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Don't put too much stock in Plutarch's account, though. He was writing more than 500 years after Thermopylae, and Greek historians generally were wont to put bons mots or even entire speeches into their characters' mouths, not to mention add plenty of dramatic color.

Plutarch's about as trustworthy as a James Michener novel. Herodotus, at least, wrote within living memory of Thermopylae.

Ryan Holiday

I gotta tell you, you're wrong here. The stand at Thermopylae has almost always been portrayed historically as a stand for freedom. And indeed it was--not in terms of Sparta vs America but in terms of Sparta vs. Persia. You'd have to be an idiot to argue that Greece wasn't drastically more free than the Persian Empire, and in comparison, their men really were free.

You're nitpicking it seems, if extended, would then decry any movie that portrays the American revolution as a battle for freedom, since the true right to vote wasn't granted for some time. Or even with your example of Glory--anyone with a brain knows the civil war wasn't about slavery, so should all rhetoric have been removed?

Go reread Herodotus or even Thucydides' casual allusions to the battle, they ALWAYS portrayed it in terms of free vs slavery.

Tom Grant

Ryan, I'm not arguing that the Greeks were not fighting for their own freedom--that would be silly. I'm also not arguing that, after the event, the Greeks remembered Thermopylae as stand for Greek freedom against Persia. Predictably, anyone who tried to cut a deal with Persia had someone "waving the bloody shirt" of Thermopylae in theri faces.

None of that, however, contradicts or is contradicted by the rest of the history of classical Greece. Since you brought up the American Revolution, there are similar contradictions and incidents of human frailty in both stories. Both Greeks and Americans kept slaves, but spoke eloquently of freedom. Getting parochial interests--polises or states--was often difficult. This fractiousness often put the war effort at risk. I don't think that either Washington or Themistocles would disagree with those appraisals.

Omitting these points does damage to the story on two levels. As someone depicting the second Greco-Persian War or the American Revolution on film, you should be historically accurate, period. That doesn't mean including every detail, which is impossible, but it does mean being accurate in what you do show.

These omissions also miss important dramatic opportunities. The story of the Greek stand is impressive, not simply because of the balance of forces. The Greeks had to bridge deep divisions among themselves to defeat Persia. While the American colonists put aside the question of slavery, they did know it was an unresolved problem that, they hoped, would work itself out. It did, in no small part because of the genuine commitment the American colonists did, in word and deed, in their Declaration of Independence.

Incidentally, the ancient writers (Herodotus included) do speak about how weak in the knees many Greek cities were, in the face of the Persian invasion. Athens and Sparta formed the core of the alliance, but they hardly won over every Greek to their cause. Even the Delphic Oracle had less than encouraging things to say about the hopes for victory, and appeared to urge some Greek cities to remain neutral. As I said, these parts of the story make the stand at Thermopylae and the victory at Salamis more impressive, not less.


"The stand at Thermopylae has almost always been portrayed"

Yes, "portrayed" is the key word here. Thermopylae became a myth almost instantly, one of the cornerstones of the newly emerging Hellenic culture, and a potent piece of propaganda.

"You'd have to be an idiot to argue that Greece wasn't drastically more free than the Persian Empire, and in comparison, their men really were free."

Goodness, I hope my Classics professors won't revoke my degree when they discover I'm an idiot! Particularly the one who taught my historiography class, where close reading revealed that Herodotus and Thucydides are at least as much works of epic and drama, respectively, as they are history.

In any event, it's nice to know that the Helots (who were Greeks) were "free," and that the many thousands of slaves the Athenians sent to their deaths in their silver mines, among other places, were slaves of a "free society." I'll sleep better at night now knowing that.

"[a]nyone with a brain knows the civil war wasn't about slavery" - let me guess, it was about states' rights? Or just pure Northern aggression? It think it's a bit harder to identify what a war was "about" than to identify its causes. Or I would be thinking that, if the line for a brain implant wasn't so long...


Worth remembering here is that we're also hearing only one side. We think "Persia = tyranny" because the Greek authors (from who we get probably 95% of our knowledge of the 5th Century BC) were 1) enemies of Persia and 2) saw - rightly - Persian attempts to conquer the Attic peninsula as attempts to deprive them of their personal freedom. My understanding is that little or no Achmenaen Persian sources are existant, and what we have tells us little about the actual degree of personal and political freedom a typical upper-class Mede or Persian (the equivalent of the Greeks who fought at Thermopylae) would have had.

So, in effect, we're all talking about a 21st Century corruption of a 5th Century account of ONE SIDE of a war. I'm sure that if our only version of, say, Stalingrad was from the pages of SIGNAL magazine we'd have a somewhat different view of the battle than we do now...

So I have to side with Tom and against VDH here. IMO the shorter version of VDH would be to say: "Well, the events presented by the film are pretty much bullshit, but they support my concept of Hellenic Greece as the wellspring from which our civilization flows and the dusky hordes of Asia as our eternal enemy, so I'm OK with that". That's fine as a movie review, but not as the work of a historian.

I enjoyed "300" the comic, but didn't buy into it, or expect others to buy into it, as the "true story" of the First Graeco-Persian War. It's the Westernized version of the Greek version of that war; that's all. The fact that VDH is trying to spin it as eternal truth tells me all I need to know about the current incarnation of VDH as a "historian"...


Tom Holland in Persian Fire has the Persian clash with Sparta and Athens as a minor conflict on the periphery of a great empire. The Greeks as a squabbling provincial radicals whose elite is half in love with the sophisticated Persian hyperpower. Casting Persia as 21st century America and the suicidal 300 as the Mujh. A complete inversion of VDH and probably more accurate.

