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The 300 in History:

Here is an interesting essay by Victor Davis Hanson on the extent to which "300" is (and is not) true to historical accounts of the battle of Thermopylae. Although adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, the answer is, more than you might have thought.

300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story. The Spartans, quoting lines known from Herodotus and themes from the lyric poets, profess unswerving loyalty to a free Greece. They will never kow-tow to the Persians, preferring to die on their feet than live on their knees.

If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others.

KevinQ (mail) (www):
What? Victor Davis Hanson is trying to use a Greek tale as a lesson for today? Who'da thunkit?

But I think he makes a valid point - Ever since there was a "Tale of the 300 Spartans," that tale has been propaganda, not history. Miller and Snyder are merely continuing in the mold of "not history."

K
3.24.2007 12:18pm
Barry P. (mail):
What about the Greek slaves?
3.24.2007 1:03pm
Randy R. (mail):
Sure, of course the Spartans were fighting to be free, but they were also fighting to fight. It's what they were born and bred to do. It was the entire point of a Spartan's existence.
3.24.2007 1:43pm
subpatre (mail):
Call archeological conclusions 'propaganda' is you want, but the essence of the event has been (and continues to be) verified by evidence. The battle was carried by the Spartans, a society centered on prowess at war. Thermopylae couldn't have been designed better to showcase the Spartan ideal.

True; many Spartan slaves (helots) died alongside their masters, thousands of non-Spartan Greeks did too; etc, etc. Our concept of "freedom" is different from 250 years ago, and freedom circa 500 BC is almost unrecognizable to moderns.

But it's also true a small contingent of freemen stopped —temporarily— the largest army on earth. Like the David and Goliath story (incorporated into the film) it's another case of "right versus might" with universal appeal.

Unlike Masada or the Alamo, the Spartan sacrifice led to Greek victory. That success passed on the concepts of democracy and rule of law. No small matter to the modern world.
3.24.2007 1:51pm
neurodoc:
I suppose dead is dead, still who would rather have fallen riding with the 600 Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaclava, so futile an effort, than fighting alongside the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, a defeat in the service of something worth fighting for?
3.24.2007 2:28pm
zsreaw (mail):
If you go on 300's wikipedia site, you'll find an article by a Fullerton history prof. which refutes Hanson. For example 37% of Greeks were slaves.

Jewish neocons may love 300 because it demonizes their enemy, but they should remember that Xerxes was the only Persian king to marry a Jew ( Esther) and it was precisely that Jew which encouraged the Greek invasions which ultimately destroyed his family's reign. The similarities with the modern American empire are striking.
3.24.2007 2:36pm
Jamesaust (mail):
zsreaw - Granted, this movie is full of many distortions. For example, who would ever have thought that artistic license could transform a same-sex loving, totalitarian state's defense against Persia into an opposite-sex loving, freedom-protecting war against a super/hyper/flamboyant gay Persian king? (Herodotus, the Greek historian, noted that the Persian ruling class had a taste for boys, but attributed that to Persian copying of Greek culture.)

That said, the "similarities with the modern American empire" is so much leftwing agitprop. For the best part of a century, Sparta was a proxy for a modern Soviet Union: an extreme totalitarian, war-seeking society, willing to turn normal human aspirations and practices on their head in service to a deity-like State. By contrast, the proxy for America was Athens, Sparta's competitor and ultimate victim. Its never was the best analogy but I suspect it was more accurate than viewing a society that took all males out of their homes at the age of 7 for military service and kept them there until 30 (in a world with average life-spans even for those who didn't die in battle considerably shorter than ours), and noted for the frequency of same-gender sex that any modern American would term "gay," fighting as a weak State to avoid occupation/subjugation by the Persian superpower of the time, is hardly an apt comparison to the United States.
3.24.2007 3:02pm
Aaron Sorkin:
"Although adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, the answer is, more than you might have thought."

Victor Davis Hanson adapted his answer from a Frank Miller graphic novel? How odd.
3.24.2007 4:00pm
StevenK:
..you'll find an article by a Fullerton history prof. which refutes Hanson. For example 37% of Greeks were slaves. Jewish neocons may love 300 because it demonizes their enemy...

Everyone understands ancient Greece had slaves. The percentage of slaves doesn't refute any argument anyone is making about 300, as far as I can see.

As for demonizing our enemy, I wasn't aware we were at war with the Persian Empire. (And tell me, how do you feel about non-Jewish neocons?)

