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From the ‘300’ to Aeschylus – Depictions of the barbaric Persians and the athletic Spartans

1. The extraordinary popularity of Zack Znyder’s recent film 300, the fast-moving, very faithful, though somewhat extended adaptation of the homonymous comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, has brought about the speedy translation of some recent studies on the famous Second Greco-Persian War. As has happened in recent years with other American-made films, such as Troy or Alexander, this type of film has aroused a certain popular curiosity regarding great topics and/or texts of the Ancient World, inviting many people to discover or reread the works by classical authors that heir respective scripts are based on. As is well known, films usually take considerable liberties with venerable ancient texts, according to the director’s taste or popular interests. (Thus, for example, in Troy both Atreidae kings die in battle, quite contrary to Homer’s tale: Menelaus dies in his duel with Paris, and Agamemnon in the siege of the city. From the very beginning, it is quite clear that the director is on Paris and Helen’s side (they are quite the attractive couple, after all) and against the Mycenaean kings, who are ambitious and violent military chiefs, although it is the Achaeans who eventually take Troy, following the basic story of the ancient myth).

Films are not usually known for strictly basing their sets and props on archaeological history, as much as they try to offer an acceptable image of the basic and most picturesque elements of the ancient world. (Some progress has been made since Cecil B. De Mille’s shameless anachronisms and in such reconstructions, there are notable differences between the guidelines followed by different directors. For example, the statues of the gods in Troy do not evoke the Mycenaean world, but rather very late Hellenistic art, while the armament of Alexander’s army reflects historical evidence on the Hellenistic troops quite faithfully.) So, with all this in mind, let us analyze some characteristics of the film 300, which, as I mentioned previously, quite faithfully represent the drawings and setting of Miller and Varley’s comic.

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Firstly, the Spartans appear with their helmets, round shields, and long spears, with their characteristic red capes and leather sandals, but, surprisingly, they fight almost naked, unprotected, wearing only scanty loincloths, showing off their bulging muscles under their capes. They are depicted with short hair and beards, contrary to the well-known Spartan custom of having long, well-groomed hair and being clean-shaven. However, the most striking thing of all is that they fight without their amour plates and often abandon their usual tight formation.

Both the illustrator sand the film director overlook (although they most likely knew full well what the Spartan combat technique in question was) that the three hundred were hoplites, bearers of heavy armors who fought in tight, closed lines with each soldier using his shield to cover the flank of the soldier next to him, in a rigid formation that advanced slowly, like a metal wall bristling with spears. In those drawings, which call to mind the aesthetics of other comics featuring brawny men-much in the line of Conan the Barbarian-the preference is to show the virile Spartans’ muscled naked bodies and recreat each type of fight closer to the duels of heroic epics. The most distinguished precedent of this preference for the nakedness of handsome warriors is perhaps the famous painting by Jean Louis David Leonidas at Thermopylae (painted between 1800 and 1814 and, Cartledge points out, displaying “strong homoerotic overtones”), in which the Spartan king is depicted seated, surrounded by his men, resting before the great battle[1].

From a historical point of view, it is clear that this method of fighting with helmets, greaves and long capes, but individually and bare-chested, is completely incorrect. The hoplite tactics and the metal of their armor plates and shields were fundamental in repelling the onslaught of Persian hordes. The Iranian archers’ countless arrows hardly had any effect on the armor plates and shields and, in the few meters where face-to-face combat took place, the hoplites would form an impenetrable wall of bronze sharpened with long spears, like a gigantic metal hedge hog against which the waves of accumulated Persian assaults would be dashed. (This prickly wall is in fact well depicted in some illustrations by Miller and Varley, but the film focuses much more on the athletic activities of the Spartans. The naked corpses of the three hundred shot through with a thousand arrows are also historically incorrect). This tight wall of iron warriors was the almost invincible core of the defense of that narrow pass. A hoplite always fought in his position, with firmly-planted legs, feet pinned to the ground, shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow soldier, supported and pushed from behind by lines of other hoplites, leaving no gaps in the tight wall. It is also worth remembering, although it is often forgotten in order to highlight the heroism of Leonidas and the Spartans, that the three hundred were not the only ones who fought to defend the narrow pass; there were also numerous allies, although not all of them would remain until the end[2].

