Why the Spartans lived for the glory of the battlefield

Category: 300 News | Posted by: maryp
Article Date: November 30, 2007 | Publication: Irish Medical Times | Author: Dr John Wallace
Publication/Article Link:Irish Medical Times

Dr John Wallace reports on the absorbing and controversial film, 300, based on a graphic novel which details the stand-off by King Leonidas of Sparta and his cohort of 300 men against the Persian army.

In the fifth century the Pass of Thermopylae in Greece was the scene of a defensive battle by an outnumbered Greek force against a vast, invading Persian army. Among the Greek defenders, were 300 Spartans.

The army of Persia, under King Xerxes, was one million strong and it was poised to crush Greece, ‘an oasis of reason in a sea of tyranny’. Standing between Greece and this tidal wave of destruction, was a force of 6,000 Greeks including the tiny detachment of Spartan warriors under their commander, Leonidas.


After two days of battle, Leonidas dismissed his 6,000 Greek troops and, with just his 300-strong royal guard, bravely fought the Persians until his men were all killed. The notion that the Spartans never surrender emanates from this action.

The blockbuster film 300 was inspired by a graphic novel that, in turn, was informed by The Histories written by Herodotus in the fifth century BC.


Herodotus

Herodotus was a Greek historian who is regarded by Cicero as the “father of history”. He travelled widely in the Middle East and Italy collecting material for his great narrative history. The Histories tells of the war between Persia and Greece in the 5th century BC and tries to explain its causes.


He was the first historian to collect evidence systematically and then arrange what he had found in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. Devoid of prejudice and intolerance, he loved antiquity. Herodotus viewed Thermopylae as a spectacular clash of two civilisations, Persia and Sparta.


Sparta

Sparta was a leading city state in ancient Greece. The country the Spartans controlled was called Laconia and their city, Sparta, was the only unwalled city in Greece.


The Spartans built their whole lifestyle around their need to excel in war and they were traditionally indifferent to comfort or luxury. Their meals were served in barracks and they had little family or home life. Their entire education was aimed at making them efficient warriors. The practices of the Spartans had a major influence on Plato’s great work, The Republic.


The film 300

The film 300, is based on a graphic novel written by Frank Miller and designed by Lynn Varley. The novel, using a striking visual style, retells the story of the ancient battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, between the Spartans and the Persians.


Thermopylae is a pass between the mountains and the sea in central Greece, about 120 miles North West of Athens. The defenders of the pass, however, were out-flanked and the failure of the Spartans to hold the narrow pass enabled the Persians to capture Athens and sack the Acropolis.


The film, closely based on the novel, is a blend of live action and animation. Director Zack Snyder successfully translated the striking visuals and spirit of Miller’s landmark graphic novel onto the big screen. In this Warner Brothers’ production, Snyder remained as faithful to the graphic source as was possible. In doing so, he merged traditional film-making with very advanced, computer-generated visual effects.


In the film, Leonidas, commander of the Spartans, venerates law, reason and tradition. As he sets out for battle, his wife calls to him: “Spartan, come home with your shield or on it.” The royal bodyguard march for “sacred Sparta”. Their destination, the narrow cliffs at Thermopylae, is referred to as the “Hot Gates”.


In this narrow corridor, the superior numbers of Persians do not count as each Spartan protects the man to his left with his shield, never retreating. On the second day of battle, Leonidas dismisses his troops, and with only his 300-strong Spartan royal guard, he decides to fight to the last man. Though the Spartans are greatly outnumbered, King Xerxes of the Persians betrays his fatal flaw, hubris – he believes he is a god.


Hubris

Hubris, a word of Greek origin, was an important concept in Spartan life. In Greek tragedy, hubris refers to excessive pride or defiance toward the gods. It means ‘wanton insolence’.


It leads to nemesis or divine retribution by the goddess, Nemesis. Eventually, hubris brings about the downfall of the offender. The Spartans believed that the invasion of Greece by the Persians was an act of hubris and therefore, inevitably, bound to fail.


Abbey Road Studios

Graphic artist, Frank Miller, was retained as a consultant on the film. The movie is a shot-for-shot adaptation of the comic book. By having a narrator advising on it, the film has a subjective perspective.


The shields, swords and spears used in the film were recycled from the films Troy starring Brad Pitt and Alexander with Colin Farrell. In fact, another director, Michael Mann, was also planning a film about the battle. Mann, a “visionary of modern style” has previously had major hits with The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Heat starring Al Pacino.


Snyder’s 300 was shot over 60 days in Montreal, for US$60 million. Scottish actor, Gerard Butler, plays King Leonidas and did most of his own stunt work. It was an intensely physical performance with Butler developing ‘drop foot’ during the performance. Ten special-effects companies were involved in post-production. “Real, with a gritty illustrative feel” is how the film is described by Grislain St-Pierre, who led the team of graphic artists.


The score for 300 was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with music by Tyler Bates. Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History at Cambridge, was brought on board to advise on the pronunciation of Greek names. Critics were divided on the look and style of the film and particularly, its negative depiction of the ancient Persians. However, the film, which took three years to complete, is one of this year’s box office successes.


Go tell the Spartans

The Persians were decisively defeated one year after the battle at Thermopylae and Xerxes was forced, finally, to withdraw from Greece.


Ascribed to the Spartans is the epithet: “Should any free soul come across this place, in all the countless centuries yet to come, may our voices whisper to you from the ageless stones, go tell the Spartans that here, by Spartan law, we lie.”


300 by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, is published by Dark Horse Books and the film 300, directed by Zack Snyder, is now out on DVD, courtesy of Warner Brothers.


Dr John Wallace is a medical doctor with an interest in history.