A gay day in Thermopylae

Frank Miller's 300 has lashings of homoeroticism and violence. But he's read his Plutarch and Homer.

John Dennen

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This film is insane. Everyone’s in pants, revealing glistening abs of Herculean proportions. No sensible man would go into battle this way. Having said that, in 1814 Jacques-Louis David did paint Leonidas at Thermopylae in just this manner. Naked, save for cloak and helmet. Groin aptly covered by his sword. David was of course gay and this film is so gay it’s awesome. Which is cool, because the Greeks were into that kind of thing in a big way.

This film, it should be said, is not restrained by the shackles of reality. That Battle of Thermopylae – where 300 Spartans and 700 Thespian volunteers held back the forces of the Persian Empire – may not have happened quite this way. Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, was real enough and he was present at the battle in person; it is unlikely that he was ten foot tall and had a harem of sex mutants.

But never mind that. There are some nods towards history in 300, if you watch it right. Don’t forget that Herodotus, the father of history, was quite happy to report on giant ants mining gold in India. So I think it’s fair enough to be pretty liberal about drawing a line between fantasy and epic.

300 starts with a vignette on the boy Leonidas’s upbringing in Spartan society. As depicted in the film, they did kill weak babies and the male children were removed from home to be reared in a harsh military training school, known as the Agōge. In 300 we see Leonidas coming of age when he goes into the wild to hunt a giant wolf. As it happens, hunting was an important custom. Spartans did face dangerous beasts, like wild boar, as training for war and to provide meat for the common mess.

But that’s not how a Spartan became a man. The Spartans had subjugated a whole people as their slaves. These were the Helots, whose name literally means ‘captives’ or ‘prisoners of war’. Sparta lived in constant fear, not only of external enemies, but also a Helot uprising. A warrior proved himself by sneaking into the countryside and killing an uppity Helot.

Slavery was practised throughout the ancient world but the form practised by the Spartans was controversial even then. Slaves were typically barbarians or non-Greeks. But the Helots were originally a Greek people who occupied the land before the Spartans came. Sparta had to ritually declare war on the Helots every year to justify their conduct.

However, it is true that the Spartans did believe they were fighting for the freedom of all Greece. Xerxes himself was informed of this as an explanation for the Spartans’ extraordinary conduct. Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and company often roar about this in the movie and brag to another crew of Greeks of how they, the Spartans, are professional soldiers. But it should be remembered that the Spartans could train constantly for war only because they had Helots to farm and sustain their economy.

Spartan attitudes were complex and it is tough for a comic book movie to dig into them. They do give Gorgo, Leonidas’s wife (Lena Headey), the requisite amount of sass for a Spartan woman. Women in Sparta had far more rights than their Athenian counterparts. They could own property in their own right and were remarkably politically active. The Spartans did not have adultery laws. Aristotle was so shocked by this behaviour that he blamed Sparta’s downfall on its being ruled by women. In the movie, the Persian emissary is not amused by Gorgo’s backchat when Lena Headey quips, ‘because we’re the only women who give birth to real men’. Frank Miller has clearly read his Plutarch, who attributed this saying to Gorgo, albeit in a different context.

It’s also quite right to have Gorgo played by a smoking hottie. Spartan women were famous in ancient times for being beautiful. Helen of Troy was, of course, formerly of Sparta and Spartan women, who had a Helot for the housework, were allowed to do things like exercise. The radical democracy of Athens permitted its women neither exercise nor the right to vote.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a high degree of madness in this movie. Xerxes did not have a monster executioner with blades instead of hands nor war rhinos. Nor, sadly, elephants. Alexander the Great had to slog it all the way to India for the Greeks’ first encounter with elephants.

But thankfully, Frank Miller does not neglect the best lines that history has attributed to Leonidas. ‘Eat heartily for tonight we dine in hell,’ roars Leonidas in one of the film’s finer bellows. Though he would have said ‘Hades’ this is not a bad translation. In Homer, Hades is an unremittingly miserable place. The Greek heroes had no heaven to look forward to. Leonidas was also reported as saying the most Spartan line of all time. The Persians ask the Greeks to hand over their weapons and surrender. Leonidas’ reply, just two words in Greek, was ‘molōn labe,’ which means quite literally ‘having come get them’. Or as 300 has it, ‘COME AND GET ‘EM!’

Some people may not appreciate their homoeroticism with lashings of Persian gore. This is probably one for the classicists. But there are plenty of Homeric references, if you watch it right. Ephialtes was the local goatherd who revealed the pass to Persians, by which they could surround the three hundred. In the movie he is a hideously deformed Spartan who would have been killed at birth if he had not been hidden. Leonidas won’t let him join the line because he can’t hold his shield up and protect his neighbour. And yes, they did fight this way in the phalanx. In the film, when battle is first joined, the two shield-walls slam together. This is how it would have been, like a scrum, a lot of shoving and yelling, hard to find space to strike. In ancient battles the losing side suffered far more casualties because it only became easy to kill once one side turned and fled.

But 300 has its cake and gorges on it – because an hour of shield-wall fighting would be boring. The Spartans go ahead and break their own line. They fight individually, like Homeric heroes, casting spears which miss or strike home by chance, or, as Homer would have it, the touch of a god. Ephialtes goes on to betray them which again is Homerically sound because in the Iliad ugly people are evil, or at least villainous. Homer equates beauty with excellence. It’s probably best to overlook the crypto-fascist subtext here – that if you don’t kill ugly weaklings at birth, they’ll grow up to sell you out to hordes of Eastern barbarians and kill you all.

Anyway I digress. This is supposed to be a movie review. So 300, it’s like history. Only better. And worse.

John Dennen read classics at Oxford University.

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