|Spartans Overwhelmed at Thermopylae, Again
March 22, 2007
|by Eugene N. Borza
A technically exciting videogame of a film, 300 loses touch with a critical and moving event in Greek history.
Herodotus, the “Father of History,” told many good stories, but there are few tales in his repertoire that surpass his narrative of the last-ditch stand of the Greeks against numerically superior forces at the pass of Thermopylae in August, 480 B.C. A huge military force led by Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, crossed the Hellespont from Asia into Europe, intent on the subjugation of Greece. Whether Xerxes intended this invasion as revenge for the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon a decade earlier or whether his expedition had been planned all along as the natural extension of Persian rule into Europe is still a matter of debate among modern historians. The Greek city-states were aware of the movement of Asian land and naval forces through the areas north of them. Greek representatives met and attempted to plan a defense against an army that may have numbered hundreds of thousands (precision in numbers is impossible). A dispute among the Greeks regarding their best defense was resolved thus: the Peloponnesians, led by Sparta, would build a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth in order to protect the cities of southern Greece. Athens, which was vulnerable, would be evacuated, and the powerful Athenian fleet would be used to engage and destroy the Asian naval forces, thereby depriving Xerxes of necessary support. But time was short, and an attempt to delay the relentless advance of Xerxes' army was necessary to enable the Athenians to abandon their city and the Peloponnesians to build their defensive wall.
A statue honoring Leonidas in Sparta features, in Greek, his response to the Persian king's demand that the Spartans lay down their weapons: "Come and take them."
Courtesy Olga Palagia
The choke point for the Persian advance was the pass at Thermopylae, where the main route south from northern Greece ran through a narrow lane between the sea and the steep slopes of Mt. Kallidromos. Heavy silting over the centuries has caused the coastline to recede some distance from the mountain, but the modern highway follows almost exactly the ancient coast line, and, at the western end of the pass, the ancient route was probably only a few yards from the sea. It was here that the Greeks decided to make their stand. A force of perhaps six to seven thousand Greeks, led by the Spartan king, Leonidas, made its way to Thermopylae, intent on delaying the Persian advance. For two days the Greeks, led by Leonidas and 300 of his fellow Spartans, maintained a furious defense against the invaders.
There can be no question about the bravery and determination of the Spartans who sacrificed themselves in order to delay the Persian advance.
Asian casualties were high, but the inexorable press of large numbers--plus the treachery of a local Greek who told the Persians how to circumvent the pass by a high mountain path--turned the tide against the Greek forces. Learning that he had been betrayed and was about to be surrounded, Leonidas dismissed most of his forces except for his Spartans and a few other Greeks, the latter of whom eventually fled the scene or defected to the Persians. The Spartans died to the man. There can be no question about the bravery and determination of the Spartans who sacrificed themselves in order to delay the Persian advance.
The pass at Thermopylae was the scene of several such engagements in antiquity and during later centuries, but the most dramatic example of history repeating itself occurred in April 1941. There was little hope that the juggernaut of the German army, led by tanks and bound for Athens, could be stopped by Allied troops. But there was hope that the advance of the Germans could be slowed in order to complete the evacuation of Athens by British and Greek forces. A small, determined band of ANZAC soldiers stationed themselves around the pass at Thermopylae, and for two days managed to slow the German advance, thereby permitting the successful evacuation of Athens. These brave Australians and New Zealanders escaped the Spartans’ fate, and lived on to fight again another day. The sacrifice of the Spartans at Thermopylae was commemorated in an epigram of the ancient Greek poet Simonides: "Go, stranger, and tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their command."
In 1955 the Greek Archaeological Service dedicated a plaque bearing Simonides' words at the crest of a small hillock in the pass where Leonidas and his band probably made their last stand.
A wonderful story, to be sure, and fit for re-telling, which in modern times means film. In 1962, The 300 Spartans was released, featuring a very buff Richard Egan as Leonidas. Although it suffered from many of the flaws of the worst sword-and-sandal epics of that era, it attempted to recreate faithfully the politics, diplomacy, and military events that actually were part of the Thermopylae story. Now we have 300, a truly modern bit of movie-making that combines live actors playing against a digitized background.
