Renowned classicist and historian Victor Davis Hanson has this great piece on the movie 300. Conflict of interest aside, it comes from his Introduction to a Dark Horse Comics book accompanying the movie. Despite that, anyone who’s read his op-eds, military journal pieces, and books (The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, and others), knows that he comes with a wealth of classical knowledge and a keen mind. For those of you who don’t know the history of the Spartans and their fight at the Hot Gates:
In 480, an enormous force of more than a quarter-million Persians under their King Xerxes invaded Greece, both to enslave the free city-states, and to avenge the Persian defeat a decade earlier at Marathon. The huge force of ships and soldiers proved
unstoppable on its way west and southward until it reached the narrow pass at Thermopylae (“The Warm Gates”) in northern Greece. There a collection of 7,000 Greeks had blocked the way. They hoped to stop Xerxes’ horde outright — or at least allow enough time for their fellow countrymen to their rear to mobilize a sufficient defense of the homeland.Among the many Greek contingents was a special elite force of 300 Spartans under their King Leonidas — a spearhead that offered the other Greeks at Thermopylae some promise that they could still bar the advance of the vastly superior invader.
Hanson gives a little more of the history, then sums up what is good and historically accurate about what otherwise is “merely” the film version of Frank Miller’s famous comic book:
[D]espite the need to adhere to the conventions of Frank Miller’s graphics and plot — every bit as formalized as the protocols of classical Athenian drama or Japanese Kabuki theater — the main story from our ancient Greek historians is still there: Leonidas, against domestic opposition, insists on sending an immediate advance party northward on a suicide mission to rouse the Greeks and allow them time to unite a defense. Once at Thermopylae, he adopts the defenses to the narrow pass between high cliffs and the sea far below. The Greeks fight both en masse in the phalanx and at times range beyond as solo warriors. They are finally betrayed by Ephialtes, forcing Leonidas to dismiss his allies — and leaving his own 300 to the fate of dying under a sea of arrows. But most importantly, 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.
I had once to present a report on the Battle of Thermopylae to a bunch of Marines. Suffice it to say, if you see a bunch of U.S. Marines in training, they like very much to think of themselves as imbued with the very same hardness of purpose, practicality, and devotion to the “ooh-rah” warrior spirit of honor, courage, commitment that the Spartans seemed to relish. If you don’t know any Marines, go out and meet a few: your social circle is far too restrictive to not see what the warrior spirit can do to a person.
Maybe the movie isn’t such a cartoon after all. I’ll soon find out–will report back after this weekend.