300: The good, the bad and the ugly (part 1)

When the movie 300 was originally released in 2006, it caused quite a stir. Many people were impressed with the visuals and the movie is an entertaining testosterone-fuelled adventure set in a pseudo-historical ancient world. But the movie also has a jingoistic undertone and portrays the Persian Empire as a cesspool of cruelty and depravity. The movie’s valiant and manly Spartans are pitted against a cowardly foe that has to whip a slave army into battle.

With the recent release of a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, now seems like a good time to spend a few blog posts discussing various aspects of the original 300. There is a lot of ground to cover, so I will split this into three parts, each devoted to discussing, respectively, the good, bad, and downright ugly elements of the film.

Good quotes

The movie was based on the comic book 300 by graphic artist Frank Miller, known especially for Sin City. Miller based the book on a movie he saw as a child, The 300 Spartans (1962). It is clear from the comic book – and by extension the movie– that he made a study of the original sources, as some of the comic’s most memorable lines are taken directly from Herodotus, our main source on the Greco-Persian Wars and the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) in particular.

At one point, a Persian states, “The thousand nations of the Persian empire will descend upon you. Our arrows will blot out the sun!” To this, Stelios replies, “Then we will fight in the shade.” Stelios, of course, is a modern Greek name and is not found in Herodotus. Instead, the quote is attributed to a Spartan named Dieneces (Hdt. 7.226). When the Spartan army prepares itself for the final attack, Leonidas exhorts his men to have a hearty breakfast, “For tonight we dine in hell!” Of course, the Greeks had no “hell” to speak off, but rather a dreary underworld. The original quote is from Plutarch and there Leonidas refers to Hades (Apophthegmata Laconica 225d.13). Plutarch is also the source for the famous quote molon labe (“Come and get them”), which Leonidas is supposed to have uttered when the Persians demanded him to lay down his weapons (idem, 51.11).

Towards the end of the movie, the character Dilios explains how Leonidas told him to remember what had happened at Thermopylae. “May all our voices whisper to you from the ageless stones, ‘Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here by Spartan law, we lie.’” The brief poem is from an epigram in honour of the dead at Thermopylae by Simonides of Keos (ca. 555–465 BC).

Other elements of the comic book are also taken from the ancient sources. The demand for “earth and water” was the typical way to signal submission to the Persian Empire. Herodotus lists those that did submit to Xerxes as the Thessalians, the Dolopes, the Enienes, the Perrhaebi, the Locrians, the Magnetes, the Melians, the Achaeans of Phthiotis, the Thebans and the other Boeotians apart from the Thespians and Plataeans (7.132). He then goes on to say (7.133):

To Athens and Sparta he did not send heralds to demand earth for the following reasons. On a former occasion, when Darius sent for the same purpose, the former having thrown those who made the demand into the barathrum [a deep pit in Athens in which certain criminals were thrown], and the latter into a well, bade them carry earth and water to the king from those places.

In the movie and comic book, however, Xerxes does send a herald to Sparta, who is subsequently kicked into an enormously large and deep well by Leonidas (Gerald Butler). Thus, two separate events have been combined to create a dramatic scene that quickly became an internet meme (“This! Is! Sparta!”). For the movie, the makers gave the messenger the heads and crowns of defeated kings to show to Leonidas. This element, however, is completely a fabrication and serves merely to make the Persians seem more threatening.

Some elements of Spartan culture

A more subtle element that Frank Miller introduced are the speech patterns of the Spartans. From at least Herodotus onwards, the Spartans were renowned for their “laconic” way of talking (the term derives from Sparta’s home territory, Laconia). It is especially noticeable in the comic book, where Spartan speech is brief and to the point. The overall demeanour of the Spartans is likewise straightforward and perfectly in keeping with the original sources, even if their presentation – as perfect examples of heterosexual manliness – is largely a caricature.

Both the comic book and the movie contain brief references to the Spartan system of education referred to as the agoge. The origins of this system no doubt relate the Spartan conquest of Messenia (about which more will be said in the next blog post). The ancient sources attributed this, like all Spartan customs, laws and traditions, to the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, about whom we know nothing for certain.

In any event, according to our sources, Spartan babies were indeed inspected for defects at birth by the gerousia, the Spartan council of elders. If found imperfect, the child would be left to die of exposure. Between the ages of 7 and 20, Spartan boys were taught in the agoge to fight and survive, as we know largely from Xenophon and Plutarch. Spartan boys were underfed and encouraged to steal; if caught, they would be punished for their stupidity. The comic book and the movie depict Leonidas as a young boy fighting a wolf. However, the kings’ heirs were actually exempt from theagoge!

