300, part 2. The essential virtue
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.
What, silent still, and silent all?
Ah! no; the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent's fall,
And answer, "Let one living head,
But one arise,---we come, we come!"
'Tis but the living who are dumb.
The Isles of Greece
George Gordon, Lord Byron
As mentioned, 300 is generating quite a lot of argument between those who love it or loathe it. Much more than one would expect from a genre movie. Obviously it is touching some nerves.
When I saw the film, I observed a rare instance of spontaneous applause breaking out in the audience at one scene (don't worry, no spoilers here - and you'll probably know what scene when you see it) and I've read a touching story of two young marines leaving the theater and high-fiving each other with a hearty "Semper Fi!" Distinguished classicist Victor Davis Hanson liked it in spite of the liberties it took with history.
So who doesn't like it?
Well, the Iranians are mad as hell, partly because the bad guys are their Persian ancestors. It's been pointed out that the modern Iranian regime (unlike the late Shah's) has by policy denigrated its pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian past anyway so they have limited grounds to complain.
It is as might be expected, breaking records in Greece.
However, Iranians who are not jihadist crazies and are proud of their past might be made very uncomfortable. Xerxes is portrayed as semi-nude, shaven hairless and body-pierced giant. Classical Persians dressed in long robes, cultivated long hair and beards and had no recorded affinity for punk jewelry.
Persian kings of the period were not effeminate cowards either. The History channel notes that part of the graduating exercise of an heir to the throne's education was to be put in an arena with a lion, armed only with a spear.
More to the point, the Persian Empire successfully integrated a host of nations into a single polity in what was a reasonably humane manner for the time, practiced religious toleration and can themselves claim to have saved the West at an earlier date when Cyrus the Great rescued the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. Not to mention the fact that Athens provoked the first of the Persian invasions by sending troops to support the revolt of the Greek cities in Persian Anatolia.
The faux Persians in 300 are being used as symbols of an alien and threatening absolutism. In the 1950s a lot of alien invasion movies did the same. (If it turns out that there are Martians, and they've been watching our old movies on TV, we're going to have a lot to answer for.)
Some libertarians are objecting that the Spartans were a "militarist fascist state"* who practiced infanticide, pederasty, slavery and maintained the krypteia - a brutal secret police/KKK-like organization to keep the helot population terrified and under control. Some include Athens in their indictment of slave states as well.
This mixes valid considerations with puerile ones. No free state every sprung, wholly-formed and armed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Free institutions evolved; slowly, painfully and with much trial and error. And the history of every free state starts with the history of free classes among the unfree.
Athens had a democracy of all free male citizens who could support themselves and their hoplite panoply from freehold estates. Ultimately, pressure to extend democracy came from below, when the poorer classes made up the rowing force of their navy, i.e. when a man's military gear could consist of an oar and a pad to sit on.
And even by this time, men were beginning to envision a world in which there were no slaves. “The God gave freedom to all men, and nature created no one a slave” - Alcidamus.
Sparta had a military state to be sure, but one in which there were significant checks and balances in the institution of the dual kingship and the council of ephors**, a governing body whose members served for limited terms. And though most of the historical attention is given to citizen-soldiers and helot serfs, there is evidence of a considerable non-citizen but free class of artisans, merchants etc, the Perioeci.
Women had more rights in Sparta than anywhere else in Greece. They dressed in ways the Athenians considered scandalously immodest, exercised naked in athletic contests, managed the property holdings of their warrior husbands and spoke their minds freely. 300 attributes to Queen Gorgo a saying of the Spartan women when a woman of Athens asked a Spartan woman, "How is it that you alone among women can rule men?" who replied "Because only we among women give birth to men."***
The Athenian democracy itself could get pretty militaristic. It was remarked at the time that it was easier to move the democracy of Athens to send a military force across the sea than it was to persuade the Spartans to send an army a few days march from home.
I think what is resonating here is the ancient problem of how a society is to be both free and united. Or put another way, how a society that is free and self-governing can exist on anything but a small and local level.
This is a problem that was only beginning to be addressed at the time, and is still a matter of debate today. The Perisans discovered that they could create a huge state while replacing the rule of stark terror with a certain amount of humanity and tolerance. This created its own problems, a population that wasn't sufficiently ground down might nonetheless prefer to live under its own institutions, as the Greek cities of Anatolia did.
The Greeks created democratic states governed by consensus of free citizens, but they had a tendency to relapse into despotism as Athens did during the dictatorships of the 30 and the 300 oligarchs. And the democracy of Athens was often swept up in popular passions which moved them to vote such disastrous policies as the invasion of Syracuse, and horrible ones such as the massacre of all males above the age of ten on the island of Melos.
At various times the cities of Greece created leagues and alliances, which were studied closely by James Madison when he was helping write the Constitution of the United States. All of them failed. Both Athens and Sparta eventually lapsed into a dictatorial domination of weaker allies and all of Greece fell into disunity (Sparta becoming allied with Persia) and was conquered by outside powers - a depressingly common fate of free societies throughout history.
Consider that today there is precisely one country that meets any reasonable definition of "free" and "self-governing" which is of a size comparable to any of the great ancient empires - US. And we are vexingly overgoverned and bureaucratized. (I wish the EU well, I really do, but we've just seen what happened to their alliance when a member state suffered aggression from, come to think of it - Persia.)
300 is entertainment pure and simple, but it touches on an important point. The problem is not so much how to become free - but how to remain free.
Now for those who think that we have nothing to learn from the Spartans, consider that in 500 years the Spartans were never ruled by a tyrant, never occupied by a foreign power, and never had a civil war.
And further, consider this; the Greeks survived as long as they did as small, free states because they created a mode of warfare superior to anything else in the world at the time, relying on heavily armed men acting with a high degree of coordination. That is, contrary to our stereotype of highly regimented masses of men, it was free men who first learned to march in ranks.
As shown, there are plenty of objections to the picture of Sparta in 300, but much to like as well. Who could fail to be inspired by the words between Leonidas and his comrade while dying from the wounds of the Persian arrows, "It is an honor to die with you, my king." "It was an honor to have lived with you."
"Here on the plain of Platea we are 10,000 Spartans leading 40,000 free Greeks, a paltry three to one against us. Good enough odds for any Greek!"
And who would not feel with the desire of the deformed, cast-off Spartan Ephialtes when he betrayed the secret of the pass around Thermopylae. When the Great King offered him women, wealth and power, he responded from the depths of his anguish, "Yes, and one more thing. A uniform!"
And here is where some of the most disturbing criticism of 300 is coming from. As with Gladiator, there is on the part of some, a reflexive condemnation of any portrayal of extraordinary martial courage.
We live in dangerous times, anyone can see that, however we may disagree on the nature and sources of that danger. Freedom has made tremendous strides since the collapse of the mighty Soviet empire, and now the forces of despotism are rallying again. Surely now of all times we are going to need courage. And where else are we going to find it if not in the stories of great deeds?
Courage, like any other virtue save perhaps compassion, can be corrupted and made to serve evil ends. But courage remains the essential virtue - without it all other virtues are impotent.
Part 3. The 300 Spartans and Gates of Fire.
* Quite a trick since fascism in the dictionary sense, as opposed to the "politics I don't like" sense, wasn't invented until the 20th century.
** Not the "inbred swine" of the movie. Which also failed to mention that Gorgo, wife of king Leonidas, was his niece as well.
*** And significantly, when Alcibiades was in exile in Sparta he fathered a son on one of the queens of Sparta, who called the child "Alcibiades". The king joined in running him out of town - but laid not one finger on the queen.