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Thermopylae:
the Metamorphoses of a Myth

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Thermopylae, seen from the east. Photo Jona Lendering.
Thermopylae, seen from the east.
The battle of Thermopylae and the war between Greece and Persia have an almost mythological status in western civilization. However, there are some nasty aspects to this popularity. A discussion of
  • Frank Miller, 300 (1998; comic book)
  • Zack Snyder, 300 (2006; movie)
  • Tom Holland, Persian Fire (2005; history book)

Conclusion:
The works discussed have shown that the study of ancient history in the twenty-first century has two serious defects: historians are still suffering from their nineteenth-century blindness towards the Near East, and know less about theory and method than they used to do in the early 1900's.

A well-known story

The story is well-known. In 480 BCE, the Persian king Xerxes tried to conquer Greece with an army that was so large that it needed an equally large fleet to bring sufficient supplies. After three hundred Spartan hoplites and their allies, who offered resistance at Thermopylae, had been defeated, the Persians could proceed to Athens, the largest town in Greece. They were still looting the city, when their navy was defeated at Salamis, and although the Persians still had naval superiority, Xerxes decided not to take unnecessary risks, and retreated. The ruins of Athens testified that he had achieved his main goal.

The naval battle had not been decisive, and no one knows why Xerxes did not return. In 1992, Pierre Briant, the greatest iranologist of our age, has suggested that a rebellion in Babylonia demanded the great king's attention.[1] There is indeed some evidence for this theory, but it has recently been shown that at least the cuneiform sources do not support it sufficiently.[2] Whatever the explanation, the key fact is that only a small Persian army was left behind to guard the king's conquests. In 479, it was defeated at Plataea, and in 475, the last Persian stronghold in Europe, Eïon, was captured by the Athenian commander Cimon. The Greco-Persian war was over.

The battle of Thermopylae is just an incident in this great war, but over the centuries, it has become some sort of foundation myth of Western civilization. Novels were devoted to it, like William Golding's The Hot Gate and Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. In 2005, historian Tom Holland accepted this myth in his Persian Fire; and Frank Miller's award-winning comic book 300 is now a major movie.

The reason for this continuing interest in the Greco-Persian war and the battle of Thermopylae is easy to find: the brilliant account by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.425), included in the seventh book of his Histories, one of the most entertaining and accessible texts from Antiquity. Unfortunately, the great care with which he separates facts from opinion has not always inspired later historians, and it is not exaggerated to say that "Thermopylae" is rapidly becoming political propaganda. And that is to be regretted, because novels, comic books, and movies are -more than scholarly research, which reaches not many people- the way people conceptualize the past.

Self-sacrifice


First: the story by Herodotus, who is sometimes "father of history" but might as well be called the "father of investigative journalism". He always presents both sides of a story, offers variant explanations, and seeks to separate facts from opinion. In his account of the battle of Thermopylae, he makes it clear that he knew more than one story about the treason that enabled the Persians to circumvene the Greek positions (7.213-214). A bit later, when he has reached the moment on which the Greeks discover that they will be surrounded, Herodotus states what he believes is the last thing he knows for certain: that the Greek army desintegrated (7.219). He does not know what happened after this moment, because none of the Spartan soldiers who remained at Thermopylae survived. Therefore, he introduces the sequel with gnomê, the word he often uses to introduce his own ideas (7.220).

His hypothesis, and the beginning of the myth, is that Leonidas knew an oracle that offered him a choice: either he had to die, or his town would be destroyed. This may be a correct hypothesis. A modern one is that the Greeks were retreating and that the Spartans were cut off before the could leave the trap. This may also be correct. We simply do not know. The historian Hignett has called Thermopylae "an unsolved riddle", and that's about everything we can say about it.

Fighting for freedom


This general ignorance has not dissuaded the American artist Frank Miller to use Herodotus' hypothesis as basis of his classical comic book 300. He has successfully created a visual language to render Herodotus' literary arsenal. For example, the Greek researcher inserts in his story an element from Homer's Iliad: the Spartans fought for the possession of Leonidas' dead body. This must be fiction (who could have told Herodotus?) but any Greek would have recognized the suggestion that the Spartans fought like the heroes of yore. Miller could not use this trick, so he presents his Spartans as fighting almost naked, because we all know from our movies that action heroes become invulnerable once the put off their shirt (e.g., Rambo, Die Hard).

So far, so good. Miller runs into trouble when he offers an interpretation of the story. The Spartans, he says, sacrificed themselves for the freedom of Greece. And not only for Greek liberty: the Spartans were "the world's one hope for reason and justice", and the Persians were living "in a sea of mysticism and tyranny". Although Thermopylae was a defeat, it showed the world what free men are capable of, inspired the other Greeks, and therefore saved Greek culture and all of western civilization.

Miller's reading of Thermopylae and the Greco-Persian wars is not unique. It can also be found in Persian Fire, a book by the British historian Tom Holland, published in 2006. It is a good read, if you can ignore exuberant lines like "As the storm clouds of seeming Persian invincibility loomed ever darker over Ionia, so strange shadows from the past returned to haunt Athens, too". In his introduction, Holland states that democracy, rationalism, and the philosophy of Plato would not have existed if the Persians had not been expelled from Europe. The book is completely different from Miller's comic book, but in one respect they are similar: Herodotus' story about self-sacrifice has become the foundation myth of western civilization.

