480 BCE — The Persians defeat the Spartans at Thermopylae

So guess what, it turns out that 300 was actually based on a true story…

…but you know that, of course. The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between the invasion forces of Persia under Xerxes I, which numbered about 200,000 or so, and an alliance of Greek forces under Leonidas I of Sparta. The Greeks held a narrow pass – the Thermopylae, or “Hot Gates” – that formed a natural choke point. (Indeed, as recently as 1941, it was used in a similar way by Greek and British Commonwealth forces to slow the Nazi advance.)

On the third day of the battle, the Greek forces realised that they were on the verge of being out-flanked by the Persians. The Phocian contingent, who guarded the passes, withdrew. Leonidas ordered his 300 members of the Spartan Royal Guard to stand and fight, and advised the rest of his allies to withdraw also.

700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and assorted others, including Spartan helots, also stayed. Although the Greeks lost the battle, the larger strategic victory was theirs: they had slowed the Persian advance into Greece, allowing time for other forces to gather, and although 2000 men were lost on the Greek side, they inflicted casualties ten times that number upon the invaders.

Referenced in:

Thermopylae — Ancient Rites

1965 – The Watts Riots begin

On August 11, 1965, a random traffic stop in Watts, a depressed area of Los Angeles with a largely negro population was the spark that set the racial tensions in the area on fire.

Lee Minikus, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, pulled over Marquette Frye, whom Minikus believed was drunk. But then Minikus made a tragic error of judgement – he refused to let Frye’s sober brother drive the car home, instead radioing for it too be impounded.

As tempers frayed, and the crowd of onlookers grew, someone threw a rock at the police – and that was all it took to start the avalanche. When the riot was finally ended, 6 days later, 34 people had been killed, more than a thousand injured, and nearly four thousand arrested. It was the worst riot in LA history until the Rodney King trial verdict in 1992.

Referenced in:
One More Time – The Clash
Trouble Every Day – Frank Zappa
In The Heat Of The Summer – Phil Ochs
She Is Always Seventeen – Harry Chapin

1984 – Ronald Reagan thinks nuclear war is funny

It was one of those moments that America thinks is funny – and wonders why the rest of us don’t.

President Ronald Reagan, not realising that the mike he was on was live, joked that he had passed legislation to end the Russian threat forever. The punchline, of course, was “We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Now, there are conspiracy theories aplenty about whether or not he actually knew the microphone was live, but he remained stalwart in his claims that he had not, and that was good enough for most people. It remains an oddity in American politics: a shocking gaffe that probably helped Reagen win re-election later that year.

Referenced in:
5 Minutes — Bonzo goes to Washington
Alle Amis Singen Olala — Geier Sturzflug