Let Me Tell You About 300

I’m a TA for a first year Greek history class this semester, and a little while ago we had our students write some short essays comparing the movie 300 to a historical account of the battle of Thermopylae – namely, book 7 of Herodotus’ Histories.  Now, I personally think that calling 300 a good movie is something of a stretch, but it’s definitely an interesting movie, in terms of its relationship with the historical sources it draws upon.  When the subject of comparing the two comes up, what you normally get – and what the vast majority of our students gave us – is a list of places where the movie does something that isn’t attested in the sources, followed by a vague judgement about whether it comes “close enough” to be considered “historically accurate.”  And I think this is sort of missing the point, because I seriously doubt historical accuracy was 300’s top priority, and I seriously doubt that people went to see 300 because they thought it would be historically accurate.  There’s enough in that film for you to see that its creators (including the author of the original graphic novel) have obviously read ancient sources for Thermopylae and the Spartans (well, English translations of them, anyway) – quite closely, in fact; loads of the movie’s best lines are actually quotations from Herodotus and Plutarch.  If they had wanted to correct any of the “inaccuracies” my students identified, they almost certainly could have.  So let’s talk about why they didn’t.

Brief bit of background first if you don’t know the history here – 300 is a film directed by Zack Snyder and released in 2007, based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller published in 1998, which purports to tell the story of the battle of Thermopylae, a climactic showdown between a small Greek army under Spartan leadership and an incalculably vast force of Persian invaders, led by their king, Xerxes I.  The historical battle happened in 480 BC, and we know about it mainly from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, a fellow who has been nicknamed “the father of history” because he was the first European to take any sort of systematic approach to studying how and why historical events like major wars take place.  Herodotus would have been less than 10 years old at the time of Xerxes’ invasion, so his knowledge isn’t exactly first-hand, but he would have been able to talk to people who had been there.

The basic outline of what happened is as follows.  Ten years before our story, the Persian King of Kings, Darius I, had sent an army to invade Greece after… well, the why of it isn’t worth getting into here; let’s just say there was a serious diplomatic snafu between Darius and the Athenians.  Anyway, Darius’ army was defeated soundly by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon, and he spent years plotting revenge, but died before he could see it through.  Eventually, his son Xerxes, the new King of Kings, took up that cause and amassed a far larger army, this time intending to lead it himself.  According to Herodotus, Xerxes’ army had about two million soldiers, which is probably a teensy tiny exaggeration on his part, but modern estimates still put it in the hundreds of thousands.  The Greeks can’t take an army that size in a fair fight.  However, they figured out that, in order for Xerxes to get his army through the mountains of central Greece, he pretty much had no choice but to take it through a narrow coastal pass at a place called Thermopylae (meaning “hot gates” in Greek, so called because the area was known for its geothermal hot springs).  The pass is narrow enough to be defended effectively by a relatively small number of soldiers, and only a few attacking Persian regiments at a time could enter.  People have exploited the geography in the same way many times throughout history; in modern times, for instance, the Greeks (aided, I proudly add, by an allied contingent of New Zealanders and Australians) decided that Thermopylae was where they would try to delay the Germans while they evacuated to Crete during World War II.

A force of about 7000 Greeks, under the overall command of the king of Sparta, Leonidas (well, one of two kings, actually – Sparta had two royal families who traditionally ruled by consensus, but let’s not get into that), sets out to plug up Thermopylae.  At the same time, a Greek fleet led by the Athenians sets up a blockade at the nearby straits of Artemisium to prevent the Persian navy from flanking Leonidas’ forces (this bit isn’t in the movie, but is covered by the sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire).  They manage to hold the Persians for three days and inflict terrible casualties on Xerxes’ army without suffering many in return.  On the third day, however, Xerxes is given some information about the terrain by a local farmer named Ephialtes, who shows the Persians a narrow trail through the mountains that was only lightly defended, allowing Xerxes’ elite guard, the so-called Immortals, to flank the Greek army.  When Leonidas realises this, he dismisses most of the Greek soldiers.  About a thousand Thebans and Thespians stay behind, along with the three hundred members of the Spartan royal guard.  It’s this smaller force that makes the famous last stand, and the three hundred Spartans specifically who get immortalised.

