Why are the Spartans so romanticised

Legendary storytelling

300 is a powerful number. For classicists, historians, military strategists, film-goers and comic book fans, the number 300 conjures images of a band of muscled, determined warriors bravely defending their homeland and liberty from an unstoppable force. A mere three hundred soldiers, standing up to overwhelming numbers that threaten to overrun their territory, destroy their homes, ransack and ravage all in their wake – yet courageous warriors stand firm. Quite a story indeed. Someone should adapt that into a film. Oh wait…

In 2007 the film 300 was released, directed by Zack Snyder and adapted from Frank Miller’s comic series from the 90s, and it introduced a whole new generation to the world of Ancient Greece and the Persian Empire. The plot followed the story of the Battle of Thermopylae (the ‘Hot Gates’) in 480 BCE, focusing on King Leonidas and his Spartan soldiers, three hundred warriors hand-picked from his 10,000 strong homoioi to make up his personal bodyguard.

Thanks to the military prowess of Sparta and the tactics of Leonidas, the forces of Achaemenid Persia ‘led’ by King Xerxes were embarrassingly held back at the Hot Gates. For three days they are unable to penetrate the sterling defence of the Greeks, mainly thanks to Thermopylae’s narrow pass and sheer cliffs, but partly due to the stubborn foolishness of Xerxes who unleashes wave after wave of inferior Persian soldiers into the bloodbath – it is only until a Greek shepherd named Ephialtes offers guidance around the pass that the Spartans are overrun and defeated. Frank Miller and Zack Snyder’s story of resistance, courage, and betrayal is one of legend. But that’s all it really is – a legend, not the real event. As with all retellings of famous stories, the truth gets caught in the mix – usually for dramatic value – and in doing so there are crucial aspects of nuance that are lost.

Discussing the representation of the Greeks and the Persians could be a whole debate of its own, even the most minute detail of Snyder’s 300 can be scrutinised by historians either validating or refuting the aspects of storytelling in this film. What I will be looking at is the importance of the number 300, and how such a small number has cast such a large shadow for the psyche of Greece’s successors. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘western civilisation’ when referring to Greece’s successors, as the impact of Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae has indeed been adapted as a ‘west vs east’ debate. This post may dip its toes into that too.

Herodotus and the Persian Wars

So what is the actual history behind 300? What were the true events that inspired Snyder’s vision of an instagram-filtered Greece, filled with slow-motion charges, gold-covered Persian monarchs, and strange goat/crab/human hybrids? Stripping away all these Snyderisms, and we have a plot that retells the Second Persian invasion of Greece in 480-479 BCE.

The best and most famous source we have for the wars between Greece and Persia comes from Herodotus – the ‘Father of History’. In his monumental work Histories, Herodotus spends over half the book recounting the rise of Achaemenid Persia and the eventual war between the mighty Persians and the squabbling city-states of Greece. The aim and purpose of Herodotus’ work is a debate in its own right, however in the second half of the book there is a clear narrative focus on the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, in which King Xerxes of Persia sought to achieve his father’s dream of conquering the rebellious lands of the west (for Xerxes, Greece was on the western fringes of the known world), aiming to finish what his father started in 490 BCE with the invasion of Greece at the Battle of Marathon.

To briefly summarise the Battle of Marathon: during the Ionian Revolt of 499 BCE, where the majority-Greek-populated cities of western Asia Minor rebelled against the Persians, the cities of Athens and Eretria sent aid to their Ionian cousins – sending soldiers and boats to resist against the Persian leaders. After the Ionian cities were subjugated, King Darius the Great of Persia turned his eyes westward, seeking to counter the Ionian support by finally subduing the Hellenic city-states across the sea. After a successful campaign attacking many islands in the Aegean, managing to sack and Eretria, the Persians finally landed in north Attica at the bay of Marathon, with an army probably exceeding 25,000 in numbers. Neither the Greeks nor the Persians made any advances; for days the Greeks awaited Spartan aid while the Persians strengthened their position on the beach. Finally, with a force half the size of the Persians at 11,000, it was the Athenians who launched a surprise charging attack, leading the Greeks to envelope the Persian forces and gradually pushing them back towards their ships. Against the odds, the Greeks had won the battle, and the Darius’ invasion was deterred for now.

