Frank Miller and Herodotus, Sperthias and Bulis, and Pocahontas

A reader with the ursine name of bear545 writes:

What part of [Frank Miller’s] 300 was ‘real’? According to historical accounts, there was a unit of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and they did hold out for three days, so it is real in that respect. However, Miller turned them, the Spartans, into the bearers of light and rationality for the free world, who were to free the world from superstition and darkness. I repeat, the Spartans. That is about so unreal as to be delusional.

My comment: Well, to be fair to Mr Miller, Herodotus also credits the Spartans with the preservation of the liberty of the Hellenes from Persian dominion; and from the Hellenes come our institutions of democracy and the academy.

Allow me to quote from book VII the HISTORIES of Herodotus:

Nor is the courage which these men [the Lacedaemonians] hereby displayed alone worthy of wonder; but likewise the sayings made by them.

On their road to Susa they presented themselves before Hydarnes. This Hydarnes was a Persian by birth, and had the command of all the nations that dwelt along the sea-coast of Asia. He accordingly showed them hospitality, and invited them to a banquet, where, as they feasted, he said to them:

“Men of Lacedaemon, why will ye not consent to be friends with the king? Ye have but to look at me and my fortune to see that the king knows well how to honour merit. In like manner ye yourselves, were ye to make your submission to him, would receive at his hands, seeing that he deems you men of merit, some government in Greece.”

“Hydarnes,” they answered, “thou art a one-sided counsellor. Thou knowest but half the matter; but the other half is beyond thy knowing. A slave’s life thou understandest; but, never having tasted liberty, thou canst not tell whether it be sweet or no. Ah! hadst thou known what freedom is, thou wouldst have bidden us fight for it, not with the lance only, but also with axes.”

So they answered Hydarnes.

For those of you who don’t catch the reference, lances were used during shield to shield fighting, but axes were when the lance was too unwieldy, and the men stood breast to breast in the press of melee, killing enemies whose breath touched one’s face when they screamed. The ax is the weapon of last resort.

But let me also back up to the previous paragraph and explain what the two men were doing, presenting themselves to Hydarnes, commander of the Immortals.

They went there to die.

“King Xerxes had sent no heralds either to Athens or Sparta to ask earth and water, for a reason which I will now relate. When Darius some time before sent messengers for the same purpose, they were thrown, at Athens, into the pit of punishment, at Sparta into a well, and bidden to take therefrom earth and water for themselves, and carry it to their king. On this account Xerxes did not send to ask them.

What calamity came upon the Athenians to punish them for their treatment of the heralds I cannot say, unless it were the laying waste of their city and territory; but that I believe was not on account of this crime.

On the Lacedaemonians, however, the wrath of Talthybius, Agamemnon’s herald, fell with violence. Talthybius has a temple at Sparta; and his descendants, who are called Talthybiadae, still live there, and have the privilege of being the only persons who discharge the office of herald.

When therefore the Spartans had done the deed of which we speak, the victims at their sacrifices failed to give good tokens; and this failure lasted for a very long time.

Then the Spartans were troubled; and, regarding what had befallen them as a grievous calamity, they held frequent assemblies of the people, and made proclamation through the town, “Was any Lacedaemonian willing to give his life for Sparta?”

Upon this two Spartans, Sperthias, the son Aneristus, and Bulis, the son of Nicolaus, both men of noble birth, and among the wealthiest in the place, came forward and freely offered themselves as an atonement to Xerxes for the heralds of Darius slain at Sparta. So the Spartans sent them away to the Medes to undergo death.”

Understand that? The signature scene of Frank Miller’s 300, where Leonidas shouts “This! Is! Spar! Ta!” and kicks the emissary into the well was in fact something the Spartans regretted as a crime, and asked for men to volunteer to die for it, and two men volunteered, Sperthias and Bulis; and presented themselves to the enemy asking to be killed. The enemy asked them to befriend the Persian Great King instead, which the Spartans with a noble speech refused.

The Persian Great King with even more nobility declined the sacrificial offer, and sent them home with compliments and gifts.

In sum, the report from Herodotus was very nearly the opposite of Miller’s version.

The rest of Frank Miller is of a like degree of historical accuracy, which is to say, he treats the characters described by Herodotus much the same as he treats the characters invented by Bill Finger, somewhere between a raw material and an arch-enemy.

