Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae


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 wrong.

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?'"

300 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 today.

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 killings" 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.

February 26, 2007