The Native and the Foreign
In the ancient world, communication was minimal, resulting in contact between nations being few and far between. Because of this, each nation developed its own view of primacy, immediately shunning others and boosting themselves. The Book of Exodus and The Histories of Herodotus are two of the earliest accounts of this world, recounting stories from Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. In these texts, the foreign and the native are described as the latter having a superiority complex, being physically violent to the former, but are also, in both cases, self-mocking; however, in The Histories of Herodotus, there is some form of respect, compassion, and curiosity of the foreign in the native eye. Thus, the relationship between the two is power driven, pure rivalry, yet, beneficial and sympathetic.
The ancient world bred hostility. Because any other nation could either attack or become part of a vast empire, it was common to see a divide between different people. In Exodus, this divide comes between the Israelites, the natives, and the Egyptians, whom are depicted as the foreigners. When the Pharaoh refuses to release the people because “he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted” (Exodus 8:15), it lowers the esteem of Egyptians as a whole, implying that are ignorant and stubborn in comparison to the Israelites especially when considering the ten plagues. This results in an ambitious relationship to appear better than the other, and these implications are also similar to the ones in describing the Egyptians in Herodotus. When, albeit, a Persian king stabs (what the Egyptians claim to be) a god, this “god” is injured, and he exclaims, “‘Worthy indeed of Egyptians is a god such as this!” (Herodotus 3.27). Here, the natives profess their greater worth than that of the foreigners, claiming that their gods are far more superior, and that it should only be fitting that a “weak” god should be fitting of a “weak” people. This necessity to portray the other as lower and weaker stems, again, from the competitive nature of the relationship.
From this, blatant insults also arise among these texts. For example, in Herodotus, “[the Egyptians], pervert the truth of history, claiming to be kindred with the house of Cyrus” (3.3), or in other words, they lie in order to appear far more important, and in this case, powerful. Another insult raises questions of foreigners’ honor and methods of approach to war, claiming it to be “intolerable that a woman should make an expedition against Athens” (8.93). These insults show not only their desire to appear better, but also their drive to defeat the other. Not only are there insults of character, in Exodus, the superiority complex of the “Chosen People,” the Israelites, is evident in the insult of simply not caring about the Egyptians in any form. They have no remorse after passover when “there was no house in which there was not someone dead” (12:30), as there is no definitive reaction written to state otherwise. These feelings of believing to be being better than their enemies and having to express so are similar among the two texts, revealing a petty relationship between the natives and foreigners.
While verbal insults and slights act to demonstrate a relationship of disgust for the foreigners and desire to be superior, the relationship between the two is also one of rivalry. Violence between the two groups is comparable between both Exodus and Herodotus, illustrating the most physical example. Herodotus writes that “nothing more happened than the carrying away of women on both sides” (Herodotus 1.3), who were further raped and assaulted as a form of revenge for the attack on either side’s women, as cause for the hatred between the Greeks and the Persians. This extreme retaliation showcases their rivalry and hatred of each other, and moreso, a disregard, considering they can so easily and heartlessly attack their women, who are traditionally symbols of vulnerability. In Exodus, the Israelites act akin. Even though they are freed from maltreatment in Egypt, they continue on to become the ones mistreating others. For example, they are eventually successful in overtaking Canaan, attacking and plundering a city after having only just escaped such behavior. They also, with blessing from God, “plundered Egypt” (Exodus 12:30), illustrating their desire to conquer their enemies. To have come from a nation that treated the Israelites poorly to become those treating others poorly is evident, as in Herodotus, of savagery and the desire to defeat the other.
Although a majority of the relationship lies on hatred, in both texts, there are also mentions of negativity and dislike of the natives themselves. In a way, the relationship is beneficial because there are small parts in which the natives become self aware of some of their flaws. In Herodotus, there is an open confession that “Hellenes make wars… very much without wise consideration” (7.9). This confession, perhaps, lessens the blind disgust and maltreatment of foreigners by indicating that the natives partially recognize their treatment may be unwarranted. However, in Exodus, it is God himself that recognizes a flaw in the native and supposedly superior people. When the Israelites create a Golden Calf that they then begin to worship, God tells Moses, “leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make you from a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). Because God is the one to pronounce that his own followers are at fault and should be punished for attempting to attach physicality to him, it reveals a truth and value about the Israelites: that they are not as perfect as they tend to claim and are just as flawed as their enemies. The inclusion of negative thoughts about the natives from themselves is analogous between the two works, and thus, demonstrates that the relationship is not purely hatred of the other party without reflection on themselves.
