300: the use and abuse of Greek history

Zack Snyder's film is 'comic-book' entertainment, but that is little excuse for its xenophobia, amorality and inaccuracy.

Various Authors

Topics Culture

The most valiant are sometimes the most unfortunate. Thus there are triumphant defeats that rival victories. Nor did those four sister victories, the fairest that the sun ever set eyes on—Salamis, Plataea, Mycale, and Sicily—ever dare match all their combined glory against the glory of the annihilation of King Leonidas and his men at the pass of Thermopylae.

In terms of politico-cultural constructions of world history, the ancient Greeks’ unlikely victory over the numerically superior invading Persian forces between 490 and 479 BCE has held a privileged position. Throughout the centuries, Western writers and artists have repeatedly represented this military conflict as a triumph of Western ideals of freedom and self-determination over slavish submission to repressive forces of oriental despotism. It is true that the Great King of Persia styled himself as a god who ruled over his subjects as slaves and that the Greek city-states practiced participatory self-government to some degree (women, resident aliens, and slaves of course excluded). But thinkers, both ancient and modern, have taken the distinction to extremes.

Indeed, ancient Greek intellectual and cultural responses to these events gave birth to the idea of a great and impenetrable divide between inferior East and superior West. Eight years after the Athenian victory over the Persian king Xerxes’ fleet in the naval battle at Salamis in 480 BCE, the celebrated Athenian playwright Aeschylus produced his Persians at the festival of the City Dionysia in Athens. The monumental historical experience of the Persian wars allowed Aeschylus to break with established conventions in Greek dramaturgy, whose subject matter had for the most part been restricted to Greek mythological topics, in order to portray the historical event at Salamis on the tragic stage. By metonymy, the Persians came to represent the quintessential Eastern ‘barbarian’, and in a memorable choral passage Aeschylus wrote:

‘No longer will they that dwell throughout the length and breadth of Asia abide under the Persian yoke, nor will they pay further tribute through the master’s crushing necessity, nor will they fall headlong on the ground to revere him, since the kingly power has utterly perished.’ (Persians, lines 585-90)

To some scholars, Aeschylus’ play may be taken as the earliest extant example of what we have come to call Orientalism, the politico-cultural fabrication of an imagined ‘Orient’ that is forever and always inferior to ‘Western civilisation’ (1) A pervasive idea in Orientalist discourse has been that a putatively superior ‘Western civilisation’ was the only hope for the world’s salvation, that its very existence hung in the balance at the time of the Persian wars, and that the ancient Greeks, progenitors of the Western tradition, heroically preserved it on the field of battle. Other scholars have shown such sweeping characterisations of Western thought to be gross simplifications – as prone to stereotypes as those they purport to expose. But few would deny that a common trope has glorified ancient Greek culture, using the Persian wars as a focal point, as though it were a monolith directly opposed to the entirety of Asian culture.

In addition to Montaigne, startling examples of the notion are readily at hand. We shall confine ourselves to a few illustrations. In the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher Hegel opined that: ‘[The Persian Wars] live immortal not in the historical records of Nations only, but also of Science and of Art – of the Noble and the Moral generally. For these are World-Historical Victories; they were the salvation of culture and spiritual vigor and they rendered the Asiatic principle powerless.’

As the British utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill saw it, ‘The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.’ At a more pedestrian level, the American expatriate novelist and raconteur Henry Miller wryly mused on the Hellenic origins of Western vigour in his travelogue of Greece: ‘Everywhere you go in Greece the atmosphere is pregnant with heroic deeds… For stubbornness, courage, recklessness, daring, there are no greater examples anywhere. No wonder Durrell wanted to fight with the Greeks. Who wouldn’t prefer to fight beside a Bouboulina, for example, than with a gang of sickly, effeminate recruits from Oxford or Cambridge?’

