Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Holy Shit, Sparta!

Modern day Thermopylae

300, the graphic novel and subsequent film, gives you a basic outline of the Battle of Thermopylae. Persia comes marching across the Hellespont across pontoon bridges with their slaves, lesbians, mythical rhinoceroses and androgynous emperor all clamoring for an end to this new freedom thing the Greeks seem so keen on.
Xerxes in 300

King Leonidas takes 300 volunteers to Thermopylae against the traitorous pacifists' orders and dies heroically while inspiring all of Greece to stand up for good old-fashioned American Greek Freedom and fight the terrorists Persians until they go back to their desert hovels in shame. All the while Queen Cersei Gorgo is ranting about how freedom ain't free and stabbing liberals traitors in public.

Neat story.

But it's irredeemable bullshit.
Gay Panic in 300
You tried your best.

Let's start with the traitors.

In ancient Sparta, there was no such thing as a pacifist. We're talking about a culture that practiced wide spread infanticide if their babies didn't look like soldiers. If you weren't a brutally oppressed slave, you were born and bred to be a weapon of mass destruction. So no, there was no pacifist traitor arguing against going to war in Sparta. There was an actual religious festival that legally prevented all of Sparta from taking up arms, and the rest of the city-state was fully prepared to join the 300 (and several thousand other Greeks) after it was done.

Oh, I'm sorry, did you miss the part about slavery and oppression? Because boy oh boy, Sparta was awfully fond of that. There was a whole class of people in Sparta called Helots. Their entire purpose was to grovel at the Spartans' feet and do all the work of feeding and maintaining the city-state so that their masters had time to live and breathe combat. It's important to remember that there's more to freedom than "some people can vote."

But what about the villains?! The Persians! The terrible oriental threat to what we somehow justify calling "freedom," even though the most Democratic ones were the Athenians, derisively (and very ironically) referred to as "boy lovers" by Leonidas in 300 -- and even they weren't totally on board with letting the hoi polloi have a meaningful voice.

Well, the Persians...didn't really practice slavery. Not in the same way or nearly on the same scale as the Spartans. When they did, it's thought that their slaves were usually prisoners of war temporarily being used for labor, and they were treated like the Geneva Convention was a thing (which, you'll note, it wasn't).
Xerxes the Great
A bit weather-worn, but he looks like a nice enough fella.

So where did Frank Miller get the idea that the Greco-Persian Wars were a battle between Freedom and Evil? Take a wild guess. If you guessed, "Western historians wear our-ancestors-were-the-shit tinted glasses and Frank Miller is an off-the-deep-end Neo-Con," congratulations! You're capable of critical thought. Western Civilization has always been seen as a descendent of Greek Civilization, so of course our historians have traditionally considered them the good guys. And Frank Miller called the Occupy Wall Street movement "nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists," so you can make a pretty fair assumption about his political leanings.
George W. Bush saying Mission Accomplished
Please tell me you saw the parallels.

Making the Spartans into freedom fighters, though? That's just being lazy with your research.

Oh, hey, remember how I said it was ironic that Leonidas called Athens a city of "boy lovers?" You should, it was just about two paragraphs ago. Well, Sparta was one of the first Greek city-states to institutionalize Pederasty. Pederasty being a formal erotic relationship between a grown man and an adolescent boy. Yeah. Institutionalized pedophilia. That's what we're cheering for in 300.

I'll give Sparta one thing: they were the masters of wartime wit (and wartime in general, but bear with me here). Most of the badass one-liners in 300 come straight out of the history books, but my personal favorite happened much later. Alexander the Great's father, Philip II of Macedon, decided he wanted to round up the whole of Greece under his banner. He sent the following message to Sparta:

"You are advised to surrender immediately, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city."

Sparta's reply was typically laconic:

300 Last Stand
That's his "If" face.

Phillip left them the hell alone. His son, Alexander the Great, arguably the greatest conqueror the world has ever known?

Also left them alone. Apparently a single word was more than enough.

Holy shit.

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