The only contrast between the depiction of the relationship between native and foreign in Herodotus and Exodus is that in Herodotus, there are occasional expressions of sympathy for the foreign. In just the introduction before the actual accounts of events, Herodotus writes that the book will consist of “works great and marvellous, which have been produced by some Hellenes and some by Barbarians” (1). In this statement, there is recognition of the good in foreigners. It can be inferred that this statement also implies at least some ounce of respect, despite other previous arguments against any, which differs from Exodus’s portrayal of a harsher relationship between native and foreign.
In addition to this inference of respect, there is also a certain amount of curiosity present as well. Herodotus not only explores the events of other cultures than his own Greek culture, he does so in a way that is not as judging or discriminatory as it is in interest. When describing the customs and traditions of the Egyptians, he reveals that he has the opinion that they do everything backwards, such as the “women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home at the loom (5.35). Although he comments that what they do is, in a way, reversed than what he is used to, he takes an anthropological approach: he merely observes. Such observation is demonstrative of his desire for knowledge, and thus, the native’s, about the foreigner in a way that is not always sly and malicious, as it seems to be in Exodus.
This curiosity also seems to harbor the slightest bit of compassion in the relationship between native and foreign, as well. While Herodotus claims to nearly be recording history and making sure that certain stories are not lost, he includes certain dialogue that is not entirely vital to the story he is telling, but this dialogue reveals sympathy for the people he is supposed to dislike. For example, when Xerxes, the current Persian king during the time of the Persian Wars, declares that he is to march on Hellenes for the revenge of his father, a man approaches him with a plea. He asks, “‘Do thou, therefore, O King, have compassion upon me, who have come to so great an age, and release from serving in the expedition of one of my sons” (7.38). This inclusion of an older gentleman pleading with the king to exempt one of his sons from the expedition, so that he does not to die alone, is a true example that there is at least a small sliver of sympathy for the foreign. This dialogue also shows that the native, on occasion, does not lump together the people as a whole rather than individuals, considering that such a story is pitiful and empathy provoking which makes it difficult to disregard.
In summation, in both Exodus and Herodotus, the relationship between native and foreign is not strictly based on pure rivalry, but complex in that it is ambitious, yet also self-deprecating and thereby beneficial. In the case of Herodotus, it is sympathetic, in that it is curious, compassionate, and the slightest bit respectful of the unknown that is the foreigners. Because communication was limited in these ancient worlds, it was easy to despise the unknown out of fear of it. While overtly, there is a hatred of foreigners in the native eye, subconsciously, the awareness of another nation of people pushes for reflection on themselves. Thus, while the threat of another nation lingers in the background and causes their relationship to be driven by lust of power and hatred of those attempting to undermine those attempts, it is also beneficial in that it causes self-reflection and curiosity in the other party.
The Role of the Narrator in the Story of Periander of Corinth and His Son Lycophron (Hdt. 3.50-3)
The role of the primary external narrator in Herodotus’ 3.50-3 is essential in developing the discourse, and transforming the fabula from historical facts into the structure of an Aristotelean tragedy. This essay will examine the role of the primary external narrator in developing the discourse from a literary perspective by comparing the narratological structure to Aristotle’s tragic model; literary techniques such as prolepsis, dramatic irony and irony are used to captivate the audience. In critically investigating Herodotus, one most also consider how the narrator influences perceptions of characters through language, and the significance of the secondary internal narrator in using persuasive narrative techniques, as well as the effect of being quoted directly on the audience and the progression of the discourse.