A concise description of the clash, in which special attention is paid to Spartans fighting methods, is given in these few lines by B. Strauss:

“A humiliation for the Persians, Thermopylae had been Leonidas’s finest hour. He held off the Persians for three days. Fewer than eight thousand Greeks, spearheaded by an elite unit of three hundred Spartans, gave a savage beating to a Persian army that outnumbered them by a ratio of perhaps twenty to one. Men willing to die for the glory of the Great King came up against the most efficient killing machine in history.

On one side had stood the Spartan soldier. With his bronze helmet, breastplate, greaves, each Spartan seemed to be sheathed in metal. There was bronze, too, in the plating of his shield, which was large, circular, and convex in shape. A crimson-colored, sleeveless wool tunic extended from shoulders to mid thigh. Each Spartan was barefoot, itself a symbol of toughness, and carried a short iron sword and a long pike. The latter, which was his main weapon, was an ash-wood spear, about nine feet long, with an iron spearhead and a bronze butt-spike. Arranged in close order in the phalanx, shields interlocking, the Spartans thrust at the enemy with their pikes.” (idem., pp. 80-81)

We see that the Spartans’ nakedness is a distinctive and symbolic feature, which highlights the sharp  contrast between their athletic bodies and the silhouettes of the motley Persians, wrapped-up in the most varied clothing, from the multicolored archers with turbans and pointed hats to the ‘Immortals’, those chosen from Xerxes’ personal guard who seemed to be dressed as Japanese ninjas, all in black with Chinese-style masks. In contrast to the Spartans’ courageous nakedness, the Asiatic barbarians advance cloaked in their apparel like exotic and picturesque fauna. (The multifarious clothes and weapons of the different Asiatic peoples were already highlighted in Herodotus’ text, but in this case are used to conceal bodies much less virile than those of the Spartans, who trained in battle and in gymnastics.) The ugliness of the invaders in contrast to the noble virility of the fierce Greek soldiers is also evident. (It is common knowledge that in films the bad guys are always uglier than the good guys.) However, it is the Great King, Xerxes, who is maliciously characterized and drawn: he appears as an imposing figure advancing on his throne over a colossal truncated pyramid, carried on his slaves’ shoulders.

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He is extremely tall, bald and black, a perverse ephebe with the defiant look and airs of a drag queen, face marked by countless piercings,  wearing only a belt and an even skimpier loincloth than the ones worn by the Spartans, as well as a huge number of necklaces and an enormous cape. (In the comic his negroid features seem more marked than in the film).

The image speaks for itself. The contrast with the historical Xerxes known to us from ancient reliefs, who Herodotus describes as having a handsome and noble figure, is extremely sharp. Unlike the real features of Darius’ son, with his long hair and curly, well-kept beard, so ceremonial and majestic, so willing to listen to his royal counselors, this Xerxes of comic operetta seems to have arrived from another galaxy, as an homage to other sumptuous, malignant and despotic figures frequently featured in comics. It is almost a caricature, whose perverted wickedness contrasts with the noble arrogance of the fierce Leonidas who, at the end, before dying, hurls his spear at Xerxes (here it is more like a javelin) in a spectacular throw that marks his face and, amidst squirting blood, removes, a couple of the rings inserted in his cheek.

2. Persian Fire, Thermopylae and The Battle of Salamis are all excellent accounts from a historical point of view-their authors are renowned experts in the field of Ancient History-as well as from a literary viewpoint, with their vibrant style and well-paced narrative. T. Holland’s book has the widest perspective, covering from the formation of the Persian Empire and the political configuration of Sparta and Athens through the end of the Greco-Persian wars and their immediate consequences on the global view of the Hellenistic world, including the splendor of democracy in Pericles’ Athens, and even a final reference to the revenge that was, a century and a half after Xerxes’ defeat, the victorious expedition led by Alexander and his conquest of the Persian Empire.

