When Brother and I went to see 300 at the cinema a few years ago, we had a long, bitter argument in the car on the way back over the politics of it (this being back in 2006, obviously). Brother, who hates my tendency to over-analyse everything, insisted that it was just a big, silly, fun film and not to worry about it (I think – Brother now has no memory of this argument, but this is the sort of thing he often says!). Although I enjoyed the film, I thought the representation of the Greeks (for which, read Westerners) and the Persians (from modern Iran, of course) was so horribly blinkered as to be almost irresponsible. The Spartans, whose constitution was an unusual blend of monarchy and democracy and who enslaved the native inhabitants of the land they conquered so that they could form themselves into perfect soldiers while these people, the helots, did all the work of keeping them all alive, are portrayed as fighting for freedom and democracy. (G Kovacs pointed out in a recent conference paper that the word ‘democracy’ does not actually appear anywhere in the film, which is something, but it does appear in many reviews – the many references to freedom manage to leave the audience with the impression that democracy was included as well). The Persians, meanwhile, are depicted as religious fanatics with a god-king (that was ancient Egypt) who are literally monstrous. They’re covered in piercings, Xerxes is seven or eight foot tall and wears no clothes (but then, nor do the Spartans) they have bizarre rhino-monsters with them and they seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
The essential story the movie is based on does lend itself to some of this – the various Greek city-states were attacked by Xerxes, who wanted to conquer Greece and add it to the Persian Empire. Between Spartan victories on land and Athenian victories at sea, the Greeks managed to fight them off. And Athens, at this time, was the world’s first democracy – assuming you don’t worry about the slaves, resident foreigners, people who couldn’t prove the lineage of both parents and women, none of whom could vote. But this movie goes to such ridiculous extremes, totally ignoring the Spartan enslavement of the helots to claim them as champions of freedom and turning the Persians into religious fanatics, that it is clearly the product of a mid-noughties desire to make Persia look as bad as possible. Most tellingly of all, the famous ‘Go tell the Spartans...’ epitaph is made to refer to their deaths being caused by no one else being allowed to go to fight, whereas in Herodotus, the epitaph refers rather to the Spartans’ legendary refusal ever to give up or surrender.
Mind you, considering Xerxes speaks exactly like a Goa’uld, perhaps the god thing is less surprising and Leonidas should be on the look-out for spaceships... It should also be mentioned that he was a bit eccentric, and apparently he had the Hellespont, the sea between Europe and Asia, whipped because it wouldn’t obey him. So the movie isn’t being totally out of line – but I very much doubt he suffered from gigantism (which weakens the bones, not good in battle) or thought he was invulnerable.
The problem with discussing historical accuracy when it comes to Sparta is that ancient Sparta is something we actually know very little about. We are blinded by the ‘Spartan mirage’, a name for the problem of the nature of the information we have about ancient Sparta, which is nearly all from much, much later sources and none of it from Spartans. Ancient Sparta was a closed society, and no writings from Spartans themselves have survived. Xenophon, who was a mercenary, is probably the best source. We know the story of the 300 from Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, who is fascinating but who is not known for checking his sources (he was convinced there were giant gold digging ants in the Indian desert. Do not start telling me about camel spiders, I do not want to know, I was much happier before I’d ever heard of them!). Much of what we do know is probably closer to how the Spartans wanted to be viewed by others rather than how they really lived. In a way, this gives writers of historical fiction more licence to play, since we have so little knowledge of what Sparta was like that there’s a fair amount of room for invention. This movie, however, enjoyable as it is, goes to some ridiculous extremes and contradicts some of the more reliable stuff that we do know, or think we know, about Sparta.
The set up of the movie itself does not match the oracle and the pattern of events that Herodotus describes, so to save time – you can read Herodotus’ account here.
Much of Faramir’s opening narration, on the other hand, is fairly accurate. According to our sources, the Spartans did indeed expose sickly children, send boys to learn to be soldiers at the age of seven and make them go through various initiation rituals including some interesting oddities like stealing cheese and choral singing. The images that go with the spoken narration, though, go rather excessively over the top (unsurprisingly for a movie which seems convinced that the Spartans wore nothing but tiny underpants and red cloaks). The opening inspection of the baby is very dramatic – the practice, as far as we know, was real but I don’t think the Spartans actually left piles of baby corpses lying around at the bottom of a cliff – they would have been exposed in an isolated area and probably eaten by wild beasts or adopted by helots (the people conquered and enslaved by the Spartans).Then we see the mother crying and having to be restrained as the boy is taken away - why is she making such a fuss when this happens to everybody? This is just what Spartans did. OK, she might cry a bit, but she shouldn’t have to be restrained. And no matter how tough the Spartans expected their kids to be, they wouldn’t chuck them out into the snow with nothing but a loincloth on either, that’s just silly.
Grown-up Leonidas, otherwise known as the Phantom of the Opera, makes a good impression, with an excellent pointy ancient beard, but he has been taking accent lessons from Sean Connery, well known Spanish Russian naval captain. THIS IS SPARTA! is still cool after multiple viewings, perhaps even more so when you realise it’s Drill Sergeant Guy disappearing down the well. Although I do feel the need to point out that this is what really happened to Xerxes’ scout, according to Herodotus:
‘when he had observed all exactly, he rode back unmolested, for no one attempted to pursue him and he found himself treated with much indifference.’ 7.208.