In examining the role of the primary external narrator in Herodotus’ Histories 3.50-3, it is important to identify the objective of the digression. Despite Herodotus’ stated objective to ‘display his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time’, Gould writes that the story of Periander ‘has a scale and power, and a weight out of all proportion to its overt function as an explanatory link in the larger narrative, and in this it resembles a whole range of other Herodotean stories’. This point is corroborated by Sourvinou-Inwood who ‘finds it to be so patterned by mythic consciousness that the historical data are almost irrecoverable’, and further by Griffiths who writes ‘Herodotus… conceives of historical narrative as a discourse which needs constant variation and enlivening by means of vivid digression’. Therefore, it is evident that the role of the narrator is no longer to give an accurate representation of historical facts, but rather to captivate the secondary external naratees in a fascinating yet likely fabricated version of events. Furthermore, the narrator’s role is to develop the secondary external naratees’ perceptions of characters. This is done effectively in the opening line: ‘Periander had murdered his wife Melissa’. Instantly we do not like Periander and this follows the Aristotelean tragic model, where a man of high esteem falls victim to his own hubris and false self-perception of infallibility, which ultimately leads to his demise. Furthermore, by quoting Lycophron indirectly, it is difficult for the audience to build a relationship with the character.
In using this narratological technique of exclusive indirect quotation, Herodotus distances the secondary external naratees from Lycophron, thus representing Lycophron’s distancing from his father, as Periander is the protagonist in this digression. Therefore, Herodotus subtly yet effectively couples narratology and discourse in illustrating to the audience the divide between Periander and Lycophron. In using various dramatic devices, the narrator takes the audience on a literary journey. Dewald writes that Herodotus’ readers ‘admire him as a stylist but not as a historian’, and thus it makes sense to approach this excerpt as a literary source rather than a historical one, and to evaluate the narratological devices accordingly. The narrator’s role is to develop the discourse and in using the Aristotelian tragic model, with clear hamartia (3.50.0, 3.52.25), peripeteia (3.51.9) and anagnorisis (3.53.28), a micro tragedy is produced. Examples of this are also evident in other digressions in the histories, for example, the stories of Cypselus, Cyrus and Lycophron which all ‘show a common pattern and set of motifs’, which further diminishes the passage’s historical reliability. The role of the narrator is to play with the audience, using literary devices like foreshadowing (‘and another misfortune was to follow’), ensuring that the audience stays engaged with the discourse. Prolepsis (3.53.1) is used to keep the audience engaged as the narration fast-forwards to the attempted reconciliation of Periander in the second section, which shows the narrator’s objective to keep this dramatized historic reconstruction succinct.
Dramatic irony is another literary device used by the narrator to add interest to the discourse as Periander does not know why Lycophron ignores him after visiting Procles whereas the audience does. This adds to the tension of the discourse to make the tale interesting and engaging for the audience. Irony is also key to the discourse as the observational skills of the younger son that would make him the best ruler of the country are the very skills that lead to the misfortune and demise of both Periander and Lycophron. It is this presentation of the fabula that encourage critics to analyse the text not as historical data, but rather approach it as a literary work, as the narrator has clearly fictionalised the facts to promote a more entertaining discourse. However, Baragwanath argues that ‘Herodotus foregrounds the fact that history is contested territory: that differing interpretations… of historical events and personalities arise from the perspectives of different individuals’, therefore arguing that although this is likely not an accurate representation of historical fact, it is an accurate account of the tale people believed to be true, as ‘most of [Herodotus’] source material was somehow orally transmitted’. This point is further explored by De Jong who states that ‘the Herodotean narrator is clearly indebted to the Homeric narrator’. Thus, the narrator’s role is to give an account of the tales people believed despite the likely fabrications. The role of the narrator in 3.50-3 is to invoke as much distaste for Periander within the audience as possible, and this is succinctly achieved in the tale’s denouement which ends abruptly with Lycophron suffering the worse punishment for his father’s immoral actions. The discourse closes with a sense of unjustness as although Periander does suffer due to the loss of his heir, Lycophron has felt the full force of his father’s malice, consequently enduring exile and suffering death. In shadowing the attempt for justice by Lycophron with his unjust death caused by the actions of his father, the Herodotean narrator’s role in developing a malevolent portrayal of Periander is completed.
