When boyhood’s fire was in my blood, I read of ancient freemen

by Kieran Healy on October 5, 2006

I just watched the trailer for 300, a film version of a Frank Miller graphic novel (which I haven’t read) about the battle of Thermopylae. Looks like the core of it is a good old relentless battle in the spirit of Zulu. There’s also some stuff on Sparta and its amazing toughness, Persia and its big golden thrones, and ambassadors to Sparta standing unwisely close to large open pits. The Spartan tradition of compulsory homosexuality was less in evidence in the trailer. My feeling is that the likes of Melanie Phillips, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Davis Hanson are already drafting the flinty Op-Ed pieces they’ll publish the week the film comes out. They can add themselves to the wide variety of people who have been inspired by the story of Thermopylae. It’s all about juggling the analogy to make sure that you get to be one of the lonely 300, and not the vast invading foreign army.

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Wronglabel / 300
10.06.06 at 8:32 am

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1

floopmeister 10.05.06 at 10:29 pm

It’s all about juggling the analogy to make sure that you get to be one of the lonely 300, and not the vast invading foreign army.

Yep, this is exactly the point I made a few threads ago (talking about the Peloponnesian War):

Funny, this somehow reminds me of the spoof ‘Star Wars’ film poster that did the rounds of the net after 911 – with Bush cast as Luke and a looming bin Laden in the background, where Vader was originally placed…

…Still, the point is that, as someone mentioned above, the narrative exists in and of itself – all we do with our duelling historical analogies is fight over the pre-determined roles.

2

tom bach 10.05.06 at 10:29 pm

My favorite Thermopylea anaology, because it is wrong on so many level, is http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~sparta/topics/essays/academic/alamo.htm

3

moheroy 10.05.06 at 10:42 pm

Or even more importantly that one isn’t one of the Thespans, or even worse the Spartan’s Helot slaves who got to die almost completely forgotten while their overlords got all the glory.

4

floopmeister 10.05.06 at 11:11 pm

God – yeah not one of the Thespans. Those nancy boys in face make up prancing around the stage…

Anything but that!

5

ogged 10.05.06 at 11:31 pm

It’s all about juggling the analogy to make sure that you get to be one of the lonely 300, and not the vast invading foreign army.

Great sentence. I thank god that it’s coming out next March rather than just before an election, or the Iranian goose would be cooked.

6

Timothy Scriven 10.05.06 at 11:54 pm

From what I’ve been told there was no lonely 300, there were 300 plus a lot of helots and Periokoi.

7

Christmas 10.06.06 at 1:32 am

The Spartan tradition of compulsory homosexuality was less in evidence in the trailer.

If I remember Miller’s graphic novel correctly (and it’s been a while since I read it), the Spartans are actually portrayed as mildly homophobic. Which, while grossly inaccurate, isn’t exactly a shock coming from Miller, whose weird sex-and-gender hangups tend to creep into most of his material.

8

Ben Alpers 10.06.06 at 1:53 am

Haven’t read the graphic novel (can’t say I’m a big Frank Miller fan), but the trailer made me nearly simultaneously think two things:

1) COOL! (an immediate aesthetic reaction)

2) Fascinating Fascism (a nearly immediate intellectual reflection on the clip and on my immediate aesthetic reaction)

9

Brendan 10.06.06 at 1:55 am

“It’s all about juggling the analogy to make sure that you get to be one of the lonely 300, and not the vast invading foreign army.”

It may be my imagination (and at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, yet again) but didn’t Hitler compare Nazi Germany to the Spartans somewhere or other, and the ‘Barbarian’ Persian army to the ‘Barbarian’ Russian army at some point quite late in the war?

In any case, in Tom Holland’s excellent recent book on the issue, Persian Fire, he quotes from an ex-Nazi who quite definitely states that at school she (I think it was a she) was encouraged to see Germany as austere and ruthless and war like…just like Sparta and that she thought of Thermopylae when the Russians moved into Germany…i.e. this was, finally, the epic battle between the civilised forces of the West and the Barbarians of the East…..a trope that has been a favourite of certain news channels and certain intellectuals more recently as well.

