300: The good, the bad and the ugly (part 3)

This is the third and final part of a series of blog posts on the movie (and comic book) 300. In part one I discussed some of the good aspects of the movie and tried to keep my criticism to a minimum, for example pointing out where the story diverged from Herodotus’ account of the battle. In part two, I pointed out some of the bad aspects of 300, such as curious omissions, needless stuff that the movie added to the original comic book material, and a number of relatively minor errors and anachronisms, such as the use of the Greek lambda on the Spartan shields.

In this final instalment of the series, I focus on those aspects of the movie that are downright ugly. Already in the first post I pointed out that the movie has some jingoistic undertones and I have also explained how the book and the movie entirely gloss over the fact that the Battle of Thermopylae was never fought, on the Greek side, by a mere three hundred “free” Spartans. But no other element of the story has suffered as much at the hands of the film makers as the depiction of the Persian Empire.

The monstrous Persian army

When, in the movie, the Greeks run into a village that is completely destroyed, with the villagers nailed to trees, they discover a monstrous footprint and realize that the raiders must have been Xerxes’ elite troops, the “Immortals”. In the comic book and the movie, the “Immortals” are depicted as warriors wrapped in black and silver and wearing grotesque masks that further server to dehumanize them.

In reality, the Immortals were a force of ten thousand elite troops. They were called “Immortals” not for any supernatural reasons, as suggested in the movie, but for the fact that casualties were immediately replaced so that their number remained at ten thousand. We also have a good idea what they looked like, namely not that differently from other Persian troops, and equipped with spear and bow. Reliefs from Darius’ palace at Persepolis interestingly depict them with spears roughly the same length as hoplite spears.

In some cases, the film makers felt the need to dehumanize the Persians even further. They introduce an “Über-Immortal”, a giant that is unchained and then unleashed; he succeeded in wounding Leonidas. Furthermore, at one point, Xerxes is displeased and orders some of his men executed. The executioner is a severely obese man whose hands were replaced by blades embedded into his arms. At this point it is clear that we have entirely strayed into the realm of the fantastical.

Less offensive is the Persian army’s use of “magicians”, warriors who throw grenades at the Spartans that explode in a fiery display of pyrotechnics. This particular element of the movie – absent as far as I can tell from the comic book – is another wholly superfluous addition. Gunpowder was invented in China, perhaps in the ninth century AD, and nothing existed earlier that could explode in such a manner. This is just as ridiculous an anachronism as having Alexander the Great fly to India in a helicopter. The only positive thing is that, in the world of 300 at least, it suggests that Persian technology was more advanced than Greek.

An army of slaves

The Greeks in 300 refer to themselves as “free men”. By contrast, the Persians are said to field an army of slaves that have to be whipped into battle. Both of these aspects need to be qualified. I have already mentioned in last blog post that the Greek army probably included a sizeable amount of slaves. In fact, slavery was probably more widespread among the Greeks than among the Persians, and the Spartans in particular owed their success entirely to having reduced the entire population of Messenia to the status of helots, a kind of serfs.

The Achaemenid army was distinct from the navy and consisted of a standing force (the Immortals), probably supported by another professional body of cavalry. These standing troops consisted of Persians, Medes, and Elamites. They formed the core of the Persian army. Additional troops consisted of the levee – men called up for service in times of need – and mercenaries, the latter of which included large numbers of Greeks. We also know that Jewish mercenaries were used to guard the Egyptian frontier at Elephantine. The comic book and the movie refer to the “thousand nations” of the Persian Empire, but little difference is to be noted in the final products: they all look like generic Middle-Eastern combatants.

Herodotus does mention that Persian troops were sometimes whipped to motivate them. But ancient historians are not objective sources of information, and it should come as no surprise that Herodotus is not always as impartial as we would like to believe. The Persian kings are consistently depicted as ignoring sage advice, a decision that always comes back to haunt them. In other instances, the Greeks are depicted as working closely together and of operating in what seems to be close order. By contrast, the Persians are said to be disorganized and undisciplined, and thus sometimes have to be forced into line. However, how likely is it that Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, or any other Persian king was able to conquer and hold a vast territory if his army consisted of unruly rabble? The answer is that our sources – all Greek – deliberately portray the Persians as less effective and perhaps more cruel than was truly the case.

King Xerxes

Xerxes is portrayed as the embodiment of the Persian Empire: he is a giant with an imposing voice, but also effeminate. His wealth is displayed through all of his jewellery. Unlike King Leonidas, he does not engage in combat himself. The Spartans and other Greeks are shown without jewellery, nor do they engage in acts of debauchery. An interest in gold on the part of a Greek is the sign of a traitor (Theron). Xerxes is carried around on a giant platform, elevated high above his troops, whereas Leonidas marches on foot, just like his men (all of whom are, of course, among the elite of Spartan society, a point ignored by 300).

In reality, of course, Xerxes was not that different from other Persian kings. He was not a giant, nor did he ponce about covered in gold. Like his predecessors, he was a strong ruler, but appears to have been relatively sober. In the empires of the ancient Near East, kings were not gods themselves, but owed their power directly to the gods. If a king was killed in battle or deposed, the general consensus was that he had fallen out of favour among the divinities. In Persian inscriptions, Xerxes generally gives thanks to Ahura Mazda, the highest spirit in Zoroastrianism, paying homage to the divinity most responsible for his continued rule and success.

Closing remarks

The comic book and the movie 300 are both highly subjective renderings of the Battle of Thermopylae. In some respects, they follow the original sources – largely Herodotus – to a good degree, but they deviate in many other places. The portrayal of the Persians as an army of virtually inhuman monsters is patently ridiculous, but one could make the argument that they are shown as such through the eyes of our unreliable narrator, Dilios.

The Battle of Thermopylae is treated like a pyrrhic victory and the beginning of another military failure for the Persians. But Thermopylae was a defeat for the Greeks and the Persians succeeded in punishing Athens by burning the city to the ground. Their main aim was probably never actually to conquer Greece. Unfortunately, our main sources for the Persian Wars are all Greek and it should come as no surprise that their take on the matter is skewed. The Greeks of the Classical age saw the Persian Wars as a victory of the Greek spear over the Persian bow. Eastern peoples were considered decadent and effeminate. The Romans would later regard contemporary Greeks in a similar way. As modern students, we must not fall into the trap of regarding such ideological notions as true to history: a detailed study of the Achaemenid Empire reveals a culture as rich, as sophisticated, and as interesting as that of the ancient Greeks.

It is great when 300 and other similar products of popular culture can stimulate awareness and intelligent discussion on the ancient world. But it would be even better if they would strive for more historical accuracy and a more even-handed portrayal of ancient peoples and events. Not everyone is able, or willing, to look past the creators’ flights of fancy, and it is easy and understandable for people to become offended when they feel that their culture is misrepresented.

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