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The Persian Version:

Iran's complaints about 300 reminded me of the following. (I literally mean just reminded me; the two kinds of complaint aren't structurally similar, just similar enough that one triggers thoughts of the other.) Thanks to Sasha for first introducing me to this, many years ago.

The Persian Version, by Robert Graves

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece -- they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Cornellian (mail):
Fred Thompson put out a short article recently on the movie "300." He notes Iranian complaints about the movie, then makes two points 1) Iran seems overly sensitive for a country that goes around calling us some pretty harsh names (to say nothing of what they say about Israel) and 2) The movie depicts a small band of Spartans valiently holding off overwhelming numbers of Persians in a battle that was crucial to the survival of Western civilization and that is, in fact, what happened, so what's the problem?

He's not being totally fair - I think part of the Iranian griping in the way the Persians are portrayed in the movie, not the fact that they lost. I think they do have a case for saying that the portrayal of the Persians in the movie doesn't correspond to historical reality but overall I think Mr. Thompson makes some pretty good points.
3.20.2007 4:31am
The Drill SGT:
Given Hollywood's overwhelming political correctness, I can only chalk up any Iranian complaints about the unfairness of the portrayal of Persians in the 300 to the failings of current college educational programs. Surely all those script writers would have been better served taking one of VDH's Western Civ courses rather than those gender studies or critical deconstruction classes. Then they might have understood that Persians are Iranians :) and therefore a protected and misunderstood class deserving of support.
3.20.2007 9:23am
AppSocRes (mail):
Something I had forgotten and was reminded of by the History Channel(!): The Persian operation at Marathon was a combined forces action. The Persian fleet intended to outflank the Greeks by landing troops behind them. That this did not happen was due to another combined forces operation by the Greeks. The Athenian fleet, ommanded by Themistocles , defeated the Persian fleet twice in two consecutive days of fighting in the straits of Artemisium. The mass of the Persian fleet which sought to evade the Athenians by sailing around the island that formed the Straits of Artemisium was destroyed by a storm that sprang up during the night after the first day of battle. Graves was a classical scholar and clearly references this in his poem.
3.20.2007 10:11am
Shangui (mail):
Here's a discussion of some of the historical issues:

http://www.thestar.com/article/190493
3.20.2007 10:16am
David Maquera (mail) (www):
The story of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans holding off the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae against overwhelming odds is a great story but at the end of the day, the battle did nothing to affect the outcome of the war. As noted above, it was the Athenians in naval actions against the Persian fleet that delivered the knockout punch to the Persians, not Leonidas and his 300 Spartans who died in vain (although their deaths provided great material for future poets). As General Patton once said: "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."
3.20.2007 11:09am
Maran (mail):
Iran's complaints are pretty ridiculous considering that (1) the Persian army was not "Iranian" but made up of units from all over the vast Persian empire and (2) the Persians of the 5th century BCE are an entirely different people linguistically, culturally, and religiously from the people who live in today's Iran. This is as ridiculous as if Turkey were to complain about the depiction of the Byzantine army or Italy complaining about the depiction of the Roman army (especially the late Roman army, which was basically barbarians fighting for Rome).

Graves' poem raises the larger issue of our Mediterraneano-centric view of history. We forget that the Greek city states were nothings compared to the Persians and that the Romans meet their match in the Parthians.
3.20.2007 11:48am
Nick P.:
The Persian operation at Marathon was a combined forces action

The Persian operation at Marathon took place about ten years before the naval battle of Artemisium.

I assume that Eugene Volokh is not also confusing Marathon with Thermopylae
3.20.2007 11:59am
Cornellian (mail):
The story of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans holding off the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae against overwhelming odds is a great story but at the end of the day, the battle did nothing to affect the outcome of the war.

