Spoiler warning! This post assumes you have seen the movie 300.
I saw the film 300 last night. It’s a highly stylized account of the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small Greek army under the command of Sparta’s King Leonidis held off a much larger Persian army for three days, before being betrayed, surrounded, and annihilated. In the last scene of the movie a much larger Greek army, inspired by the courageous defense at Thermopylae, is about to engage the Persian army in the much lesser known battle of Plataea. Lots of chest thumping, slow motion violence, and beautiful panoramic shots. It’s based on a graphic novel (they were called comic books when I was a kid) so it’s not exactly trying for verisimilitude. The Greeks didn’t go into battle bare chested for example, no matter how cool it looked. And no, the Persians didn’t have giant war elephants, ogres, or war rhinoceroses…sheesh, it felt like they had spliced in shots from The Lord of the Rings in places.
Interesting and fun movie though. Much is made of how the heroic Greeks were fighting for their freedom against the invading Persians. True enough, in fact this war was the first time the Greek city states more or less united and acted in concert. Xerxes, the King of Persia, is portrayed as a megalomaniacal figure out to conquer the world. Well, yeah, Emperors did that. Also, freedom in Greece was reserved for a few. The 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae so heroically had 900 unwilling Greek slaves with them, who also died. Um, the movie doesn’t mention that.
Still, the narrative still resonates with us today, in fact the wars between the Greeks and the Persians are possibly second only to the bible as being the greatest collective myth in the west. And it’s history turned into myth, there is no question that the history of early Greece greatly influenced and inspired the following Roman Empire, whose institutions and ideas underlay much of the west till today. I doubt King Leonidas imagined that his actions those three days would resonate through history as the ultimate story of a last stand of a few great men against a horde of evil “barbarians.” Of course Leonidis’s actions also led to the invasion of Persia a 100 years later, by an equally megalomaniacal Greek king, one Alexander, who went on to wreak such destruction that he may be the only person in history to personally usher in a dark age.
Some have claimed that the movie is part of a campaign to demonize Iran and the east, western propaganda for the War on Terror so to speak. I think that’s kind of reaching. Yes, many Iranians would be annoyed or event take umbrage at how Xerxes and the Persians are portrayed, but I’m willing to bet there are movies being made in Iran that aren’t terribly flattering or accurate in their portrayal of the west. (Welcome to Earth. Prejudices will be issued at the door, take your pick of someone to misunderstand and hate. If you don’t decide, your leaders will do it for you, no worries.) No, 300 is not propaganda in the true sense of the word, as in deliberately created to brainwash people. The movie is however a sort of cultural propaganda that spontaneously is generated by every culture. And in that sense there are a few more comments and clarifications I would make…
The Persian Empire was an empire like so many others. No better or worse than any other empire. There are actually very few Empires in history, the urge to subdue and conquer one’s neighbours only occasionally arises in a people. Like religion, imperialism is a not terribly well understood sociological and cultural phenomena that has wildly altered history in unpredictable ways. Yes, more blogs on this fascinating topic are planned.
True, the Spartans were one of history’s most militarized societies. I was annoyed however that they portrayed the Greek soldiers for Athens and elsewhere as artists and tradesmen who had taken up arms, while the Spartans were the only “true” warriors. Balderdash. All of the Greek city states had a cadre of professional soldiers, people whose career was being a soldier. As a side note, the movie didn’t mention it, but the Immortals on the Persian side were the Persian professional soldiers. The other Persian fighters were farmers turned into soldiers, with wicker shields and no armour. And the Greek professional soldiers in their bronze armour did indeed cut them down like wheat, as the movie so graphically illustrated.
As a final note, while the Spartan’s legend lives on to this day (my High School Football team was called The Spartans,) their extreme militancy and quest for the perfect soldier was ultimately their undoing. The only way into the Spartan Warrior elite was through blood, and people were kicked out for such infractions as sleeping on guard duty or showing cowardice in battle. So even though they were unmatched in battle and for several centuries were the ultimate power in Greece, at one point even “uniting” Greece by force and forming a league that invaded Perisia, ultimately they dwindled as the population of non Spartans grew. By the time of Alexander Sparta was still fiercely independent, but was no longer a player on the world stage.
In fact Sparta refused to join Alexander in his invasion of Persia, they had no interest in a war where Sparta wasn’t in charge. After Alexander conquered Persia, he had 300 suits of armour made and sent to Sparta, inscribed:
“Alexander son of Philip, and the Greeks – except the Spartans – from the barbarians living in Asia“
The movie doesn’t mention that either. Maybe in the sequel?
(The above is a modern image of the Thermopylae battle site. At the time of the battle the shoreline was where the road is now, or even closer to the mountains. It is legally published in accordance with the copyright holder’s permission: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License“.)