I realized after I started this blog that I was going to have to go see 300 2: Rise of an Empire (2014, dir. Noam Murro)(and here I just have to briefly note what a stupid title this is. There’s only one empire in the film, Xerxes’ Persian Empire, which has already ‘risen’ before the start of the movie, and given that he’s defeated in the film, it’s hardly appropriate to say that this film is about the rise of an empire). So this Saturday I bit the bullet and went and saw it. The film didn’t disappoint, because I had extremely low expectations for it. I actually liked it better than 300, mostly because it didn’t give me a screaming headache. There is some actual acting in the film, which is a new development in this franchise, and Sullivan Stapleton, who plays Themistokles, makes the interesting choice to not shout all of his lines at the top of his voice, which I found a refreshing change of pace. Eva Green plays Artemisia sort of like Emily Blunt’s character from The Devil Wears Prada after not getting a dress she really wants (which come to think of it would make an awesome film–The Devil Wears More Prada: The Wrath of Emily). But let’s take a look at the history behind the film, shall we?
Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you intend to see the movie, you may want to do so before reading this. I’m going to discuss the plot in detail, all the way up to the ending.
What Actually Happened
In 499, several Greek city-states in Ionia (the modern west coast of Turkey) revolted against Persian domination. The Athenians, who just established the world’s first democracy, decided to support the rebellion, and when the Persian king Darius defeated the rebellion, he decided to invade Greece to punish Athens for having gotten involved. Darius sent his general, Mardonus, at the head of fleet, while remained behind in Persia. Ultimately, Mardonus decided to land his fleet at Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens. Athens and Plataea sent troops to Marathon; the Athenians requested that the Spartans send troops, but the Spartans begged off, claiming that they had a religious ritual that would prevent them for fighting for 10 days. The Athenians blocked the exit routes from the beach at Marathon, and effectively pinned the massive Persian army down so that it could not properly organize itself in the small space available to it. Eventually, after waiting several days, the Greeks, under the command of the general Miltiades (although Themistokles might have been one of the other generals) decided to charge the Persians. Unable to maneuver, the much large Persian army was routed and forced back to the ships. Herodotus claims that the Athenians lost 192 men while the Persians lost about 6,400. Although ancient historians routinely exaggerate numbers, the Persian casualties seem plausible.
The Athenian victory at Marathon essentially ended Darius’ invasion plan. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus fought at Marathon and would later write a play, The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the battle of Salamis.
Xerxes succeeded his father in 486 and decided to launch another invasion of Greece in 481. He sent an army overland through Thrace and Macedonia, while simultaneously sending a large fleet to shadow it along the coast. Xerxes’ army was too large to support itself off the land, so an important function of the fleet was to carry supplies for the army. In response, about 30 Greek city-states decided to combine their forces to fight the Persians. The Spartans took command of the land forces while Themistokles took charge of the naval forces, although nominally a Spartan Euryblades was in command because the other city-states objected to the Athenians being in charge of it. There were about 400 ships, including a small contingent of 16 ships from Sparta. The decision was made for the land forces to occupy the pass at Thermopylae to block Xerxes’ army, while the Greek naval forces would confront the Persian fleet at Artemesium. Under Themistokles, the Greek navy effectively held off the much larger Persian navy, but this was undermined by the Persian defeat of the Spartans on land.
The Persians marched south, conquering Boeotia, and pressing into Attica. The Athenians, after an intense debate, voted to evacuate their entire population to the nearby island of Salamis. A small group of Athenians chose to remain behind and fortify the Acropolis, but were easily overcome and Xerxes sacked the city. The Greek naval forces took up a position in the narrow straits between Salamis and the Attic mainland. As the Persian navy advanced, Themistokles sent Xerxes a message that the Greek allies were quarrelling and that he was willing to defect to the Persians. When the Persians sailed into the straits, however, they encountered a unified Greek fleet. Although the Persian ships outnumbered the Greek ships, they were slower and unable to effectively maneuver within the cramps space of the straits, and the Persian fleet was smashed. Unable to supply his army, Xerxes had little choice but to turn back toward Persia before the Greeks could occupy the Hellespont. On the way back, a combined force of Spartans, Plataeans and others smashed his forces at the battle of Plataea.
How Greek Naval Combat Worked
Greek naval combat was very different from modern ideas about naval combat. It relied on a type of galley called a trireme, which had three banks of 54 oarsmen each, which allowed it to move extremely quickly and with considerable force. It also had sails, which were used for transit but had to be lowered for combat because the sails would have caught the air and slowed the ships down. Instead of trying to directly attack the sailors on the opposing ship, Greek ships were fitted out with a large battering ram on the prow and the main tactic in battle was to attempt to ram an oppose ship in the side, thus staving in the ship’s hull and causing it to drop below the waterline; while triremes were light enough that they didn’t actually sink, once the ship dropped below the waterline, the bottom two banks of oarsmen were likely to drown, thus essentially knocking the ship out of the fight. Then the attacking ship would back up and maneuver to find another target. These were not large ships, and most of their space, both on deck and below, was given over to rowing benches. They often carried a few archers to defend the top bank of oarsmen from missile attacks, but they were not troop transports.