In examining the role of the narrator in the excerpt, it is important to analyse the role of Periander as a secondary internal narrator. The Herodotean narrator’s role proceeding Periander’s plea is to give the audience a sense of hope that the separation of son and father will be bridged to avoid any further tragedy (as foreshadowed in 3.50.1). This is achieved by describing how ‘the father’s heart melted at the sight’ of his son living in squalor, which invokes slight empathy within the audience for Periander, as this tender moment illustrates a father who loves his son and is eager to resolve their differences. However, despite this appeal, Lycophron’s blunt dismissal of his father’s reaching out reminds us through the use of an impersonal indirect quote of the severity of Periander’s crimes to his family, and distaste towards the tyrant within the audience resumes. The narratological technique of having the primary external narrator paraphrase Lycophron’s response to a heartfelt yet untruthful directly quoted plea from Periander emphasises Lycophron’s dismissal of his father. In including a direct quote form Periander (3.52.11) rather than paraphrasing dialogue as done for the majority of the passage, the narrator signifies the importance of Periander’s plea for Lycophron to return home. In looking at Periander’s narratological role in more detail, it is important to analyse the way he uses language in attempting to achieve his objectives. Periander’s narratological objective is to make Lycophron’s decision obvious, by contrasting the inheritance of ‘wealth and tyranny’ to the ‘beggar’s life’ he is living now. Therefore, the role of Periander as a secondary internal narrator is to persuade Lycophron to return home, by using a persuasive syntax, but also to invoke catharsis within the audience as we are urged to feel sorry for him, as his own hubristic megalomaniacal actions have led to his tragic misfortune. This literary device is used in the same way in Oedipus Rex, in which the protagonist’s hubristic nature leads to his downfall, and the audience cannot help but feel slightly empathetic in accordance.
It is evident that the role of the primary external narrator in Herodotus 3.50-3 is to make the fabula as interesting and engaging as possible as the narrator uses the Aristotelean tragic model to invoke catharsis within the audience. The role of the narrator in developing the audience’s perceptions of characters has also been discussed, as well as the literary devices that help develop the discourse in the most entertaining and engaging way. The second section which focuses on the influence of a direct quote from Periander in a text that is predominantly narrated from an omniscient narrator is examined, and the significance of including a secondary internal narrator is further explored.
Bibliography Baragwanath, E. (2008), Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus De Jong, I. J. F (2014), Narratology and Classics a Practical Guide Dewald, C. (1987), “Narrative Surface and Authorial Voice in Herodotus’ Histories”, Arethusa 20 Gould, J. (2000), Herodotus Gray, V. J. (1996), “Herodotus and the Images of Tyranny: The Tyrants of Corinth” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 117, no. 3 Griffiths, A. H. (2006), “Stories and storytelling in the Histories” in Dewald-Marincola (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus (Cambridge)  Hdt. 1.1  Gould, 2000, 51-53  Sourvinou-Inwood as cited in Gray, 1996, 363  Griffiths p.176 mole skin  Hdt. 3.50  Dewald, 1987, 151  Gray, 1996, 367  Hdt. 3.50.1  Baragwanath, 2008, 2  Griffiths p.177 moleskin  De Jong, 2014, 172  Hdt. 3.2.11
The Suitability of Style to Subject Matter in ‘The Persians’ and ‘The Histories’
Both historian Herodotus and playwright Aeschylus adopt the central subject matter of the Persian Wars- a series of conflicts fought between Greek and Persian forces, which roughly began in 499 BC, and ended in 480 BC in Greek victory at the battle of Salamis. Whilst Aeschylus ‘The Persians’ due to its status as a tragedy can be seen hyperbolise and dramatise events unsuitably, Herodotus’ ‘The Histories’ exploits similar themes due to the descriptive prosaic style in which it is written. Nonetheless, it is the historical stance of Herodotus that allows for an objective and analytical take on the subject matter of The Persian Wars- one far more suitable than the intensely dramatic scenes of ‘The Persians’.
Aeschylus’ tragic structure arguably places excessive focus on the theme of hubris in exploring motives for ‘Salamis’; as does the grossly descriptive style of Herodotus text- suggesting that the styles of both texts are inappropriate in accurately conveying the subject matter of causes behind wars. Traditional tragedies were largely aimed at warning audience’s of the cycle of human folly and divine retribution; and this can be seen to conflict with Aeschylus’ aim to accurately document the Persian Wars: This is demonstrated through Xerxes’ presentation of Xerxes’ hubris as he corrupts a divinely-created natural world through bridging the Hellespont with a chain of ships; and that this story is retold through the speech of the Chorus, Atossa, and Darius suggests that Aeschylus’ play is inappropriate for telling a factual account of the war as he focuses excessively on the theme of hubris. Whilst it could be argued that the fact the word ‘hubris’ is merely repeated twice throughout the play holds alternative suggestions that Aeschylus’ play is suitable for focusing on the genuine causes of the battle, a more compelling idea is that this simply ‘allows for the audience’s understanding of the theme to develop’- claims Garvie; rallying them perhaps inappropriately in opposition to Xerxes and his fleet.