To include a scene where the Spartan ephors, who are judges, as a priesthood conspiring against the secular leadership (imagined as an order of creepy Jesuits with a floaty under-aged sibyl, rather than as the aristocratic families carrying out sacrifices) is an insult to the Spartan memory, bad they were, considering the piety described by Herodotus above.

Granted, to complain of historical inaccuracy in films and comics is to wave the sword of King Canute at the sea. But readers should be painfully aware that Frank Miller’s 300 makes Disney’s POCAHONTAS look like a documentary, and I am including the scenes where the Indian princess leaps from the famous mile-high cliffs overlooking the Potomac, after talking to the singing tree.

So, in other words, yes, bear545 is right, the Spartan is  remembered not for his enlightenment or literature, and, indeed, would be as lost in the oblivion of time as is the Etruscan were it not for his more literate neighbor the Athenian. The liberty praised by Sperthias and Bulis is the freedom of their Helot-based military commonwealth from foreign dominion, not civil nor individual liberty.

Spartan aristocrats held their property in common; lived in dormitories; gave their unwanted sons to the Apothetae and their wanted to the Agoge; kept themselves and their perioeci in spartan poverty, kept their helots in terror of arbitrary nocturnal massacre; wrote no poetry nor plays; and practiced that Greek vice of Ganymede which the Romans so abominated.

And yet these men, whose militarism no one, not even the Nazis of Germany has ever matched, were by all accounts the ones who saved the West from Persia.

Again , yes, bear545 is right: Frank Miller’s account is about as historically inaccurate as can be imagined, but with this one caveat. A Leftist would have made an even more inaccurate account.

A Leftist would have made “Dances With Persians” and included a scene where Xerxes uses a “teaching moment” to tell Leonidas about the glories of toleration for minorities, of petting wild animals, and of recycling.

On the other hand, had Mr Miller done POCAHONTAS, we would have seen Chief Powhatan bellowing “This is Virginia!” before kicking John Smith into a well, and Pocahontas, half nude, throwing herself into the way of her father’s descending war club in Wachowski-Brothers style slo-mo.

But at least the Algonquin would have been shown with their slaves and their tortures as well as being shown half-naked doing aerial wire-fu ninja-acrobatics during their combats. The English aboard the Discovery would have brought along a trained battle-rhino covered in barding to unleash on the Indians. Both the English and the Algonquin would have been total badasses, not PC wimps. The singing tree would have been draped in corpses.


Granny Death Tree

Mr Miller portrays the Spartans as possessing military courage, the one virtue Hollywood has taken pains to forget how to portray.

We owe him a little credit for that. And for the battle rhino scene.

My further comments, observations, and opinions about the movie “300” can be summed up here:


  1. Comment by bear545:

    Thank you for your fair reply.

  2. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Besides quoting Herodotus on how the Spartans came to send Sperthias and Bulis to make amends for the unjust slaying of the Persian heralds, you should have ended the quote with how the Persians reacted. The Persian satrap (or governor) treated them hospitably before sending them to King Xerxes. And how did the king behave? Did he kill the Spartans? Not at all! Xerxes spared them and sent them back to Sparta with honor. And Herodotus himself admitted the Persian king behaved nobly.

    Frankly, in many ways, the Persians were a far better people than the Greeks!

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Indeed, I should have mentioned that. It makes the subhuman portrayal of the Persians-as-orcs in Frank Miller’s 300 all the more egregious.

      But the Greeks, like the Jews, were often more critical of themselves than of strangers. Note how badly the Achaian captains are portrayed in Homer’s ILIAD compared to the nobility of Hector.

      On a side note, I was strangely bemused by the Leftist reaction to Millers movie. They call it racist, because white men were portrayed as beating up are non-white men. In reality, the Persians are Caucasian. The Caucasus mountains after whom the race is named are between the Black and the Caspian sea, the seat of old of the northern satrapies of Persia.

      Then just today at lunch my liberal friend tells me the Greeks who ruled and reigned in Egypt during the Hellenistic ages after Alexander the Great were non-whites, at least when the Roman attacked them. I should have asked him whether Italians were white.

      It seems the rule of Political Correctness is any race responsible for aiding the development in art and culture and science in the West is white, and any race who is victimized by the West is non-White, even if it is the selfsame race.

      • Comment by Jordan179:

        On a side note, I was strangely bemused by the Leftist reaction to Millers movie. They call it racist, because white men were portrayed as beating up are non-white men. In reality, the Persians are Caucasian. The Caucasus mountains after whom the race is named are between the Black and the Caspian sea, the seat of old of the northern satrapies of Persia.