To cut a long story short, although Athens is burned to the ground (twice), the Greeks go on to win the war by trashing Xerxes’ fleet at Salamis – his army is so large that he simply can’t feed them all without naval superiority to maintain his supply lines back to Asia Minor, and most of the army is forced to retreat.  The force that remains is small enough that the Greeks can fight them on a relatively even footing, and this is exactly what they do.  But 300 doesn’t cover this part of the war (Salamis, again, is featured in Rise of an Empire); we’re only interested in Thermopylae here.

So let’s talk about that.

If you’ve seen 300, you’ll probably recognise that most of the basic narrative makes it into the movie pretty much intact – Persians, Xerxes, Leonidas, Spartans, Thermopylae, “their numbers count for nothing,” Immortals, Ephialtes, hidden trail, outflanked, last stand, stabby stabby, heroic legacy, etc.  There’s also one or two surprising things that you might not have thought were based on reality, but actually are.  The biggest one is the famous scene where a Persian emissary requests a gift of “earth and water” from Sparta as a symbolic gesture of submission, and Leonidas responds by yelling “THIS IS SPARTA” and kicking him into a bottomless pit.  Well, in truth, Xerxes didn’t send emissaries to Sparta.  He sent emissaries to request “earth and water” (that bit is totally true) from almost all of the Greek cities ahead of his invasion force, hoping to find allies, and many cities actually capitulated.  But he didn’t send any to Sparta, or to Athens, because he remembered what had happened to the emissaries that Darius sent to Sparta and Athens ten years earlier.  The Athenians threw them into a pit (a traditional form of execution at Athens), and the Spartans – showing remarkable disregard for proper sanitation – tossed them down a well, telling them (as Leonidas does in the movie) to look for their “earth and water” down there.  If you watch that scene again, you’ll notice a rope and bucket sitting by the side of the Spartans’ bottomless pit; they’re actually in the scene to let observant viewers know that the bottomless pit is, in fact, a well.  There’s a fair bit of poetic license in the movie’s version, of course – the timeline is condensed, and ancient wells weren’t nearly that large or deep, or placed so prominently in cities, – but the point of the scene, the Spartans’ reaction to Persian demands for submission, is more or less straight from the histories.

300’s depiction of the rather brutal Spartan educational system, the agoge, also has some basis in historical testimony.  The idea of sons being taken from their mothers at about seven years old, made to live with scant clothing and no shoes, encouraged to fight each other and steal food, beaten savagely for minor misdemeanours, all in the name of toughening them up – all of that is pretty much what we’re told by Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans and Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus.  Whether or not those ancient texts reflect the reality of life in Sparta is up for debate, because Plutarch and Xenophon a) were not Spartans, and b) in Plutarch’s case, worked more than five hundred years after the period we’re talking about.  Also, a lot of historians think that the Spartans themselves liked to exaggerate the strictness and brutality of their way of life, and their all-encompassing focus on war and soldiery, because it helped them to maintain their reputation as invincible warriors (an effect known today as “the Spartan Mirage”).  The Spartan way of life was mythologised to some extent even in ancient times, and 300 is working within a tradition in that respect – the long-standing legendary status of the Spartans is one of the main reasons Thermopylae is a fun story to work with in the first place.  It’s also helpful to the film’s aims that the Spartans are a small, elite army, because it means we can imply that respect for individual life is a value of the Greek side – every soldier matters to the Spartan king, whereas Xerxes, whose advantage is numbers, has to throw away the lives of his men to make his strategy work.

Now for the stuff that’s… shall we say, a little less faithful.

