Monday, March 19, 2007

Movie Review: 300


I just saw 300 yesterday, so it seemed a good subject to launch this blog with. I didn't go into the movie with great expectations, but still found the movie disappointing. And I don't mean the more than vaguely bigoted undertones. Don't get me wrong; I don't judge historical epics simply by how close they stick to the texts. However, I don't get the point of altering history beyond all recognizability. Some say that the public doesn't care about accuracy. My response is: if history doesn't matter, instead of making a movie about the stand of 300 Spartans against the Persian king Xerxes, why not make it about the stand of 300 Phlebaeans against the Emperor Orazand? Because the fact that it really happened is an irresistible hook. Humans are the only animal we know of that has an interest in the past. For that very reason, the past shouldn't be trifled with.

My biggest disappointment was that there is a good movie to be made about the Spartans, or about the Persians. These are two genuinely fascinating cultures. Unfortunately, the movie whitewashes the one (no pun intended), and stereotypes the other. Rather than nit-pick the historical errors in the movie, therefore, I will take the opportunity to say something about these two peoples. I will discuss the Spartans today, the Persians will get space later in the week.


Another name for Sparta is "Lacedaemon," which is why they bore the Greek letter lambda on their shields (poorly rendered in the movie). The Spartan state controlled much of southern Greece, known as the Peloponnesus. In particular, it encompassed two regions: Laconia, in the SE, and Messenia, in the SW. Laconia was the heart of the Spartan kingdom, and gives us the word "laconic," referring originally to the short, dry speech of the Spartans. In the SW was the land of Messenia, which was conquered by Sparta in the 7th century B.C. and remained under their thumb until the 4th century B.C.

Sparta was governed by a traditional government that was supposedly laid out by the semi-mythical lawgiver Lycurgus. Although later generations claimed that the system was laid out all at one time (part of which was enshrined in the oral constitution known as the "Great Rhetra"), we now think that, like most constitutions, it grew gradually over time.

Like most Greek city states, Sparta had a series of different offices. Unlike most later Greek cities, Sparta maintained a system of kingship into the Classical period. Unusually, Sparta had two kings, and two royal families, a system not without parallel in other societies. Spartan kings did not hold absolute power, however. There was also an assembly, which elected five annual magistrates known as ephors. Although the kings commanded the army in war, the ephors had considerable political authority, and in at least one case commanded a king to divorce his wife and marry another in order to produce heirs. The ephors also led the gerousia, an elected body of 28 elders all over 60. Between them, the kings, ephors and the gerousia held most of the political power in Sparta.

Spartan society was rigidly regimented. At the top were the Spartiates, full citizens, men who at the age of seven were taken from their families and raised in age groups in a process known as the agoge until they were 20. During this time they trained in warfare and dined in communal messes called sussitia, which they continued to attend after they reached adulthood. The Spartiates formed only a small fraction of Spartan society. At the time of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) there were about five or six thousand. Like many small groups that marry only among themselves with no influx of new blood their numbers dwindled over time. By the Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.), there were only 1500. More numerous were the perioikoi (dwellers round-about). These were free men living in Laconia and Messenia but who did not have the rights of Spartan citizens nor did they participate in the agoge. They generally served as light support troops in the Spartan army. Most of the population however were serfs or slaves known as helots. Many of these were descended from Messenians who had been enslaved when Messenia was conquered by Sparta. They formed 80% or more of the population. Naturally, the Spartiates were terrified at the prospect of a helot revolt, and their fanatical militarism must be seen in part as a response to this threat. Even the Spartans had to unbend eventually in the face of demographic reality, however, and on a few occasions helots were freed in exchange for military service, although afterwards they were even more distrusted than before.

Sparta is perhaps the closest ancient equivalent to a fascistic state. In subsequent centuries, reactionaries and militarists have held it up as a model of discipline and self-abnegation (Sparta was famously so uninterested in commerce that they continued to use iron spits as currency until the Peloponnesian War). For a liberal democracy, however, Sparta would seem to have little to offer.

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