx was a massive spear-and-shield wall. The deciding factor was determined by which side could knock the other off balance, tactically speaking. Battles were won when one army's vulnerable right side (carrying spears) overpowered the opposing army's protected left side (carrying shields).
In Sparta, the shield was symbolic. It represented the subordination of the individual soldier to his unit as well as the integral part he played in its success. This was his solemn responsibility to his brothers in arms. During the mid 5th century B.C., the Spartans replaced family-based shield designs with the letter lambda, which stood for Laconia, or Lacedaemon. The lambda is used anachronistically in the film, 300. The film is mostly an artistic exaggeration of the events surrounding and including the Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred in 480 B.C.
Possibly the greatest recorded last stand in history, the battle featured 300 Spartans, backed by around 7,000 other Greek allies, against the massive imperial army of Xerxes, King of Persia, which consisted of at least 100,000 troops. The film version of this battle is excellent when viewed as a portrayal of the spirit and emotion surrounding it, rather than a factual record, which it is not. However, the hyperbole works in almost every case. Xerxes was not an androgynous seven-footer but he was insane. According to Greek historian Herodotus, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Hellespont strait, Xerxes had the water itself whipped 300 times.
More to the point, the decision by the filmmakers to include in the main battle only the 300 Spartans was very wise. The essential emphasis on the point that these men had only each other to rely on makes this film a great one for team-building. We have scene after scene of our red tunic clad, sacred shield wielding heroes facing off against what appears to be a billion of the nastiest, ugliest enemy soldiers one can imagine.
None of this would have been possible without the phalanx. The characters in the film break the formation technically, which is unrealistic but required for the excitement factor. However, what is more important is that they never break the duties and principles they hold so dear. Everything that is involved in maximizing the effectiveness of the Spartan phalanx also makes for the best kind of team.
Ultimately, the 300 were defeated. But they never vacated the solemn responsibility they had for one another and they never abandoned the courage, the discipline, and the dynamis required to fight. Protect the team, win or lose... that's exactly what they did. Despite the loss at Thermopylae, the Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 B.C. is an example of the success of the formation against a superior opponent. 10,000 Athenians decisively defeated 26,000 Persians.