For the best part of a century, Sparta was a proxy for a modern Soviet Union [....] By contrast, the proxy for America was Athens, Sparta's competitor and ultimate victim.

It's always tricky to compare the ancient world to today's, but it's worth noting the Founding Fathers were great admirers of the Spartans and their commitment to civic virtue. I'd say they were more inspired by the Spartans than the Athenians.
3.24.2007 4:33pm
subpatre (mail):
zsreaw wrote: "If you go on 300's wikipedia site, you'll find an article by a Fullerton history prof. which refutes Hanson. For example 37% of Greeks were slaves."

300 is a film based on a comic book for chrissakes!

Touraj Daryaee is an Iranian apologist first and foremost. His ridiculous claim that the Persian empire "hired and paid people regardless of their sex or ethnicity" about nullifes anything else he might have to say. The Persian empire simply forced it's conquered peoples to fight under them or be executed. Daryaee's further mischaracterization of the helots —a form of serfdom, not chattel— reduces his academic credibility. Read his screed here.


It's extremely disturbing that Iranians have chosen to identify with the ancient, oppressive, imperialistic Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. It is totally unrelated genetically, culturally, religiously etc ... the only commonality is a coincidence of geography 2500 years ago.

So what gives? Is Iran another case of nationalistic fiction —similar to the attempted revival of the 'aryan peoples'— designed to stir the common people up and prepare them for war?
3.24.2007 5:08pm
zsreaw (mail):
Jamesaust, I was comparing Esther's influence on Xerxes with the AIPAC / Jewish neocon influence on America's conquer (aka "liberate") the arabs policy.
Add the arabs' savage and unreasonable "better to die fighting than surrender" policies and the similarity is startling.

History truly does repeat itself.
3.24.2007 5:24pm
neurodoc:
zsreaw, "I was comparing Esther's influence on Xerxes with the AIPAC / Jewish neocon influence on America's conquer (aka "liberate") the arabs policy.
Add the arabs' savage and unreasonable "better to die fighting than surrender" policies and the similarity is startling.
From Queen Esther to AIPAC, Jews as warmongerers down through the ages, always manageing to get dumb goyim to do the dirty work for them - is that the meme?


"History truly does repeat itself."
Yes, it does, doesn't it, as exemplified by this hoary canard. (zsreaw, it's also true, isn't it, that the Jews were responsible for WWII and used Roosevelt then as they are using Bush now.)
3.24.2007 6:07pm
justanotherguy (mail):
Subparte:

I think they are called graphic novels now...nothing so pedestrian as a comic book which implies something for 12 year old boys. Graphic Novels are for, well adults.
3.24.2007 6:17pm
neurodoc:
zsreaw,
"I was comparing Esther's influence on Xerxes with the AIPAC / Jewish neocon influence on America's conquer (aka 'liberate') the arabs policy.
Add the arabs' savage and unreasonable "better to die fighting than surrender" policies and the similarity is startling.

From Queen Esther to AIPAC, Jews as warmongerers down through the ages, always manageing to get dumb goyim to do the dirty work for them - is that the meme?

"History truly does repeat itself."

Yes, it does, doesn't it, as exemplified by this hoary canard. (zsreaw, it's also true, is it not, that the Jews were responsible for WWII and used Roosevelt then as they are using Bush now. I think no less an authority than Henry Ford was convinced of it.)
3.24.2007 6:25pm
Stash:
zsreaw--
So one of your problems with the movie is that it fails to point out that Jews were responsible for the ancient war between Persia and Greece? And that this is the true parallel with modern times? Nice. I guess the different take in this one is due to the fact that it's not written and directed by Mel Gibson. (And poor Victor David Hanson, who, as a non-jew cannot claim any thought or influence for himself, but must defer to the fact that only Jewish neocons can formulate and influence policy).

That said, it cannot be denied that the great majority of these ancient societies were oppressive slave-holders. Their concept of freedom was freedom from foreign rule and oppression, as opposed to domestic rule and oppression. And after all, wasn't Micheal Moore endorsing this concept of freedom when he suggested that the Iraqi insurgents were the equivalent of the minutemen of the American Revolution? Indeed, one does not have to look far before finding that this formulation of "freedom" is alive and well. For example, insurgencies, whether left or right, that intend, if in power, to establish draconian authoritarian societies regularly dub themselves "freedom fighters." So when the Spartans do so, we can argue with their assessment, but cannot fault the movie for having them speak in those terms.