Near the beginning of the movie, there is an interesting scene in which Leonidas is required by Spartan law to consult an Oracle before going to war.  This apparently involves climbing a mountain and having a chat with a group of five disfigured old priests called the Ephors, whom the narrator describes as “inbred swine, more creature than man.”  The Ephors explain to Leonidas that Sparta cannot go to war at the moment, because religious law forbids them from fighting during the approaching Carneia festival.  However, they agree to check with the oracle – a beautiful young woman, whom the Ephors expose to mysterious vapours from a brazier filled with glowing rocks, in order to put her into a trance.  One of the Ephors listens to and interprets the oracle’s words during her trance, and reaffirms their initial decision: Sparta must not go to war during the Carneia.  After Leonidas leaves, we see another scene in which the Ephors are given a bag of gold coins by a Persian emissary, accompanied by a corrupt Spartan councilman named Theron – the implication is that their decision, and their interpretation of the oracle’s babbling, was motivated by a promised bribe.  The Spartan council goes along with the oracle’s decision, and Leonidas is forbidden from leading the Spartan army to Themopylae, but he defies them by “going for a walk” up north with a hand-picked personal guard of three hundred Spartan warriors.

A lot of this is… loosely based on real stuff in Herodotus’ account.  For instance, the Spartans really did consult an oracle (as the Greeks almost always did before declaring war), and the Spartans really did refuse to commit the bulk of their forces during the Carneia.  The two were actually unrelated, though – the oracle told them that Sparta would either be destroyed by the Persians, or lose a king in the war.  The decision not to mobilise the whole army during the Carneia was 100% their own, as was the decision to send Leonidas to Thermopylae with a token force – the point was to assure the other Greek states that they would join the fight as soon as the festival ended.  The glowing rocks and the young woman in the ecstatic trance are also based (again loosely) on things that are probably true.  The great Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Greece’s most important oracle lived, was built on an area of significant geothermal activity.  Modern researchers have suggested that the ‘oracular trance’ in which the priestess gave her prophecies may have been the result of inhaling sulphurous vapours from fissures beneath the temple – basically, the priestess got high and rattled off a string of half-crazed word salad (I like to imagine she loved her job), and the priests ‘interpreted’ the results.

“Ephor” was a real title in Sparta, and there really were five of them – but their job was very different to what we see in the movie.  The real Ephors (the word literally means “overseer” in Greek) were elected officials with one-year terms.  Their job (to make a long story criminally short) was to act as a constitutional check on the power of the Spartan kings.  The office may have had some religious connotations, but certainly nothing to do with the oracle – Sparta didn’t even have an oracle; during the Persian Wars they consulted the one at Delphi, like everyone else.  They certainly weren’t inbred monsters.  All of this stuff about the Ephors and the oracle is interesting because of the way it portrays religion, particularly the way it shifts the blame for the Spartans’ rather lukewarm commitment to holding Thermopylae; the historical Spartans were exceptionally pious, and this is not the only time we hear about them using a religious festival as an excuse not to help their allies.  The priests who run the oracle’s temple in the movie are 1) a vestige of an antiquated society that obstructs the actions of the story’s hero, 2) physically deviant, and 3) corrupt, aligning with Xerxes against the other Greeks.  Remember these points; they’re important.

Before we leave Sparta, we should also talk about what 300 conspicuously doesn’t show – slavery.  Or, well, one side’s slavery; 300 is happy to portray the Persians as slaves of Xerxes, which is probably a decent representation of the way the Greeks saw it, but an exaggeration of the historical situation.  Contrary to what much of the internet would have you believe, the Persian Empire did have slaves, although their economy was much less structurally dependent on slavery than those of the Greek city states, and they probably preferred to use peasant labourers for major industrial projects.  The only mention 300 makes of slaves on the Greek side is an offhand reference to “freed slaves” as part of the Spartan army (and the movie leaves it vague enough that some viewers might infer these people had been freed by the Spartans from slavery elsewhere).  Chattel slavery was common in Greece throughout antiquity, and an important component of the Greek economy, but the Spartans… well, as in everything, the Spartans had their own really weird, brutal version of slavery that was quite different from what the other Greeks were doing.