Finally, as late as 1988 the German scholar Hermann Bengston could write: ‘In terms of world history, the ramifications of the Greek triumph over the Persians are almost incalculable. By repulsing the assault of the East, the Hellenes charted the political and cultural development of the West for an entire century. With the triumphant struggle for liberty by the Greeks, Europe was first born, both as a concept and as a reality….The freedom which permitted Greek culture to rise to the classical models in art, drama, philosophy and historiography, this Europe owes to those who fought at Salamis and Plataea… If we regard ourselves today as free thinking people, it is the Greeks who created the condition for this.’ (2)

A modern take on the triumph of the West

The film 300 (released on DVD in the UK this week), Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same title, represents a contribution from American popular culture to historical fantasies on the Persian-wars theme (3). The movie joins several Hollywood releases on ancient Greek and Roman topics in recent years, featuring celluloid male sex symbols: Gladiator in 2000 (Russell Crowe), Alexander in 2004 (Colin Farrell), and Troy in 2004 (Brad Pitt) (4). 300, however, is unique among such films on several registers. It performed extremely well at the box office, earning $70million in its opening weekend in America, which in itself suggests that the movie might have much to tell us about contemporary American popular culture. And 300 drew official censure from Iranian government officials (5).

Both the movie and the comic-book novel on which it is based appeared in times of deteriorating US diplomatic relations in the Middle East, and 300 opened as the extended American military presence in Iraq was increasingly testing the patience of both the American populace and the international political community. In this context, both Miller’s graphic novel and Snyder’s film may contribute to an American Orientalist xenophobia, seamlessly bridging the divide between ancient Persia and the present-day Middle East in the popular imagination. Both the film and the book took their place in an American political, social, and cultural climate which initially supported a passive acquiescence regarding the unjust transgressions of Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, and which has subsequently become bitterly divided concerning East/West relations and their domestic ramifications (6).

On the surface, anyway, 300 is a Manichean caricature of a battle which took place in August 480 BCE at Thermopylae (the ‘Hot Gates’), the strategic main land route from north and central to southern Greece in antiquity. Sparta’s king Leonidas, with 6,000-7,000 Greek troops, attempted to hold this pass between the mountains and the sea against an invading Persian army. Leonidas held the position for two days, with his numerical disadvantage in military manpower offset by the narrowness of the pass. However, Ephialtes, a local Greek of Malis, then revealed an alternative route to Xerxes, which enabled the Persian king to outflank the Spartan position. Learning of this betrayal, Leonidas released most of the Greek forces to return to their homelands and take up defensive positions there. He remained with his Spartan soldiers (and some seven hundred Thespian allies) to defend the pass. According to Herodotus, a Trachinian scout remarked that the Persians were so numerous that when they shot their bows, the multitude of arrows would blot out the sun. To this a brave Spartan warrior named Dieneces replied that this was good news, since the Spartans would then be able to fight in the shade (7). Leonidas and his three hundred Spartan hoplites died to a man in a heroic last stand (8). Herodotus relays that a prophecy stated that either the Persians would destroy Sparta or the Spartan king would have to die. Leonidas chose the ultimate patriotic sacrifice, and in the generation after the battle Herodotus saw an inscription at Thermopylae, where the Spartans had stood and died, that read:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here obedient to their words we lie.

Sparta: a model of democracy?

It is small wonder, then, that the Persian wars in general, and the battle at Thermopylae in particular, have inspired generations in the Western tradition, earning the highest praises of the likes of Montaigne, Shelley, Hegel and Mill. But even though Western thinkers have often held up classical Sparta as a paragon of virtue, anyone with some historical understanding of that ancient Greek community will chafe at the idea of freedom-loving Spartans, as 300 simplistically depicts them (9). Historical Sparta conquered the neighbouring region of Messenia and reduced its inhabitants to a Spartan state-owned population of slaves (helots). A Spartan secret police force (krypteia) kept close watch on the helots, ever fearful of a massive slave rebellion. The helot population performed agricultural labor and other menial tasks in order that Spartan male citizens could devote their lives, from boyhood well into their sixties, to military training and military service to the state.

A state-controlled eugenics program selected the finest physical specimens for the procreation of future Spartan hoplite soldiers, and five annually-elected magistrates, the ephors, inspected newborns and passed judgment on them. The small, the weak, and the handicapped were discarded, taken out and exposed to die. Male children who passed the ephors’ scrutiny would enter as boys into a brutal educational period of hardship and physical trials (agoge), depicted in the opening scenes of 300, the purpose of which was to produce Spartan killing machines. Spartiates lived most of their lives in military barracks, dining in their messes on a black broth other Greeks found repulsive. Spartan society rejected literature and other forms of high culture. Foreign imports, any type of luxury, and even the use of coined currency were spurned. In short, historical Sparta was a highly-militarised and repressive slave-owning society, not a bastion of freedom and democracy. It holds out an alien, totalitarian, nightmarish historical example to shudder at, not to emulate (10).