        Not only are the Persians white, but they are “Iranian.” If that term doesn’t mean anything to your liberal critics other than the current name assumed by “Persia,” he might be more familiar with the word in another form …

        … “Aryan.” Means the exact same thing, namely “descended from the original Indo-European speakers.” Who were, as far as we can tell, about was “white” as they come.

        Then just today at lunch my liberal friend tells me the Greeks who ruled and reigned in Egypt during the Hellenistic ages after Alexander the Great were non-whites, at least when the Roman attacked them. I should have asked him whether Italians were white.

        On what basis does he argue that they were non-white? Under the theory that living on the continent of Africa for a few centuries made them “Africans?”

        Has he ever heard the word “Boer?”

        It seems the rule of Political Correctness is any race responsible for aiding the development in art and culture and science in the West is white, and any race who is victimized by the West is non-White, even if it is the selfsame race.

        If you really want to make his head explode, point out to him that the Greeks and Persians actually weren’t all that alien to one another. The Greeks were descended from the south-western arm of Aryan expansion, and the Persians from the south-eastern ones. Their languages both belonged to the Indo-European family, with Greek being closer to Latin and Persian to Hindi. Over two thousand years ago, they wouldn’t have even looked all that different.

        • Comment by Fabio Paolo Barbieri:

          Except that even today, Persians are more like Europeans than like Indians. And it is worth considering how, while their languages are closely related (Sanskrit and Avestan were mutually understandable, in fact should be regarded as dialects of each other), their physical appearances are vastly different. Persians look like Italians. (An unfortunate side effect of this is that Persian prostitutes are highly valued and viciously traded across the Arab Middle East for their light skin, beautiful figures and remarkable eyes. Places like Dubai are full of Persian prostitutes, and the local police – which is not very like a Western force, of course – every now and then just sweeps up anyone who looks or sounds Persian and packs them out of the country as an undesirable.)

          • Comment by Foxfier:

            *adjust mental impressions*
            That makes sense.

            Of course, I did grow up with folks who consider Irish and Italians and Basque not-white (probably Spanish folks, too, but we didn’t have a population of them) as well as folks who consider everyone less than untanned copper brown “white.” A historic view is just…much less random.

          • Comment by Jordan179:

            Persia was much more influenced by Greece and Arabia than by the Dravidians; by comparison, the main influence on India during the formative years of its civilization was Dravidian, upon a minority of (literally) Aryan conquerors. The great tragedy of Persia, which boasted a high civilization of considerable worth, is that it has fallen under the sway of one of the most fanatical forms of Islam, and hence is now essentially volunteering to die for The Cause. Persia is better than that, and I hope that after the fall of the theocrats comes a great anti-religious reaction which restores some of Persia’s old glory.

          • Comment by geomass:

            That is true…Persian prostitutes are “traded” everyday, especially in Dubai’s new malls, I hear they are heavily discounted during the Dubai Shopping Festival and the government is really lax on Persian Prostitute Licensing…And they are highly prized for their light skin and eyes, its not like a large percentage of the local population in Dubai is actually ‘Persian’.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      The Persian Empire was actually known for its relative tolerance and humanity, by Near Eastern standards. Yes, by our standards it was an arrogant despotism, but compared to (say) the Assyrians, they were idealistic humanitarians. That was why it was so strong: the Persians were popular overlords.

  3. Comment by Mrmandias:

    The Hydarnes episode is one of the classics of the West. Another way of looking at the axe image is that in classical Greek warfare the axe wasn’t a military implement. So the Spartans reply invokes the farmer surprised in his field defiantly swinging whatever tool comes to hand, or a broken remnant of a phalanx fighting back through their camp with shovels and picks.

    To modernize it, the Spartan reply is ‘If you knew how sweet freedom is, Hydarnes, you would tell us to use our rifles as clubs when the bullets ran out.’

  4. Comment by Boggy Man:

    To be fair to Miller, he doesn’t so much portray Leonidas as a madman and the Persians as Orcs so much as he portrays Dilios as a Spartan braggart spinning tales to work up the troops. (That could be seen as a fig-leaf catch all for any flaw the film/book has however. Being generous, one could say the unreliable narrator affectation allows Miller to cement how Leonidas had already passed to the realm of legend even within his own generation.)

    For what it’s worth I found 300 the most enjoyable thing Miller has ever done. I only lament there were no Gozerian mummies or Egyptian cyborgs to fight along the cave trolls, goblin ninjas and Zoroastrian grenadiers.