Of course, the Persians were not invading to spread freedom and democracy either. The prospect for the Greeks at the top, those who were relatively free, was at best slavery and dispossession, but more probably death. So, again, in that sense, they were fighting for their lives and freedom, although not freedom in the societal sense.

Lastly though, the demonization of the Persians seems gratuitous. I would be far more interested in seeing a movie with greater historical accuracy with respect to the Persian Empire. When I think of one of the great "last stand" movies of all time, Zulu, 300 strikes me as one-dimensional. Sure, "Zulu" did not explicate the colonial oppression of the British, but it did not in any way demonize the Zulu, who, if anything, were depicted as more honorable, and probably braver than the British.

Still, as the graphic novel was written before the current political situation, I cannot ascribe political motivations to the film. When making a film from a source, one's most important core audience is often made up of fans of the original. Large deviations can alienate that core. Here, had the cardboard cutout evil Persians been replaced, it is likely that the film would have been excoriated as another example of PC Hollywood and not true to the original. So, it seems to me that this was a business rather than a political decision. The alternative would have been to make a 300 movie without reference to the already storyboarded graphic novel, and without the basis for a fan-buzz or built-in built-in core audience.
3.24.2007 6:50pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Those afraid to fight for themselves hide their fear by criticizing those who will stand and fight.
3.24.2007 7:56pm
Hattio (mail):
I haven't seen the movie and have very little knowledge of that bit of history, so no real opinion there. I will just note that Greek writers wrote all the histories mentioned above, that accuracy was not exactly the defining ethic of historians at the time, and that a Persian history would probably have been a lot different.
3.24.2007 8:21pm
TLove (mail):
The Alamo led to a victory.

The historians of the event (Athenians) were not only enemies of the Persians, but also enemies of the Spartans. One can assume that Spartan shortcomings were emphasized, and virtues distorted. The fact that the Spartans emerge from the Thermopylae story with any positive press is remarkable.
3.24.2007 8:34pm
Seamus (mail):
Unlike Masada or the Alamo, the Spartan sacrifice led to Greek victory.

Well, I agree that neither Masada nor the Alamo led to a Greek victory, but I thought the Alamo was followed in pretty close order to the battle of San Jacinto and victory for Texas.
3.24.2007 9:49pm
Seamus (mail):
Jewish neocons may love 300 because it demonizes their enemy, but they should remember that Xerxes was the only Persian king to marry a Jew ( Esther) and it was precisely that Jew which encouraged the Greek invasions which ultimately destroyed his family's reign.

This is the first I've heard about a Jew urging the invasion of Greece. The Old Testament is pretty pro-Persian,because of gratitude to Cyrus for authorizing the rebuilding of the Temple. And if you read the books of the Maccabees, Alexander the Great comes off pretty bad, because he beat the philo-Semitic Persians, and because his successors (the Diadochi) included Seleucus, founder of the oppressive Seleucid dynasty.

(BTW, the Romans come off pretty well in the books of the Maccabees, because they made an alliance with Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucids.)
3.24.2007 10:09pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
With regard to Zulu, I feel compelled to point out that one reason for not demonizing the British as colonialists is that the Zulu were just as much imperialist invaders as the British. They were not native to the area but originated to the north and (ultimately far to the north, as did all Bantu speakers) and conquered the true native peoples of South Africa, the Khoi and the San.

I am also curious about subpatre's comment that:

It's extremely disturbing that Iranians have chosen to identify with the ancient, oppressive, imperialistic Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. It is totally unrelated genetically, culturally, religiously etc ... the only commonality is a coincidence of geography 2500 years ago.


I don't think that this is true. The religion has certainly changed - Islam is very different from Zoroastrianism - and with Islam came other changes in culture, but there has certainly been a good deal of genetic and cultural continuity. Modern Persian, for example, is the direct descendant of Old Persian, the language spoken by the Persians who invaded Greece.
3.24.2007 10:10pm
Seamus (mail):
For the best part of a century, Sparta was a proxy for a modern Soviet Union [....] By contrast, the proxy for America was Athens, Sparta's competitor and ultimate victim.

Gee, I always thought that the Persians were the proxy for the Soviet Union and the Delian League for NATO and the other military alliances the U.S. established to cabin Soviet expansionism. Just as the U.S. failed to disband NATO after the end of the Cold War, Athens refused to disband the Delian League after the Persian threat had receded. The arrogant insistence of Athens that it should continue to lead the Hellenes, even in the absence of an active Persian threat, led many of Athens' former allies to resent Athenian hegemony. Eventually, this brought on the Peloponnesian War. Although our former allies resent the hell out of us for being the single remaining superpower, an equivalent to the Peloponnesian war would require the Europeans and other allies to find a Sparta to champion their cause. I have a hard time seeing that happen.
3.24.2007 10:29pm
Seamus (mail):
It's extremely disturbing that Iranians have chosen to identify with the ancient, oppressive, imperialistic Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. It is totally unrelated genetically, culturally, religiously etc ... the only commonality is a coincidence of geography 2500 years ago.

