300, Ancient Greece, David Wenham, Dilios, Freedom!, Gerard Butler, Gorgo, Lena Headey, Leonidas, Movies I Hate, Spartans
In a previous post, I discussed the problem of how 300 (2007, dir. Zack Snyder) depicts the battle of Thermopylae. But the battle isn’t the only problem with the film. We also need to talk about the film’s depiction of Spartan society. (You didn’t think that the only problems with this film were in the battle scenes, did you?)
Spartan society was famously austere by Greek standards. In the middle of the Archaic Period, c. 750 BC or so, Spartan society chose to focus itself on warfare to the exclusion of most of the other things that Greeks typically did, such as farming and craft work. Whereas most Greek soldiers were essentially part-time warriors like the American National Guard, Spartan soldiers were full-time professionals. Everything in Spartan society was subjugated to the goal of producing great soldiers.
Spartan boys were raised in a matter that modern Americans would find shockingly harsh, if not downright cruel. Plutarch tells us that Spartan officials examined new-born infants to determine if they were health enough to be raised. Babies that did not meet the state’s standards were thrown off a cliff.
The movie mostly ignores this; although an early scene does seem to show such an examination, the film does not explain the significance of the scene. When Leonidas (Gerard Butler) encounters the horribly-deformed Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), he treats Ephialtes with dignity and compassion, and tries to let him down easy, offering him work tending the wounded. The historical Leonidas would almost certainly not have done that. Spartans considered the physically deformed unworthy of survival. This is a society that entertained itself by making their subject helot neighbors get drunk and dance and then laugh and throw things at them for not dancing well; they were hardly champions of the notion that all life has dignity. But disdain for the handicapped does not play well in modern society, and so despite hinting at the actual way Spartans treated such people, the movie instead projects modern values back onto the Spartans to keep our sympathies.
At seven, Spartan boys were taken from their family’s household and were thereafter raised in communal barracks with other boys of their age group; they would not live in private again until they were 30; even married men were expected to live in the barracks rather than with their wives. Various practices were designed to produce boys who were tough, disinterested in luxury, ambitious, and clever. They were beaten for minor infractions. They were allowed only minimal clothing and had to sleep on piles of river-rushes. They were not provided with sufficient food, so that they would become skilled at hunting and stealing food, but were beaten if they were caught with food they had not been given, so they would learn to be clever. Boys were encouraged to fight each other, and part of their coming of age ritual involved being beaten so brutally at the altar of Artemis that some of them died. Exactly how accurate these details are is unsure, since Plutarch was writing centuries after the decline of Classical Sparta, but he is one of our primary sources for life in ancient Sparta.
300 certainly depicts this aspect of Spartan society. Young Leonidas is trained to fight starting at 5, and is forced to fight a wolf in the middle of a snow-storm (which, of course, Greece is known for) while wearing only a loin-cloth. We see him being beaten while tied to a post. The general austerity of Sparta is also depicted. When the villainous Theron (Dominic West) is killed by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), his corruption is proven to the Gerousia (the Spartan council) when the gold coins that Xerxes has bribed him with fall out of his tunic. Spartans famously scorned gold currency as corrupting, and instead used iron cooking-spits, so this detail rings true, even if Theron is an invented character.
But the film takes this austerity to absurd levels by showing the Spartan soldiers consistently wearing nothing but sandals, a jockstrap, a cloak, and occasionally a helmet. This certainly allows for immense amounts of eye-candy (and I’m all in favor of generous servings of beefcake in film), but this is both silly as domestic clothing and downright absurd as battle gear. Like other hoplites, Spartans wore a full panoply of armor, which typically included shin greaves, a breast-plate, and helmet, as well as spear and sword. This was extremely heavy; modern experiments have tended to produce a panoply that weighs about 70 pounds. Men fighting under the hot Mediterranean sun would probably have been exhausted after about half an hour. During the Classical period, the Greeks slowly lightened the panoply, discarding the greaves and finding ways to lighten the breast-plate and helmet, but this was in the period after Thermopylae. So the armor that we see Leonidas and the other Spartans wearing simply cannot be justified. I suppose it bears echoes of the nudity we see in much of the male statuary from ancient Greek, but if that was the point, why are the men wearing jockstraps? Probably because male genitals are still largely taboo in America cinema, or perhaps because it would create too much homoeroticism for the fan-boy audience to be comfortable with.