The movie doesn't portray that event as if it did. Leonidas is basically forced into that action by Spartan politics, and his sacrifice inspired / shamed the Spartans into action.
3.20.2007 12:04pm
AppSocRes (mail):
My mistake, I meant to write Thermopylae, of course, not Marathon.
3.20.2007 12:05pm
ny (mail):
David Maquera:

In vain? I'd say it was a deft PR ploy, providing the Greeks a rallying cry and the Spartans both political cover ("Look, we aren't sissies using a religious festival as cover like we always do, we sacrificed a whole king!") and to get back into position as a player in Greece (at Marathon it was the Athenians and the Plataeans who ran off the Persians, the Spartans arrived too late, conveniently because of another religious holiday).

As to Graves' fevered imagination about all arms combining magnificently (and perhaps he only means "naval and land forces"): please read any version of that fight and ask yourself, "Where on earth were the mighty Persian cavalry while the Greeks were crossing the open plains?"
3.20.2007 12:07pm
JimB (mail):
And wasn't it the next year that at Platea that the Persians were finally driven out of Greece? Followed up by Greek invasion of area around the Hellespont? Then was Xerxes assassinated? I don't remember.
3.20.2007 12:32pm
jp2 (mail):
Robert Graves, ever the contrarian.

As he used to say, Non serviam.
3.20.2007 12:34pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Nick P.: You assume correctly; the movie based on Thermopylae just reminded me of this item about Marathon.
3.20.2007 12:40pm
rhecker:
While I am not prone to support the PC police, I do think that there is an element in this movie of the freedom-fighting "white" Spartans against the "dark-skinned" Persians. These racial differences are not historically accurate -- the Persian army was very diverse and ancient Spartans were certainly not as light-skinned. I would argue that the racial differences between the side of "good" and "evil" in this movie are not coincidental. The "300" target audience are largely whites, who naturally associate people who look like them (or who they wished they looked like with all those pectoral muscles)with the correct side.
3.20.2007 1:34pm
Al Maviva (mail) (www):
As to Graves' fevered imagination about all arms combining magnificently

Graves' imagination wasn't feverish. Given his WWI experiences and his observation that great cockups always result in awards, he was no doubt speaking truth to power and obliquely attacking the way that the British government papered over the unmitigated disaster of the combined arms operation at Gallipoli - a similar clash between east and west. View Xerxes as representing the British government, and this poem becomes a lot less fanciful. Graves wasn't being contrarian or fatuous in the least here.
3.20.2007 1:44pm
Aleks:
Re: the Persians of the 5th century BCE are an entirely different people linguistically, culturally, and religiously from the people who live in today's Iran.

Culturally and religiously, yes, but not lingusitically. Modern Farsi is a direct decsendant of Old Persian just as modern Greek is the descendant of classical Greek.

Re: Then was Xerxes assassinated?

Xerxes was murdered some years later in a harem conspiracy. Nothing to do with the Greeks.
3.20.2007 2:34pm
jvarisco (www):
I find this quite funny. Because the movie (which I thought was absolutely horrendous - the action was so unrealistically choreographed as to border on the absurd) had extremely little historical accuracy. The Spartans (a slave-state!) fighting for "freedom." Only 300 Spartans (where were their 5000 allies?). Nonsense about traitors in Sparta - the delay was to gather the Greek armies, not because it was "illegal." And it succeeded in this. Pointless filler about his wife and the assembly and so on.

Read Gates of Fire. Don't waste $10 on this.
3.20.2007 3:26pm
wooga:
Then they might have understood that Persians are Iranians :) and therefore a protected and misunderstood class deserving of support.

Wait... Persians are ethnically "caucasian" (having come down from the Caucasus mountains and retained an Indo-European language). Hence the term "Aryan." This would be particularly noticeable prior to the Islamic conquest of Iran.

So Iranians should not get 'protected class' status, and should be open to ridicule and contempt just like another group of culturally unique and economically disadvantaged whites: the American "hillbilly."
3.20.2007 3:32pm
ys:

Re: the Persians of the 5th century BCE are an entirely different people linguistically, culturally, and religiously from the people who live in today's Iran.

Culturally and religiously, yes, but not lingusitically. Modern Farsi is a direct decsendant of Old Persian just as modern Greek is the descendant of classical Greek.