I'm really surprised that they're taking this position. I would have thought they would want to treat all their history prior to Islam as unworthy of notice, much less of pride. It was the Shah, after all, who was big on claiming continuity with the empire of Cyrus, Xerxes, and Darius.
3.24.2007 10:33pm
Cornellian (mail):
I'm really surprised that they're taking this position. I would have thought they would want to treat all their history prior to Islam as unworthy of notice, much less of pride.

The Iranians stand somewhat apart from their Arabic speaking neighbors in this regard. They feel some pride in the Persian empire, even as an Italian today might feel some pride in the Roman empire even if they're very far removed from it. There is no pre-Islamic "Arabic empire" equivalent for Arabs (or more precisely, Arab speakers) to look back upon, since pre-Islam the Arabs were an insignificant group of desert nomads.
3.24.2007 11:46pm
Houston Lawyer:
Hence the Mexican yell: "Mi no Alamo!, Mi no Goliad!"

Santa Anna ordered the execution of 400 prisoners at Goliad on Palm Sunday 1836. This happened shortly after the Battle of the Alamo. The above cry was yelled by the Mexican soldiers at the Battle of San Jacinto, where the Mexican army was attacked and routed. The Battle of San Jacinto was over in 18 minutes, but the killing went on for a while.
3.25.2007 12:34am
Syd (mail):
The Book of Esther is historical fiction, as are the Books of Job and Jonah, so talking of Jewish influence on Xerxes is kind of pointless.
3.25.2007 1:27am
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

Gee, I always thought that the Persians were the proxy for the Soviet Union and the Delian League for NATO and the other military alliances the U.S. established to cabin Soviet expansionism.


No, if you're going to go all Santayana, then the Persians are proxy for the Nazis, Sparta for Russia, and Athens for the US. Unfortunately the analogy breaks down because the US and Russia didn't destroy each other in all out war, leaving a gap for the Chinese to swoop down and take over the whole shebang.
3.25.2007 1:29am
A Law Talking Hobo:
Interesting counterpoint found here. Of course, Hanson and the War Nerd have gotten into a tif before.
3.25.2007 1:33am
steve (mail):

Athens, Sparta's competitor and ultimate victim


Sadly, Athens was Athens's ultimate victim. See Syracuse Expedition. I refrain from drawing modern parallels.
3.25.2007 8:57am
Porkchop (mail):
I saw 300 last night. It had good special effects, anyway.

Re Zulu: Great movie, in fact, one of (if not the) my favorits. The Battle of Rorke's Drift was not a "last stand." The Zulus retreated, and the relief column came through. It was notable for a number of reasons. There were more Victoria Crosses awarded there than any other single action in British history. It is a classic battle of technology (the Martini-Henry rifle) versus mass (although the Zulus did have some firearms and used them effectively (killing several British soldiers), they were mostly armed with spears). It was also great public relations after the British defeat at Isandlwana.
3.25.2007 11:26am
Enoch:
See Syracuse Expedition. I refrain from drawing modern parallels.

That's good, because doing so would only make you ridiculous.
3.25.2007 1:41pm
von (mail) (www):
For the best part of a century, Sparta was a proxy for a modern Soviet Union [....] By contrast, the proxy for America was Athens, Sparta's competitor and ultimate victim.

Gee, I always thought that the Persians were the proxy for the Soviet Union and the Delian League for NATO and the other military alliances the U.S. established to cabin Soviet expansionism. Just as the U.S. failed to disband NATO after the end of the Cold War, Athens refused to disband the Delian League after the Persian threat had receded. The arrogant insistence of Athens that it should continue to lead the Hellenes, even in the absence of an active Persian threat, led many of Athens' former allies to resent Athenian hegemony. Eventually, this brought on the Peloponnesian War. Although our former allies resent the hell out of us for being the single remaining superpower, an equivalent to the Peloponnesian war would require the Europeans and other allies to find a Sparta to champion their cause. I have a hard time seeing that happen.


