The Hot Gates

So, Jeffrey treated us to a showing of 300 during work hours… largely because most people’s wives weren’t interested in it. 300 is about the diametric opposite of a chick flick. (Though one female co-worker went with us and enjoyed all the sweaty pecs on display.)

Miller, a little twerp of a cartoonist, has a thing for extremely red-blooded heroes; he sometimes seems just a couple steps away from fascism, though he does make sure his villains are at least twice as nasty as his heroes. Ancient Sparta is right up his alley.

No matter; it’s a great story, and so long as you’re not expecting Hamlet it’s a great movie. One review I read suggested that its nuanceless glorification of war is tone-deaf when the country is at war. That seems pretty silly; the comic was published in 1998, and celebrates an event that’s been justly famous for 2500 years. The Persians were by no means great villains— note that in the other ancient literature we all know, the Bible, they’re presented very benignly, as they allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem— but their massive invasion of Greece is indefensible, and we have reason to be thankful that the Hellenic city-states preserved their freedom.

Some factoids about the war or the Spartans, gleaned mostly from Wikipedia and from Herodotus:

  • Sparta, like ancient Rome, had two monarchs. (Leonidas’s co-king was Leotychides II.) The system didn’t seem to work that well, and power passed over time to the elected ephors and senate.
  • Despite 300‘s jibe at Athenian “boy-lovers”, homosexuality was common in the Spartan army.
  • Women had a higher status, better education, and greater freedom in Sparta than in other Greek states, including Athens. The political intrigues of Leonidas’s wife Gorgo as shown in the film are invented, but Herodotus credits her with an important role in espionage: a Spartan sent a message home warning of the impending Persian invasion, using a wooden plate covered with wax to allow it to pass unnoticed through enemy lines. The plate baffled the Spartans till Gorgo suggested scraping off the wax.
  • It’s fair enough that the film reflects Sparta’s point of view; but historically it was Athens that the war turned into a great power. It was Athens that won the first victory against the Persians (at Marathon, in 490 BC, ten years before Thermopylae), and their naval victories at Salamis and Mycale were key factors in Xerxes’ decision to withdraw most of his forces.
  • The Greeks didn’t beat the Persians just with machismo while wearing red capes and (in the film) leather underwear or (in the book) nothing at all. One of their advantages was better armor than the Persians used. The film also makes it look like the Spartan spears barely protruded over their shields. In fact they were seven to nine feet long, and the porcupiney appearance of a moving phalanx was a fearsome sight. Herodotus notes that the Persians had shorter spears.
  • The 300 did not stand and die alone; they were joined by 700 Thespians. I guess 1000 didn’t sound as sexy.
  • The pass at Thermopylae was “a single wheel-track” in Leonidas’s day; today, river deposits have widened it to no less than a mile.
  • Ephialtes, the betrayer of the Greeks, wasn’t a Spartan but a Malian (thus, a local).
  • The diagonal on the shields in the film isn’t just decoration; it’s a stylized lambda— L for Laconia, the actual name of the country; Sparta was simply the capital.
  • Despite the film, the Persian army did not actually have orcs.