Holland, who obtained deserved popular success with his book about the Roman world Rubicon, writes using a noteworthy dramatic style and very aptly manages both historical data and characterizations of the main characters in the splendid setting of the conflict. His text is both a good study of characters and situations, passionate and very attentive to the meaning of the forces in conflict, highlighting the tremendous war machinery and power of the Persians, in contrast to the divided world of the Greeks, united nevertheless in their heroic defense of freedom and the motherland, in clashes where courage and astuteness-especially of the daring Themistocles-were decisive factors. The three crucial battles, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, are narrated here with admirable accuracy.

Barry Strauss is also an excellent narrator, with a penchant for images painted with vivid colors. His retells the facts with noteworthy attention to precise details, scenes in living color and memorable anecdotes[3]. He also stresses the imposing greatness of the Persian Empire and the universal bent of its rulers. Right from the outset he avoids the easy Manichaeism that denigrates the Asians in order to extol the brave Hellenes, defenders of their freedoms, and starts by recapturing Herodotus’ vision of both sides. (“Persia was neither decadent nor dull but a formidable and innovative power from which the ancient Greeks-and the modern West-borrow much”).

He then recounts the beginnings of the war, but focusing on the battle of Salamis, which is analyzed in great detail, from the intriguing and plotting of the astute Themistocles, the real hero and great strategist of the victory in the waters of the strait, to the tactical combat movements, which are described with exceptional accuracy. He captivates the reader with details regarding what the boats in both fleets were like and how they moved, their specific handling and their strategic location in the critical moment of the battle, the ardor of the Greeks in the onslaught against the vessels of the complex imperial fleet, pressed together and soon confused, their oarsmen exhausted and tactically confused. This is not due to the originality of the details, of course, but to the author’s accurate and dramatic description.

The whole book has a four-part structure: “The Advance – The Trap – The Battle – The Retreat” and it can be read as a well-paced historical novel. There are fine descriptions of naval battles in many other texts, of Trafalgar, for example. However, this one of the boats advancing and their attack on Salamis, although further removed in time, is certainly among the best. The development of the hard-fought battle, described at different times-morning, noon and dusk-is presented with vibrant dramatic tones.

Paul Cartledge also begins by summarizing the situation of the Persian Empire and Greek cities at the dawn of the fifth century B.C., and then moves into an in-depth discussion of the specific characteristics of the Spartan world. Chapter 4, entitled “Sparta 485: A Unique Culture and Society”, starts with the most original and meaningful contribution of this study. Cartledge, professor of Greek History at the University of Cambridge, is a superb expert on that polis and its exceptional social and educational systems. He has devoted a number of books to historical aspects of the Spartan world -the most widely known being The Spartans: An EpicHistory (2002).

In this volume, he once again uses his clear style to analyze the most notable aspects of that aristocratic, conservative, and militarized society, which enjoyed remarkable prestige in classical Greece and which, in contrast to democratic Athens, forged a political regime proud of its freedoms and its ascetical and bellicose values. He is able to combine his solid academic scholarship with sharp accountspeckled with allusions to the present day. He pays more detailed attention to the psychological features of the main characters and to the environment in which the armed conflict is framed than to the description of the battle itself. He analyses the data provided by Herodotus with refined criteria throughout the book and in three appendices at the end. He also presents Leonidas’ desperate decision as a singular heroic gesture, a desperate mission heading towards collective suicide, an example of sacrifice for the Greek motherland and freedom, an instance of Doric arete, a memorable holocaust required by honor and Spartan laws, relentless and praiseful of the warriors who died in the hoplite combat.

Two extensive and very interesting chapters are dedicated to the study of later repercussions of the cruel battle, namely, to the “legend of Thermopylae” in Antiquity and in modern times[4]. Likewise, the final synthesis, entitled “Thermopylae: Turning-point in World History” is especially brilliant; here, Cartledge not only praises the bravery of the Three Hundred but also highlights the image of Sparta in European culture. Indeed, never had a defeated army received such unanimous and long-lasting praise, and seldom has such a small number of brave men achieved such a profusion of glory.