The troubling themes of 300

Most viewers of 300, we suspect, would find this review thus far to be little more than annoying historical pedantry, which seeks to take the fun out of the movie. If we should not hold on to romantic fictions about historical Sparta, neither should we delude ourselves about the historical knowledge of much of the viewing public. The movie-going experience of one of the reviewers underscored the latter caveat. As he stood in the ticket-line for 300, a mother and daughter just in front of him were discussing the film. The mother asked the daughter what the movie was about, and the daughter replied that it dealt with the same topic as Troy. The mother then said that she liked movies dealing with this subject matter, recalling how much she enjoyed Gladiator. Never mind that both were well more than half a millennium off, in either direction! And so it may well be superfluous to point out all of the film’s historical inaccuracies, such as the fact that the Spartan ephors were annually-elected civil magistrates and not an isolated priesthood of venal, diseased, lecherous old men, or that the traitor Ephialtes was a local resident of the mountainous area around Thermopylae and not a deformed outcast from Sparta.

History, then, gives way to dramatic embellishment. Along these lines, and in fairness to the film, it must be said that while it is based on a historical event, 300 is also a cinematic version of a comic-book rendition of that event. The comic-book genre, of course, has always constructed its narratives on the basis of straightforward and exaggerated dichotomies of Good and Evil, Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, Superheroes and Villains. 300’s comic-book binaries provide a stunning visual spectacle, featuring technical mastery of computer-generated backgrounds, iconic dramatic moments highlighted in slow-motion, animatronic creatures, and eerie, blue-screen tones punctuated by surreal red splashes of spraying blood that seem to freeze momentarily on the screen’s surface. As a fantasy film, in which cinematic technology marries the variable flows and rhythms of the movie and the bold, frame-by-frame illustrative quality of the comic book, 300 concedes nothing to films such as Hulk and the Spiderman trilogy.

The film 300 is replete with the standard ingredients for box-office success: the obligatory erotic scene and lots of violence. Given the source of 300’s inspiration (Miller’s graphic novel), what at times borders on caricature in the film comes as no surprise, but the stark, comic-book dichotomies of Good v Evil are nonetheless executed in a troubling manner. In addition to Orientalist aspects of the film, 300 would seem to reinforce other, deep-seated racial and phenotypical prejudices. Slavish, corrupt, and sometimes corpulent Persian emissaries and soldiers are often dark-skinned, serving as unsavoury foils for white, lean, muscular Spartans. The corrupt Spartan ephors are hideous and leprous, the traitor Ephialtes is a pathetically malformed hunchback, and the Persian army contains several gruesome, monstrous creatures. Despite the fact that the comic-book genre can account for the grotesque exaggerations, it is the case that 300 somehow asks the viewer to accept a pernicious correlation between physical appearance and moral qualities. This is perhaps not the most salutary message for a superficial popular culture accustomed to a steady television diet of What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, and America’s Next Top Model.

How should we think of 300?

Is it possible to interpret the film in a way that is other than literal? The movie depicts the Spartans, in point of fact, in a way that is hardly flattering. Their holy of holies is a group of disease-ridden, depraved old men who keep a young woman – clearly in her very early adolescence – as their sex slave cum talisman (seeing one ephor’s slimy tongue lick her neck is surely intended to be like witnessing a sex crime); the Queen to King Leonidas, seemingly hardened by her devotion to the imperatives of war, rather hastily submits to sex with a sadistic, corrupted Spartan politician in order to gain a hearing in the Spartan council; Greek soldiers build high walls out of their enemies’ dead bodies and randomly walk or lounge on their corpses throughout the movie.