Culturally different? I am afraid you'll have to take that one back too. Iranians especially complaned that this movie was released on Nawruz, Zoroastrian New Year. In some estimations Zoroaster lived earlier than Moses.
3.20.2007 3:55pm
David Maquera (mail) (www):
Funny how present day Shiite Iranians are whining about how pagan Persians are portrayed in a movie when present day Shiites are taking steps to obliterate archaeological evidence that makes reference to pre-Muslim history if rumors in Near Eastern archaeological circles are correct.
3.20.2007 3:57pm
Pantapon Rose (mail):
This is the same guy who, in Sin City, gave us a bishop who ate the flesh of prostitutes.
3.20.2007 4:03pm
happylee:
Sheesh, a guy makes a movie based on a comic book by another guy who liked the idea of 300 manly men fighting a huge army of swarthy furriners. Perhaps the Hollywood PC Court will sentence the producers and director of this movie to make a movie about slightly effeminate Ethiopians in dresses triumphing over silly, overly macho i-talian imperial invaders. Then we could cast Will Smith with a speer and shield loudly proclaiming the right to freedom while getting ready to kick (&perhaps otherwise defile) some whitey ass.

There. All is well again. Even the i-ranians will get a laugh out of that.
3.20.2007 5:33pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
rhecker:

"These racial differences are not historically accurate…"

Skin pigmentation is not synonymous with race. Many groups with dark complexions are genetically and legally "white." Look at Figure 1 in the paper by Cavalli-Sforza et al, Reconstruction of Human Evolution, Bringing Together Genetic, Archaeological and Linguistic Data, and you will see that the Caucasoid branch contains Iranians, Indians, Europeans, S.W, Asians, Sardinians, S.E. Indians, Berbers, North Africans, and Lapps.

But let's say that Hollywood doesn't understand the world's genetic groupings, and simply wants to make a movie with mass appeal in the US and Europe. If the Iranians don't like it, they can make their own movie with the Persians as the good guys. You can never placate a loser with a chip on this shoulder. He will always find something to complain about. Besides if Americans understood what Sparta was really like, they might not want to identify with them. After all they died out and left nothing behind by way of art and literature.
3.20.2007 5:37pm
wooga:
Even the i-ranians will get a laugh out of that.

No, they will still seethe, unless you pronounces it like e-ron-eons.
3.20.2007 6:11pm
ny (mail):
Al Maviva, speaking of Graves meaing to take a shot at his own Brits, I saw the movie and heard the delivery of famous epitaph: "Go tell the Spartans, here we lie obedient to their laws." Hearing it spoken aloud, and given a Gen-Xer's ironic sensibilities, it sounded exactly like Leonidas taking a shot at his fellow Spartan's plodding reaction to the events at issue.

I agree with the above though: Gates of Fire rules all over this thespianic disaster. The fact that Leonidas explains the virtues and requirements of the phalanx to Ephialtes but then depicting every Spartan violating those same strictures may have been forced by the needs of cinema (showing guys in line pushing against other guys may get boring), but seeing guys in helmets that confining engaging in 360 degree combat gave me fits.
3.20.2007 6:33pm
Pyrthroes (mail):
Persia under Cyrus and Darius was a "hydraulic civilization" akin to Pharaonic Egypt and imperial Chinese dynasties, a slave-state composed of conquered satrapies ruled by God Kings ("Sons of Heaven") with minimal potential for Greek culture's objective, rational inquiry and innovation.

Against the Persian hordes, Greece needed only to lose once. Had Leonidas and his 300 failed to hold, all else would change. Naval flanks regardless, Persian cohorts streaming into Greece would have compared to a Spanish Armada's beach-head in Elizabethan England (1688). Civilizational morale remains a fragile thing-- witness Europe's colossal failure of nerve in the wake of self-inflicted catastrophe ninety years ago.