Holland is also good on the ironies of the battle: not least that, whereas, we are encouraged to see things in those terms in the West that’s almost certainly not how an ‘objective’ observer would have seen things at the time. Au contraire: to most people at the time the Persian Empire was synonymous with civilisation, peace and culture, and the economically backward and more or less unheard of (‘who are the Spartans’? Leonidas was alleged to have asked when first told about them) Greek city states were more like ‘terrorist states’. Likewise, the ‘trope’ that the Persians stood for ‘totalitarianism’ (and how typical, thinks the average Westerner, for the ‘east’ to be associated with dictatorship!) and the West for ‘democracy’ is highly stretched even in the case of Athens, with its slavery and its Empire, and becomes completely ridiculous when Sparta is included. But of course it was the Persian invasion that in a significant way, actually created the ‘difference’ between ‘east’ and ‘west’ which we all now take for granted: it’s hard for us to understand that before then there really was no such concept. Some of us think that it’s a concept that has outlived its usefulness, nowadays, anyway.

10

Brendan 10.06.06 at 1:58 am

Sorry not ‘Leonidas’ i meant ‘Xerxes’: it’s very early here.

11

ajay 10.06.06 at 6:30 am

Brendan – you could also have mentioned the Leonidas Staffel, the Luftwaffe’s attempt at creating a kamikaze unit.

12

Kang de Veroveraar 10.06.06 at 6:51 am

300 –the comic– is OK. Miller is a one-trick pony, but sometimes the self-indulgent, ham-fisted, hard-boiled macho sort-of-objectivist routine is more entertaining than grating. This is one of those occasions.

It’s easy to project all manner of anachronistic subject-matter into the motivations of those dour Spartans, like, say, red-blooded Patriotism(TM) or the defence of Freedom(TM) from the Oriental hordes, but Simonides’ famous epigram actually does capture the essence of the whole thing. Often translated along the lines of

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie”,

it shows that the “lonely” 300 were the finest product of a polity to which they were utterly (and somewhat matter-of-factly) committed. The Victor David Hansons of this world should know that said polity actually looks very alien to modern Western observers.

Miller’s now working on Holy Terror, Batman! It will be crap, obviously, and yet I cannae wait.

13

Christmas 10.06.06 at 7:19 am

Regarding Miller’s “Holy Terror, Batman!”, I’m hoping for Tim O’Neil’s synopsis, because nothing else could possibly live down to expectations:

Batman fights Osama bin Laden, at which point Batman discovers that bin Laden is really the Joker. Batman takes the Joker into custody and returns him to Arkham.

14

David Weman 10.06.06 at 7:26 am

Yikes. I assumed the title was a joke by you, not the actual title.

Actually, may be an indication it won’t be the complete trainwreck everyone thought, though I doubt it will be actually good.

15

rea 10.06.06 at 7:27 am

Well, but of course the REAL lesson of Thermopylae is something like: “No amount of heroic posturing can redeem tactical folly; don’t leave an unguarded pathway leading to the rear of your impregnable position.”

The Spartans lost.

Cato the Censor fgured the lesson out, winning a battle the same way Xerxes did (but with fewer causualties)on the same ground several hundred years later.

I’m not sure Cato’s latter day successors on the right have the same acumen.

16

Doug T 10.06.06 at 7:30 am

“It may be my imagination (and at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, yet again) but didn’t Hitler compare Nazi Germany to the Spartans somewhere or other, and the ‘Barbarian’ Persian army to the ‘Barbarian’ Russian army at some point quite late in the war?”

I hadn’t heard that, but there’s a very powerful short story by Heinrich Boll which plays on that theme, called “Stranger bear word to the Spartans…”

I’d highly recommend it. If Hitler did in fact make that comparison it adds another level of complexity to the historical resonances in the story.

17

Christmas 10.06.06 at 7:32 am

Yikes. I assumed the title was a joke by you, not the actual title.

