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Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.(1)
I love this movie. I got my start in Classics, and stories of men and women like those depicted in this fictionalized account of Leonidas and his defense, with three-hundred fighting men, of a pass called Thermopylae (the “hot gates”) never cease to inspire. While the movie is somewhat fictionalized, the event it depicts actually occurred. In 480 B.C.E., Greece was facing invasion and erasure by Xerxes I and the Persian empire. There was no unified Greece at this time, only independent city states many of which (like Athens and Sparta) were relatively hostile to each other. They came together, in part inspired by the battle of Thermopylae, to repel the Persian threat.
This battle stands as one of the defining moments of Greek (and Roman heroism), even though it was in and of itself a bloodbath. The story of the 300 is just that: a story of heroism, and we need those stories. They inspire us in cultivating the same virtues of patriotism and courage, valor and honor in ourselves. They inspire us to preserve our culture and our traditions, to value what we have created, to work hard to sustain it. They unify a people across boundaries and differences, and they teach us the necessity of sometimes sacrificing for something greater than ourselves. Those are good things, necessary things where the cultivation of virtue is concerned. These were the stories passed down to our grandparents, great grandparents, and beyond. They helped form the cultural and moral consciousness of the “greatest generation” that saved Europe from [actual] Nazis – and in 1941, allies defended Thermpylae again, this time against Nazi invasion– and maybe that shared cultural and moral heritage is precisely why stories like this are now under fire in our morally incomprehensible world today. But I digress.
The movie “300” is an adaptation of this story (a loose adaptation I grant you) from a graphic novel and it does take liberties. It is told from the perspective of a veteran of Thermopylae, rallying and inspiring later troops to fight the Persians. Because of that, the Persians are exaggerated in their presentation so that the valor of those that stood against them, may likewise be highlighted. It’s an excellent tale (though I think the original is even better! The most accessible account is probably Herodotus’s Histories,Book VII) (2).
Several people have asked me lately out of the blue, what some of my favorite movies are, or what I’m watching (most recently “Lovecraft Country”) or reading (a lot of Jane Austen atm). So, for those interested, I’ll try to do a post each Monday on a wholesome (by my definition, keeping in mind I really like action and horror – you have been warned lol) movie. I might miss a Monday here and there as school is just starting back up, but I’ll try to recommend some good things. Here’s your first:
- “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their laws.” In the 2007 movie, Frank Miller uses this translation, which I like, “Go tell the Spartans, passerby: that here, by Spartan law, we lie.” There are multiple translations of this epitaph. Cicero even translated it into Latin: Dic, hospes, Spartae nos te hic vidisse iacentes | dum santis patriae legibus obsequimur. Tusculanae Disputationes, 42.101.
- Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Ktesias (among others) also mention it.