Only since World War II has Muslim barbarism blossomed forth again, awash in petro-dollars driving wastrel Salafists and their death-cult Wahabi paymasters. Slinking closer in the shadows where fanaticism meets atrocity, Islam's terrorist thugs know only hate and rage. Even today, 300 Western warriors marshalled by some latter-day Leonidas would likely send whole nations of sullen camel-drivers packin'.

Either the Enlightenment stands as at Thermopylae, or Western culture will face Cyrus' massed slave armies once again. This time, however, E=mc^2. What's Persian for fuhgeddabudit?
3.20.2007 7:35pm
Pyrthroes (mail):
Per Pyrthroes' previous post: Aargh! Spanish Armada was 1588-- 1688 was England's "Glorious Revolution" wherein Parliament asserted governing authority over a lapsed Sovereign Liege (James II). In reality, this represented a Dutch coup, ousting the feckless Stuart dynast. But England no more admits to this than Persians acknowledge a seminal standoff at Thermopylae.
3.20.2007 7:46pm
Syd (mail):
Pyrthroes (mail):

Against the Persian hordes, Greece needed only to lose once. Had Leonidas and his 300 failed to hold, all else would change.


Well, actually they did fail to hold and Persia went on to occupy Athens. Fortunately, the Athenians won the battle of Salamis and the Persians withdrew again.
3.20.2007 8:07pm
Latinist:
Iran's complaints are pretty ridiculous considering that . . . the Persians of the 5th century BCE are an entirely different people linguistically, culturally, and religiously from the people who live in today's Iran.

People have already responded to parts of this; I'd just like to add one thing. It's not obvious to me why we should only be allowed to identify with people linguistically, religiously, etc. related to us: why not just people who lived in the same place?

And if you have a problem with the Iranians identifying themselves with ancient Persians. . . . well, just try getting a modern Greek to admit that he's not a descendant of Homer, Socrates, and Alexander.
3.20.2007 9:43pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Pyrthroes: It's too bad no one reads the Bible anymore. The Persians were regarded as liberators by the Jews and most other peoples whose rulers they defeated in battle. Cyrus is the only gentile to be called moshiach (messiah). In fact, the Persians rules their domains in an extremely enlightened, light-handed, and non-intrusive manner. For their time, they were as close to a liberal, constitutional government as you were likely to get outside of Athens. Even Herodotus gives them high marks for this.
3.21.2007 1:15pm
keypusher (mail):
Pythroes: That was pretty funny. You were joking, right? Right?
3.21.2007 2:29pm
Aleks:
Re: Had Leonidas and his 300 failed to hold, all else would change.

Er, um, they did fail to hold. They died to the last man, but that did not prevent the Persian from advancing past their corpses and putting Athens to the torch. And thereafter the naval victory at Salamis was crucial: without control of the Aegean, the Persian army was cut off much as Napoleon's (victorious) Egyptian expedition was cut off when his fleet was destroyed by the British. The land roads from the Hellespont down into Greece proper were very poor and under the control of the untrustworthy Macedonians. The subsequent defeat in the land battle at Plateia finished off the Persians in Europe for good.

Re: In fact, the Persians rules their domains in an extremely enlightened, light-handed, and non-intrusive manner.

In their early years, yes. In later years, as often happens with empires, they became corrupt, despotic and incompetent.
3.21.2007 2:45pm
ys:

And if you have a problem with the Iranians identifying themselves with ancient Persians. . . . well, just try getting a modern Greek to admit that he's not a descendant of Homer, Socrates, and Alexander.

That's because:
1) he is
2) as is his language and even script (the latter is not the case with the Persians)
3.21.2007 4:19pm
Latinist:
ys:
Well, no, actually, he isn't. Greece was taken over by Slavs, Huns, Avars, etc. in the sixth century. The descendants of the invaders learned Greek (it returned from Anatolia [Turkey], where it had stayed around), but the Greeks themselves were scattered. Of course, there's a chance that any given modern Greek might have some ancient Greek ancestors in his background -- but no more than that a modern Persian might be descended from the Persians of Xerxes' day.