Way back in the 8th century BC, almost three hundred years before Thermopylae, the Spartans had invaded and conquered the region of Greece that lay to their east, Messenia, and had done something unheard of in the rest of Greek history: they transformed the entire region into a slave state.  All of the Messenians were made into a special class of slaves, which the Spartans called helots.  They were permanently bound to the land they lived on (which formally belonged to Spartan citizens) like Mediaeval serfs, and mainly worked as farmers to supply food to the Spartan warriors, so that the Spartans would never have to work to support themselves and could dedicate themselves absolutely to soldiery.  While in Sparta, helots were made to wear humiliating costumes, and they were supposedly beaten regularly even if they had done nothing wrong, just to remind them of their status.  And the cherry on top?  Every year, as part of the young Spartans’ coming of age, a group of Spartan teenagers would be sent out into Messenia with instructions to murder helots at random, to ensure that they would always live in fear of their overlords.  Most of what we consider interesting and exceptional about Sparta was dependent on the existence of this massive slave class.  After Messenia was liberated by one of the other Greek states during the 4th century BC and the Spartans lost their slaves, their power crumbled, and for the rest of antiquity Sparta was a largely irrelevant backwater.

So yeah.

This is where we have to have the lecture about cultural relativism – because the fact is, most societies have at some point had institutions that resemble slavery; it’s a depressingly common way for humans to relate to outsiders, particularly people defeated in war.  It’s sort of not fair to criticise individual people – or even individual civilisations – for failing to make a particular conceptual leap that eluded more than two thousand years’ worth of great philosophers and scientists, even if it seems obvious to us now (although it’s worth pointing out here that the brutality and pervasiveness of Spartan helotry was exceptional even in the classical Greek world).  It’s not Leonidas’ fault, as such, that he grew up in a society where slavery was so normal and pervasive that it was simply beyond question.  Having said that, this something we should keep in mind when dealing with historical fiction.  The ancient Spartans’ values were not our values, however much we might like to draw upon the similarities to tell a good story, and when they talk about fighting for ‘freedom’ and ‘equality,’ they mean very different things to what we might mean – ‘freedom’ for them is the political autonomy of the Greek city states; ‘equality’ is the equality of free-born males within their own city.  But historical accuracy isn’t the point here; 300 isn’t aiming to provide an accurate view of historical Spartan society, and is under no obligation to – its aim is to create a stirring epic story about the triumph of the values of our own society which, rightly or wrongly, we like to attribute to ancient Greece.  With that in mind, is it good that the filmmakers are distancing their heroes from the brutality of the helot system, thus avoiding any implication that we should consider it moral or reasonable, or is it bad that they’re participating in the erasure of a historical instance of oppression?  I don’t know.  I’m just a guy with a blog about Pokémon.