“The Spartans’ heroically suicidal stand at Thermopylae showed that the Persians both should and could usefully be resisted, and gave the small, wavering, and uncohesive force of patriotic Greeks the nerve to imagine that they might one day defeat the invaders.” (p. 233). The decisive victories at Salamis and Platea were, undoubtedly, the clashes that hindered and destroyed the threat of a Persian invasion; but the epic combat at Thermopylae, where for three days a few hundred Greek warriors halted the advance of many thousands of Asians and caused nearly twenty thousand enemy casualties, was the magnificent prelude to the subsequent victories of the defenders of freedom.

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3. All these recent studies on Greek battles against the Persian invader turn out to be a noteworthy homage to Herodotus’ magnificent historical text, composed almost half a century after the events, by means of personal research (in Greek, historie) of the facts; he collected a variety of testimonies with critical intelligence and great narrative talent, mainly from oral sources. The majority of the data used dates back to Herodotus, including of course Xerxes’ conversations with his counselors and the anecdotes and most memorable phrases[5]. It was Herodotus who, due to his impartiality in understanding some characters, the scholarly Plutarch called “a friend of the barbarians” (philobarbaros).

With an almost Homeric impetus in some parts, Herodotus, that Ionian traveler received with admiration and rewarded for his version of the facts in Pericles’ Athens, knew how to praise the bravery and intelligence of the Greeks and to present the fight for freedom and the motherland as the unanimous impulse of courage that led Greek soldiers to victory against barbaric hordes, who were far superior in number, but subjected to a colossal and despotic power.

Turning back, however, to our reflections on the literary echoes of the great battle, I would like to compare what is, at least for us, the oldest celebration of the Hellenic victory with a depiction as Manichaean as that of the recent American film. It is well known that comics dealing with war, like popular literature in general, tend to depict the good guys and the bad guys as white versus black. It is also done through coarse political propaganda. It was very common for this type of propaganda aimed at a wide and uncritical audience to dehumanize and demonize the enemies, inviting the reader to celebrate their total annihilation. The Persians are evil, monstrous, terrifying in their external aspect, not individuals with names and faces, but rather a mere human mass driven by whips to a brutal massacre.

Nevertheless, in Ancient Greece the theatre, which in Athens was popular and democratic art, presents a different version. Let us recall how the Persians are depicted in Aeschylus’ tragedy entitled The Persians, which was performed at Dionysus’ theatre in the year 472 B.C., i.e., only eight years after the victories at Salamis and Platea. I am not going to summarize the play here, but I shall give a couple of quotations. The first one is from Holland’s book, which provides some curious details (Persian Fire, pp. 429-30):

“The bleachers on which the audience took their seats had been fashioned, almost certainly, out of timbers salvaged from the shattered barbarian fleet; while on the stage itself, it has been plausibly suggested, there may have stood that most spectacular of all battle trophies: the captured royal tent. If so, then the leather that had once sheltered the king of Kings now provided an awning over the stage of Dionysia —and the perfect backdrop for the tragedy that Aeschylus had titled The Persians. Set in Susa, it offered, for the delectation of the Athenian people, a dramatic reconstruction of Xerxes’ return home from Salamis.

The king who had left Persia in the full pomp of his majesty was portrayed limping back in rags; the courtiers who had thought to hail a conquering hero were heard wailing in misery. It all most enjoyable —and comforting— for the audience, of course. The Great King was indeed cowed. Aeschylus reassured his fellow citizens; and Athens, the city which had defeated him, was now a beacon of liberty to nations everywhere. ”

As Holland himself comments, Aeschylus was exaggerating the resonance of Xerxes’ defeat in order to exult the fight for freedom and please his public. Undoubtedly, the loss of his great navy and of the extraordinary and colossal army did considerable damage to the prestige of the King of Kings, but his throne in Asia did not reel. In any case, “The Great King’s defeat in the West had dealt a fatal blow to that vaunting dream. Persian ambitions were now infinitely more modest: merely to stabilize control of Ionia” (idem, p. 431).