Whilst Herodotus’ ‘The Histories’ is not a tragedy so does not encounter issues of whether to prioritise factual truth of a moral message of hubris, the intensely descriptive style of Herodotus’ writing allows for the writing to remain equally unsuitable for conveying a factual account of the wars: Darius is characterised as bridging Bosphorus before Xerxes digs an extravagant canal at Mt Athos, before similarly bridging the Hellespont. Indeed, the detail in which such a scene is composed- in a hyperbolic style- places absolute focus on the severity of Xerxes actions as he lashes the river ‘300 times’ and commands atrocities to be chanted at it. Clearly, there is no method in which such actions could have been verified as factually true by Herodotus; and therefore the style of extended narrative is inappropriate in conveying the sparse details of the scene of which the author might have known as fact. Tragedy is renowned for its focus on extravagant spectacle, and in this way the tragic style of ‘The Persians’ is responsible for depictions of Atossa’s necromantic ritual in which Darius rises from his gravel a scene used to horrify an Athenian audience due to the polytheistic society they resided in. Such tragic style is inappropriate therefore for accurately conveying a scene which would have little historical relevance; as further demonstrated by extravagant props such as ‘saffron shoes’ and ‘trousers’ which Herodotus deems the Persians to wear, making the form of tragedy all the more unsuitable for conveying fact. Herodotus similarly blames the pitfalls of characters on their hubristic acts: Miltiades’ injured thigh which leads to his death is blamed on the desecration of a religious temple, and Cleomenes’ decision to cut himself into pieces whilst imprisoned is explained in terms of his offence caused to gods: whilst it is arguably not the historic style of the narrative which causes such bias, such moments have led critics to label Herodtous’ work a piece of ‘prose epic’ for such moments, in which he divulges into character’s histories not to add to the history of the wars but to thrill and excite an audience; a method unsuitable due to the central subject matter of the Persian Wars.
Yet, the tragic nature of Aeschylus speech is inappropriate for conveying the subject matter of actual battle as it exaggerates the emotional appeal in order to add to the dramatic effect, in contrast to the more objective approach of Herodotus’ style as a ‘history’ which is more appropriate. The climax of Aeschylus tragedy has been thought of as the messenger’s speech in which the Battle of Salamis is described; and is Aeschylus intended this as the climax, it explains the unsuitably hyperbolic descriptions of battle within it: such is demonstrated as the Persians are presented as unable to control their triremes as they move in ‘swift disorder’ in contrast to the Athenians who move as ‘a single pulse’; and the sharp juxtaposition is unsuitable for conveying the nuances of the battle. Whilst it could be argued that such moments- despite their dramatic contrast- are factually true, as Edith Hall points out, Aeschylus’ own brother died at Marathon and therefore he would have likely exaggerated the folly and disorder of the Persian army out of spite. Indeed, the style of purple prose further hones into the Persian disorder, as they are characterised through metaphors such as ‘netted tunnies’ and ‘a swarm of bees’- particularly inappropriate through marking out the Persians as less than human; and yet correlating with audience perceptions of the Persians as a primarily barbaric force.
Herodotus similarly describes the opposing force in the style of extensive description; and yet such descriptions allow for far more nuance; perhaps due to the form of prose which is far less fragmentary that the dramatic style of ‘The Persians’. The unity of the Greeks is similarly proven to juxtapose the disunity of the Persians, who during Salamis, are unable to communicate successfully to ships behind them of the unfolding action in battle; creating disunity among the fleet. In contrast, the Greeks demonstrate unity as they masterfully coax the Persians into the straits whilst chanting ‘battle-hymns’ to suggest both cultural and political unity. Whilst the dramatic style of these descriptions might render Herodotus’ narrative inappropriate for conveying the facts of the scene, the historical and analytic approach adopted by Herodotus allows for him to bolster his claims with a catalogue of proofs: he holds a turbulent southern wind and lack of sleep due to extensive planning the night before accountable for the fragility and listlessness of the Persians during battle; suggesting that the analytic style is indeed appropriate for conveying the actions of the Persians. Furthermore, Aeschylus’ decision to position the messenger’s speech as central to the plot dramatises the emotional impact of it through allowing it to appear as if all other tragic moments of the play stem from this single catastrophe: the role of the messenger is to create traditional tragic emotions of pity and fear within an audience, demonstrated as he suggests that the Persians faces ‘blench with fear’, suggesting that Aeschylus’ narrative is inappropriate due to its desires to correlate with tragic structure. In contrast, the extended narrative style of Herodotus’ text allows for it to encompass a far wider scope: Herodotus not only focuses on the Persian defeats, but additionally their victories at the sea-battle of Lade, and land battle at Thermopylae- conveying a far more accurate representation of the Persian army through adding both failures and successes to their national character.