  5. Comment by Janie Mercer:

    Well, depending on the time of her life, a half-nude Pocahontas might be accurate.

    Disney went to quite a bit of trouble to slaver about the “non-existent” gold in Virginia. What fools the greedy Jamestown soldiers were for seeking it. They weren’t fools. There was indeed quite a lot of gold in Virginia, hence the names Goldvein and Mineral. Just wasn’t likely found in that time period and in that part of the colony.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      Indeed, but the Disney movie’s brief point about the futile quest for gold was quite to the point of the history of the Jamestown colony. One of the biggest problems the colony faced was the general assumption back in England that anyone colonizing America could plunder vast treasures from the natives and then either subjugate the natives or trade some of the treasure to obtain food. This assumption came from the fact that this is exactly what the Spanish had done in much of their portion of the New World.

      The problems with this were that the Jamestown colonists had no Cortez (their most competent leader, John Smith, was at most equivalent to Alvarez or Balboa), the Powhatan Confederation was not as widely hated as had been the Mexican Aztec Republic, and furthermore the dreamy-eyed English adventurers were not Cortez’s hard-bitten veterans. Trying to plunder the natives was hence a very bad idea, at least at the beginning — what the colonists needed to do was ally and conciliate.

      And hunt and fish and farm. The colony had a surplus of adventurous gentlemen who thought they could pick gold nuggets up off the ground, and a deficit of experienced hunters, fishermen and farmers. When they on top of this antagonized the natives, so that they could only venture out beyond the walls in large armed groups, the consequence was the Starving Times.

      If anything the Disney movie is kind to the colonists — it doesn’t show the Starving Times, or explain what caused them.

  6. Comment by Jordan179:

    I’m partial to Pocahontas anyway because it’s Disney’s attempt at the Matter of America, done as historical fantasy rather than straight historical fiction. The real “Little Frisky One” (which is what the nickname “Pocahontas” roughly means), more properly known as “Matoaka” or “Rebecca Rolfe,” played an important role in keeping relations between the English colonists and the Powhatan only intermittently hostile (had they been continually hostile the colony would have been annihilated). Additionally, she was an ancestress (through her only child Thomas Rolfe) of most of the First Families of Virginia.

    The State of Virginia, as we know it, would not have existed without her. Which means that neither would America, as we know it. This is true even if you assume only very weak or damped-out butterfly effects.

    Of course, she wasn’t a seductive shamaness, not at the time of the early Jamestown colony. She was a rambunctious pre-teen and young adolescent, which is why she got the nickname “Little Frisky One.” As far as we know, her only magic power was being so cute that the colonists loved her, and she had no magic tress or talking animals.

    More’s the pity :)

    • Comment by plymouthbelvedere:

      I’m not surprised to read that Pocahontas’ cuteness is the rock upon which Virginia is founded. Have we learned nothing from anime? Cuteness trumps everything. Alien techno-empires, giant-robot-wielding global terrorist cartels, even the Freemasons — all crumble to dust when faced with the sheer charm of a winsome teenage girl.

      Cuteness effect doubles if said girl is a pop singer.

    • Comment by Mrmandias:

      The Matter of America is a beautiful concept. Will have to use it.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Read Orson Scott Card’s SEVENTH SON. It deals with a paratime parallel America to which everyone with “knacks” (psychic talents of the kind folklore witches have) is exiled to the new world, and the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to build a shining city of promise somewhere in the West.

      • Comment by Fabio Paolo Barbieri:

        I am surprised that you find it so surprising. America is one long legend. I in Italy grew up with Western stories, stories of the Revolution, gangster tales, and then Lovecraft, and so on – every aspect of American life has been made epic and legendary. As a child, I probably knew more of the geography of Northern Arizona than of my own Brianza. To this day, with an anthropology degree and some published research under my belt, when I make friends in places such as Tucson or Abilene, I often tell them that as far as I am concerned that is not unlike coming from Gondor.

        • Comment by Mrmandias:

          Well I come from Northern Arizona and now live in New Mexico in sight of my great-granddaddy’s ranch to the north and to the south the mountain where my great-great-granddaddy was bushwhacked by a cattle rustler that he’d testified against. For that reason the American West is only lightly tinged with legend to me.