What next, what next…?  Xerxes!  The way 300 portrays Xerxes is really quite amazing.  He’s about eight feet tall, golden-skinned, almost naked but covered in piercings and jewellery, and speaks in a deep, booming voice (they actually altered the actor’s voice in post-production).  300’s Xerxes claims to be a god, and Leonidas’ last act of defiance in the movie is to hurl a spear that grazes his cheek, a symbolic reminder of Xerxes’ mortality.  In Rise of an Empire we see the filmmakers’ vision of Xerxes’ backstory, where one of his advisors, obsessed with avenging the defeat of Darius, persuades an ordinary young prince to go to the Persian Magi so they can strip away his mortality and transform him into the golden giant we see in 300.  So… here’s the thing.  The Persian kings did not think of themselves as divine, and Herodotus, our main source for these events, was well aware of that.  Xerxes, Darius and their ancestors claimed to be divinely appointed by the Persian god, Ahuramazda, which was a big deal for the Greeks because they didn’t explicitly link religious and political authority in that way, but it’s still several steps short from actually claiming to be gods, as the Egyptian Pharaohs and many other Near Eastern rulers had.  They weren’t god kings and didn’t expect anyone to worship them, and in fact religious tolerance seems to have been a big deal to them.  The official propaganda of the first great Persian King of Kings, Cyrus, emphasises his acceptance by the cults and gods of the cities he conquered, and he was famously praised in the Hebrew Bible for encouraging the restoration of ancient Jewish religious traditions that had lapsed during the Babylonian exile.  With all that in mind, it’s really interesting that 300 chooses to portray Xerxes as a god-king – partly because it emphasises Xerxes’ excessive pride, which is definitely a theme of Herodotus’ account as well, but also because this isn’t the only time 300 seems to be making a point about religion and religious leaders.  Although some of the Greeks’ dialogue implies belief in the gods (lines like “Zeus stabs the sky with thunderbolts” and such) their actions are never motivated by piety and they never make decisions with reference to the will of the gods – except for (ostensibly) the Ephors, who cynically manipulate divine law to obstruct Leonidas.  Again, keep this in mind moving forward.

The movie’s presentation of Xerxes’ army is something I really like.  I doubt anyone took it as a serious historical portrayal – so much of it is blatant exaggeration – but I think Herodotus would have loved it, since he’s so fond of documenting rumours and tales of curiosities from distant lands.  Herodotus actually spends a great deal of time describing all the different peoples that make up Xerxes’ army, including their style of dress and their equipment, and although that description is much tamer, I think the montage of the Spartans fighting all Xerxes’ bizarre units may be something of an homage to it.  So what does Xerxes deploy?  Well, there’s strange beasts – elephants and rhinos – that would have been unfamiliar and frightening to Greek soldiers, like monsters conjured out of nightmares.  The Persians did use war elephants from India, but not in this battle, and probably not this early in their history; no civilisation, to my knowledge, has even been able to train rhinos for battle.  The point is the exotic nature of the animals, the variety of creatures Xerxes can call upon.  Also notice the rhino’s trainers, who wear cow-skull helmets and carry black-and-white leather shields – again, a display of exoticism, and the shields may be meant to reference the shields of Zulu warriors.

Xerxes then tries what the Greek narrator describes as “magic” – figures in robes and veils who hurl exploding spheres.  The viewer is probably meant to infer that these are primitive grenades, created using technology acquired from civilisations further east of the Persian Empire like China (this is, of course, far too early for even the Chinese to be using gunpowder weapons, but it’s a reference people will understand).  Yet again, the point is the sheer variety of Xerxes’ forces, and the fact that the Greeks are fighting against things they cannot even understand, drawn from parts of the world they know nothing about.  Finally, let’s talk briefly about Xerxes’ elite guard, the Immortals – these guys are in Herodotus, all right; he says that their name comes from the fact that dead or wounded members of the unit are always replaced immediately to keep them at full strength; I think this view of the Immortals as ‘impersonal’ might be responsible for the movie’s decision to portray them as identical, with their (monstrous) faces hidden behind silver masks.  The real Immortals probably used similar equipment to other Persian soldiers.  When the movie gives them all-black clothing and pairs of curved swords, the intent could be to reference Japanese ninja (or, at least, popular depictions of them), so again we’re seeing the idea that the entire eastern hemisphere is being arrayed against the Spartans.