Both writers constantly employ the style of dialogues to characterise central figures, and yet this allows their texts to become inappropriate as a significant degree of personal bias is thus injected into their accounts of the Persian Wars. This is demonstrated in Herodotus’ presentation of debates between significant Persians characters- from the pre-Salamis debate in which Xerxes rejects Artemisia’s sound advice, to the debate which begins book 7- in which a conversation is held between Artabanus, Xerxes and Mardonius as to whether Xerxes should invade Greece. Herodotus uses this speech to characterise Persians as foolish as prone to bribery and tricks- as Mardonius lies about Greek land deeming it fertile and fruitful; whilst also condemns Greeks as poor fighters: indeed, this paired with Herodotus’ presentation of Xerxes as acquiescing to such ‘love of mischief and adventure’ reveals a degree of Greek bias as his desires to reveals faults in the corruption of Persian leadership and court underpin his central subject matter of the Persian Wars. Indeed, such is furthered as Herodotus fabricates Xerxes’ speech as claiming he would have inflicted violence upon Artabanus for his logical reasoning anti-Mardonius if it were not for his status as his uncle.
In ‘The Persians’, Xerxes employs a similar narrative style of speeches between Persians in order to highlight the pitfalls of Persian monarchies; thus deeming his text equally inappropriate for conveying the Persian army in accurate terms. Darius repeatedly condemns Xerxes through lexis ‘foolish’ ‘Poor Fool’ and ‘folly’ before asking is a ‘God had robbed him of his wits’ for his hubris; and this coupled with Darius’ extended catalogue of references to the victories of prior kings bolsters his attack against the Persian system of government; through reminding an Athenian audience (who would have been seated in political factors of demes) of their dislike of the Persian system; and such is further demonstrated through the extended grieving sequences between Xerxes and the Chorus which closes ‘The Persians’. Here, Aeschylus’ tragic style reaches fruition as a feature of traditional tragedies- The Chorus- supports Xerxes’ critique of himself as a ‘pitiful outcast’; reflecting the rational views of the audience and coaxing them into further resenting Xerxes. Furthermore, the dialogue between Sperthias and Butis in ‘The Histories’ additionally focuses on the dangers of monarchy, as the pair of Spartans refuse to ‘prostate themselves… before a King’. Whilst is could be argued that the fact this dialogue has little influence in the plot suggests that it is symbolically suitable as marking out the differences between Greek and Persian governments, a more compelling idea is that it is equally unsuitable for allowing rational insight into the Persian government as we cannot historically verify such an event.
In their respective works, both Herodotus and Aeschylus use styles inappropriate for conveying an accurate depiction of the Persian Wars in ‘The Histories’ and ‘The Persians’; as they give in to their biases as Greeks through styles of dialogue, tragedy and extended prose. Nonetheless, whilst Aeschylus seems to relish in this through his repeated use of spectacle and purple prose, Herodotus’ attempts to remain somewhat neutral through considering multiple perspectives of a debate deem his historical style more appropriate than Aeschylus’ tragic style in accurately conveying the central subject matter of the Persian Wars.
The 300 Spartans and Evolving Propaganda
Herodotus’ historical account does contain the kernel of the movie 300 in that it portrays Leonidas as a hero who died in order to save Greece from the Persians. The story has a small garrison with 200 Spartans, 400 Corinthians and 400 Thebans holding Thermopylae. The Spartans prepare their hair for the battle (which inspired the quip from Cartoon History of the Universe about the Spartans being suicidal hairdressers). For three days the invaders attempt to battle the small cadre of troops and they lose. However, the spy Ephialtes shows Xerxes a mountain pass. Herodotus explains that Leonidas was told that he must sacrifice himself if Sparta is to survive. Leonidas falls but everyone fights over his body.