Spartan government was three-sided. They had two royal families, each of which provided one king at a time. Leonidas came from the Agiad dynasty, and is correctly depicted essentially as a general rather than a political leader, but his co-king Archidamus I, of the Eurypontid dynasty, makes no appearance in the film. The Gerousia, the Spartan council, is shown as apparently running Sparta, when in reality it was more of a legislative steering committee and law court. The actual running of Sparta was in the hands of the ephors, officials elected by a popular assembly. In 300, however, the ephors are not the leaders of Sparta but rather hideously deformed or diseased “priests of the old gods” who stymie Leonidas in his efforts to get Sparta to declare war.
Ok, I get that action films traditionally don’t provide nuanced depictions of ancient political systems, and some simplification of what was a complex system is understandable, but turning the city’s elected government officials into creepy priests suffering from terminal acne is just weird.
Spartan women occupied a place of considerable prominence in Spartan society. Because men did not live at home, even after marriage, until they were 30, Spartan households wear largely run by the wives and mothers, who possessed considerably greater legal rights than other Greek women did, and were allowed to own and control their own property. Whereas most Greek women were expected to remain at home, Spartan women seem to have been considerably more visible. Because they had so much influence over property and households, they apparently exercised some degree of political influence within Sparta, a truly remarkable arrangement in a Greek world that generally saw public society as the province of men. They were expected to be physically active and engage in vigorous dancing and calisthenics so that they would bear healthy children.
But you wouldn’t know any of that from the film. Leonidas’ queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), is the only woman in the whole film with an actual speaking role, and the impression the film gives is of an essentially male-dominated and male-populated society, when in reality, Sparta was the least male-dominated of all Greek communities. The near-complete marginalization of women is not so much a reflection of historical Sparta as it is a reflection of modern male-dominated action film conventions, in which women exist primarily to be love interests or kidnap victims in need of rescue. The film does, I suppose, deserve some props for giving Gorgo something to do that doesn’t involve being rescued, but her entire story arc is one of failure; her scenes could be deleted entirely without having a dramatic impact on the overall plot of the film.
And Gorgo’s story-line contains one of the most egregious inaccuracies in the film. After the Spartans depart, Gorgo works unsuccessfully to persuade the Gerousia to send reinforcements to Leonidas. The villainous Theron coerces her into having sex with him as the price of his agreement to support her efforts. However, when the Gerousia meets, Theron seeks to discredit her by accusing her of adultery. In the actual Sparta, this would have been absurd. Spartan society required women to give birth to as many children as possible, so as to maintain the number of Spartan soldiers. Xenophon tells us that Spartan men routinely shared wives under a variety of circumstances, such as when an older man shared his wife with a younger man, for the purposes of keeping the wife pregnant. Men away from Sparta for a prolonged period were expected to arrange a lover for their wives. In other words, far from being shamed for committing adultery, Gorgo would have been expected to take a lover while Leonidas was out of town.
Sparta and Homosexuality
The movie also omits another element of Spartan society, named the important role that homosexuality played in it. Spartan boys were, like other Greek boys, expected to form homosexual relationships with older men, and Xenophon says that Spartan soldiers took male lovers, although they disliked the practice of some communities, such as Thebes, who structured their elite military around pairs of lovers. For Greeks, encouraging sexual relationships between soldiers meant that they would fight harder to impress and protect their lovers.
But Zack Snyder probably figured that featuring a band of macho beefcake warriors groping each other during breaks in the fighting would not play so well to the fan-boys and teenagers his film was aimed at, so instead he overlooks that and offers instead mostly chaste and presumably heterosexual men. Leonidas is clearly straight; he gets some gentle pillow-talk with Gorgo and thinks of her body when he contemplates submitting to Xerxes (who clearly got his freak on a long time ago and never looked back). He also derides the Athenians as ‘boy-lovers’, conveniently forgetting that most of his soldiers would have fallen into that same category.