The last big thing I want to talk about is the Greek traitor, Ephialtes.  Ephialtes in the film is a Spartan hunchback, whose parents fled Sparta because they were unwilling to discard their baby in accordance with Spartan law (there is, again, some truth here; Spartans were supposedly inspected at birth by the Ephors, and tossed out into the wilderness if they were found to be in any way physically defective).  He wants to reclaim his family’s honour by fighting for Leonidas, but is turned away because he cannot lift his shield high enough to form a shield wall with the other Spartan hoplites.  Furious at being discarded, he goes to Xerxes and tells him about a hidden mountain path that will allow the Immortals to outflank Leonidas.  Xerxes assures him that he will be accepted amongst the Persians, and grants him a position of command.  The Ephialtes we read about in Herodotus was neither Spartan nor a hunchback, and has no personal dealings with Leonidas – he is simply a local farmer who sees a chance to make a quick buck by selling out the Greeks to Xerxes.  This isn’t as shocking as it might seem – both Herodotus and 300 like to portray the Greeks as united against the terrible evil of the Persian Empire, but in fact, many Greek cities (particularly those north of Thermopylae) saw siding with Xerxes as a better option than fighting against him.  Ephialtes’ opportunism isn’t terribly unusual.  What’s interesting here is the way 300 makes him a hunchback and gives him a Spartan backstory.  This actually highlights one of the more unsavoury aspects of historical Spartan society – their almost eugenicist approach to producing children – which is an odd choice for the filmmakers, although they do make it clear that Leonidas is willing to accept Ephialtes’ service in something other than frontline combat.  When Ephialtes goes over to the Persians, he finds that Xerxes’ court is full of other people whom the Spartans would consider physically deviant, as if the movie is trying to tell us that here – with the other ‘monsters’ – is where he belongs (remember the Ephors again; their physical deviancy marks them as naturally ‘belonging’ on the Persian side too).  You can, I think, read this and other aspects of 300 in a very interesting way as portraying the Persians in a surprisingly positive light: the Persian Empire is racially diverse, accepting of the physically disabled, willing to use diplomacy or show mercy to the defeated, and at times apparently horrified by Spartan barbarism in warfare.  I’m not sure whether the filmmakers intended this one, but I think it would be an interesting exercise to watch the movie again with that perspective in mind.

Anyway, what’s this all about?

At the end of the movie, there is a scene where Dilios, the lone Spartan survivor of Thermopylae, gives an inspiring speech to the Spartan army leading the charge at Plataea, the final battle against Mardonius, the general Xerxes left behind in Greece after Salamis.  He talks here about “rescuing the world from mysticism and tyranny,” which is a really interesting and loaded line for the filmmakers to give him, because 1) tyranny was a Greek institution, not a Persian one, and the Greeks probably would not have called Xerxes a “tyrant,” (the word “tyranny” has a specific, technical meaning in Greek politics – long story; no time to explain) and 2) mysticism (i.e. religion) is 100% not what this war was about; the Greeks were quite dedicated to their own mystical beliefs, but there is no suggestion in any of our sources that Xerxes had any plans to suppress Greek religion.  “Rescuing the world from mysticism and tyranny” is what the filmmakers think this story is about.  This story is “The West,” which values individual freedom, logic and rationality, the rule of law (to which even Leonidas is accountable), democracy, and so on, triumphing over “The East,” which values subservience, mysticism and ceremony, autocracy, everything the Greeks have supposedly outgrown – think back now to all the ways that 300 has lined up religion and mysterious eastern exotica against the Spartans, and I’m sure you can fill out the stereotypes yourself.  Consider the strained diplomatic relationship between the United States of America and Persia’s modern inheritors, the Islamic Republic of Iran – a theocratic state that looks back at the Persian Empire with much the same pride as we in ‘The West’ look back at Greece and Rome – and the last pieces fall into place.  300 is historical fiction, but being historical is not the point of it – it’s just as much about its own time, and if it has to make changes here and there to strengthen the parallels between the ancient conflict and the conflicts that matter to the filmmakers today, well, so be it.  And being able to observe and dissect that, to me, is what makes it really entertaining.

Making my readers more erudite is the real goal here, you understand.  The fact that I sometimes get to write about Pokémon is sort of a weird bonus that happened along the way somehow.

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