Herodotus is writing a mythological account of a heroic group of soldiers who fight against the odds and only lose because they are betrayed by the machinations of Ephialtes. The battle is fought as part of a sustained campaign against the Persians and Herodotus puts democracy and freedom together as an idea. The Spartans’ role in the battle is heroic even as they are doing it at the behest of the council at Corinth. Meanwhile, Themistocles is leading the Athenians in the sea battle which is a combination of cunning and bravery that beats the Persians. The Battle of Thermopylae may not have had much to do with the victory, but Herodotus portrays it as an important victory for the Greeks in that it slowed down the Persians and demoralized them. Herodotus’ book is essentially propaganda which configures the Greeks as heroes fighting for the cause of democracy and freedom against an imperial power.
The film goes even further into the propaganda realm. By staying faithful to the Frank Miller graphic novel, this film begins with a depiction of child killing that seems to approve of the practice. The Spartans are powerful and brave and their children all look beautiful because they kill the ugly babies. Later in the movie, Ephialtes is depicted as a misshapen hunchback who would truly love to be a true Spartan and yet his afflictions keep him from this particular goal. In revenge, he leads the Persians to the Spartans via the pass. Herodotus does not give Ephialtes any motivation. Presumably, Herodotus’ audience knew that there were many Greeks who welcomed a Persian invasion in the same way that the Greeks would later welcome the invasion of Alexander. By contrast, the movie shows us a freak of nature who is not allowed to live a normal life. Leonidas even defends the eugenics program of the Spartans by telling Ephialtes that he’s not tough enough to raise a shield or a sword.
Another part of the movie that is changed from the account is the depiction of sexuality. At the beginning of the movie, Athens is dismissed as city state of boy-lovers. The fact that the Spartans were the ones who had that particular convention is never mentioned. One of the most offensive and controversial parts of 300 for many was the rampant homophobia that was paradoxically homoerotic as greased up muscle bound warriors pose throughout. The warrior convention in which the warrior “adopts” a younger man as a companion happens throughout cultures, yet Sparta is portrayed as a completely heterosexual city that is fighting against Xerxes who is predicted as a drag queen when he stops to say hello to Leonidas.
The most major change from Herodotus to the movie is the way that Sparta is depicted as the only city state that can stand up to the Persians. The oracles were calling for the Greeks to fight the Persians in Herodotus but in the movie, the oracles are bought off by the pro-Persian forces. The Athenians are not involved in the war. They are dismissed as boy lovers and there is nothing about Themistocles winning the war.
Instead, the Spartans and more importantly, a contingent of Spartan warriors acting against the dictates of their anachronistic democratic state, leave to fight the battle by themselves. The Spartans are not ordered to hold the pass. They simply do it because they are just that stubborn and they have a propensity to yell whenever they are talking to anyone. There are no Thebans with them. They don’t have their slaves. They are simply there to bravely fight.
Finally, both the film and Herodotus mythologize the battle because they are both interested in telling a particular story. The story of the doomed warriors who fight bravely on even though they are outnumbered and ultimately fated to die is a powerful one in the history of Western literature. Herodotus is less mythologizing because he is also talking about the Athenians and the Persians. His histories combine myth with legend with dialogue in order to paint a picture of a society that ultimately pulls together in order to fight against the Persians who may not be any better or worse than the Greeks (in fact they are often depicted as quite brave and civilized).
With the movie 300, the audience is watching a propaganda film from an American libertarian perspective. The 300 warriors are not just fighting against terrible odds. They are individual heroes who might as well have crawled out of an Ayn Rand book. They kick ambassadors into a well and kill them before marching off to fight against the Persian army. They are all very powerful warriors who spend two hours posing and looking muscular until they are finally slaughtered due to the betrayal of a misshapen outcast. Everyone who is not Spartan is a freak. The Spartans are the perfect specimens. In conclusion, the movie 300 takes a particular classic piece of propaganda and adapts it to the American individualist tradition with pointed depictions of non-Spartans as freaks and drag queens.