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Posted on Mar 21, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Spartan Way of Death

By Paul Cartledge

‘Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,/That here, obedient to their laws, we lie’.

The first four words served as the title of a rather good (anti-)Vietnam War movie. But the original verses from which they were taken constituted a wholly positive epigram on behalf of the self-sacrificing Spartan war dead at the Battle of Thermopylae, composed by the Greek praise-poet Simonides. Yet it has been reprinted much more recently in a collection of anti-(Iraq) War poetry. Confused? You will be. The Spartan tradition is nothing if not contradictory. To bring it bang up to date, let me happily report that in a multiplex near you will be found the latest ‘swords and sandals’ blockbuster Hollywood movie, 300.

Image from the
official website for the film

Generically, the film’s apparently a mess of plottage: a prodigally heterogeneous combination of fantasy-fiction of a David Gemmill variety, wargaming, Japanese manga-comic artwork, sophisticated blue-screen digital technology, and ‘faction’, i.e. spiced up historically based ‘fact’. Yet, it is also a combo that – surprisingly – works rather well as a movie. However, to borrow a snide remark about Alexander Pope’s no less heroic efforts to bring over Homer’s epics into English, it is a pretty film, Mr (Zack) Snyder, but you may not call it Herodotus. That would be to add further confusion of genres. For despite all the defects of Herodotus (born within the Persian empire in about 485, died about 425 BCE), he did have a properly historical consciousness. And in his Histories he did do his level best to get at ‘how it actually happened’ at Thermopylae (‘Hot Gates’) in central Greece under the broiling sun of August 480 BCE, and in the remainder of the Graeco-Persian Wars of the first two decades of the fifth century (490 – Battle of Marathon, 480-479 – Battles of Salamis and Plataea).


Thermopylae was then (the local topography’s changed significantly since) a narrow defile in central mainland Greece hard up against the Aegean Sea, and the first feasible point at which a massive (200,000 plus?) Persian invasion force might be at least held up for a bit by an allied Greek defence force of some 7000 headed by 300 Spartans (Actually, 301 to begin with, if you count their leader, king Leonidas, as you absolutely must; and only 299 on the third and final day of resistance, since two of the 300 were more or less unavoidably absent and survived.). What was at stake, as the movie incessantly repeats, was ‘freedom’. But it was a much more complicated sort of freedom than the movie allows us even to glimpse. The Spartans, for a start, based their own power and lifestyle on holding down in subjection perhaps a couple of hundred thousand native Greeks whom they labelled derogatorily as ‘slaves’. So – freedom, yes, freedom from foreign Persian rule for all, but freedom to live and to govern themselves as they wished only for some. Nevertheless, arguably, it was an immensely fertile complex of freedoms but for which Western culture wouldn’t – couldn’t – have been or become what it did. A culture that includes at, and as, its roots the world’s first shots at something the originating Greeks of Athens called democracy or ‘People-Power’.

Frank (Sin City) Miller’s series of cartoons, later published by Dark Horse in 1999 as a single seriously beautiful book, were the basis and inspiration of the homonymous film; indeed, he was its principal consultant. The translation from page to screen has been brilliantly done. Just one, very small scene was filmed outside the studio, all the rest was shot against a ‘blue screen’ with the background (mountains, sea, etc.) digitally added in by computer wizardry. The impression of watching a blown-up cartoon is both intended and fully achieved. And the acting by the leads is of high class throughout. Gerry Butler as Leonidas is simply superb, delivering several (genuinely attested) ‘laconic’ one-liners with aplomb – actually, the Spartans’ gallows-style humour was one of the film’s strongest historical suits.  Lena Headey as his wife Gorgo (‘the Gorgon’!), though less good than he, is still pretty good – also, not least, at delivering snappy one-liners. It was being entirely faithful to a strong and credible ancient tradition to portray Gorgo here as a powerful woman, one both with something to say and not afraid to say it – even in front of a much less than unanimously favourable assembly of Spartan alpha males.

What I personally liked least about the movie – and this was also a direct inheritance from the film’s source – was the (literally) cartoonish black-white polarization of Greek (Spartan) goodies versus Oriental baddies. This was only slightly mitigated by having Leonidas (not implausibly) face serious internal opposition in Sparta, including a hitherto unattested (but also not entirely implausible) forced seduction of Gorgo behind his back. That polarized, ‘clash of civilisations’ approach seems to me an unhelpful way of representing East-West relations, at any time, though especially perhaps right now, and as such hardly an advance on the spirit of the last Hollywood Thermopylae movie. That – the one that self-confessedly inspired a 5 year-old Miller with his enduring hero-worship of the Spartans – was The 300 Spartans’ of 1962 (the year of the Cuban missile crisis), by Rudolf Maté, actually shot on location with a cast of the proverbial thousands and some excellent Anglo-American headline performances. Even after the passage of 45 years, this remains a more than halfway decent ‘epic’ – notwithstanding its heavy Cold War baggage.

Opinions on 300 – released first in the States a couple of weeks back – have been mixed, but generally favourable, though more for its hyper-stylised form than for its sometimes risible content. Smarter critics who have not also picked up on the orientalism have detected more than a homoerotic whiff in the six-packed abs of the elite Spartans, while others have wondered why Persian Great King Xerxes had to be caricatured and historically traduced as a well over-lifesized god-monarch dedicated to body-piercings and other corporeal self-abuse, and accompanied by exotic fauna more at home on the continent of Africa than that of Asia, let alone Europe.

Regardless of this diversity of critical opinion, one thing at least is for certain: the tradition of Sparta as embodied by these 301 (or 299) specimens is still very much alive and kicking (ass).