For the love of God: We should draw lessons from history, not enlist. I personally find much more to like about Athens that Sparta (and, frankly, much more to like about the Persians than Sparta), but none parallel the last

As for the history:

1. VDH ignores the key role played by the Athenian navy both at Thermopylae and in ultimately winning the war. An astute reader may ask why, if Thermopylae was located along the seacoast, Persia had to find a traitor in order to find a land route to encircle the Spartans/Thespians. Why not simply encircle by landing marines from sea? Persia, after all, had the largest navy.

The answer is that Themistocles, an Athenian, brilliantly defended the coast against a superior Persian navy using a rag-tag fleet of Athenian and allied ships. Later, Themistocles and the Athenians destroyed the much-larger Persian fleet at Salamis. There would be no stand of the 300 and no Greek victory in war without Themistocles. It's disappointing that VDH, a historian, ignores him and the key role played by naval forces (presumably because he thinks, incorrectly, that it takes away from Spartan/Thespian stand).

2. The argument regarding the Delian league needs to be put into context of the aforementioned defeat of the Persian navy by Athens; in its wake, it left Athens as the sole naval superpower in the area. (It's also worth noting that Athenian democracy was under constant threat from oligarchies like Sparta, and that its network of alliances with other democracies originally grew as a self-defensive measure. Athens acquired its empire almost by accident.

3. Sparta was not a champion of for non-Athenian Greeks in the PP war. No doubt, that was Sparta's spin. But remember that Sparta was willing to sell its putative Greek allies out to Persia when it decided that it needed Persia' help to defeat Athens. Thus, about 80 years after Thermopylae we see a Persian-Spartan alliance.

Sparta was in it for Sparta. Indeed, the one constant of the Spartan state was that it would do nearly anything to maintain its power (in part because its foundations were so weak due to limited birthrate, limited citizenship, threat of Helot rebellions, poor trade habits, etc.).
3.25.2007 1:51pm
von (mail) (www):
Sorry, the first paragraph should read:

"For the love of God: We should draw lessons from history, not enlist it in our political causes. I personally find much more to like about Athens that Sparta (and, frankly, much more to like about the Persians than Sparta), but none parallel the last 100 years of history."

Sorry for the omissions.
3.25.2007 1:52pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
This is crazy. The movie is based on a comic book; it's not a history lesson. In my opinion there is nothing admirable about Sparta. You can say that the Spartan warriors were loyal and self-sacrificing combatants, but so were the Waffen SS. I don't find anything admirable about ancient Persia or modern Iran either. Men are aggressive animals like chimps (our closest genetic cousins). Pre state people were even more aggressive, both within and between groups, engaging in war on almost a continuing basis. It's not surprising that early civilizations would resemble their pre state ancestors with regard to aggressive behavior. But make no mistake, civilization makes life safer not more dangerous, despite the ugliness that breaks out now and then.
3.25.2007 5:05pm
bigchris1313 (mail):
Interesting counterpoint found here. Of course, Hanson and the War Nerd have gotten into a tif before.

The War Nerd misquoted the Team America song he referenced: "Freedom isn't free/It costs a dollar ninety-three."

What?

Unless he saw an advanced screening with different lyrics, of course.
3.26.2007 1:03am
Aleks:
Re: Unlike Masada or the Alamo, the Spartan sacrifice led to Greek victory.

The Texans were in fact victorious in their revolt against Mexico.

Re: It's extremely disturbing that Iranians have chosen to identify with the ancient, oppressive, imperialistic Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. It is totally unrelated genetically, culturally, religiously etc

Modern Iran is as much a descendant of ancient Iran as modern Greece is of ancient Greece. Yes, both nations have seen some gene flows from other peoples (Romans, Slavs and Turks in Greece; Arabs, Turks and Mongols in Iran); and both have embraced religions unknown in the days of Xerxes and Leonidas. But it very inaccurate to say that there is no cultural or ethnic connection at all.

Re: And if you read the books of the Maccabees, Alexander the Great comes off pretty bad, because he beat the philo-Semitic Persians, and because his successors (the Diadochi) included Seleucus, founder of the oppressive Seleucid dynasty.

I haven't read Maccabees, but in ancient Jewish legend at least Alexander came off pretty well; he was said to have taken time out on his way through Palestien to reverence Yahweh in Jerusalem (almost certainly a myth). And the Ptolemies who long ruled the Jews were well-thought of by them, being very philo-Semitic as well all the way down to Cleopatra. Hence, the huge Jewish population in Alexandria.
3.27.2007 3:22pm