A modern recreation of a trireme
Triremes required the rowers to be exceptionally well trained. The oars had to lifted out of the water, swung forward, lowered into the water and pulled back in complete unison, because if the rowers got out of sync, the oars would quickly get tangled and leave the ship incapable of moving. The Athenians very quickly came to specialize in trireme combat, and for them the co-ordinated rowing served as a symbol of democracy and social equality, with all the citizens rowing as one.
Alright Already! Get to the Movie!
Yeah, I know. That was a lot to read through. But history is, well, complicated. And 300 2 has a lot of problems to it. To be kind, I’m just going to talk in this post about the military stuff. I’ll save my other thoughts for another post. So this movie sort of bookends 300. It opens before it, and then the events of 300 happen, and then the second half of the movie takes place. Amusingly, at one point, the film seems to have forgotten that in the first movie, Leonidas pushed the Persian ambassador (Peter Mensah) into a bottomless pit, because this time the Spartans just beat the crap out of the ambassador, who is played by a different actor (even though Mensah also appears in this film, as Artemesia’s trainer).
The film opens with the battle of Marathon. Instead of engaging in hoplite warfare, the Greeks just charge the Persians and fight one on one, more or less the way the Spartans fight for most of 300. The film shows Themistokles leading the Greeks, and it shows him critically wounding Darius with an arrow, despite his son Xerxes’ desperate attempt to save him. The Persians sail home (which takes a month, according to the film), and a week later, Artemesia comes to visit Darius, and finds him with the arrow still in his chest. She pulls it out and he dies. This is so utterly, inexplicably silly that I laughed out loud in the theater. Surely in the month that it took the Persians to sail home, one of the medics would have noticed that their king still had an arrow in his chest. Standard medical practice would have been, at bare minimum, to snap the arrow off close to the skin, so as to avoid aggravating the injury by jarring the arrow. They probably would have tried to cut the arrow out, but I suppose, given that the patient is the king, they might have been reluctant to try that because it stands a good chance of killing him. Curiously, after five weeks with an arrow in his chest, Darius doesn’t have any signs of infection in the wound. And all of this ignores the fact that Darius wasn’t anywhere near Marathon and didn’t die til several years later.
Then the movie jumps forward to 480, and the lead-up to Thermopylae. The Athenians and some allies have put together a tiny fleet of about 30 ships and are frantically trying to get the Spartans to commit their ships. Keep in mind, the historical Sparta is located in the center of the Peloponnesus and didn’t actually have a navy of any real size, but this film isn’t about to let a little problem like geography get in its way. If the Jamaicans can have a bobsled team, the Spartans can have a huge navy.
The pre-Thermopylae portion of the film shows two naval engagements, which I suppose might be the film’s version of the battle of Artemesium, although it’s never explained where the battles are happening or how this action relates strategically to Thermopylae. The Greek ships are not triremes, which ought to have three banks of oars; instead they’re just regular galleys with a single bank of oars. This is sort of like a film about the Iraq War showing soldiers using WWI tanks.
In the first battle, Themistokles employs a standard tactic of having his ships form up into a circle facing outward, a formation known as a kyklos. A kyklos made it difficult to ram the defending ships, because there was no way to come at them from the side. But the Persian ships aren’t built to ram, so this shouldn’t have been the deterrent in the film that it would have been in conventional trireme warfare. But we do need to give the film some credit for showing an actual historical tactic. Despite the kyklos, a couple of Greek ships do manage to engage the Persian fleet and they do in fact ram them, (from both sides as once, even) because, as Themistokles explains, the Persian ships are weak in the middle.
But the ramming seems to be just a tactic to get the Greek ships close enough that the foot soldiers on the deck can climb onto the Persian ship and start killing people. This was a tactic that wasn’t used until the Romans invented it during the First Punic War more than 200 years later. But Themistokles is a pretty clever guy, so I guess he thought up the idea first.
In the second battle, Themistokles is even more cunning. When Artemesia, who happens to be in complete command of the Persian navy (instead of the five ships she actually commanded), sends some ships to engage the Greeks, Themistokles somehow calls up a bank of fog (seriously, it just happens, unless I missed something), and then, even more cunningly, he calls up an extremely narrow strait of rocks. Up until the rocks appear, the scene seems to be set on the open sea; there’s no warning that the ships are near land until the Persian commander realizes he’s literally sailing into a strait barely wider than his ship. Then he discovers that the Greeks have somehow crammed a galley into the strait sideways. The Persian commander’s ship runs into the galley, and then Themistokles and his troops jump down from above onto the Persian ship and engage in one of those really killer ab workouts they clearly do in their spare time.