Furthermore, although this could just be faulty artistry rather than a planned effect, the Greek characters are hardly less wooden and one-dimensional than those on the Persian side. The viewer has to impute feelings to King Leonidas and his family, based on how one might feel today to experience the separation from one’s family in wartime and, eventually, death. The film hints that it was different for the Spartans – that their warrior culture made their losses intelligible to them and somehow more acceptable – but it does not get us deeply enough into their worldview for us to understand how and why. The flashback to King Leonidas’ encounter with the wolf in the wild merely succeeds in making the Spartan way of life seem more alien. In sum, the Spartans are not so much more compelling than the Persians, then, that it becomes clear the movie intends a literal glorification of Greeks (as representing Europeans and Americans) vis-à-vis Persians (Middle-Easterners and Asians).

Still, if not a transparent parable of virtuous West confronting degenerate East meant to refer literally to today’s international politics, the movie at least refers to the veneration of the West at the expense of the East, a theme it would seem ill-advised, at the very least, to broach in today’s climate without greater care.

Do filmmakers have the responsibility to assess the current political climate and allow judgment about political messages explicit or latent in their film’s content to affect, and even limit, their creative endeavours? In his 1939 essay, ‘Hemingway and His Critics’, the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote of the pressure Hemingway faced from many critics to inflect his writing with a clearer political message. Trilling thought Hemingway capitulated to this pressure in some of his works and that this made these works inferior to his greatest novels: ‘Devoted to literalness, the critical tradition of the Left took Hemingway’s symbols for his intention, saw in his stories only cruelty or violence or a calculated indifference, and turned upon him a barrage of high-mindedness.’ The idea that ‘comfortable liberal humanitarian feelings’ should be the upshot of a work of art denies ‘how complex and subtle art is and, if it is to be “used”, how very difficult it is to use it’ (11). Artists’ relation to their audience is one of ambivalence since they both accept their culture and stand apart from it to criticise or comment on it. They need to be free to work in service not to current political ends but to some kind of greater truth (12).

The avoidance of meaning

The idea that art should not be beholden to particular political imperatives does not, however, imply that art has no responsibilities at all. In his literary criticism, Trilling prized the moral imagination and moral realism, by which he thought the best works captured the deep realities of human emotional, social, and intellectual experience (13). While artists might have limited political obligations, this is because of their service to higher ends, as scores of literary critics believed until recently. It is here we can – and should – find fault in 300. What is so troubling about the movie is not that it is politically incorrect – although one could hardly imagine a worse time to peddle such wares. Instead, if it is an attempt to use caricature to make some finer point – the way war causes humans to stereotype and brutalise the enemy, the way we have come to accept a simplistic East/West division, the way ancient Spartans viewed their world, etc – the viewer is hard-pressed to know what it is.

The problem with 300 is that it is devoid of both the moral imperatives of art in Trilling’s sense as well as any clear political stance for which critics might criticise it, as they once criticised Hemingway’s symbolism. And in important matters such as Trilling raised, all we have in 300 is ‘seems’. The movie avoids indication of any kind of moral truth in the devastation it describes. In fact, its use of special effects shores up its self-presentation as a kind of historical fantasy – cartoon-qua-epic. But rather than having a great story to tell, the movie seems to have only effects with which to tell it. It uses its considerable technique to help us imagine a hellish scene. In the hands of combatants, spears do not merely stab people to death, but they sever legs and arms and heads from bodies at a single, lethal slice, accompanied by chilling sound effects befitting such butchery. Without a sense of why we are being treated to this display, it becomes pure entertainment and technique rather than art. Who would have thought that the juxtaposition of stylised, mass-produced symbols of male beauty and virility and brutal executions could be so entertaining?

The turn away from genuine tragedy in a movie like 300, then, seems to belong to a larger turn away from meaning. The film does not purport to be realistic or even to convey meaning by the device of another style. Instead, it possesses an air of remove, a self-referential quality that exempts it from having to take a position on what it depicts, as if it is saying: Here is a movie about the attempt to portray the battle at Thermopylae. As one of the most self-referential institutions of American culture, Hollywood has a long tradition of movies that incorporate references to whole or parts of previous ones.

One key to 300, then, might be that it seeks not only to bring to the screen a graphic novel/cartoon, but also to update a previous cinematic portrayal of the battle: director Rudolph Matés The 300 Spartans, released in 1962. This movie is also replete with violence, of a degree that might be surprising to contemporary viewers used to the idea that more recent films have a corner on the market, but it does not portray the Persians in the demeaning light so many find reprehensible in 300 (the use of white actors to play the Persians probably helps in this). Still, the ending voice-over makes it clear that the filmic portrayal intends to show the Spartans as being on the side of freedom and justice. The narrator concludes the film in paraphrase of the ancient Spartan inscription preserved for us by Herodotus: ‘Oh Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their word.’