          But I am alive to the mythic quality of the American experience. I’ve read the Seventh Son series (though, like most works of men, the later work falls short of the promise of the first); our own Mr. Wright’s Everness series is a fantastic tribute to the American legend (there are also aspects of this in his Orphans series, though less so). The American colonists, the American Revolution and the founding generation, and the Civil War are all key components of my personal legendarium (I assert against all comers that John Brown’s Body and Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, along with a few other histories of that war, are *the* American national literature). So it wasn’t the idea of America having a mythic history that impressed me. It was the phrase ‘Matter of America,’ with all the associations that has. I am one who can get drunk on words like wine.

  7. Comment by Gian:

    There is a tragic aspect to Liberty that makes the slave drivers yelp the loudest for liberty.

    Why this could be so?
    People with most intense political feelings are naturally most conscious of the citizen-stranger gap.

    You can see it even now. Many Americans protested the drone killing of a nominal American but were unconcerned when the drones were killing foreign civilians.

    Whereas were a British drone to kill a British terrorist waging war against Britain, I am pretty sure there would not be much protest in Britain.

  8. Comment by Gian:

    Civic liberty exists within National liberty much as Private property exists within National Territory.

    The mystic doctrine that declares man to be a political animal implies that man views the Law through national lens. A particular Nation embodies the Law in a particular approximate way.

    Liberalism is the denial of the political nature of man, thus it seeks to erase citizen-stranger distinction. This can be done in either by making all people to be citizens or by making all people to be strangers.

    The first option is taken up by Progressives and the second by Libertarians.

  9. Comment by Gian:

    Now strangers are those who do not share the Law i.e. love the Good differently.

    More precisely, the strangers do not share the fullness of the Law.

    (bearing in mind that the Law here means both written law and unwritten customs of a people).

    Now to make a City out of Strangers, it is not an organic process, it must be forced. They must be forced to share Law and admire the same Good.

    Thus we understand the Dostoevskian paradox
    Starting with perfect liberty, I conclude in a perfect despotism.

  10. Comment by ErisGuy:

    There is a tragic aspect to Liberty that makes the slave drivers yelp the loudest for liberty.

    I have always wondered about Burke’s statement, which seems to be about hypocrisy; e.g., liberty for me but not for thee. And yet few of the slave drivers yelp for liberty. In the 20th Europe re-instituted slavery from the Pyrenees to Vladivostok. The descendants of the slave-drivers rescued them.

    Few Europeans cry for liberty, and the slave drivers–the socialists–never dream, yearn, or cry for liberty. Nor do the slavers in Africa, nor do the slavers in South America, nor do the slavers in Arabia, nor do the slavers in Asia….

    • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

      During WWII, the Communist rulers of the USSR were extremely indignant about the Nazis as a threat to freedom and a blot on the sacred soil of the Motherland. Heck, the slave driving atheists even yelped for help from God for Holy Mother Russia, and from the bogatyr aristocratic heroes for Moist Mother Earth.

    • Comment by Mrmandias:

      Quibble: Dr. Johnson, not Burke.

      • Comment by Mary:

        And prudent though Dr. Johnson was in many matters, it is a bit ironical to hear a man who asserts that legislative authority is absolute and not to be questioned to argue with any legal practice.

    • Comment by Fabio Paolo Barbieri:

      Few Europeans cry for liberty
      You miserable, ignorant, mendacious, disgustingly opinionated, party-political troll – would it kill you to speak of something you know something about? Do you really have to slime a whole continent with your vicious ignorance, only to burn some incense to your contemptible party hackery? Yes, I am furious. People like you are as poisonous to liberty as any Mussolini or Hitler.

  11. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    How crucial was Thermopylae really to the eventual Greek victory? It certainly wasn’t decisive; the Persian army was delayed, not stopped. As a feat of arms it was impressive (I note in passing that most of the Japanese island garrisons attacked by the US in the Pacific war matched the Spartans for sheer unwillingness to surrender, but for some reason those people are much less likely to be mythologised as the epitome of warriorhood) but its strategic importance doesn’t seem instantly obvious. The Persians didn’t retreat until their fleet, which they needed for supplies, was defeated at Salamis by the Athenians. To whatever extent one believes that European democracy depended on the Greeks (the Roman Forum and the Scandinavian Ting seem equally plausible candidates to me), the Athenians should get rather more of the credit than they apparently do.

    As a side note, while there were 300 Spartan Peers in the force that held Thermopylae, the total number of Greek infantry was rather larger, on the order of 7000.

    • Comment by Mary:

      I dare say that Thermopylae was not much praised among the Persians.