The title of the book and the movie refers to the hippeis, the Spartan royal bodyguard of three hundred men, even though it is not clear from Herodotus that the three hundred were actually this bodyguard. In any case, the word hippeis means “horsemen” and it seems likely that this was originally a group of horsemen, perhaps mounted infantry of a type that we encounter frequently on Archaic Greek pottery (see my Henchmen of Ares). At any event, by the time of the Persian Wars, they consisted of three hundred hoplites that accompanied the king whenever he went on campaign (Sparta’s dual kingship will be discussed in the next blog post).

The overall plot

The overall plot of 300 follows Herodotus to a large degree (Hdt. 201–234). Leonidas was the commander of the allied forces at Thermopylae and had marched there with three hundred chosen men, who had each fathered children (Hdt. 7.205). Leonidas also brought Theban troops with him, as they were thought likely to defect and he wanted to keep a close eye on them: a political detail not dealt with in the comic book or the movie. One of the reasons that there was only a relatively small force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae was that there was a festival in Sparta (the Carnea, touched upon in the comic book), and the other city-states were preoccupied with the Olympic Games. The troops at Thermopylae were not intended to be anything more than an advance-guard (Hdt. 2.206).

Xerxes initially expected the Greeks to flee once they saw the enormous size of the Persian army (Herodotus’ figures are undoubtedly an exaggeration). However, by the fifth day the Greeks were still there and so he ordered a charge, sending “Medes and Cissians against them, with orders to take them alive, and bring them to his presence” (Hdt. 7.210). This battle lasted the entire day and the Greeks withstood the Persian onslaught. Xerxes then sent his “Immortals”, a force that was always kept ten thousand strong, but they too could not break the Greeks, “as they fought in a narrow space, and used shorter spears than the Greeks” (Hdt. 7.211). The comic book and movie depict the Immortals as masked foes, which is pure fantasy. Herodotus claims that the Spartans fought memorably and retreated in close order, whereas the Persians were more disorganized. On the second day of battle, the Persians fared no better and so retired (Hdt. 7.212).

It is at this point that Herodotus introduces the Greek traitor Ephialtes (Hdt. 7.213). The comic book and movie make him a disfigured hunchback with an axe to grind, but there is no trace of this in Herodotus. Furthermore, it seems very unlikely that the Persian army did not send out any scouts to find a path through the mountains and around the narrow “Hot Gates”. Herodotus adds that some claim the information actually came from other people, but then dismisses this idea (Hdt. 7.214). The Phocians stationed to guard the pass discovered the Persians. There was consternation in the Greek camp and some decided to fall back while others wished to stay and fight with Leonidas. Herodotus adds that he believes Leonidas sent most of the troops away to win glory for himself and Sparta, and that he was inspired by a prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi (Hdt. 7.220).

All of the other Greek contingents now left, apart from the Thespians and the Thebans. The former stayed of their own accord while the latter were forced to stay, “as hostages” (Hdt. 7.222). Both the book and the movie completely gloss over this aspect. There were thus 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans at Thermopylae, for a total of 1,400 troops. Yet Herodotus later claims that there were 4,000 casualties (Hdt. 7.228). Peter Hunt, in his important Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek historians (1998), adds that the casualties must have included perioeci and helots. Servants and attendants are usually omitted from the sources, but each of the 300 Spartans must have head a shield-bearer (presumably a helot), and these may also have been forced to fight in the final battle. However, Herodotus, like most ancient historians, glosses over these slaves (pp. 31–32), and so do Frank Miller and the moviemakers.

The third day of fighting was the heaviest thus far, with the Persians determined to break through the Greek lines. Early in the battle, Leonidas was killed and a Homeric-style struggle for control over his corpse erupted between the Greeks and the Persians (Hdt. 7.224). In 300, Leonidas is among the last to die. The book and movie also feature a fake surrender of the Spartan king that is not mentioned in our sources. In reality, Xerxes only met Leonidas when the latter was already dead. Supposedly, two brothers of Xerxes were killed in the struggle over Leonidas’ body (Hdt. 7.225). The battle raged on and the Greeks retreated to a hillock, where they fought with swords, teeth and bare hands to the last.

Tomorrow, I will post part two in this series and will focus my efforts on factual errors and anachronisms. The truly ugly aspects of the comic book and film will be the subject of the third and final entry, which I will post this Friday.

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