Some academic types get themselves into a froth when a movie based upon history is not absolutely accurate. Thus they obsessed over Gladiator. They were in high dudgeon over Troy. They yelped over The Patriot. They were apoplectic over Apocalypto.
Memo to historians: Movies are made to generate revenue. They are not meant to be documentaries. Get over it.
The über-violent 300 drew the particular attention of historians. No doubt all those muscular Spartans running about in ancient Speedos while wringing Persian necks caused many hearts to go all a-flutter. Some scholars actually liked the film. Some thoroughly hated it. Zack Snyder made it, and he says 300 is “an opera, not a documentary. That’s what I say when people say it’s historically inaccurate.”
An opera, not a documentary. This about sums it up.
There is more. If one is conversant in the ancient texts that tell the tale of the Persian Wars and of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, one may get the sense that the movie more accurately details events than mere words ever could. It shows the reality of the thing that goes beyond appearances and gets to the truth of the matter as witnessed and lived by the Greeks.
The Greeks saw the wars with Persia (490 – 479 BC) as the seminal event of their day. They considered Persia as a land of slaves and the Greek cities as abodes of free men. Persia was an Eastern colossus of millions of human beings, a world empire one hundred times the size of Athens and Sparta. Her king was simply called ‘the king’; everyone knew who that meant. It is an easy thing to believe that the historical Xerxes behaved exactly as the movie showed him, as a god upon the earth.
To put the matter simply, 300 was the way the Greeks themselves must have experienced the Persian Wars. It was myth and reality and fantasy all mixed up, a war where thousands of Greeks would later swear that they had seen a gigantic Greek soldier fighting by their sides and that the gods themselves had left Olympus to fight with them. We laugh at such things but to the Greeks these were as historical as WW II is to us.
Some historians get it.
Victor Davis Hanson…who wrote the foreword to a 2007 re-issue of the graphic novel, states that the film demonstrates a specific affinity with the original material of Herodotus in that it captures the martial ethos of ancient Sparta and represents Thermopylae as a “clash of civilizations”. He remarks that Simonides, Aeschylus and Herodotus viewed Thermopylae as a battle against “Eastern centralism and collective serfdom”, which opposed “the idea of the free citizen of an autonomous polis”. He further states that the film portrays the battle in a “surreal” manner, and that the intent was to “entertain and shock first, and instruct second.”
Some historians do not.
No mention is made in 300 of the fact that at the same time a vastly outnumbered fleet led by Athenians was holding off the Persians in the straits adjacent to Thermopylae, or that Athenians would soon save all of Greece by destroying the Persian fleet at Salamis. This would wreck 300’s vision, in which Greek ideals are selectively embodied in their only worthy champions, the Spartans.
I read such critiques and I get the feeling that I must have seen a different film.
We know that had Leonidas and his 300 fled before the Persian host that the other Greeks would hardly have chosen to stay. And that it was the delay of three days at the Hot Gates purchased by the stand of the Spartans that gave the Athenians time enough to evacuate their city for Salamis.
The movie praises and romanticizes the Spartans and their king Leonidas. It was right to do so. They earned it.
Will Durant said that we must deal with the past as if it were the remains of a shipwreck. We guess from the planks and canvas and detritus that wash upon the shore the type of ship and cargo, the nature of the crew, the disposition of its captain, and the reasons for and the direction of the ship’s voyage. It is clearly impossible, but we do the best we can. This is the past as historians must deal with it.
Poets and artists and filmmakers can deal with the past differently. They are not bound by words but are free to mix in myth and imagination with history. The results are movies like 300, like Troy, like Apocalypto. We can include in this category movies like Patton and Gone With The Wind—romantic myths all of them.
Such movies entertain but also create an interest in the past. A professor of ancient history might have problems with 300, but even he must admit that the movie no doubt has led many students to his classroom.
And that was exactly what happened to me. Long ago and far away I was a callow youth who came upon the movie Spartacus. That did it. I was hooked on those old Romans. It mattered not at all that the movie was riddled with fancy and error and speculation. What mattered was that I was drawn into a lifetime of study of the ancient world. I imagine that there are young adults today who were entranced by 300, and will one day become scholars of Greek history.
The proper teaching of history is not just lecturing on ancient texts but the recreating of lost worlds. This 300 has done.
Whatever part of that movie is not true certainly should be.
Update: Had not Leonidas and his 300 stayed and died at the Hot Gates, there would have been no Athenian victory at Salamis later that year (480 BC). The Persians and their Eastern absolutism would have marched through Western Europe.
The philosopher Hegel (1770 – 1831) had this to say about Salamis.
The interest of the world’s hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism, a world united under one lord and sovereign, on the one side, and separate states, insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality, on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in history has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk, and that of no contemptible amount, been made so gloriously manifest.
The Spartans had only one duty, to allow the forming of Western Civilization. They did it, and did it well.