Themistokles wears a blue cloak, because red means you’re a Spartan
The idea of luring a squadron of Persian ships onto the rocks during a heavy fog is not, in itself implausible. In fact, I’d venture to say that the scene was inspired by the actual battle of Salamis. But because the film makes absolutely no set-up whatsoever that there is coastline nearby or that fog is setting in, the audience is left to conclude that Themistokles has magically conjured them out of thin air.
Then the battle of Thermopylae happens off-screen, and Xerxes sacks Athens (so horribly, the film has to show it twice), and Themistokles goes to Sparta and asks Queen Gorgo for those ships they don’t actually have, and she refuses, and asks him bitterly whether he wants her to arm her sons (which is sort of an odd accusation for a Spartan mother to make because the actually answer would be “yes, please, may I send my sons to die for Sparta?”, but maybe the death of her husband has gotten her down momentarily). Oh, and as a friend pointed out to me, Themistokles essentially just pops off to Sparta for a few minutes, when in fact the journey would have taken a fairly substantial amount of time, given that Greece is a very rocky region.
In the second half of the film, obviously things have to turn against Themistokles, because it won’t do to have the hero actually just keep winning. So in the third naval battle, the Greeks sail into a trap of sorts. The Persians have an ironclad, driven apparently by a bunch of guys turning enormous capstans. I’m serious–it’s an enormous iron-hulled screw-driven ship. Oh, and it sprays a thick black liquid which might be crude oil, but which I think is actually supposed to be Greek fire. You know, that proto-napalm stuff that the Greeks invented about a thousand years later. I guess they got the idea from the Persians. So the Greek ships get all oily, and Artemesia sends her personal bodyguard to swim up to the Greek ships wearing backpacks filled with explosives that require Persian fire-arrows to detonate. I swear I am not making this shit up–the screenwriters are. I’m just the poor sucker who has to try and make sense of it, along with everyone else sitting in the audience. Oh, and during the battle, Aeschylus gets fatally wounded and dies soon after the battle. Apparently someone ghost-wrote The Persians for him.
Finally we get to the battle of Salamis, or at least what ought to be Salamis in this story. Xerxes is reluctant to fight, but Artemesia wants to punish Themistokles, so she calls Xerxes a pussy and the battle gets to happen. The Greeks are down to something like six ships, while the Persians have thousands left. The plucky Greeks stand and fight in the open sea, because, you know, actually fighting near Salamis would be unsporting or something. The Greeks do their whole ‘ram and board’ thing again (which is pretty homoerotic-sounding, probably unintentionally), but this time they generally get chopped up. Perhaps they should have worn some armor instead of just those spiffy blue cloaks.
Themistokles then unleashes his hidden weapon, which turns out to be a horse that he’s brought along. He rides between ships, which is a really impressive trick when you’re at sea, and runs into Artemesia and they have a knife-fight that turns into a Mexican stand-off, and then Queen Gorgo and her massive Spartan fleet shows up, rowing way harder than they need to because they forgot to take their sails down, and Gorgo saves the day and Themistokles gets all Freudian on Artemesia with his sword and she dies, and the end.
The Spartans, sail-rowing their hearts out to get to the battle
So if you compare my summary of the actual events with my summary of the film, you’ll notice that the film pretty quickly takes a left turn into fantasy-land sometime about two minutes into the first fight scene and never really manages to find its way home. Apart from the ramming of ships, almost everything about the fight scenes is wrong. The ships are wrong, the tactics are mostly wrong, the terrain is wrong, the number of battles is wrong, at least two famous people die who survived, and the ultimate victory is attributed to people who weren’t there and didn’t have a real navy. They exclude all the interesting stuff about Salamis (like how Themistokles suckered Xerxes into fighting, and how Artemesia got away, which is something I’ll talk about in a later post) and replace it with just clichéd cinematic blather. It takes a lot to make a movie about naval combat and get the terrain wrong.
On the up side, though, there’s a lot less shouty people in it, and less horrible narration. I got out of the theater without a headache. And all that puts this film miles ahead of 300.
Want to Know More?
300: Rise of an Empireis available for your dubious viewing pleasure.
The actual story of Salamis is fascinating, far more than this film is. Barry Strauss’ The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece — and Western Civilizationwould be a good place to start.
A good introduction to Greek warfare in general is Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. Although specifically about the later Peloponnesian War, it has good chapters on all the major forms of Greek warfare: infantry, cavalry, navy, and sieges.