Dilios and Aristodemus
Another way that the film substantially betrays the Spartan spirit is in its treatment of Dilios (David Wenham), who loses an eye fighting and is sent back to Sparta before the final battle. He is the only survivor (of a battle famous precisely for its lack of survivors) and the narrator of the film. In the film’s terms, his dismissal from the army enables him to convey Leonidas’ love to Gorgo and, a year later, to lead an enormous army of Greeks to victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea.
But this ignores the fact that Spartan society considered leaving a battle or surviving in defeat a sign of total cowardice and moral worthlessness. The poetry of Tyrtaeus of Sparta dwells at length on the importance of dying in battle, going so far as to describe it as “beautiful” (such, at least, is one way to translate the Greek agathos); a man who flees battle will suffer social humiliation and poverty and be forgotten after death. Plutarch reports famous anecdotes in which Spartan mothers reject sons who survive battles in which Sparta is defeated; in several cases the mothers go so far as to kill cowardly sons. According to him, Spartan mothers tell their departing sons to return with their shields (that is, victorious) or on them (that is, being carried on the shield as a stretcher); returning without the shield is a sign that the man threw away his shield so he could flee faster.
Instead of being given command so as to avenge the Spartan dead, Dilios would have been ridiculed, and his own mother would have tried to kill him. And the movie knows about this; Gorgo tells Leonidas to return with his shield or on it. So once again, the movie makes a show of saying one thing and then doing something very different when following the rules would disrupt the story.
In fact, Dilios was a real person. His actual name was Aristodemus, and he and another man, Eurytus, suffered eye problems at Thermopylae (Herodotus calls it a disease of the eye, but perhaps he means a wound). Leonidas ordered them to return home, but Eurytus refused and fought even though blind. Aristodemus, however, obeyed Leonidas; as a result, Herodotus tells us he was branded a coward, and men refused to speak to him or give him a light for his fire. A third Spartan, Pantites, also survived because he had been sent somewhere as a messenger and failed to get back to Thermopylae in time. He hanged himself.
However, these details don’t fit with modern notions of how soldiers behave. Perhaps humiliating a wounded veteran is too much like what happened to some Vietnam veterans. So the movie simply ignores this element of Spartan society.
The cinematic Spartans are fighting for “freedom”, and the Spartans are consistently presented as making free choices to fight, in contrast to the Persian soldiers, who in some scenes are shown being forced to fight. So the movie offers a contrast between the freedom-loving Spartans and the essentially enslaved Persians. This may well have been how contemporary Greeks viewed the conflict, so on that level, the film may have gotten something right.
But the film grossly oversimplifies this dichotomy by ignoring other major features of Spartan society. Like all Greeks, the Spartans owned slaves, and thought nothing wrong with it. Also, uniquely among Greeks, the Spartans had also virtually enslaved their immediate neighbors, forcibly reducing them to the level of helots (roughly, serfs). Every Spartan citizen (such as all the Spartan warriors in the film) was assigned the labor of a set number of helots, who were expected to do things like farm work so that the Spartans could devote themselves full-time to military matters. So while the Spartans might have been fighting for some notion of freedom, it wasn’t freedom in the sense of equality of choice, so much as it was freedom of Spartan citizens to own slaves and control helots. And once again, we can see the film rightly recognizing that modern audiences would be uncomfortable with such details and instead substituting ideas that are more in line with what their audience is likely to think appropriate.
(Also, and here I confess I’m going out on a limb, I don’t think Sparta had a bottomless pit in the center of town into which they could conveniently throw people. But perhaps I’m wrong about that.)
So instead of giving us an accurate historical treatment, the film chooses to project modern values back onto the past, asserting that past peoples are just like us, only they look better in jockstraps.
Want to Know More?
300is available in multiple formats on Amazon.
Paul Cartledge is arguably the world’s foremost authority on Sparta, and has written a number of important works on it. His Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300-362 BCis probably the best look at Spartan history (down to the late Classical period) generally available. It combines archaeological evidence with the sparse literary sources.
The best work on Spartan women is Sarah Pomeroy’s aptly-named Spartan Women, which examines everything the sources can tell us about Sparta’s treatment of women and families, which was vastly different from women elsewhere in ancient Greece.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, I mis-spelled Lena Headey’s last name. I regret the error.