What is evident is that war had changed the image of Persian supremacy. For the Greeks, it was not that invincible threatening giant of yore; the united forces of the free Greek citizens had taught this enemy an unforgettable lesson. The Greeks had proven to be far superior to the barbarians, due to their courage and tactical intelligence, and this fact marked the conscience of a whole era, enforcing among the Greeks the idea of their superiority over the barbarians.

Edward Saïd, in his work Orientalism,[6] saw Aeschylus’ tragedy as the first proof of the “orientalism” that later became highly developed in the European conception of the Asian world.

“Aeschylus —writes Saïd— portrays the sense of disaster overcoming the Persians when they lean that their armies, led by King Xerxes, have been destroyed by the Greeks. The chorus sings the following ode:

‘Now all Asia’s land / Moans in emptiness / Xerxes led forth, oh, oh! / Xerxes destroyed, woe, woe! / Xerxes’ plans have all miscarried / In the ships of the sea…’

What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile “other” world beyond the seas. To Asia are given the feelings of emptiness, loss and disaster that seem thereafter to reward Oriental challenges to the West; and also, the lament that in some glorious past Asia fared better was itself victorious over Europe.”

E. Saïd is right to a certain extent when he notes that there is a clear opposition here between Europeans and Asians. The former won the battle fighting for their freedom and their motherland; the latter were victims of the arrogance of an oriental despot. It was from that awareness of the triumph of freedom and reason over serfdom that the concept emerged of the barbarians as opposed to everything that Greece stood for. The Attic tragedy played an important role in developing and spreading this ideology, as was aptly pointed out by E. Hall in his book Inventing the Barbarian: GreekSelf-Definition through Tragedy(Oxford, 1989).[7] Nonetheless, in the memory of war and victory, something that many spectators of Aeschylus’ drama would vividly remember either for having taken part or for having lost a family member in the battles, there is an essential feature: the noble character of the defeated is always treated with respect. Aeschylus invites his audience to feel pity for all those warriors that died in the bloodstained waters of Salamis, who a choir of Persian elders remembers by name.

Gilbert Murray said The Persians was “the only celebration of a military victory that reaches the category of the highest poetic expression.” Patriotic commemoration is not usually a good topic for authentic poetry, but Aeschylus managed to create here, in this impressive dramatic threnody, an unforgettable monument to the bravery of the Greeks. Since he knew that the anguish of defeat is more tragic than the clamor of victory, he placed the pain of the defeated in a scenic close-up. That pitiable pain and not the pride of the victorious-and his text mentions by name many dead Persian military chiefs, but none of the Greeks-is the core of the great drama that is, without a doubt, a eulogy to Greek courage and the justice of their fight for their motherland and their freedom. Transforming Xerxes into a tragic hero, with his hybris and due catastrophe, Aeschylus does not denigrate his pathetic nobility but rather shows him as a victim of his own irrational ambition, which has led to a fatal defeat and the massacre of so many thousands of men and great nobles and princes of his empire.

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4. The contrast between the vision of the war and of the enemies that is offered by ancient Greek tragedy and the one offered by the American comic and film, tailored to the tastes of current audiences, needs no further comment. Showing that “the others”, even the barbarians who invade or threaten us and who we fight against in order to defend our freedom, are also human and can suffer like human beings is the starting point of the tragic author.(A poet like the great Aeschylus, who fought in the battles of Marathon and Salamis.) The endeavor to demonize and dehumanize one’s rival is a common tendency in an ideology based on cheap Manichaeism, to the taste of uncritical masses and most outdated rhetoricians. In the case of the image of ancient Persians, presented as a malignant and inhuman horde, this distortion and its fierce caricature could be yet another variant of the “orientalism” that Edward Saïd described and denounced in no unsure terms. And in this respect, we could wonder whether it was simply an opportunity to take advantage of the popularity of a comic or yet another example of a mean and shady mentality that is becoming increasingly widespread.

On the other hand, we should acknowledge that, nowadays, when the history of the ancient world and the great classical texts seem to have been somewhat marginalized in common education, these films about ancient heroes and almost mythical battles could act as a curious attraction, because the world evoked in their images is spectacular and intriguing. It might move some spectators to, out of curiosity, compare their images with the original texts, that is, those ancient tales, such as Homer’s and Herodotus’, and perhaps Plutarch’s, and such an invitation could become a suitable educational and literary proposal.


