Those Manly Spartans!
What's an historian to make of the new film '300'?
It's based on a graphic novel after all, a genre more suited to
superheroes than Spartans. It also boasts a set of fantastical creatures
-- ogres, trolls and the like -- who seem to have wandered in from
a Lord of the Rings movie. And the stylistic violence is, frankly,
over the top. Lots of limb severing and decapitations, in super
slow motion no less.
Yet there's a real history here, buried inside the mythic trappings.
Three hundred Spartans did make a stand at Thermopylae in 480 BCE,
and in that narrow pass held off for days a massive Persian army
threatening to conquer Greece. And as the film shows, Sparta's example
did inspire Athens and the other Greek city-states to rally and
drive off the Persian invaders.
But if the fantasy elements in '300' throw you, here's a guide
to tease out the history from the myth.
Q. These Spartans drip with testosterone. Were they that tough?
A. They were all that and more. The Spartans built their entire
civilization around the military and expected every citizen to be
stoic -- never to cry out in pain, never to complain, never to surrender.
But it was a harsh culture. Sickly babies were discarded, thrown
off a cliff outside the city. Children were kept hungry to promote
self-sufficiency. And signs of mercy indicated weakness.
But -- and here's what the film overlooks -- Sparta's powerful
army was not primarily designed to combat outside enemies. It was
the enemy within - the massive number of slaves kept in Sparta,
threatening constantly to revolt -- that most concerned the Spartan
military. Those slaves, ironically, made possible the Spartan culture
(and that of Athens as well.) Slaves worked as the butchers, bakers,
and candlestick makers, allowing free Greeks to follow their bliss,
whether that be military training, art, or philosophizing.
Q. Slaves? I thought the Greeks were fighting for freedom, and
only the Persians kept slaves.
A. The film certainly gives that impression. The Spartans, we're
told, are manly men who represent freedom, liberty, and justice
for all, while the Persians are decadent slave-drivers, who can't
fight worth a lick and come off as rather effeminate.
The truth is a lot more complicated. The widespread use of slaves
shows that the Greek concept of freedom was limited to a select
group. And when the Spartan army wasn't bravely battling Persians,
they were often threatening their Greek neighbors. The Persians,
on the other hand, far from being sissies, were fierce warriors
who had conquered Asia Minor. And they were acknowledged by most
to be fairly merciful overlords of the regions they ruled.
Yet a deeper truth lurks behind the film's simplistic message.
Greek city-states like Athens were the first in the world to experiment
with that radical new form of government called democracy. Had the
Persians conquered them, those ideas, and much of Greek culture,
might have gotten snuffed out before it reached its full flowering.
Q. Leonidas, the Spartan king, has a wife as tough as he is.
Did they exaggerate that?
A. Not really. Spartan girls were bred to be almost as tough and
strong as the boys, since it was up to them to produce future warriors.
And Spartan women had the time to engage in physical fitness, since
all the traditional women's work - cleaning, cooking, even caring
for children - was conveniently being done by slaves.
In the film, Leonidas's wife sends him off to Thermopylae with
the bracing command, "Come back with your shield, or on it."
We don't know if she actually said that to him, but it was the traditional
line Spartan mothers gave to their sons as they marched off to fight.
Q. Any other lines that are historically accurate?
A. There's a great one that's straight from Herodotus, the ancient
Greek historian. As the massive Persian army advances toward Thermopylae,
the outnumbered Spartans are told that the Persian arrows will "darken
"Good," one Spartan replies. "Then we will fight
in the shade."
Best. Line. Ever. The filmmakers thought so too, since they used
Q. The Spartan helmets look cool, but did they really go to
war wearing helmets and little else?
A. No, like most sensible solders, they wore breast shields, leg
and arm braces, and all kinds of stuff designed to, you know, keep
them getting injured on the battlefield. I think the filmmakers
decided that seeing the actors' rippling six-packs would reinforce
And speaking of the Spartans' masculinity, Herodotus provides an
amusing detail. Before the battle, Persian scouts were puzzled to
see the Spartans taking the time to "comb out their long hair."
It was a typical Spartan battle preparation, but the film left it
Q. What's a good source for more on Thermopylae?
A. Try The History of Herodotus. Though written 2500 years ago,
it's still a great read.
And you know, I think Herodotus would have liked '300.' His story
teems with the same blood and guts, glory and horror shown in this
film, and he too wasn't above twisting some details to spin a better
yarn. Probably, like most of the film's intended audience, he'd
brush off my snarky comments and enjoy the film. I mean, dude. There're
heads getting chopped off, here. Pass the popcorn.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., teaches at the University
of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical
as it appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: 3/10/07