      Then again Japan’s defeat had some humiliating consequences for the psyche, so it might not be praised in Japan. I don’t know. Ivan Morris’s Nobility of Failure has some interesting info on failure in Japanese legend.

    • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

      Wait a thousand years. The Japanese fighters may yet pass into myth. If I had to guess, I would say not. A core element of the story is the betrayal (The promised reinforcements not being sent). Adds a level of tragic the Japanese story is lacking.

    • Comment by John Hutchins:

      The Japanese holdouts that kept fighting until the 50’s-70’s (with rumors into the 80’s) are very interesting and are already somewhat mythical. Some isolated on islands with no knowledge the war was over, and some with knowledge the war was over, and others fighting in Asia in independence wars . Since there are certainly many good movies that could be made about these utterly devoted warriors and many historic and fictional stories to be told then I imagine they will pass into myth and legend, just as much of WW2 is already passing into legend and myth due to the tireless efforts of Hollywood and the History Channel.

    • Comment by Foxfier:

      Perhaps you’ve been talking to the wrong folks if you’ve missed the near mythical levels of puck attributed to Japanese anything.

      To the point that I’m not sure if a Scott or a Jap fortified structure would be the worse to attack– I am (american) Scottish and I love Japan.

      Pop culture, you’re probably right– but before 300, how many folks had a clue about the story of the 300?

      Mythologies depend on those sharing them; among those interested in WWII, and willing to talk about it, the Japanese are beyond Devil Dog level of crazy awesome. (Example: that guy who had to be told the war was over…. in my life time, and I’m in the “youth vote.”)

  12. Comment by lotdw:

    The axes bit becomes even more affecting when one reads the Thermopylae sequence, and the Spartans at the end are fighting with teeth and hands. The ax, it turns out, is not the weapon of last resort.

    I would disagree that all the Spartans gave posterity was their military achievements, however. The Spartan law code of Lycurgus made a great impact on Aristotle’s Politics and his Laws, and therefore on even to modern democracies. Nor are the Athenians purely responsible for us knowing about them – Herodotus himself was Ionian, not Athenian.

    Miller’s theme of Greeks vs. Persians = freedom vs. slavery is right out of Herodotus, too. Xerxes is presented as a megalomaniac who will brook no limit to his command, even to the point of whipping the waves like slaves because they wreck his boat-bridge. Repeatedly Herodotus says that in Persia all men are slaves, but in Greece men are free (as you note, conveniently leaving out the helots and the like).

    Rolf – many modern historians actually believe that Thermopylae not only wasn’t a help to Greek victory but was an important victory for the Persians. Had the Greeks been able to hold Xerxes long enough, he would have run out of supplies, but because he beat them, he was able to overrun the majority of Greece. Of course Thermopylae is later important because of its mythological significance, as you note.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      The Spartan law code of Lycurgus made a great impact on Aristotle’s Politics and his Laws, and therefore on even to modern democracies.

      Which is why modern democracy = totalitarian collectivism of a military elite, with the bulk of the population reduced to helots. And why no modern democracy has made any contribution to world culture, because the arts, literature, philosophy, even commerce and industry, are all despicable activities; only war and the constant preparation for war are fit occupations for the Citizen.


      Or maybe, just maybe, Aristotle (unlike Plato) was not such a fool as to admire the class tyranny of Sparta, and the bulk of his Politics and Laws were devoted to the study of other, more human and humane, polities.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Aristotle? I think they had even more impact on Plato.

      It’s amusing to see Plato talking as if rapt above the pole when you can see him ripping off Sparta for his perfect cities, and Aristotle rather more down to earth, discussing what he admits are ripped from real cities — and therefore taking a more critical approach.

    • Comment by Mrmandias:

      I’d argue that Thermopylae was *immediately* important because of its mythological significance. It shamed the Greeks into unity and brought the Spartans reluctantly north of the Isthmus.

  13. Comment by Leopold:

    In defense of Mr. Miller, he claimed his inspiration was not Herodotus, but the movie “The 300 Spartans.” That movie, strange though it seems to us in a time when Hollywood is bought and paid for by Boskone, was an allegory for the Cold War, with free men uniting to stand against a monolithic empire and its captive slave nations coming out of Asia. So, the original “source material” played loose and easy with historical truth. Frank Miller just turned it up to 11. It pleases me to see a pro-Western myth sneak into contemporary popular culture.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Hollywood has not always been Boskonian. THE 300 SPARTANS movie, if I recall it, was quite impressive and patriotic.