This last message of the fallen heroes rallied Greece to victory, first at Salamis, as predicted, and then at Plataea. But it was more than a victory for Greece. It was a stirring example to free people throughout the world of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny. The movie 300 changes many elements from the older film, even as it veers further from historical fact than The 300 Spartans. We suppose that if 300 intends to convey a message, it might be one of sophisticated irony in the context of ersatz multicultural and diversity imperatives, which have characterized the decades intervening between the two productions.

Perhaps what we are seeing with the international response to 300 is an indication of the costs of the ‘ironic detachment’ postmodernists have adopted as their rallying cry (14). Rather than try to calculate the political effects of art and entertainment in a specific climate, a better upshot from this controversy might be a push for a higher level of artistry in our cultural expressions, a demand that filmmakers pay some attention, anyway, to such matters as content, judgment, and moral imagination. After all, in the outcry against violence in popular culture, the consensus has been for an avoidance of gratuitous violence – commonly understood as violence that is depicted in the absence of any message of right or wrong (15). By this standard, the violence alone in 300 would certainly qualify as unacceptable (16).

Yet the question remains: how should we think of depictions of great heroism and extreme violence that play fast and loose with historical reality? With the globalisation of the economy, cultural products now hit worldwide markets instantaneously upon release. The thought that American movies and other cultural forms will be taken literally, standing on their own apart from the context of their creation in a permissive and fantasy-drenched popular culture that is neutral as to the scenes it depicts, could suggest a need to recall the distinction between cultural expression and real-life politics. In addition, it suggests, on the one hand, a need for increased cultural exchange of the ideas of critics and not just proponents of that culture and, on the other, a rethinking of our own aesthetic standards.

As the case of 300 makes clear, a consideration of what we expect from commercial entertainment and art, which are so often quite separate these days, is surely necessary. A refusal to accept the simplistic dichotomies of Orientalist discourse, as well as its opposite, would be a logical beginning. Both offer automatic, dismissive takes on particular times, places, and peoples; saturated with cultural determinism, such interpretations often assume all compatriots possess the same folkways, traits, and viewpoints and tend to give thumbs up or thumbs down on entire cultural traditions.

It may be that where 300 goes most awry is in its ungainly blend of fact and fantasy. Its characters are like animations, but they are not. 300, like much of popular culture more generally, is so influenced by this particular type of fantasy that it does not seem to have been obligatory for the filmmakers to hint at why they are using the images they employ. In this light, we might see that the real abuse here is not that 300 factually misconstrues the times it depicts, which can never be too weighty a criticism of fantasy, but that it uses history to indulge violent, amoral fantasy, giving it the imprimatur of real life without relating it to any framework of morality or meaning. This shortcoming is highlighted by the stakes involved in the case of a cultural artefact that gives no clue to the viewer as to whether it is to be taken as a demeaning portrait of the people of an entire region of the world or a kind of rarified joke; propaganda in the ‘clash of civilizations’ or some kind of satirical commentary on it.

Diminishing Herodotus

Our final criticism returns to the problem of the potentially tragic consequences of historical/historiographical unconsciousness. The primary source for the story of Thermopylae is Herodotus’s nearly-contemporaneous history. Those viewers of 300 who bother to take the time to learn this fact may well assume that Herodotus’ narrative of the Persian wars exhibits the same facile, dichotomous account of the forces of Good (freedom-loving Greeks) pitted against evil incarnate (despotic Persian barbarians), as we seem to find in both Miller’s graphic novel and in its cinematic adaptation (17). We cannot assume that they will also take the time to read Herodotus’ massive work in order to disabuse themselves of such an impression (18). We have witnessed the converse of such mental carelessness regarding the ancient Greeks in academia, as the most rabid of the ‘New-Age archaeologists’ and Afrocentrists have reduced the Greeks to little more than racist, misogynistic, sabre-rattling ethnocentrists. Both characterisations are, of course, far wide of the mark.