[1] Cf. P. Cartledge, idem., p. 209. On the Hoplite combat, the classic work of V. D. Hanson, The Western Way of War. Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, California and London, 1998 is an excellent reference, which emphasizes the slowness of movement of this heavy infantry.
[2] Before the Persian pincer movement could close in, noticing that they were going to be left besieged, king Leonidas allowed those who wanted to save their lives to flee to safety. Tom Holland narrates this in a very vivid style: “(Leonidas) ordered the main body of the army to leave, and as fast as possible, to give itself every chance of surviving to fight another day. The Thespians, famously cussed, refused to abandon their posts; so too–for with their city now doomed to medize, they had nothing to return to, save the prospect of being purged–did the loyalist Thebans. Leonidas ordered the helots to remain at the Hot Gates as well, to help the Spartans prepare for battle, to serve as light infantry and to die in the cause of their masters’ freedom. Some 1500 men in all, then, fingering their notched and battered weapons with clammy fingers, feeling the sun’s first rays against their faces, trying not to let their expressions betray their emotions, whether of scorn, resignation or envy, watched their comrades pack up their armor, leave the camp and head south.” (idem., p.. 355. P. Cartledge, idem., p. 170)
[3] He usually starts every chapter by evoking an impressive perspective or landscape. As an example, I will quote the beginning of chapter 2, titled ‘Thermopylae’: “Stripped of his helmet, Leonidas’ head is framed by his long hair. The taut skin of the warrior’s face, its color gone, stands out all the more against a short and pointed beard. The dirt of battle is probably still upon Leonidas, and there is a dark purple bruise on his chin from the pooling of what little blood is left. Ragged bits of tissue and bone hang from his severed neck, and flies and beetles have landed on his skin. If the dead king’s eyes could see, they might look all the way to Athens, the road to which now lies open for Persia.”(idem., p. 79). On Xerxes’ fury as a reason for such cruel and exceptional decapitation, see the comments by Cartledge, idem, p. 174.
[4] The long list of literary echoes that evoke Leonidas’ deed could start with the extremely famous epitaph of  Simonides  of  Ceos: “Go, tell the Lacedaimonians, passer-by, / That here obedient to their laws we lie.” And it concludes in the book with a reference to F. Miller’s comic (originally published in 1988-89) and the Warner film, which had yet to be released when the book was published. Cartledge reproaches Miller’s comic for “a small detail”: that he depicted the Spartans with moustaches and beards, when they only had beards. As I have pointed out, there are other inaccuracies, like presenting the ephors as a bunch of miserable old crocks covered in pustules, who escort a whirling frenetically dancing prophetess – maybe a sort of ultra-Delphic fortune-teller. And among the most pathetic echoes it is worth remembering the following: “According to Martin Bormann, Hitler himself on his fiftieth birthday on 20 April 1945 enjoined the fellow members of his last-ditch bunker to ‘Just think of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans'” (p. 220).
[5] This respect for Herodotus’ perspective and his accurate information does not exclude, of course, noticing that he made some specific mistakes, such as the total estimation of the numbers of Persian troops. His calculation of more than five million invaders is an obvious exaggeration. This number is currently substantially lower and it is estimated that Xerxes’ army consisted of two or three hundred thousand men – some even estimate they were less than a hundred thousand, too small a number, in my opinion. Regarding this aspect, see what Cartledge points out with his usual wit, idem, pp124ff.
[6] Said, Edward, Orientalismo, Spanish translation De Bolsillo. 2002, p..89.
[7] I discussed this book and this concept in an article published in Claves de razón práctica about fifteen years ago, under the title “La utilidad de los bárbaros” (The usefulness of barbarians), collected now in my book Sobre el descrédito de la literatura, Barcelona, 1999, pp. 127-47. For some clear and more recent notes, cf. P. Cartledege, “Greeks v. Barbarians” in The Greeks. A Portrait of Self &Others, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 50-77.

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