      • Comment by Leopold:

        I’ve been thinking about your observation about the slander committed against the ephors. You are, of course, absolutely correct, and normally the state of affairs you described would have aggravated me greatly. Yet, it did not. I think the reason for this is that, seeing the movie as a continuation of the Cold War allegory of The 300 Spartans, I see the treason of Ted Kennedy (asking the Soviets for help in defeating Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election) in the ephors.

        Then, too, is another motif from the movie — moral and physical health (at least in the eyes of Mr. Miller) are correlated. The physical perfection of the Spartans reflects their righteousness, whereas Xerxes, physical giant though he is, mars his form with various piercings. His court further reflects this . The moral sickness of the ephors is reflected in their physical deformity. So, I don’t see the vile physical form of the ephors being insult on top of injury, but the internal consistency within the movie of their moral sickness.

        Thank you for your thoughtful and though-inducing posts.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I liked the movie just fine when I saw it, and it certainly exemplifies heroism in a fashion that is refreshing. Like I said, I am not going to start complaining about bad history in comic book films any more than I will complain about bad science in science fiction films.

          I just liked the story in Herodotus better.

    • Comment by J. W.:

      I saw The 300 Spartans and my memory of it is similar to that of Mr. Wright. I do not think it adequate or even accurate to say that Frank Miller merely took an extra step. Miller turned the story into a Frank Miller story. And I think that that would have happened whether he was inspired by Herodotus or not.

  14. Comment by howling_wolf:

    Spartan aristocrats held their property in common; lived in dormitories; gave their unwanted sons to the Apothetae and their wanted to the Agoge; kept themselves and their perioeci in spartan poverty, kept their helots in terror of arbitrary nocturnal massacre; wrote no poetry nor plays; and practiced that Greek vice of Ganymede which the Romans so abominated.

    To be fair to the Spartans, they did write poetry. Also, their women held more rights than Athenian women, such as the right to hold property and to parade naked alongside the men during games. Which leads me to my next point, which is that Spartans were less likely to indulge the vice of Ganymede than the Athenians, what with the legendary beauty of Spartan women known throughout Greece. Coincidentally, Spartan love poetry was also more likely to be heterosexual. (The most famous poet out of Spartan territory was Sappho, so maybe it was that they tended to fancy women, even among their womenfolk, more than their Athenian brothers.)

    • Comment by lotdw:

      Sappho may not even have fancied women. If the style all around her was to write love poetry about women, she might do it too, just as a number of male homosexual musicians in the 20th/21st century have written love songs about women.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      They wrote poetry up to a certain point. Alcman (if memory serves) is the name of the last Spartan poet of whom we have record. His lived circa 625 BC. Epaminondas put a period to the Spartan helotry in the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, and Phillips of Macedon ended Spartan regime in the battle of Chaeronea, 338 BC.

      So, technically, the Spartans did have choral poetry and such, but we have no record of any poetry for nearly three centuries.

    • Comment by Mrmandias:

      The Spartans were pretty horrid. But to be fair to them, they were free in an important sense. Their horrid self-discipline was self-imposed.

      • Comment by Mary:

        Some kind of self-discipline is necessary for freedom. But as we have long seen, the Spartans’ isn’t.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I hesitate to disagree, but Spartan discipline is necessary for the military without which the freedom cannot be maintained; and in a republican form of government, it is better if the military consist of the militia, that is, of all able bodied men.

        • Comment by Mrmandias:

          You misunderstand me.

          The Spartans were free in an important sense because their privations were chosen by themselves and imposed on themselves. They were not free as individuals as we would understand it–though they were free to upstakes and leave–but they were free as a community. And even within that community, the actual Spartans (who of course were a minority of the whole population) were free to excel, which would be an important sense of ‘freedom’ to a Greek.

  15. Comment by Clibanarius:

    I did some research and a man by the name of . . . Hmmm, I wanna say Lycurgus, but that can’t be him, anyways the man said spartan men didn’t engage in pedaresty for the same reasons parents don’t have intercourse with their children. I also seem to recall the spartans making homosexuality punishable by death.

    In fact, the claim that the spartans engaged in pedaresty is a mistranslation and what really happened was a man who was already a soldier would train a spartan youth to fight and in return the youth would maintain the man’s gear. Not too terribly different from the relationship between a Knight and Squire.