If one were to form an opinion about Herodotus the historian on the basis of 300, one would likely conclude that Herodotus presents a prime example of the prejudiced mind, as GW Allport defined it in his classic work of psychological literature, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport stated that the prejudiced personality exhibits hasty, definitive, and dichotomous thinking, does not allow for ambiguities, and persists once a stance has been taken on an issue, regardless of contrary evidence (19).

Readers of Herodotus quickly learn that his text is as far from these tendencies as possible. For example, Herodotus has three Persian nobles discuss fine points of constitutional theory; he takes a pluralist position on the question of normative cultural practices, arguing that there is no inherent evaluative difference among them; and once the Persian threat has collapsed, he ends his entire work with a heinous act of Greek brutality against Persian victims, issuing an admonition on the corrosive effects of power, whether among Greeks or non-Greeks.

Herodotus’ History resists simple value-laden dichotomies and facile binary oppositions. It is truly a historical account for our times, since throughout it exhibits a wide-eyed, open-minded, and curious receptivity to foreign cultural practices. In today’s familiar language, we can legitimately say that a world-view of multiculturalism, diversity, and pluralism characterizes Herodotus’s writing (20). This, to our minds, is why his history deserves to be called a classic. For anyone to think, from an impression gained from a viewing of 300, that Herodotus rather wrote a jingoistic, ethnocentric, triumphalist manifesto of Greek superiority over non-Greek, barbarian inferiors would be a great pity, indeed.

300 was released on DVD in the UK on 1 October.

Subho Basu is the author of Does Class Matter? Colonial Capital and Workers’ Resistance in Bengal, 1890-1937 (Oxford and New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2004) and co-editor of Rethinking Indian Political Institutions (London: Anthem Press 2005). Craige Champion is author of Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 2004) and editor of Roman Imperialism: Readings and Sources (Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers 2004). Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is the author of Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the American Settlement House Movement, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press 1993) and Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co. 2001). The authors are colleagues in the History Department in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

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(1) It was no coincidence that Edward Said cited Aeschylus’s Persians as one of the first instances of this cultural politics: E.W. Said, Orientalism (New York 1978), 56, “What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile ‘other’ world beyond the seas.” For the impact of the Persian-war experience on ancient Greek historical consciousness, ancient Greek collective identity, and the creation of a triumphalist Greek-barbarian dichotomy in ancient Greek art, see J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece (Cambridge 1972); for the impact on Greek tragedy, see E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford 1989). See generally P. Cartledge, The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others (Oxford 1993).

(2) G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York 1956), 257 [Hegel delivered the first version of his lectures in the winter of 1822-23]; J.S. Mill, Discussions and Dissertations, vol. 2 (London 1859), 283; H. Miller, The Colossus at Maroussi (San Francisco 1941), 37; H. Bengston, History of Greece: From the Beginnings to the Byzantine Era (Ottawa 1988), 106.

(3) F. Miller and L. Varley, 300 (Milwaukie, Oregon 1999). Miller’s graphic novel seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by W. Golding’s essay on Thermopylae in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (1965).

(4) For Hollywood’s sporadic fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity, see J. Solomon, The Ancient World in the Cinema (New Haven 2001).

(5) For example, Javad Shamqadri, cultural adviser to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stated that the film was a form of “psychological warfare” against Iran and its people; while the daily Iranian newspaper Ayandeh-No ran a headline reading Hollywood Declares War on Iranians. The Islamic Republic News Agency reported (5/2/07) that a documentary film, Glory of Persepolis, opened in Tehran on May 1 as “a proper response to the insulting Hollywood movie 300

(6) For examples of what one may read as tacit assimilations of ancient Persia and present-day Iran, see the blog of F. Thompson (March 19, 2007), and the San Francisco Chronicle movie review by C. Stillwell, 300: Critics Hate It, America Loves It (March 28, 2007). Civil and human rights abuses enabled by the Patriot Act and detention centers at Guantanamo Bay are symptomatic of Washington’s xenophobic reactions to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. For a bracing account of discriminatory ethnic profiling in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11, see L. Cainkar, No Longer Invisible: Arab and Muslim Exclusion After September 11, Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002)

(7) The word-play in Herodotus has a double-entendre: fighting in the shade, the Spartans would also become shades; that is, they would join Hades’ kingdom of the dead.

