An ad for a film coming out entitled 300 caught my eye the other day. My historian’s brain immediately knew what it was about, of course…Most decently trained memory addicts have read Herodotus’ The Histories, and remember the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. They were joined there by 700 Thespians, and a random assortment of other Greeks, said to number between three and ten (Herodotus puts the number around seven) thousand who valiantly tried to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian king Xerxes and his army of millions (over five million, again according to Herodotus) in 480 BC.
While these numbers may be wrong or exaggerated, the fact remains the Greeks were outmatched, but held firm and made the Persians pay. Thermopylae is seen as a kind of triumphal Western civilization moment — a story of a small group of fighters from independent city-states holding off a massive empire and its autocratic king.
This new movie, taken from a Frank Miller (of Sin City fame) graphic novel, is supposed to focus on the Spartan leader Leonidas’ struggle, and the unifying effect of the battle on the Greek city-states. My skeptical mind actually thinks it may be a bit of propaganda about the virtuous freedom-loving Greeks fighting off hordes of “othered” Persians. Except, these days, I wonder who the bad guys are. If indeed there really is any relationship to the heroism demonstrated by this mythic tale in the world today.
Point is, despite the involvement of Thespians, this was a real, historically-recorded Greek tragedy, not a play. Well, at least according to Herodotus. To hear the ancient historian’s words on the matter is to realize that the whole thing really was somewhat absurd. The courage (foolhardiness?) of the Spartan Dieneces, for example, is recorded as follows; when told by a native of Trachis that when the Persians fired their arrows there were so many of them that they hid the sun, Dieneces is said to have replied, non-plused: “This is pleasant news that the stranger from Trachis brings us: if the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.” (Herodotus, The Histories (London: Penguin, 1954), p. 518).
Thermopylae, you see, is a lesson in perseverance and courage despite the odds (which end up being totally overwhelming…), not a pseudo-racialist statement about ancient Greek superiority. Anybody who can’t figure that out isn’t worth standing in a narrow mountain pass with, metaphorically speaking.
Propaganda aside, on the art imitating life imitating art front, I think this new film project seems much more promising in its potential to capture the current international situation. All told, I don’t see (m)any Spartans out there…Just a whole lot of lazy, corrupt and self-indulgent Romans..