Rationalisms


Holland and Miller are not the first to make this claim. Holland refers to nineteenth-century philosophers like Hegel and Mill, and he could have added the famous art historian J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768) as well. The general idea is that the Greeks were a special nation that possessed qualities (like rationality and a passion for liberty) that the nations of the ancient Near East were lacking. Of course quoting non-specialists is not the best way to argue a thesis, but the authors referred to by Holland are not the only ones. He could also have quoted a serious historian like Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), who in 1901 maintained that the Greco-Persian war marked the birth of western civilization, defined by rationalism, freedom, and democracy.[3]

But one has to be careful when one accepts judgments that were offered more than a century ago. Meyer's arguments were analyzed in a famous theoretical discussion with Max Weber (1864-1920), who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences, but started his career as a historian and was a pupil of Theodor Mommsen. Weber's question was simple: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstruct the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber could easily prove[4] that Meyer's reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happend if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are rarely accurate.

Take, for instance, these considerations. In 493, a mere thirteen years before Xerxes invaded Greece, his general Mardonius (one of Xerxes' main advisers) had accepted democracy as system of government of the Greek towns in the Persian empire. And how hostile were the Persians towards mysticism? The research program of the Chaldaeans in Persian Babylonia had a purely scientific method. In Xerxes' eastern capital Taxila, Panini wrote the world's first scientific book of grammar. And in Judah, the book of Job was written, in which God and man discuss the nature of good and evil. These are not the products of the presumed "sea of mysticism and tyranny". For any example Meyer and Holland mention, one might offer a counter-example.

Offering examples and counter-examples is not the best way to proceed. What is necessary is a grand theory that enables us to compare the relative weight of Greek and Persian rationalisms. A possible candidate is Richard Dawkins' recent theory about cultural memes, which may also help us find a way to make meaningful judgments about the importance of Greco-Roman culture, compared to other cultures, as "root" of western civilization. One might, for example, want to weigh the influence of the Greek inheritance and other influences.

As far as I know, no ancient historian has ever attempted this, and it is easy to see why: no one wants to cast doubt on the European foundation myth. Although, for the moment, the truth of the statement that "the project of reason started in Greece" can not be established, the statement is the recognized consensus and adds cement to western society.

Stereotyping the enemy


However, Miller goes one step beyond the agreed-upon foundation myth. In his comic book, he depicts the Persians as effeminate, gives them Negroidal features, and presents them as religious devotees. The traitor is a hunchback. The Spartans are physically perfect. It is white versus black, man versus woman, mysticism versus rationalism, healthy versus sick. Although some of these aspects are hinted upon in Herodotus' story (like a woman, Xerxes does not control his emotions), Miller creates something novel, and there is no artistic need to use these particular oppositions.

And now, we have the movie, which goes even further. In one scene, the Persian Immortals put off their face masks, and they resemble the orcs from The Lord of the Rings. We also see a giant attacking the Spartans. The movie makers deny humanity to the Persians.

If they did so because they wanted to make some sort of sword & sorcery movie, they failed. The point is that there is another innovation in the movie that is not in the comic book: an entirely novel plot line about the Spartan queen Gorgo, who is trying to get reinforcements for the soldiers who are fighting in a far-away country. This message must be dear to the movie makers, because they changed Miller's story, and it is easy to read this as a message to the American cinema audiences.

This is a sincere message - there is nothing wrong with that. But the makers can not have it both ways:
  • either the movie has a serious message and they honestly believe that Persians can be represented in this way;
  • or they think that it is just an action movie - but then the political message is gratuitous.
In the first case, they insult the Iranian population, in the second case, the coalition soldiers. Both deserve more respect.

A new cartoon riot?

It may be clear that I am not happy with this movie. However, the answer to the dilemma I described above may in the end be irrelevant. It may not matter in the west, because it is safe to assume that many people will be strengthened in their belief that it all started in Greece, and that the ancient Near East is less important. Nor may it may matter in the east. The Iranian authorities have already shown that they find it difficult to cope with the western line between fact and fiction. If someone in Tehran wants to organize an anti-western demonstration, the comic book and the movie offer all ammunition he needs.

If we are approaching a new cartoon riot, 300 will at least have proven that the study of ancient history in the twenty-first century has two serious defects: historians are still suffering from their nineteenth-century blindness towards the Near East, and know less about theory and method than they used to do in the early 1900's.

The only correct answer to the book by Tom Holland would have been a review in which it is shown that his introductory statement about the birth of European civilization in the age of the Greco-Persian wars is outdated. However, ancient historians -with a couple of exceptions- do not care very much about correcting misunderstandings. It is this attitude that has made it possible to make a movie like 300.


Note 1:
P. Briant, 'La date des révoltes babyloniennes contre Xerxès' in: Studia Iranica 21 (1992) 7-20

Note 2:
C. Waerzeggers, 'The Babylonian Revolts Against Xerxes and the "End of Archives"' in: Archiv für Orientforschung 50 (2003/2004), 150-173

Note 3:
Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), part III, pp. 445-446: "The outcome would have been that some kind of church [...] would have put Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures, have had a theological-religious nature."

Note 4:
Max Weber, "Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik", in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), esp. blz.286-287
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 11 March2007
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