In general, Frank Miller is growing increasingly difficult to distinguish from parodies of Frank Miller.

18

John Emerson 10.06.06 at 7:39 am

“On the same ground several hundred years later….”

Military history tends to repeat itself. there have been at least nine Battles of Adrianople and two battles of Tannenburg.

It may be that the second Battle of Tannenburg was so named for propaganda reasons, however.

19

Kang de Veroveraar 10.06.06 at 7:42 am

We have to thank Miller for inspiring such masterworks as this , though.

20

Christmas 10.06.06 at 7:46 am

Yeah, that is pretty incredible.

21

John Emerson 10.06.06 at 7:49 am

Wikiing around I just learned that the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, when the Germans definitively defeated the Germans and established the Rhine as the German-Roman border, was won mostly by treachery. Right up to the day of battle, the actual leader of the German forces (Hermann or Arminius) was a trusted adviser of the Roman general, Varus.

I imagine that Nazi Huns didn’t brag much about that particular aspect of their triumphant defense of barbarism against the civilized hordes.

“Horde”, as we all know, being originally a Mongol word (~ “ordos”, ~”Urdu”), unrelated to the Germanic word “hoard”.

22

John Emerson 10.06.06 at 7:50 am

“Germans definitively defeated the Romans”

23

John Emerson 10.06.06 at 7:57 am

A statue of Arminius in New Ulm Minnesota is the third largest copper statue in the US, after the Statue of Liberty and Portlandia in Portland OR.

Thr “Herman the German” Wiki omits the medieval Greek-Latin translator of that name.

24

norbizness 10.06.06 at 8:09 am

It’s no Robocop 2.

25

Chris Brooke 10.06.06 at 8:51 am

“A Nation Once Again” is, of course, the world’s favourite song.

26

esd 10.06.06 at 9:41 am

What’s really dissapointing is that putting out a movie about Thermopylae means it’s going to be a long time before there’s a movie adaptation of “Gates of Fire”.

27

Dave MB 10.06.06 at 9:58 am

I’ve always enjoyed the account of Thermopylae in Gore Vidal’s novel Creation, which is narrated by a Persian who manages to meet most of the great religious and political figures of that time during his long life. Describing the invasion, he says:

“Along the way a King of Sparta was killed with all his men.”

28

kid bitzer 10.06.06 at 10:17 am

Vidal ripped off that conceit from Robert Graves, who did it much better about Marathon:

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

29

s.e. 10.06.06 at 11:06 am

fascist kitsch with the buggery removed.
(and the teenage engineering geeks with the muscle-tone of lazy six year olds say: “cool”)

30

Jim Harrison 10.06.06 at 11:09 am

I note that Xerxes is played by a hispanic in the movie, which says something. Of course, nobody is more aryan than an Iranian (same word, more or less) but by the rules of racial myth, I guess the leader of the menace just has to be swarthy.

By the way, where are Themistocles and the Athenians in this version of the story? After all, the Spartans may have delayed the Persians, but the Athenians beat ’em at Salamis.

31

Barry Freed 10.06.06 at 11:35 am

fascist kitsch with the buggery removed.

Indeed. I too prefer my fascist kitsch cum buggery. Which is why it’s unfortunate that Kenneth Anger isn’t directing.

32

Walt 10.06.06 at 12:32 pm

Barry: That was incredibly funny.

33

Walt 10.06.06 at 1:00 pm

I think the key point here is that people like Melanie Phillips and Victor David Hansen are looking for 300 brave souls that they can safely stand behind, and they’re hoping that somone will be inspired enough by the story of Thermopylae that they’ll volunteer.

34

BruceR 10.06.06 at 1:22 pm

Ah. Apparently we’re only allowed as human beings now to be inspired by those stories where the analogy requires no “juggling” at all: other than one’s own life, it’s hard to imagine what stories those would be, exactly, but hey. Sorry, must have missed that memo.