In this fight at Marathon there were slain of the foreigners about six thousand four hundred men, and of the Athenians a hundred and ninety‑two.’ – Herodotus, Histories, 7.117

Though the estimated numbers by Herodotus are sketchy at best, the effects of such a victory were astonishing. After the Athenian-led coalition managed to deter the numerically superior invasion force, it became clear that Athens was swiftly becoming an increasingly powerful state within Greece, believing themselves to outweigh many of their neighbours in military prestige. The fact that a united Greek force could face such overwhelming numbers would play a key part in the Greek psyche, and would be the first step towards greater fame in our modern world.

Greeks – 1 | Persians – 0

There were ten whole years between Marathon and Thermopylae. These ten years were not idle times for the Greeks, nor the Persians. While Darius continued to rule his vast empire in Asia, one of the victors of Marathon, an Athenian named Themistocles spent the 480s convincing his city to construct a naval fleet to establish Athenian dominance at sea. According to Plutarch, Themistocles managed to use Athens’ rivalry with naval power Aegina to win over his fellow citizens, though the prospect of another Persian invasion would have surely have gnawed at the back of their minds:

[Themistocles] argued that on land they were no match even for their neighbours, whereas with naval power they could go so far as to keep the Persians at bay and make themselves the masters of Greece.’ – Plutarch, Themistocles, 4.3

His decision to spend newly acquired silver to build ships was met with criticism by his peers, as although naval warfare was revolutionary. in 490 it would have been considered to be bonkers compared to the hoplite warfare of the Archaic Period of Greece. Plutarch even refers to Plato, who mentions his disagreement with naval warfare years later:

… for marines are habituated to jumping ashore frequently and running back at full speed to their ships, and they think no shame of not dying boldly at their posts when the enemy attack; and excuses are readily made for them, as a matter of course, when they fling away their arms and betake themselves to what they describe as “no dishonorable flight.”‘ – Plato, Laws, 4.706c

Regardless of the criticism, Themistocles’ fleet construction would prove a major asset to the forthcoming wars with Persia, as the battles of Artemisium and Salamis in 480 would prove that Greece could stand up to the mighty forces of Persia, both on land and at sea. This recurring theme of Greek resilience is key to understanding the fame and reverence of the Persian Wars – the underdog narrative of a few thousand Greek soldiers against the ceaseless power of a united Asian force has truly become romanticised as a thing of legend. Perfect material for a historical action film.

The Persians advance into Greece

In early 480 BCE, Xerxes and his Persian host crossed from Asia into Europe.

Having passed over to Europe, Xerxes viewed his army crossing under the lash; seven days and seven nights it was in crossing, with never a rest.’ – Herodotus, Histories, 7.56

His goal was to march his land forces south through Greece, annihilating any opposition that stood in his way, while his fleet claimed dominance over the east coast of Greece and around the island of Euboea. Athens was the target of Xerxes, one of the military powerhouses of the rogue western nation and the bitter victor of the embarrassing display at Marathon. The march through the Greek heartland was met with little to no resistance, many city-states declaring neutrality and defecting as they moved south. By the time Xerxes neared Thermopylae, Herodotus claimed that the Persian army numbered in their millions, a figure heavily scrutinised by historians to come:

‘…the number of those whom Xerxes son of Darius led as far as the Sepiad headland and Thermopylae was five million, two hundred and eighty-three thousand, two hundred and twenty.’ – Herodotus, Histories, 7.186

With the enormous Persian horde marching dangerously close to central Greece, the proud city-states of the Greek heartland decided to put aside their differences and organise a defence force to stall Xerxes’ march. The possibility of the Persians making their way to Athens was becoming almost certain, and hence an evacuation became underway. In order for such a feat to be achieved, a distraction or battle would be needed.

An open battle would never be won by the alliance out right, especially if Xerxes had his choice of battlefield where he could make the most of his numerical superiority. It would therefore be the narrow passes that would be the sites of Greek resistance – Thermopylae. Although it was the second choice for a battleground (after Mt Olympus), the fact that the Hot Gates had narrow pass with sheer cliffs to its sides and a ruined Phocian wall at the end meant it would have to do. The Greeks couldn’t allow any more time for the Persians to advance.

The Greeks that awaited the Persian in that place were these: — Of the Spartans, three hundred men-at‑arms; a thousand Tegeans and Mantineans, half from each place; from Orchomenus in Arcadia a hundred and twenty, and a thousand from the rest of Arcadia; besides these Arcadians, four hundred from Corinth, two hundred from Phlius, and eighty Mycenaeans. These were they who had come from Peloponnesus: from Boeotia, seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans.‘ – Herodotus, Histories, 7.202

ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ

There are probably hundreds of books, articles, blog posts, and videos that could retell and analyse every little detail about the Battle of Thermopylae. Historians could debate for hours about each soldier that took part and their role in the bloodbath: their name, their armour, their weapons, their city, and probably their motivation as well. Could. What makes Thermopylae such an interesting case, however, is how people have projected their own ideas onto the battle and use it as an example to boost whatever virtue they are trying to promote.