Scratch a Taliban and you'll find a modern Spartan: fanatically religious, brave, ruthlessly cruel, often fond of boys and in love with death. Homeric is the word.

Of course the hegemon won in the end. The Spartans would crush imperial Athens which would rebel with Persian assistance only to have the agile Persians switch sides to Sparta. It took a Balkan king, Alexander, to inflict real defeat on Persia and that was rapidly undone by history. They'd be humiliating legions and caging Roman emperors with the stuffed skins of their generals half a millenia later.

Tom Grant

Ali, good points, all. You could also say that the Persian Empire conquered Alexander, to the extent that he assumed the trappings of Persian autocracy himself.

Jim Harrison

Herodotus doesn't demonize the Persians anymore than Homer demonized the Trojans. He wrote his history so that the notable deeds of both the Greeks and barbarians would be remembered--that's almost a quote from the first paragraph of his book. Hanson's take on the struggle is a subtle anachonism because it turns what Herodotus represented as a fight between Europe and Asia into a struggle of good vs evil. But that Manichean way of looking at history is a later development. Indeed, it seems to have been a Persian innovation.

By the way, there is a literary source for the Persian side of ancient history: the Jewish Bible. The Jews give a glowing review to the Persian empire and the King of Kings who allowed them to return to Judah.


You know, I have agree with VDH and half disagree with him. VDH and I find common ground on the claim that 300 was a stylized adaptation of a comic book brought to the big screen. It's one of the few modern historical epics I wasn't geniunely upset by, in part because the battle of Thermopylae takes up about a page-and-a-half of Herodotus (so there's less history available to fudge) and in part because it didn't have nearly the pretentions of epic-ness that Alexander and Troy (or Apocalypto) had.

Where it all breaks down is where VDH takes the bad dialog a bit too seriously. Herodotus could portray the Greco-Persian wars as a war between a hubristic emperor and a group of small but intelligent city-states willing to outmaneuver him to retain their independce because (a) this was true and (b) Herodotus was a serious writer. It's a bit silly to take Frank Miller seriously or to think that the pontifications about Freedom in the movie have any more relevance to us than similar anachronistic bleatings found in King Arthur (a much worse movie than 300). VDH desperately wants the movie to "be about us," but if it is, then apparently we are a bunch of idiots who use bad dialog and kill anyone who actually speaks like a human being.

Such an interpretation also turns Herodotus on its head-- one of the messages of Herodotus was "we managed to stay independent, but beware of the temptation to end up as hubristic as the Persians were. That can only lead to trouble." VDH and his fans seem to view the movie's message as "we can be more powerful than the Persians because we have nicer abs and more bombastic speech patterns."

witless chum

Off topic, but:

" Glory, for example, is a great movie, and it sticks very closely to the facts."

I thought the main problem with "Glory," at least if I'm remembering the article on it in "Past Imperfect: History according ot the movies" I think by Eric Foner right, was that the movie portrays the majority of the 54th Massachucets as recently freed slaves, while in reality most were free blacks from Massachucets, including Douglas' sons. So, Foner said, the movie was accurate to the general rule of black U.S. soldiers, but not to the 54th which was a atypical of the black regiments.

Phoenician in a time of Romans

"I gotta tell you, you're wrong here. The stand at Thermopylae has almost always been portrayed historically as a stand for freedom. And indeed it was--not in terms of Sparta vs America but in terms of Sparta vs. Persia. You'd have to be an idiot to argue that Greece wasn't drastically more free than the Persian Empire, and in comparison, their men really were free."

And the helots were not men, but - what? Animals?

Calling Sparta "free" falls into the RenFaire fallacy of historical perspective. It tends to assume identification with the minority well-off rather than the massive amounts of downtrodden supporting their lifestyle.


So, when are we gettin' the cartoon version of Anabasis? I think it will be just right for the American retreat from Iraq! Some studio should put it on the calendar for winter, 2008. To really keep a myth going, you have to find heroic cover for disastrous military action.

matthew mckeon

My problem with 300 is its glorification of the Spartans: the worse people in Greece. While all Greek city states had slaves, only Sparta was nothing but slaves, and to maintain their hold on their miserable captives, the Spartans used terror and murder. Almost as bad is that the Spartans themselves became slaves to a warrior ethos that was drastically limiting. What monuments, literature, art or philosophy did the Spartans produce?
Hanson is "Soul of Battle" refers to them as the "Sparta Soviet" and hailed their defeat by the Theban democrats as a great blow for freedom. That was a battle between freedom and slavery.
Even as Thermophylae, the vaunted 300 Spartans were all men with heirs, and Leonidas one of two kings. In a sense, Sparta could afford to lose them, and remain intact. Compare that to the 700 Thespians who fought and died along with the Spartans. They had no "with your shield or on it" code, or tradition of obediance (as in "here we lie, obediant to the law"). They choose, freely and intelligently.
The point is not that classical Greece had a lot of stuff that's objectionable, such as slavery or the status of women(generally), the Persians were as bad or worse. Its that is good qualities(rationality, individuality, democracy, inquiry) that really inform our culture, were not duplicated by the Persians, and a Persian victory might have extinguished them.I realize this is an Edward Creasy way to think, but there it is.

Also, Leonidas's insolence in the face of the Persians,(if Herodotus can be believed), is fucking awesome.

Steven Taylor

Ultimately your post underscores why, on balance, I am not a fan of historical fiction in general and usually avoid history-based films.

I likely will not see 300, but if I did it would be (in my mind) seeing a movie based on a comic book, not a movie based on historical event.

To be honest the thing that I was most curious about in regards to the film was seeing how it looked given that the entire movie was filmed in front of a bluescreen.

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