Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae

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Frank Miller's
graphic novel, 300, comes to theaters on March 9, putting
the climactic battle between the ancient Persians and the Spartans
on the big screen. The film promises to be a heavily stylized visual
bacchanalia to be sure, but, in its subject matter and its timing,
it promises to convey a message both about our understanding of
the ancient past and our understanding of current events. With regard
to the ancient history, it gets a significant element completely

In one
of the trailers for the film, the Spartan king Leonidas is seen
worrying over his duty as king. How, exactly, should he face the
threat to Greece posed by the overwhelming military superiority
of the mighty Persian Empire? "What must a king do to save
his world," a despondent Leonidas asks of his wife, the beautiful
Gorgo played by British actress Lena Headley. She responds with
the certainty and poise that was supposedly characteristic of all
Spartan women. "Instead," she says gravely, "ask
yourself, u2018what should a free man do?'"

is not the first to posit that the Spartans at Thermopylae were
fighting for their freedom against the invading hosts of an oriental
despot. That has often been the way in which Thermopylae has been
portrayed. But for all its noble heroism, Thermopylae was not about
freedom, for the Spartans were not free, not as we understand freedom

They were
themselves invaders. They came, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt
said in his book History
of Greek Culture
, "during the great migration around
1100 B.C. [and] pressed into the valley of the Eurotas…." When
they arrived, they subjugated the Achaeans already living there,
though this subjugation was mild at first. But then came the "reforms"
attributed to the great and probably mythical lawmaker Lycurgus.
The subjugated peoples were divided into the perioeci and
the helots. The former were allowed to own poor plots of land while
the latter were fully enslaved to the Spartans proper. But even
the Spartans themselves were not free. They were held in thrall
by a state that practiced an early form of eugenics, that removed
children from families at a young age to rear them in the ancient
Spartan equivalent of military training academies, and that practiced
sundry other tyrannies. Its practices made Sparta a pariah. "Sparta,"
says Burckhardt, "was abominably hated."

The degree
of control the state exercised over the individual in ancient Sparta
would be the envy of any modern dictator. "The child,"
said Burckhardt,

…was to belong
to the caste rather than to a particular couple. The communal
education … began early and accompanied the Spartiate throughout
his whole life. Each age level controlled and watched over the
next one below it; at no time were the people without anyone ruling
over them. Exercising and hardening their bodies, engaging in
calisthenics and athletic contests, and stealing crops filled
the period of youth. It would scarcely be possible not to see
that all this was deliberately brutalizing. Before the altar of
Artemis Orthia, a divinity inspiring madness and murder … bloody
floggings were carried out, an exception in all Greece and a veritable
school in ferocity….

That ferocity
paid dividends in the form the crypteia, a practice in which
Spartan youths, thus trained in brutality, were turned loose on
the unfortunate helots at night, going out and killing as many as
was necessary to keep their population under control. It was a thoroughly
execrable practice that, disturbingly, finds something of its modern
analog in today's so-called "sport
of the homeless by dissolute teens. All in all
Sparta was not exactly a lovely place for an Ancient Greek, say
from Athens, to visit on a holiday. "It was not hard to keep
foreigners away," Burckhardt noted, "none went there unless
forced to, and then left as soon as they could."

This is
not to take anything away from the stupefying bravery of the Spartans
at Thermopylae. True, there they held the pass, an advantageous
position from which they could, in their limited numbers, fight
effectively against the unprecedented horde brought to the battle
by Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings. For two days they held off
the invading horde, succumbing only when betrayed. There is no denying
the heroism of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae.

Still, while
it is worth remembering the incredible heroism of Leonidas and his
men, it is necessary also to keep in mind what was really at stake.
In 300, when an enraged Leonidas confronts an astonished
and alarmed Persian emissary, he shouts, "You threaten my people
with slavery…." The slavery Leonidas feared was not the individual
slavery of a Greek citizen to a Persian master, but the subjugation
of the Spartan city-state under a Persian yoke. What freedom the
Spartans fought for at Thermopylae was not personal freedom but
the freedom of their polis, collectively, from barbarian
domination. In fact, it was not freedom the Spartans fought for,
but independence, and Thermopylae was but one battle among several
in the Greek war of independence from the Persian Empire.

26, 2007

Dennis Behreandt
[send him mail] is a freelance
writer and historian. His work appears frequently in The New
American magazine.

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