(8) The principal ancient source for the battle is Herodotus, Histories, 7.201-233. Diodorus Siculus, writing more than four hundred years after the event, provides a briefer narrative (11.5.4-11). For a succinct and reliable modern account of the Persian wars, see P. Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (Berkeley repr. 1998).

(9) Dissident Athenians, most famously Plato, disenchanted with what they perceived as undesirably loose and licentious aspects of their democracy, could admire Spartan order and discipline in the abstract—as long as they didn’t have to live there. For the romanticizing tradition on ancient Sparta, see E.N. Tigerstedt, The Legend of Classical Sparta in Classical Antiquity, 3 vols. (Stockholm 1965-78); E. Rawson, The Spartan Tradition in European Thought (Oxford 1969); J. Tolbert Roberts, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton 1994), 156-74.

(10) On their part, Persian kings posed as divine rulers and perpetrated ruthless atrocities upon recalcitrant subjects. Of the ancient Spartans Moses Finley once wrote, “I am frankly unable to visualize these people” (The Use and Abuse of History, 2nd edition (London 1986), 171). For historical Sparta, see W.G. Forrest, A History of Sparta, 950-192 B.C. (London 1968), and the numerous publications by Paul Cartledge; on the agoge, see N.M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill 1995).

(11) Lionel Trilling, “Hemingway and His Critics,” in L. Wieseltier, ed., The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays/Lionel Trilling (New York 2000), 10, 14.

(12) Trilling writes that in subjecting Hemingway’s works to a political litmus test, “We had, in other words, quite overlooked the whole process of art, overlooked style and tone, symbol and implication, overlooked the obliqueness and complication with which the artist may criticize life, and assumed that what Hemingway saw or what he put into his stories he wanted to have exist in the actual world.” “Hemingway and His Critics,” 17.

(13) See, for instance, Trilling, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel” and “The Princess Casamassima” for just a taste; in Wieseltier, Moral Obligation, 105-19, 149-177.

(14) Philosopher Richard Rorty advanced this as a desirable stance toward the times. See, for example, his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA 1998). This same attitude was a central and even defining trait of mid-twentieth century pop art and popular culture forms, a direct inspiration for 300. Critic Barbara Rose wrote of the aesthetic sensibility that it “suspends judgment in a passive, detached fashion”; historian Rochelle Gurstein recently described it as “studied nonchalance.” Gurstein, “Avant-garde and Kitsch Revisited,” Raritan 22.3 (Winter 2003), 150-51.

(15) It is this precise standard—of gratuitousness—that is the definition of pornography. One critic deems pornographic, violent scenes those that “visually portray in detail or graphically describe in lurid detail the violent physical destruction, torture, or dismemberment of a human being, provided that this is done to exploit morbid or shameful interest in these matters and not for genuine scientific, educational, or artistic purposes.” Harry M. Clor, Obscenity and Public Morality: Censorship in a Liberal Society (Chicago 1969), 245.

(16) By way of contrast, for instance, the combat film The Thin Red Line (1998), like many in its genre, has many scenes of extreme and graphic violence. But it conveys its intent unequivocally: to show this particular scene of human suffering from a particular vantage point and the horror of war generally.

(17) Miller’s graphic novel describes the Persian objective as “to SNUFF OUT the world’s one HOPE for REASON and JUSTICE” [capitalization in original], while its back dust-cover jacket reads, “The army of Persia—a force so vast it shakes the earth with its march—is poised to crush Greece, an island of reason and freedom in a sea of mysticism and tyranny.”

(18) Sales of translations of Herodotus soared as a result of the box-office success of the film The English Patient (1996), in which the protagonist mitigates his dreadful pain by listening to his nurse read from the Histories. There is no telling, however, whether a significantly greater number of people became familiar with Herodotus’s work as a result.

(19) G.W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Cambridge, Mass. 1954), 400-403.

(20) Cf. F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, trans. J. Lloyd (Berkeley 1988), 369, “But what is surprising is that, more often than not, the first-person plural, we, is replaced by the third-person plural: not we, but the Greeks, which is again a non-personal form: the ‘others’ and the Greeks, the barbarians and the Greeks, them

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