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Sunday, March 18, 2007


For years, both Garrett and Jon Broad have insisted that I read the Frank Miller graphic novel 300. Finally, this week, I did. I wanted to read it before I saw the movie, and I wanted to have the book around to lend to students to reinforce the idea that The Book is Always Better Than the Movie™*.

* Notable exceptions: The Princess Bride, according to Farsetta, et al, and Harry Potter I, according to me, because they're exactly the same.

Where to Begin?

Let me start off by saying that artistically, I love both the book and the film. They are each executed with intriguing style, vivid color, and excellent dialogue. Let me also say that I am not an historian, least of all an historian specializing in Ancient Greece.

The book troubled me. The movie even more so. By and large, the movie took the book's core elements -- including the parts I will attempt presently to critique -- and magnified them tremendously. Therefore, I will address them as one, making distinctions where necessary.

I don't have a problem with the violence in the story -- it's a war story, and those are bound to be violent. My beef with 300 is with how it conceives of itself. The dialogue is laced with constant yammering about how Leonidas and his men are fighting for freedom and justice, how free men took a stand against tyranny, how the Battle of Thermopylae was a fight for truth and civilization. (The movie takes this further, adding something about how the Spartans "turned back superstition and mysticism", though I don't know the exact quote.)

The Persians, meanwhile, are pure evil -- tyrants of the first order, mindless savages who seek to dominate the noble Greeks with heartless brutality and ignorant ferocity. (The movie, again, goes to laughable extremes, adding to the Persians a 15-foot Goliath and a freakish sword-arm creature thing.)

Fair's Fair

I am not a cultural relativist. From what I can tell, Persia was trying to invade and dominate Greece. Greece was a democracy of sorts, painfully limited though it was. Leonidas and his men were valiant, courageous, and wise. Xerxes was an autocrat who ruled with an iron fist and sought to expand his empire.

But isn't there some way to resist the urge to cloud history with the fog of absolute glory? Why can't we learn of the past without resorting to simplistic good/evil dichotomies, which rarely exist in the real world? Why does a glimpse at history have to be used for self-righteous myth-making?

After all, slavery was common in Ancient Greece.
Greek literature abounds with scenes of slaves being flogged: it was a means of forcing work, as was control of rations, clothing, and rest. This violence could be meted out by the master as well as the supervisor; who was possibly also a slave.
For that matter, how did Sparta become a consolidated entity? How does any force gain military power? By conquering other forces and pillaging resources, right? My limited knowledge of Sparta suggests it was not imperialist by itself, but the Greek Delian League was expansionist, right? As for the line about Athenians being "boy lovers," need we recall that pederasty was central to Sparta as well? (It may not have been sexual -- Plato says it was; Plutarch and others say it was not.)

Mr. Douglass, Take Us Home

I don't want to get into the kind of heated flame war that erupted over Black Hawk Down. But I also don't want us to get lost in the orgiastic bloodlust of history's supposed arrow. The 5th century BC was a complicated time, like all eras of human history, and I simply wish to add a note of dissent to the seeming binary presentation of light vs. dark. (In the movie, this goes even into skin tone and accents -- was it me, or did it look like Sweden sent some soldiers to the hot gates? And why did Leonidas occasionally sound Scottish? Diane commented on this just as I was about to.)

I believe it's fair to say that Ancient Greece was a step forward from the era of monarchs and tyrants (and that this battle was an important moment in history), but also that:
  • Persia itself produced many important advances which have benefitted humanity;

  • While every war is fought under the standard of freedom and justice, leaders of armies often have many motives, usually of spurious nobility; and

  • Greek democracy was truncated by numerous factors, chief among them limited participation and the existence of slavery.
I would be much happier with 300 if it didn't continually stroke its ego about the nobility of the fight and the just cause for which the Spartans fought. Again and again, I wondered how slaves in Greece felt about how Leonidas and his men took such a brave stand for freedom. And I remembered Frederick Douglass.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
The picture at the top is Leonidas an den Thermopylen by French painter Jacques-Louis David.


Thanks to Diane for linking us to Why people think Americans are stupid (on YouTube). A shocking display of American ignorance. (But again, I have to wonder: Where were these people interviewed? How representative is the footage? Didn't this require a good deal of selective editing?)

Today I'm listening to: Vex'd!