35

James 10.06.06 at 1:30 pm

Second Tannenberg was most definitely named for propaganda reasons; the first being a defeat for the Teutonic Knights, the second being a defeat of the ‘Cossack barbarians’ of Russia by the heroic Germans. Hindenburg wrote about it as being ‘pregnant with painful recollections for German chivalry, a Slav cry of triumph.’

Anyway, Nazi Germany was full of ‘Western’ images, particularly against the ‘Asiatic hordes’ of Russia.

36

s.e. 10.06.06 at 1:38 pm

And Nevsky was a good movie

37

John Emerson 10.06.06 at 1:51 pm

Nevsky was the Battle of Lake Peipus a couple centuries before. Great movie, and Prokofiev’s suite from the sound track was great too.

In the First Battle of Tannenburg (Grunwald) the Teuronic Knights were defeated by Jagiello leading the Poles and Lithuanians. Jagiello had converted to Catholicism in midlife but had been born a pagan, the last pagan ruler in Europe.

38

radek 10.06.06 at 3:14 pm

39

Doctor Memory 10.06.06 at 3:17 pm

I realize the point of this post wasn’t about the movie per se, but it’s worth noting that everything you need to know about the film is summed up in two printed words at the end of the trailer:

“March 2007”

March release = this is a dog, the studio knows it’s a dog, and they’re dumping it into the early-spring dead zone in hopes of making back at least a little money from novelty-starved fanboys. (See also: Ultraviolet, Hellboy, etc etc)

And the director of this crap is the person they’ve tagged to direct Watchmen? Elvis wept.

40

yabonn 10.06.06 at 4:11 pm

Miller is a one-trick pony

C’mon. Two or three tricks.

(i) the badass
(ii) the ageing, wheezing badass-that-still-packs-a-mean-punch
(iii) the girl who’s a prostitute but a virgin with! extensible!! vertebrae!!!

41

yabonn 10.06.06 at 4:12 pm

Vertebrae!!!

42

Walt 10.06.06 at 6:12 pm

Hellboy was a good movie.

I thought that Iceland was the last to convert.

43

s.e. 10.06.06 at 6:22 pm

A discovery
Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland

Quicktime. Complete.

44

Piddle 10.06.06 at 6:40 pm

Interesting reference…Zulu. White folks really like that movie. A few heroic Brits (and not a few Welsh) kill lots of native savage blacks. And in defiance of tradition and genre, win!

I think its better that small band of heroes are wiped out in the end cuz while it won’t deter would-be fascists from desiring the uber-experience it at least suggest that their struggle is doomed to failure.

Let it be heroic myth wins one for liberalism!

45

John Emerson 10.06.06 at 8:07 pm

46

trueliberal 10.07.06 at 12:19 am

Brendan,

Likewise, the ‘trope’ that the Persians stood for ‘totalitarianism’ … and the West for ‘democracy’ is highly stretched even in the case of Athens, with its slavery and its Empire, and becomes completely ridiculous when Sparta is included.

For all its flaws, classical Athens was the closest any society ever got to liberal democracy in the ancient world. Athens had slaves, but so did Persia. Yet Athens also had an assembly, while Persia did not.

But of course it was the Persian invasion that in a significant way, actually created the ‘difference’ between ‘east’ and ‘west’ which we all now take for granted: it’s hard for us to understand that before then there really was no such concept.

That’s wrong. Herodotus wrote of an endemic conflict between east and west that predated the Persian invasion, going back to the legendary rape of Europa.

Sorry not ‘Leonidas’ i meant ‘Xerxes’: it’s very early here.

You’re getting warmer, but not quite. Cyrus the Great was the emperor who was famously ignorant of the Spartans.

Thermopylae may have been an irrelevant skirmish to the Persians and post-modern iconoclasts. But for the west, it was pivotal. After the war, Athens created an intellectual heritage to which we are forever in debt.

47

John Emerson 10.07.06 at 10:47 am

“Herodotus wrote of an endemic conflict between east and west that predated the Persian invasion, going back to the legendary rape of Europa.”

It’s very possible that Herodotus was rewriting the past in terms of the present.