Why has 300 become so popular then? What makes the Battle of Thermopylae fit so nicely in the historical consciousness of the ”’west”’? Is it down to the numbers? The romanticised view of seemingly overwhelming numbers of Persians being stalled by a few thousand Greeks led by 300 Spartans definitely hit its stride with Thermopylae, and was another piece in the puzzle that Marathon began. The resistance at Artemisium showed that the Greeks could hold their own at sea, not just on land. Salamis would demonstrate the same, again with Greek strategy winning out over superior numbers.

Perhaps it is down to the intentions of the opposing forces as to why Thermopylae has become so well-remembered. The motivations of the Greeks are often glossed over and romanticised, as the collective conscience of the ””’west””’ seems to suggest that the Greeks were defending their freedom and liberties, protecting their rights and welfare against the unknown fate of Persian rule. From this point of view, the heroism of the Greeks fighting to protect their rights serves not only to strengthen the view of Greeks as protagonists, but also to antagonise the Persians. To hold the Greeks in such a high regard deprives the Persians of any personality, and this is demonstrated very well in 300.

Barely scratching the surface, an armchair historian could look at the depiction of Xerxes as a gold-covered giant with muscles galore and think ‘this is probably an exaggeration, Xerxes wasn’t reaaally like that’. The choice by Frank Miller and Zack Snyder to depict Xerxes this way is no accident – his character is purposefully exaggerated to represent all that the Greeks believed the Persians to be. There are few other Persian speaking roles in the film, the job of representing such a vast empire and its intentions is placed solely in Xerxes’ hands. In order to see how good Miller and Snyder’s narrative choices are regarding the Persians, one has to look at Xerxes exclusively from the ancient Greek lens. An enormous, stupidly rich, thinks-he’s-a-god king with tonnes of slaves kneeling at his feet? Tick. A vain, foolhardy, brash leader with no military skill other than to funnel countless Persians to their doom in hopes of destroying the Greeks? Tick. An effeminate, possibly homosexual general? Tick. These character traits are no accident. They may not be accurate to the actual historical figure of Xerxes, but they sure are how the Greeks saw him.

Is there even an ‘east vs west’ argument to be had here? Is it instead Europe vs Asia? How much further until the debate becomes a matter racial identity? Maybe the idea that the Greeks were ‘protecting ones liberties’ and shaking off the reins of Persian oppression have a far more sinister side. The topic of slavery in the Persian empire is a very interesting topic in itself; if not to make the Greeks vassals of the empire, what were the Persians intentions?

As for the Greeks and their intentions, the simplest way one could understand their motivation is by listening to their words. The high marketability of Laconic phrases such as ‘This is Sparta!’, ‘We will fight in the shade!’ and more accurately ‘Come and get them! (ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ)’ indicates how popular these brief, to-the-point ideas can spread. These phrases show that the Greeks are willing to take on the challenge, defeat the oppressor standing in their way, inviting the Persians to fight the Greeks and try their hardest to kill them. There is a debate that these phrases could be problematic, with Laconic catchphrases making an easy platform for dangerous ideologies such as white supremacy to spread. How different is the repetitiveness of ‘This is Sparta!’ to ‘Build the Wall!’ or ‘Make America Great Again’? ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ in particular has had an upturn in usage over the last couple of decades, being adopted by pro-gun activists defending the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Obviously this is an ongoing debate and there is no clear answer to the morality of such phrases. The Battle of Thermopylae is by no means the catalyst for all these debates, but is an interesting case to compare it all with. All the above questions are ripe for discussion, but the one I wanted to look at was ‘why do we remember Thermopylae?’. Each of us have our reasons.

Personally, when I first peeked into the living room at age nine to see 300, I thought a slow motion shot of a guy having his arm cut off and someone saying ‘we will fight in the shade’ was pretty cool. It was by no means my first taste of the ancient world, but to some people 300 may be their introduction to ancient politics and the world of Greece and Persia. Is that such a good thing?

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Published by Dylan R

A blog about my journey towards a postgraduate masters degree in Ancient History and Classical Culture. Started as an aspiring third-year undergraduate, looking forward to the journey ahead. View all posts by Dylan R