To judge this film's adherence to historical fact (insofar as we understand it) is to do it a disservice, for the film does not even pretend to be historically accurate. It is based on a graphic novel developed by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, whose previous credits are mainly as comic book and graphic novel writers and illustrators. This film version of Miller and Varley's graphic novel is the inspiration of director and co-writer Zack Snyder, who is said to have been deeply moved both by his childhood viewing of the 1962 The 300 Spartans and by the Miller-Varley graphic novel. Miller's influence on Snyder appears to be profound. In the on-line production notes for the film Snyder is quoted as saying "Frank took an actual event and turned it into mythology, as opposed to taking a mythological event and turning it into reality." That vision clearly absolves the filmmaker from any pretense of historical accuracy. In brief, this is a comic book version of Thermopylae writ large, utilizing all of the tricks of virtual reality and digitized magic. This film is not even science fiction, a genre based on an extension of reality. In fact, 300 is one step removed from sci-fi: it is fantasy. In a recent review of Oliver Stone's Alexander epic, I suggested that there was a difference between historical inaccuracies based on ignorance and sloppy research, and deviations from historical accuracy based upon the film maker's artistic vision: 300 falls into the latter category.
Leonidas' motivation is not credible, even in a comic book. The actual Spartan stand at Thermopylae as a delaying action is both credible and historical.
But, for devotees of historical nitpicking: a few nits. There is no attempt to explain the complex issues faced by the Greek city-states confronting the Persian advance. Leonidas is portrayed as intending to take his 300 Spartans up to Thermopylae in order to defeat the Persians and fight for freedom. Setting aside the simple-minded ideology about liberty, reason, and justice (like other Greeks, the Spartans themselves had a long history of attempting to coerce if not actually enslave other peoples when it suited their interests), it is ludicrous to suggest that a great Spartan general like Leonidas would believe that 300 men could thwart the advance of tens--perhaps hundreds--of thousands of Asian troops. Leonidas' motivation is not credible, even in a comic book. The actual Spartan stand at Thermopylae as a delaying action is both credible and historical.
The portrayal of the fighting is a mixed bag. The filmmakers decided to pare down the Spartan uniforms to their essential and symbolic features: helmet, cape, shield, greaves, and weapons. The result is heroic imagery, hoplites dressed in leather thongs and fighting without body armor. No Greek warrior would ever have stepped into battle without some sort of chest protector. But the fighting itself is dramatically portrayed. The actors had been well trained and the fight scenes carefully choreographed. Much has been made of the graphic violence--lots of spurting blood and decapitations--but I did not find this offensive or disturbing. It was all a product of the coordination between cinematographers and a sophisticated visual effects department, highly influenced by the graphic novel. Aside from some improbable feats of derring-do, the film portrayed the chaos and horror of close-combat infantry clashes with an approximation of reality not mentioned much by the writers of antiquity, but described so well by classicist Victor Davis Hanson in his 1989 book, The Western Way of War, Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Details aside, one cannot help but admire the impressive technical achievement of this film.
The 300 are shown marching south out of Sparta whereas Thermopylae is north of Sparta.
There are other matters: Ephialtes, the local Greek who betrayed the Spartans at Thermopylae, is instead portrayed as a horribly deformed Spartan outcast whose perfidy results from Leonidas' refusal to allow him to join in the action. He reminded me of nothing more than Charles Laughton's portrayal of the title character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.. Leonidas' wife, Gorgo, about whom little is said in the ancient sources, is given an enhanced role to play at home while her husband was busy at Thermopylae. The internal political machinations in Sparta are pure invention. The pass at Thermopylae is shown as a very narrow cleft between vertical rock faces, more appropriate for the canyon country of southern Utah than to the actual topography of this region of Greece. The 300 are shown marching south out of Sparta (with Mt. Taygetos on the right) whereas Thermopylae is north of Sparta. Fantasy animals appear from time to time--a huge wolf-like creature confronting the boy Leonidas, and monstrous rhinocerous creatures and elephants at Thermopylae. This is far-fetched stuff, and it bordered on the amusing as the Greeks forced the elephants off high cliffs to fall into the sea. I was not as much concerned about the actual absence of such cliffs at Thermopylae as I wondered how in the world Xerxes transported those elephants across the Hellespont. Of course, they may have come by ship. ...Enough of this.
The Asians, in particular Xerxes (chillingly played by the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro), are portrayed as the embodiment of evil and mindless tyranny, as opposed to the Spartans who represent freedom and justice. This stark dichotomy is unfortunate. It is an unnecessary misrepresentation of both Persians and Greeks to have set up both sides in unrelieved black and white: the East as sordid, evil, and dark, while the West represents beauty and light. I do not read into this, as some have, a subliminal commentary on current events, but I'll bet that this film will not be shown in Tehran. Indeed, the racist implications of the film have already been condemned by Iranians who have not even seen it. And Leonidas (dramatically portrayed by the Scottish actor Gerard Butler) became more single-dimensioned as the film wore on. There were early sparks of humanity in Leonidas' relationship with his wife and son, and in his efforts to persuade both men and gods of the importance of his mission, but he eventually became transformed into a simple killing machine. This is to be regretted, as Butler is a skilled actor encumbered by a pedestrian script. Only occasionally did the cardboard characterizations yield to some humanity: at the conclusion of the initial phase of the struggle at Thermopylae--which resulted in huge Persian losses--one Spartan turned to another and remarked, "A helluva good start." And there was a touching moment when a Spartan officer, having witnessed the decapitation of his son in the struggle, commented that his grief was compounded by the fact that he had never told his son how much he loved him. The film would have benefited from more such human touches.
There is the answer Leonidas gave to Xerxes' demand that the Spartans lay down their arms: "Come and take them."
The screen writers did their homework in preserving many famous sayings attributed to the Spartans, who were noted in antiquity for their "laconic" style of speaking. Plutarch, the Greek writer of the Roman period, wrote a long essay, "Sayings of the Spartans," and the film's writers appear to have read through these. For example,on two occasions when the sky was darkened by the dense shower of Persians arrows, Spartans quipped "Well, we'll just have to fight in the shade." Spartan mothers are said to have instructed their sons to "Come back carrying your shield, or being carried upon it." In the film Gorgo thus enjoined Leonidas. And there is the answer Leonidas gave to Xerxes' demand that the Spartans lay down their arms: "Come and take them." In Greek the phrase is molon labe. It is part of an inscription that adorns a colossal statue of Leonidas that can be found near the center of modern Sparta. The screenwriters put the words into Leonidas' own mouth when the Persian envoys demand surrender, even though Herodotus has the exchange between Xerxes and Leonidas in written messages. For dramatic reasons I rather liked the film version. In sum, 300 cannot be taken seriously as an historical epic. It reveals no insights into the history of the long-term struggle between Greeks and Persians beyond the well-known fact that the Spartans were excellent fighters.
It tells us nothing about the relationships among the Greeks themselves. It is inaccurate in its depictions of myriad details. And it does history and the Persians a real disservice in portraying the Asians entirely as degenerates. The standard disclaimer in the final credits tells us that any resemblance to real persons living or dead is coincidental and unintended. Rarely has a disclaimer been more accurate.
The film is technically exciting and dramatically dumb. It may deserve recognition for its combination of live action with computer-generated virtual reality. But it fails as a film because so many competent actors are hindered by a mediocre script derived from comic book-graphic novel lines and by the constraints of the live-plus-digital format. It is a bold and dramatic concept, and probably appeals most to those interested in video games and fantasy stories. It is one-dimensional, and in that sense is true to its graphic novel origins. Several commentators have suggested that the hybrid technique is the wave of the future. I certainly hope not, except as a niche category of film making.
Their greatest crime is that they reduced to a dehumanized video game one of the most moving events of Greek history.
In the end I leave it to others to determine whether it is good entertainment. Clearly the public thinks that it is. Its opening weekend in the U.S. produced the third highest box office receipts for any R rated film in history, and during the first ten days of release in Greece a half million tickets were sold. (That is about five percent of the total population!). I am informed by an Athenian friend that the film is being shown in all the theaters in multiplexes and that theaters in small towns are offering midday and midnight performances. It has already become a cult item among a certain segment of the U.S. population, perhaps the videogame and graphic novel crowd. One can only speculate about the sociological and political implications of that kind of response. In the opinion view of this reviewer, however, those who created this film were so immersed in technological innovation that they lost sight of the human values that made this such a good story in Herodotus. Their greatest crime is that they reduced to a dehumanized video game one of the most moving events of Greek history. It is perhaps a mark of my devotion to the Archaeological Institute of America and this ARCHAEOLOGY web site that I sat through the entire two hours of 300.
Eugene N. Borza is professor emeritus of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University.
© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America