After Alexander, the West was never able to move very far into Asia. (I count Islam as eastern, though Islam did move west-to-east as well as west-to-east.) My suspicion is that this is because of the superiority of the Persian and Ottoman cavalry, which is in turn a spinoff of the 2000-year export of military power from Mongolia in every direction.

48

trueliberal 10.07.06 at 11:17 am

After Alexander, the West was never able to move very far into Asia.

Trajan expanded the Roman Empire all the way to the ancient Persian capital of Susa. That’s quite far considering that the Empire at the time encompassed all of Asia Minor, the Levant and Mesopotamia.

49

John Emerson 10.07.06 at 11:30 am

Wiki: “The Roman emperor Trajan captured Susa in 116 CE, but soon was forced to withdraw, due to revolts in his rear areas. This advance marked the greatest eastern penetration by the Romans.”

The Roman penetration of the Middle East seems to have been quite transient, hardly more than raids. They also sacked Ctesiphon a number of times, but never conrolled the area. The Levant was often Roman or Frankish, but that’s not deep penetration.

50

trueliberal 10.07.06 at 5:04 pm

I’m about 2/3 through Persian Fire myself. While as a whole, the book is expertly written and researched, I take issue with the characterization of the Greeks as terrorist states. The defence against invasion from Marathon onward could not be called, in any stretch of terminology, terrorism. And neither could one so term the event which forged the Persian emnity with Athens: her participation in the Ionian Revolt. Athens and the rebels were attacking the Persian state itself in an effort to drive it out of Ionia: not massacring non-combatants to unnerve the dominant power.

51

John Emerson 10.07.06 at 5:44 pm

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not terribly up on ancien Greece, but trader nations have often been pirate nations too. Traders needed military strength in the interzones between states, they often had to force reluctant partners to trade, and they normally drove out and plundered competing traders. (Venice/Genoa were both examples of this, and I’ve seen the Vikings interpreted that way.)

52

trueliberal 10.07.06 at 6:26 pm

…not to mention Elizabethan England. But Athens wasn’t a trading power until after the Marathon veteran Themistocles had convinced the Assembly to build a huge new port and a greatly expanded navy. The Greek states which were sea powers before the invasion weren’t foolish enough to instigate a trade battle in the east with the mighty Phoenicians and their Persian overlords. If there was any Greek trade piracy at the time, it was in the west, perpetrated by Greek colonists in Sicily and Italy, and at the expense of Carthage (which was not part of the Persian Empire).

53

radek 10.08.06 at 5:08 pm

The Conversion of Lithuania

and here’s the picture (same guy as the battle above):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Chrzest_Litwy_1387_Matejko.JPG

54

Brendan 10.08.06 at 6:03 pm

“For all its flaws, classical Athens was the closest any society ever got to liberal democracy in the ancient world.”

This is not actually true, although believers on the West’s mystical destiny to spread ‘democracy’ and ‘civilisation’ to lesser breeds without the law are terribly keen to believe it was true. The very first democracies (in any sense) were the Indian republics.

http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/histdem/indiadem.htm

There were also, of course, many semi or quasi democratic systems in the ancient world (not least, of course, the Roman Republic, and others). Also (I am quoting from memory: I don’t actually have Persian Fire in front of me, which is why I made the bloopers about Xerxes etc.) my understanding is not so much that Athens and Sparta etc. were ‘objectively’ terrorist states, as that Persia considered them to be terrorist states, which is surely true. Any state which resists the dominant hegemon is invariably considered to be ‘rogue’ or ‘terrorist’: a fact which obviously has no relevance for our own situation.

Also I wasn’t arguing that Thermopylae was insignificant. Au contraire: in many ways it still shapes our the dominant ideology of our own day. My point is much simpler: I just think that the idea that there are two distinct entities ‘east’ and ‘west’ is a nonsense in itself: still less that the ‘west’ is duty bound to introduce ‘democracy’ and ‘civilisation’ to a backwards and degenerate ‘east’. This is one mythic viewpoint that has long since outlived its usefulness.