And, yes, the modern Greeks use the same alphabet as the ancient Greeks (though the pronunciation of the letters is quite different). So? Is that really an acceptable basis for identifying oneself with someone, if simple location isn't? How many people identify themselves by writing system? It certainly doesn't seem as significant a survival as Zoroastrian religion.
3.22.2007 2:14am
markm (mail):
I haven't seen this movie, and don't plan to until the DVD reaches a reasonable price, but the role of the Greek navies in protecting the seaward flank was certainly recognized in the 1962 film, 300 Spartans.

Spartans in the role of protectors of freedom is indeed ironic - but it's a irony with a sound historical basis. Leonidas, his bodyguard, and the other Greeks that stayed to the end did die to protect Athenian freedom just as much as the Spartan's "freedom" to hold 90% of their population in slavery.
3.22.2007 2:47pm
markm (mail):
I haven't seen the film or the graphic novel on which it was based, so I'm not sure how to take the comments about Persians being portrayed as "monsters". If this means they were portrayed like a Dick Tracy villian - physically and morally deformed - then the Iranis do have one valid complaint. Whatever else Xerxes and the Immortals were, they were human beings...
3.22.2007 2:50pm
Aleks:
Re: Greece was taken over by Slavs, Huns, Avars, etc. in the sixth century. The descendants of the invaders learned Greek (it returned from Anatolia [Turkey], where it had stayed around), but the Greeks themselves were scattered.

A bit of an overstatement. Greeks, Byzantine sovereignity, and the Greek language did endure in most of the Peloponesse, and in Byzantine strongholds like Thessalokini, and of course on the Aegean isles. ethnically, the main invaders were the Slavs; the Avars settled father north (where Charlemagne finally defeated them), and the Huns had passed out of history by the 600s.
3.22.2007 2:55pm
Anthony A (mail):
Latinist, given that every person of European descent is descended from Charlemagne, and every person of European or near-eastern descent is descended from Muhammad, the modern Greeks are certainly descended, genetically, from Socrates and Alexander. (Homer is another matter, as there may not have been a single "Homer".)
3.22.2007 7:57pm
Latinist:
Aleks:
Ah, well. I should have remembered the risk of making obnoxious, sweeping statements about subjects I'm actually only vaguely familiar with: I might run into one of those irritating people who actually know what they're talking about. Anyway, I think the main point of my post remains reasonably solid, though my own authority is lessened. Perhaps I should have made a more limited claim about "Athenians" rather than Greeks. Or just stuck consistently with my claim that it doesn't matter. But I kind of like playing with this "who's descended from who" question. So. . .

Anthony A:
I don't totally understand your point. First, I wasn't aware of the Charlemagne-Muhammad thing (can that really be shown? Neat.); and second, I think your post is missing the proof that either Charlemagne or Muhammad was descended from Socrates and Alexander: do you know of such proof? Also, I don't see how it matters whether by "Homer" we mean one person, two, or a whole population of oral poets; in any case, his/her/their descendants would be about equally difficult to trace.
Furthermore, I don't think most proud Greeks would be happy with being able to say "We are descended from Socrates, just like the English and the Germans and the Poles." They want to be able to say "We Greeks are particularly connected to Socrates, in a way that no other people is." I have no problem with that, by the way; but many of them would go on to say "Because we, as Socrates' descendants, share more genetic material with him than they do." That's not really true, and it is (at least a little) connected to some really nasty beliefs. I'd much rather they said: "Because we live where Socrates lived, surrounded by monuments remaining from his time"; or, "Because we speak a language similar to that of Socrates"; or even, "Because we have a generations-old tradition of pretending we are descended from Socrates, and thus feel an irrational attachment to him." All those are perfectly good reasons to claim a connection: but I think modern Persians could use similar reasons to claim a connection to Xerxes.

In general, I want to make it clear: I wasn't trying to say that modern Greeks are silly or unjustified in identifying with ancient Greeks. I was just trying to say that modern Persians are equally sensible and justified in identifying with the invading army at Thermopylae.
3.22.2007 9:46pm