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How 300 erases aspects of Sparta's history

  • Published at 04:02 pm August 5th, 2017
  • Last updated at 03:14 pm August 21st, 2017
How 300 erases aspects of Sparta's history
What strikes one first about 300, a Zack Snyder 2006 American film, is that it is a big display of machismo. All of the characters in the entourage of Leonidas, the Spartan king, are chiselled, muscular men with washboard abs and burly limbs. The film apparently is a tribute to the heroic efforts of a select group of Spartan soldiers repulsing an invading Persian army. It is set in an ancient atmosphere with a scroll-like sepia tone that washes the background and the characters alike. This is further accentuated with the people of Persian descent who are shown to be dressed in vibrant colours. Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, the film dramatises a historical event which had actually transpired. There is only one problem: It did not happen that way. Yes, 300 is based on a distorted account of what had happened during a war between the Persians and the Spartans. A group of 300 Spartans had not defeated the Persians; it was just the other way around. Sparta, despite its draconian laws and chauvinistic culture, had failed to beat the Persian army with a band of its 300 men. They were surrounded by Persian soldiers and had to call for backup, which unfortunately never ariived. The battle with the 300 Spartan soldiers was called the Battle of Thermopylae and it put a big dent on Spartan society. It was a huge blow to a culture which thrived on jingoism and which trained male youths to adopt a soldier’s lifestyle. These aspects are portrayed in Spartan, a novel written by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Though Manfredi isn’t necessarily sympathetic to the Persians, he does show what the Battle of Thermopylae really was for the Spartans: A mortifying defeat to the Persians.
The film 300 excludes the socio-political history of the Spartans altogether. It excludes the Helots and demonises the Persians. By endowing the Persians with demonic physical features, showing Xerxes, the Persian king, as a giant with feminine traits, it makes a mockery of the complex histories of the two nations.
The story in Manfredi’s book revolves around Talos, who is living with his adoptive family, the Helots. Talos is actually a son of a noble Spartan who was abandoned to die by his reluctant father as he was born with a limp. The Helots were a people enslaved by the Spartans but 300 doesn’t mention them at all. Talos does not like Spartan arrogance and their ill-treatment of his adoptive family and their kin. The very first meeting that Talos has with his biological brother, Brithos, is when he is harassing the woman Talos loves. This exchange ends with Talos fighting Brithos and his friends until he is overpowered and severely wounded. Antinea is a Helot girl who the Spartan youth felt privileged enough to harass and molest. Talos also bemoans to Antinea that a slave’s life is a wretched one and that gaining pride and honour is a privilege exclusive to the Spartans. The novel overlaps with 300 in that Ephialtes is shown to defect to the Persian side and help the Persians win the Battle of Thermopylae. Ephialtes is the man with disabilities in the film; he implores who Leonides to induct him in the army but Leonides rejects him. In the novel, he is just a typical Spartan warrior who has defected. However, Ephialtes is not deformed in Manfredi’s story and is killed by a friend of Talos. Brithos’s honour is completely at stake after the Battle of Thermopylae. He was sent by King Leonidas with a letter requesting immediate reinforcements, which was replaced along the way with a blank sheet. Now People believe he and his friends are deserters. Aghias, one of Brithos’s friends, commits suicide when an old friend refuses to share their fire with him to light his house as he believes Aghias is a traitor. Brithos alone then carries Aghias for his funeral; no one else has joined the funeral procession. Brithos is disowned by his own society for these events and it is then Talos decides to help him out. They form a companionship and plan to drive out the Persians and regain Brithos’s honour, though, the gap of class remains. As Talos says to Brithos with conviction: “No, Brithos, don’t tell me that fate has made us slaves, that the gods have given you power over us.” (Manfredi 208)
300 is built upon a distorted story of murder, mystery and sex that gives history, once again, a Western twist, making it palatable for Western tastes
Ultimately, even when Talos is reinstated into the Spartan society, and gains back his actual birth name, Kleidemos, he chooses to fight a war against the Spartans to free the Helots from slavery. Kleidemos fights a war against Leonidas’s son, Pleistarchus, to liberate the Helots saying that Leonidas also recognised the bravery and dignity of the Helots. In the battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas saw Helot soldiers fight bravely and as equals with the Spartans and realised Sparta should be one nation. He conveyed this in the letter handed to Brithos who lost it on his way back. The letter is the reason why Brithos and a select group of men left Thermopylae in the first place. Whether this is true of Leonidas or not can be contested. Manfredi, however, does not glorify the Spartan race as the film 300 does. The novel is clearly against slavery of people whether it is done by the Spartans or the Persians. The film 300 excludes the socio-political history of the Spartans altogether. It excludes the Helots and demonises the Persians. By endowing the Persians with demonic physical features, showing Xerxes, the Persian king, as a giant with feminine traits, it makes a mockery of the complex histories of the two nations. Xerxes is also present in Mandfredi’s novel and his attack on Sparta is a political one. He admits of not having known any Spartans when he meets one of the Spartan kings, Demaratus; he expresses his desire to conquer the Grecian lands partly as retribution on Athenians who aided the Ionian rebel group against his men. The book makes good use of this bit of history rather than showing Xerxes in his love den, cuddling half-naked women and asking them to seduce Ephialtes, as the film 300 depicts. Manfredi’s book presents, realistically, a king with enemies, and declaring war against them. 300 is built upon a distorted story of murder, mystery and sex that gives history, once again, a Western twist, making it palatable for Western tastes. It erases those parts of Spartan behaviour that do not go with the lofty democratic ideals of the West, parts that would actually make them look like a lot more regressive than their Asian counterparts. It does not show the slaves alongside their rulers who are treating the Helots with contempt, forcing them to do menial labour so that they can enjoy the privilege to act heroic and fight their wars. To deny the equality of a race is a crime that the Spartans did commit. Whether or not the Spartans are brave is not the issue here, but that they failed to mention the Helots fighting alongside them is. 300 has erased that bit of history completely.
Zarin Rafiuddin reviews books and movies for Arts & Letters.