Sunday, April 01, 2007

Here's to the Thespians

300 has raised quite a few hackles, with many people complaining that the story is historically incorrect. That is quite true. It has also caught a lot of flak for its portayal of Persians. For some reason, Darius looks hispanic, most of his generals look african, his immortals all look like mutants of some sort. Now, portraying the enemy as a monster has a long history and it works within the context of the comic and the picture. But people who claim that the Iranian outrage at the portrayal are is somehow misplaced are making a pretty disingenous argument. Artistic expression is sacred and must be protected, but it is also an indicator of opinions and feelings of said artist.

Anyway, this post is not about the portrayal of persians. It's about the greeks themselves.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Greeks and the Spartans should know that the Spartans were hardly the way the movie portrayed them. As a small sidenote, a few decades after the battle at thermopylae, the spartans would crush the greeks with help from the Persians.

The spartan society was a fascist one with a small group of 'full spartans' lording it over the other strata. At the bottom were the helots who were nothing more than serfs. The bits in the movie about killing the substandard babies and the brutal training of children are all true. They had a brutal secret service that would kill any of the lower strata that acted up.

The rest of the Greek states had citizen-soldiers who fought when called upon. The Spartans were soldiers full-time. The state was about the army. The state was the army. The spartan phalanx was feared and rightly so. Thanks to iron discipline and tough training, they were unbreakable. The Spartan phalanx, if you ignore the kind of society that went into making it, was just way too cool. I suppose I am extremely ambivalent about them. I really admire their discipline, training and courage. But I am not too hot on their society.

When the decision was made to stop the Persians at pass of Thermopylae, the Spartans, 300 of them led the army, made up of volunteers from different Greek states, numbering 4000. There is no doubt that the other greeks were heartened to have the spartans with them, and the spartans must have led by example.

Then, when the greeks were betrayed (by a local goatherd, incidentally, not a former spartan) the spartans chose to stay, for one of the most celebrated last stands in history and it is for this that they are rightly famous. But, what everyone seems to ignore is that the spartans were not the only greeks to stand there to the end. The Thespians also stayed. They were citizen soldiers from the city of Thespiae , worshippers of Eros and the Muses. These must have been just normal guys, not professional soldiers like the spartans. What made them stay? Courage? Desperation? Inspiration? Awareness that they were participants in a momentous occasion?

The Spartans exchanged cloaks and shields with them, as they all prepared for the final battle. They clearly thought of the Thespians as one of them. This, to me, is the real inspiring story.

No comments: