Of all the war-torn eras in the all the history of the world, why, Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, did you have to wander into mine? Such is my cry, and that of my fellow Greek historians, following the opening weekend of 300: Rise of a Franchise (oops, I meant “Empire”).
We tried to accept the original 300 with patience and grace, happy at least that the public had gotten some insight, however warped and distorted, into the iconic Spartan defeat by invading Persians at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. We looked forward hopefully to the sequel, which, to judge by its many ads and previews, concerned the battle of Salamis, the miraculous naval victory of the Greeks that same year in the waters off Athens. Some of us, myself included, even encouraged our students to see the movie, thinking that digital technology might do much to illustrate the action of triremes, the oar-powered warships deployed by both sides in that battle.
The timing of 300’s release was especially poignant for me, since it fell in the same week that a new version of Herodotus’s Histories, edited by me and translated by Pamela Mensch, sees publication. Herodotus, after all, wrote a better screenplay—I use the term advisedly—out of the Greco-Persian wars than anyone in the subsequent 2,500 years. Though he lived before the invention of the book, never mind the 3D movie, Herodotus tells his story in a way familiar to modern screenwriters: He invents dialogue to explain his characters’ psychology, observes them in private moments, even recounts (again using fictional license) their dreams. His portraits have astonishing depth—and none are under copyright. So I was dismayed to find that the makers of 300: Rise of an Empire had completely ignored them.
Let’s look for example at Themistocles, the Greek leader who triumphs at Salamis and saves Athenian freedom. Herodotus portrays him not as a warrior but a strategist, trickster, and politician, a wily Odysseus rather than a fierce Achilles. He lines his pockets when opportunities arise, and gets ahead of domestic rivals by craft and deceit. His victory at Salamis is gained by a trick. Seeing that the Greek fleet is about to leave the island and move to safer waters, thus abandoning an advantageous position, Themistocles sends a false message to Xerxes, the Persian king. Portraying himself as the king’s ally, he claims the Greeks are retreating in disorder and will be easy prey for the Persian fleet. Xerxes moves to attack the next day and forces the Greeks to stand and fight. Themistocles’s lie makes him overconfident and lures him into a trap.
This famous stratagem makes a cameo appearance in 300: Rise of an Empire, in that Themistocles sends a message to Xerxes to look for the Greek fleet at Salamis. But there is no deceit involved; the message is instead a challenge, one which Queen Artemisia, whom the film portrays as Xerxes’s chief admiral, rashly accepts. There follows a battle in which Themistocles once again, as he has done on two earlier occasions, eviscerates numerous Persians, sends gallons of blood splashing toward the cameras, and finally engages Artemisia—with whom he has earlier shared an absurdly gratuitous sex scene—in the obligatory duel to the death.
Themistocles is interesting, as Herodotus realized, precisely because he was not a martial hero. He championed the Greek cause largely when it helped him further his own. After the war ended, as Herodotus knew, Themistocles conspired with Xerxes by secret communiqués, and when this was discovered by his countrymen, he fled to Asia, learned Persian, and asked his former enemy for asylum. Ever the shape-shifter and opportunist, he ended his career as a high official in the very empire he had once helped defeat.
Subtleties of character and motivation have no place in the 300 movies, which attribute to all Greek soldiers an identically grim defiance to match the identical musculature of their numbingly ubiquitous bare abdomens. The need for revenge is usually what drives them, as it drives their Persian counterparts. Queen Artemisia, who also differs profoundly in this film from the admiring portrait in Herodotus, is here given a back story—oddly parallel to that of the Celtic gladiator who anchors the film Pompeii (another heartache for Classicists)—that explains her leadership of the Persian navy as a quest for revenge. Even the multiply-pierced, gold-hued Xerxes, incomprehensible at both a visual and characterological level, is here out for vengeance, against the man who (as the film imagines) had killed his father before his eyes ten years before his invasion.
Is it pointless and ill-tempered to complain of such things, when the 300 movies so clearly rely on comic-book and video-game strategies to entertain and excite us? Perhaps; but why do these films invoke Greek history at all, if they aim only at visual fantasy? Would such shallowness be tolerated in a film about the Battle of Agincourt, immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V? Or one about the Civil War? The D-Day invasion?
Such treatments are unthinkable, because modern history, we intuitively sense, concerns real people, with complex motives and personalities. The danger of the 300 series is that it denies the same dimensionality to Greek antiquity. By swapping out Herodotus’s vividly human portraits for beefy, blood-drenched superheroes, these films further distance us from the classical past, an era already hard enough for modernity to access under the best of conditions.
It was six years between the first 300 movie and its sequel. Let us hope that six years from now, as the world observes the 2,500th anniversary of the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, we will not see another dreary installment in this lifeless series. Perhaps Miller and Snyder will by then have moved on, to outer space—a much better landscape, for their existential wars of men versus monsters, than ancient Greek history.