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.
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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 […]