55

trueliberal 10.08.06 at 7:36 pm

The “republics”, as the author you linked to describe them, sound pretty oligarchical to me.

I do see the existence of a “west”. The fact that so many nations in Europe, as well as their colonial offspring, were so greatly influenced by Greek thought and Roman institutions (the Republic, the Empire and the Church) led to a great many commonalities that set those countries down quite similar paths.

But, I don’t see nearly so much the existence of a single “east.” Lumping such dissimilar societies as China, India and Arabia into one entity is unedifying, except perhaps for the purpose of discussing the civilized “non-west.”

56

ajay 10.09.06 at 4:47 am

After Alexander, the West was never able to move very far into Asia

(chuckle) An interesting hypothesis, but one that fails to explain, for example, the existence of Vladivostok.

57

Another Damned Medievalist 10.09.06 at 11:16 am

Kieran — out of curiosity, where did you get that homosexuality was compulsory in Sparta? or, better, what do you mean by compulsory? social compulsion in the way that marriage was also compulsory? compulsory in the way that participation in government and the army was comuplsory?

58

John Emerson 10.09.06 at 12:52 pm

Ajay: Vladivostok was Chinese until 1860. Khiva in Uzbekistan held out until 1875 or so. Even the Crimea was only annexed by Russia in 1783.

But I should have qualified my statement. “After Alexander, for over two millenia the West was not able to advance far into Asia.

59

Kang de Veroveraar 10.09.06 at 5:47 pm

#41. Another Miller staple is the “good soldier”: the spunky youth who is in awe of the hard-arsed-uns. Notorious examples are the Robin from the Dark Knight books and in 300 that clumsy hoplite Stumblios (oh, the wit).

60

Kang de Veroveraar 10.09.06 at 6:00 pm

trueliberal: I don´t think it´s absurd to speak of “the West”. After all, the term is used quite casually by “non-Westerners”. However, it becomes problematic when:

a) One puts too much stock in the allegedly intrinsic political or philosophical characteristics of “the West”, thereby downplaying the importance of cosmetic considerations in defining one´s sense of cultural identity. It´s not like Democracy(TM) has proved a failure in places like India, South Korea or Japan, where it has a lot of local flavour. And last time I checked, Greek thought (mainly Aristotle) was still a fundamental source of authority in classical Islamic philosophy.

b) One forgets that things can become somewhat muddled if one tries to describe ancient history in terms of neat East/West dichotomies. Europe, Asia, Africa, were far less important economical and historical categories at the time than “the Mediterranian”. Sure, Herodotus makes much of the alleged contention of the Persians that their enmity with the Greeks went back all the way to the Trojan War, but weren´t those Trojans reported to have founded Rome, of all places? Didn´t Christianity start out as an “oriental” cult? Weren´t most of those heavily influenced by Greek thought, anyway? If the Greeks are stand-ins for the West and the Persians for the East, what are the Egyptians? Other, different Easterners? Pre/proto-Westerners? Does it make any sense whatsoever to ask such questions?

My main gripe is that using Marathon or the Thermopylae to justify The War on Terra is just boring. The warmongers should start trying to sound funny. After all, not all is lost if future generations are able to say: “their grand schemes surely sucked bad, but at least they were wacky!!!”

Victor Davis Hanson pointed the way when he compared the Yoorpeans to Tolkien´s ents . What the fuck, if the Greater Middle East goes down the drain, at least you can still save Middle Earth.

Just imagine how much more entertaining reading the NRO would become. Victor Davis Hanson on Chalabi: Every Ring Quest needs a Sméagol.

61

trueliberal 10.09.06 at 6:39 pm

Kang,
I agree with everything you said. “The west” is far from a meaningless term, but it is a limited one.

62

Doctor Slack 10.10.06 at 8:00 am

ajay says: An interesting hypothesis, but one that fails to explain, for example, the existence of Vladivostok.

Russia is, incidentally, not typically considered to be “the West” for the purposes of most such discussion.

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