Saturday, 2 June 2007

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"300" and the real story
Sat, 19 May 2007 19:43:23

The Hollywood flick 300 was at number one on the US Box Office chart for several weeks scoring sharp criticism especially from Iranians.

They rightfully protested that Iranians were ridiculed in the film and portrayed badly. Before a review of the film, let us look at the historical background of the Battle of Thermopylae, on which the film was based.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, is our major source of information on the battle that took place during the late 480s B.C. in Thermopylae, Greece, although his account of the battle, like all of his battle narratives, has a tendency towards exaggeration and is somewhat romanticized.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes, the Persian Achaemenid King, begins preparations to invade Greece in 481 B.C. by first sending ambassadors demanding 'earth and water', effectively their submission. He then marches toward Greece with an army of five million (although the Encyclopedia Britannica puts the number at only 360,000).

Xerxes and his army march to Sardis in present day Turkey, where they spend the winter.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 481 B.C. King Leonidas of Sparta, which was among the most powerful states in ancient Greece, calls a conference with other Greek states. The Spartans preside over the conference and make a series of political resolutions.

The allies decide to end all wars among themselves and declare war against Persia.

The Spartans know Xerxes and his Persian army are on their way and so they send a force to north under their king, Leonidas.

Herodotus, surely exaggerating, states there were 1,700,000 Persians against 7,000 Greek fighters including the 300 men of the Spartan King elite guard.

The Spartans decide to build a wall to defend themselves from a frontal assault. However, the basis of King Leonidas' strategy is that the Persians will arrive only by a certain road. When he discovers there is a well-disguised path in the mountains at their left flank along which an army could easily move, he stations a defense force of 1,000 Phocians in a streak of panic.

However, the Malians, who live near Thermopylae and are hostile to the Phocians, decide to inform Xerxes of the Phocians forces.

Ephialtes does just that and at the end of the third day of fighting Xerxes sends his immortal foot soldiers around the wall.

The Persians prepare themselves for an attack against the Spartans and there are three days of attacks by the Persians against the Spartans.

Herodotus writes when the Phocians hear that the Persians are coming they flee to the hilltops while a few report the news to King Leonidas, who then calls his forces together and dismisses the vast majority of the allies.

Therefore, King Leonidas is left with his 300 Spartan soldiers, armed helots and some of Boectians.

On the dawn of the fourth day, they prepare to die. The Persians come around on both sides and the Spartans are slaughtered. Leonidas dies and his men fight until the last man is down.

The result is that the road to Greece is now wide open. The Spartans have succeeded in delaying the Persians for a few days. They have inflicted thousands of casualties (although the actual figure cannot be verified). However, their major achievement is in the validation of the prime Spartan myth-self-sacrifice and undying loyalty to the State. They demonstrated that even a Spartan king is prepared to fight to the death.

Ultimately, the largest benefit to the Spartans is the growing legend that gives rise to stories illustrating Spartan courage.

Today, people tend to view the recent Hollywood account of this battle historically and criticize the film politically. However, that would be misguided. 300 is based on a comic book written in 1998 and is just like another picture based on Frank Miller's work, Sin City. The point is to make the comic book come to life. It is action, entertainment, and popcorn fun.

The visuals in 300 are all invented. The real Xerxes had a beard and never went near the front line. There was relatively little freedom in Sparta and daily life was highly controlled even by ancient Greek standards. Their society was rigid, strict and involved a caste system.

The helots, descendants of an earlier conquered race, were enslaved and forced to labor on large states. They were enslaved for life and closely watched by the secret police of the time, the Krypteia. When Spartan warriors were in shortage, helots were forced into the military.

Sparta did not produce much literature, art, architecture or other advancements that we could associate with great civilizations of the ancient world like the Persian Empire.

Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, was described as a liberator and an ideal ruler in the Bible and by Greek historian Xenephon.

In all 300 is not a film to be taken seriously; it is what it is - a cartoon in bad taste.


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