Gorgo is very cool, and, I understand from the conference paper, a creation entirely of the movie. Spartan women did have more freedom than Athenian women, because the Spartans had worked out that a healthy woman who was able to exercise in the open air was more likely to give birth to strong, healthy children, so unlike Athenian women, Spartan women were not kept inside the house and were encouraged to exercise. I’m not sure they had quite as much clout or freedom as Gorgo, but she’s a great character and it’s not totally out of the bounds of possibility. Her story is rather depressing and unpleasant, but does have the best pay-off in the movie, when she stabs Theron to death and reveals his treachery at the same time.
The reference to the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’ is a bit rich coming from a Spartan. It’s true enough of the Athenians – the well known concept of ‘Greek love’, the sometimes sexual, sometimes ‘Platonic’ relationship between an older man and a younger boy, was indeed a common practice in ancient Athens, but equally in Sparta, relationships between men were encouraged because it was thought they would fight better for a lover than for a friend. Mind you, the Spartans preferred their men full grown and manly, so I suppose they might make derogatory comments about the Athenians for preferring boys.
There are no words for the total wrongness of the ephors and the Oracle (presumably the Delphic Oracle, the best known and most important oracle in ancient Greece). I’ve already linked to Herodotus’ account above (Leonidas’ march with the 300 was, according to Herodotus, inspired by an oracle, but it was an oracle that said either Sparta would be destroyed or one of the kings had to die, and he figured it was the lesser of two evils). As for the Oracle and ephors in general, let’s be brief and just say that the ephors were perfectly normal men, were not priests, and were elected annually. Their job was to provide a check and balance to the two kings. The Delphic Oracle was indeed a woman, possibly under the influence of something, possibly not, whose words were interpreted by the priests, but she grew old in her job and she wore clothes while doing it.
Some choice quotes from this section of the movie include, ‘Trust the gods’, ‘I’d prefer you trusted your reason’; ‘Diseased old mystics, worthless remnants... of a senseless tradition’ and so on and so forth. You don’t like religion. We get it.
The whole business with the old guy and his son is also contrary to Herodotus’ account, as Herodotus notes that since Leonidas was convinced he was going to die, he brought only men with living sons to leave behind. ‘Come back with your shield or on it’ is, however, a genuine Spartan phrase according to the sources, so that bit’s nice. I also like ‘our arrows will blot out the sun’, ‘then we will fight in the shade’. Just ‘cause it’s cool.
The whole ridiculous tree of corpses thing is, I discovered at a conference paper a couple of weeks ago, added for the film to make the Persians guilty of war crimes, in order to justify the Spartans’ own unpleasant actions. Epialtes, or Ephialtes, according to Herodotus, was a Malian. Not deformed, not a Spartan, killed later for another reason. Leonidas’ description of how a phalanx works is accurate though, and it is certainly true that someone like the Ephialtes depicted here could not fight in one. Mind you, we don’t actually see much of the Spartans fighting in phalanx formation anyway.
300 isn't the first depiction of the Spartans to insist that they ran around in battle half-naked. This is 'Leonidas at Thermopylae', by Jacques-Louis David, 1814.
At one point Xerxes refers to ‘every Greek historian’ – there weren’t many at this point (none whose work has survived), Herodotus was the first whose work we have. He also keeps referring to the armies of all Asia, which is a gross exaggeration, the ancient Persians were well aware of the existence of India and probably of China too. The ‘Immortals’ were an elite fighting force in Persia, but I don’t think they filed their teeth to fangs, somehow.
The Persian army, in addition to rhino-beasts, also appears to include Oliphants! And then... It’s a goat. Playing an upturned violin. Love isn’t love without an upturned-violin-playing goat. And I think this may be where I give up on relating this movie to reality in any way.
(I presume that this character is supposed to be a man with a goat mask or something on his head. It’s still stupid).
I watched this movie with Brother, who noted that it seems especially fond of nipples (he made no further comment, I’m glad to say). He also pointed out the narration problem – how does Faramir know what happens after he’s left – is he psychic or is he hiding behind a rock somewhere?!
One final historical note – Xerxes apparently chopped the head off Leonidas’ body and crucified it (the body, not the head), so his dying in cruciform shape is, for once, justified, though I suspect that this is not what the filmmakers were thinking of.
I also love the credit sequence. Ever since I saw the 1950s Around the World in 80 Days as a child I’ve been a sucker for a good credit sequence.
In fact, contrary to appearances, I actually like the movie a lot. It’s good fun, the characters are engaging and it’s a big, silly romp. What’s not to love about a bunch of men running around in their underwear fighting rhino-monsters?! The only thing that concerns me about it is that I hope no one thinks this is an accurate reflection of ancient history – which, given the aforementioned rhino-monsters, seems unlikely, so I think we’re safe. I’m not sure how I feel about the fetishisation (hmm, is that a word?) of the Spartans, which seems to fetishize (that’s definitely not a word) war in general, and I don’t like the extreme depiction of the Persians or the constant digs at religion, but as long as you don’t take it seriously, this film is a decent evening’s entertainment, preferably watched with alcohol and friends so it can be laughed at properly.
All references to the conference paper on 300 refer to ‘Truth, Justice, and the Spartan Way: Affectations of Democracy in Frank Miller's 300’, a paper given by George A. Kovacs, Trent University (Canada) at the conference ‘Classics in the Modern World - a Democratic Turn?’, held at the Open University, 18-20 June 2010.