Magazine article The Spectator

Spartan Legacy

Magazine article The Spectator

Spartan Legacy

Article excerpt

'Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.'

The first four words served as the title of a rather good (anti-)Vietnam war movie. But the original verses from which they were taken constituted a wholly positive epigram, composed by the Greek praise-poet Simonides, on behalf of the self-sacrificing Spartan war dead at the Battle of Thermopylae. It has been reprinted much more recently in a collection of anti-(Iraq) war poetry. Confused?

You will be. The Spartan tradition is nothing if not contradictory. To bring it bang up to date, I am happy to report that coming very soon to a multiplex near you will be the latest 'swords and sandals' blockbuster Hollywood movie, 300 (15, nationwide).

Generically, the film's apparently a mess of plottage: a prodigally heterogeneous combination of fantasy-fiction of a David Gemmill variety, wargaming, Japanese manga-comic artwork, sophisticated bluescreen digital technology and 'faction', i. e. , spiced-up historically based 'fact'. Yet it is also a combo that -- surprisingly -- works rather well as a movie. However, to borrow a snide remark about Alexander Pope's no less heroic efforts to bring over Homer's epics into English, it is a pretty film, Mr (Zack) Snyder, but you may not call it Herodotus. That would be to add further confusion of genres. For despite all the defects of Herodotus (born within the Persian empire in about 485, died about 425 BC ), he did have a properly historical consciousness. And in his Histories he did do his level best to get at 'how it actually happened' at Thermopylae ('Hot Gates') in central Greece under the broiling sun of August 480 BC , and in the remainder of the Graeco-Persian Wars of the first two decades of the fifth century (490 -- Battle of Marathon, 480-479 -- Battles of Salamis and Plataea).

Thermopylae was then (the local topography has changed significantly since) a narrow defile in central mainland Greece hard up against the Aegean Sea, and the first point at which a massive (200,000 plus? ) Persian invasion force might feasibly be at least held up for a bit by an allied Greek defence force of some 7,000 headed by 300 Spartans. (Actually, 301 to begin with, if you count their leader, King Leonidas, as you absolutely must; and only 299 on the third and final day of resistance, since two of the 300 were more or less unavoidably absent and survived. ) What was at stake, as the movie incessantly repeats, was 'freedom'. But it was a much more complicated sort of freedom than the film allows us even to glimpse.

The Spartans, for a start, based their own power and lifestyle on holding down in subjection perhaps a couple of hundred thousand native Greeks whom they labelled derogatorily as 'slaves'. So -- freedom, yes, freedom from foreign Persian rule for all, but freedom to live and to govern themselves as they wished only for some. Nevertheless, arguably, it was an immensely fertile complex of freedoms but for which Western culture wouldn't -- couldn't -- have been or become what it did. A culture that includes at, and as, its roots the world's first shots at something the originating Greeks of Athens called democracy or 'People-Power'.

Frank (Sin City) Miller's series of cartoons, later published by Dark Horse in 1999 as a single seriously beautiful book, were the basis of and inspiration for the homonymous film; indeed, he was its principal consultant. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.