Herodotus and Zac Snyder have at least one thing in common: they both portray the ancient Persians in very unflattering terms. The grim, ghastly, almost monstrously barbaric (yet weirdly effeminate) features of the Persian leader Xerxes is one of the most visually arresting elements of Snyder's film 300 (based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller). How historically accurate is the film? Considering the fact that Snyder shot almost the entirety of the film on a soundstage because the film's "landscapes are different than in real life. They don't exist in the real world, only in Frank Miller's imagination," one might be tempted to say not very. Yet, there are elements of the film that do correspond to the historical Battle of Thermopylae -- in a way. This paper will compare and contrast Snyder's film 300 with the real history of the battle between Spartans and Persians and show why Snyder's film is more fantasy than reality.
Liberty in 300: The Biggest Inaccuracy
Snyder's 300 places a lot of emphasis on the idea of liberty and freedom -- but these are modern ideals, made popular in the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution (the Revolutionaries' anthem was "liberty, equality, fraternity"). Snyder's Spartans are meant to represent these rather modern ideals, and the Persians are meant to symbolize freedom-hating, slave-owning monsters. The irony, however, is that Cyrus (Xerxes' father) wrote the Cyrus Cylinder, now an ancient artifact that hold 45 lines of cuneiform script. This Cylinder has been called by some scholars as the first "human rights" declaration -- though others dismiss this view as somewhat simplistic.
Still, the Persians did not champion slavery. In fact, Cyrus promoted a peaceful existence between Persians and Babylonians and gave the Hebrew people freedom to return to their land.
As Herodotus states, "Great power is in general gained by running great risks," and the Persian Empire certainly showed great power under Cyrus and Xerxes -- but Zac Snyder's film shows nothing of this. Instead, it places the source of power in the militant Spartans, led by Leonidas, and shows them as the ones who exercised great risk in the Battle of Thermopylae. But what was the Battle of Thermopylae? And who really was involved?
More than 300
The Persian Wars were more than just a conflict between Spartans and Persians. All the Greeks were involved, and there were many Greek city-states. John Haaren notes that while Leonidas did lead the roughly 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (as the film shows), there were about 4000 total Greeks there that day, the vast majority of them from other Greek city-states.
All Greeks had an interest in stopping the advancement of the Persians at the Pass of Thermopylae.
Snyder's film does at least portray this aspect of the Greek city-states correctly: in the abstract sense, they were a proud people. Snyder's film pays tribute to the legend that Xerxes' messengers demanded a tribute of land and water (an act that would have symbolized submission). While the film portrays the messengers (and the Spartans) and highly theatrical costumes, Persia (historically speaking) had a rather easy way of governing. Cyrus had shown himself to be no tyrant -- and Herodotus, who criticized the Persian Empire, was free to travel through Persia as he wished. The requested tribute was not one that necessarily carried any threat of tyranny -- but the Greeks were used to their independence and valued their autonomy. The film emphasizes this considerably. (And one thing that the film does not mention is that the Spartans were actually slave owners: their slaves were called helots, and Herodutus notes that there were seven times as many of them in Sparta than there were actual Spartans. What is worse, Plutarch states that some Spartan rulers annually declared war on the helots in order to control their population and in general to justify their "harsh and cruel" treatment of their slaves).
Leonidas as a Nordic Hero
Snyder's film depicts the harsh traditions of the Spartans, but exaggerates it for cinematic effect. Snyder is less interested in filming "history" than he is in filming Miller's graphic novel. So where Snyder gets something right, it is generally because Miller chose to use some aspect of the real Spartan story in his narrative.
However, there is significant and obvious attempt to "Nordify" the Spartan people. Leonidas is played by Gerard Butler, an actor of Scottish descent. The Persians, on the other hand, are far darker in complexion than they likely were -- and they are depicted as thoroughly ruthless and barbaric, which was hardly true. Their religious beliefs were primarily based on the teachings of Zarathustra, who had begun the religion of Zoroastrianism around 650 BC. According to Zarathustra, "the universe was under the control of two contrary gods, Ahura-Mazda, the creating god who is full of light and good, and Ahriman, the god of dark and evil. These two evenly matched gods are in an epic struggle over creation."
Thus, the Persians were conscious of a moral law and a struggle between good and evil that encompassed all human beings. The bloodthirsty monsters depicted in Snyder's film is not only a highly unsympathetic portrayal of the ancient Persians, it is not even a believable portrayal of any real peoples. Snyder's Persians a mythological and demonic -- the perfect villains for a Hollywood film. But when it comes to history, it is a disservice to the Persian people.
In all fairness, however, the film is a tribute to the bravery of the Spartans. What then does the film have to say about this aspect of Leonidas and his men? Does it accurately depict their stand at the Pass of Thermopylae? The answer is -- yes and no.
Film Fighting vs. Real Greek Fighting
The film depicts a large amount of hand to hand combat in the film. This is gratuitous to say the least. The truth is that the Greeks walled themselves together in the Pass to prohibit the Persians from advancing. Xerxes sent a few waves of soldiers to try to break through this human wall, but the Greeks stood their ground -- that is, they stood their ground until they were betrayed by a traitor. The film depicts the traitor as a hunch-backed outcast who is not allowed to fight with the Greeks because he is perceived by Leonidas as being too weak and thus a "chink" in the armor or a crack in their "wall." This is somewhat historically inaccurate -- as is the fact that the Spartans fight essentially in the nude. Greek warriors always protected their chests in battle: they would have been less concerned with displaying machismo in their battle with the Persians and more concerned with protecting their flesh. The movie plays up the machismo aspect because it is propagating a tale of machismo. It is dealing essentially with archetypes: Xerxes is the tyrannical and effeminate monster from Hell; Leonidas is the liberty-loving, Nordic swash-buckler with chiseled abs. Neither of these is meant to be real.
Xerxes, moreover, would not have worn the jewelry he is depicted as wearing in the film: this is purely a Frank Miller add-on. Miller purposely depicts the Persians in this costume to downplay their human characteristics. For this reason, he shows Xerxes being carried on a throne by slaves. In reality, this would not have happened. The Persians had no slaves -- the Spartans did.
So then why are the Spartans depicted as the good guys? The story has been passed down from generation to generation as an example of fortitude and bravery. Haaren mentions that when the Persians finally surrounded the Spartans on all sides, Leonidas was warned that the Persians would now shower the Spartans with arrows --…