10 things the makers of '300' got right
300, the movie, is out on DVD this week. When it was first released in the cinema, I was as sniffy as most classicists (no, the Persians didn’t fight with rhinoceroses . . . and, sorry, wouldn’t Xerxes have had a beard . . .?).
But taking another look, on the DVD, I decided that the movie-makers actually deserved a pat on the back for some of the things they did get right.
1) The ‘Three Hundred’. Yes there were 300 Spartans who tried to keep the Persians back at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC. There were also, as it happens, about 900 Spartan slaves plus several hundred soldiers from the cities of Thebes and Thespiae. But the Greeks, like us, tended to forget about them.
2) Spartans fought for ‘freedom’. Well, it was a funny sort of freedom, a bit in the line of Soviet democracy. But freedom it was. In fact 50 years later, when freedom-loving Athens was busy enslaving the states of Greece in her nasty little empire, Sparta waved the flag of liberty. And that was what the next big war in Greece – the Peloponnesian War – was all about.
3) The Persians were Oriental monsters. Not literally, of course; and that’s what a lot of fuss over the movie was all about. But in Greek imagination indeed they were. This is where the ‘Orientalism’ that I was talking in my last post really starts. If you want an idea of how ancient Greeks themselves portrayed the Persians, try these pictures from a fifth-century BC vase. There’s a manly Greek on one side (here, the left), hands on his erect penis – all ready to do something . . . well something pretty rough . . . to the effeminate Persian (dressed in a clingy body suit) who’s bending down and waiting, on the other.
4) Spartan mothers used to tell their sons, “Come back with your shield or on it” (that is – either victorious, or dead, but not a fugitive whose thrown his shield away). I’m afraid this is probably true too. Or at least, according to the Roman writer Plutarch, one Spartan mother once made this threat. It’s quoted in an essay of his called “Sayings of Spartan Women” – which features plenty of other tough talk from mothers to sons.
5) The Spartans fought naked . . .
Well again, not in real life. But the movie does reflect quite closely how Greek artists represented warfare. Take a look at painted Athenian pots (just like the one before the jump) and you’ll find that ‘heroic nudity’ was often part of parcel of how they thought of military bravery.
6) Spartan women were powerful. That’s certainly what other Greeks thought. Athenian upper class women were kept well hidden indoors. Spartan girls did gym, then later terrorised their sons and were the power only just behind the throne. At least in ancient stories.
7) The Spartan training of young boys was fearsome. Yes, all Spartan males (except perhaps the kings) went through the training called the agoge, which was a kind of wall-to-wall army assault course. That’s what we see Leonidas doing in the snow near the start of the movie.
8) When the Persian arrows rained down, blotting out the sun, one of the Spartans joked about fighting in the shade. Yes, this is taken directly from Herodotus’ account of the battle written in the fifth century (even if the line is given to a different soldier). Herodotus puts it like this: “One of the Trachinians said, "Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Persian numbers, answered, "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Persians darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade."
9) There was a decidedly homoerotic element to the Spartan army. Of course there was, this was ancient Greece (and it's nicely captured by David's version of the scene here; look at the figures centre right)
10) King Leonidas died, murmuring a slogan to obedience: "Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here by Spartan law, we lie." Well almost. That is the Greek jingle (by the poet Simonides) that was inscribed upon the memorial erected to the 300 soon after the event.
It’s almost enough to make you forget about those silly rhinoceroses.