    And while the spartans did practice eugenics by leaving children they deemed ‘unfit’ out to die they weren’t alone in that (the athenians (and just about every other greek city-state) come to mind) and they weren’t alone in using slaves (again, the athenians come to mind). Unlike the athenians, the spartans didn’t treat their women the way the athenians did.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      The Athenian women did have a more restricted lifestyle than their Spartan counterparts, who could own property and appear in the gymnasium. So I suppose there are some advantages to living under the most dehumanizing totalitarians communist dictatorship ever imagined, yes.

      The Spartans were no alone in exposing infants, but they were alone in making this a civic rather than a private matter.

      Spartans both practiced pederasty and made it illegal. The squires were sodomized by their knights to humiliate them, and as a hazing, that they were broken to military discipline. I have read accounts of how Spartan women had to dress up like boys to engage the sexual emotions of their husbands during the nuptials. These account are all Athenian, or from other writers from other city states. The Spartans left very little literature behind, almost none, so whatever they had to say for themselves is lost in the maw of history. So if they were being slandered, all I can say is that it is a slander that the Roman believed, and it is a practice commonplace in Asia Minor to this day.

      • Comment by howling_wolf:

        I think the women were “dressed up” because more often than not, her husband will be at barracks, where women aren’t allowed. Since their first night will often be a semi-illicit meet-up at an empty building in camp grounds, she’s dressed up as a man to avoid sticking out when sneaking in. (Although everybody knows she’s coming, but I suppose its a matter of courtesy to the rule or something.)

      • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

        I would point out the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition as an example of how effective such a slander could be……..

    • Comment by Mary:

      They maintained a reign of terror over their slaves unparalleled in any slave society I’ve ever heard of. They declared war on the helots annually and staged regular massacres. When helots distinguished themselves fighting on behalf of Sparta, they were executed.

    • Comment by howling_wolf:

      It was Xenophon, of “Anabasis” fame, who defended Spartan culture from accusations of pederasty by the Athenians. (For a culture supposedly pro-homosexual, these guys often used homosexual accusations as insults…)

      • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

        Yes, Democrats have been around a long, long time…..

        • Comment by Nostreculsus:

          You know, I’ve wondered about that too. It’s strange that the faction that wants to “normalize” homosexuality is also the faction that is keen to redefine “Santorum” and “Teabaggers” as slurs. It’s almost as if they don’t really feel homosexual practices are quite so normal, after all.

          • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

            Nothing strange about it when you realize they don’t want to “normalize” anything. You can’t enslave people without chains if they feel part of the larger community. See how far the “African American” community has fallen since they began supping with the Democrats, for example. Worse off by every metric, but they vote Democrat 95%+ every election. If the Democrats can get “Gay Marriage” the resulting implosion of employee benefits will cause such a backlash that the “Homosexuals” will belong to the Democrats for at least two generations…..

        • Comment by howling_wolf:

          Curiously enough, Xenophon was an Athenian who had served under a Spartan general.

  16. Comment by Nostreculsus:

    Herodotus’ account includes the following:

    Persian envoys are sent to the Greek city-states to request “water and earth” as a symbolic sign of submission to the Empire.

    The envoys are refused in both Athens and in Sparta.

    The Spartans put their envoy in a well, and he is told, “Earth and water? You’ll find plenty of both down there.”

    The Athenians are more tolerant of pederasty than the Spartans.

    The ephors, designed to be judges and overseers in the constitution of Lycurgus, had gradually usurped the royal powers.

    The oracle is bribed, by Cleomenes, father of Queen Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas.

    Xerxes amasses a huge army, drawing on all the nations of his empire, from Africa to Asia. The unique garb and special weaponry of each national contingent is depicted.

    Leonidas departs with 300 Spartans and troops from allied city-states to hold a narrow pass against the Persians.

    The Persian parlay. They advise the Greeks that their archers are so many that their arrows will blot out the sun. A Greek captain responds, “Then we will fight in the shade”.

    The Spartan phalanx, based on closely held shields and lances, and intensive training, defends the narrow pass against the numerically superior Persians. Persian armour is lighter to permit greater maneuverability on the open plains.

    After the initial assault fails, Xerxes attacks with his “immortals”, again without success.

    A Greek traitor reveals a small path which the Persians use to outflank Leonidas.

    Leonidas sends his allies away but remains with the Spartans to face certain death. He tells his troops to make ready; “Spartans! Eat hearty… For tonight, we dine in hell!”

    The quoted dialogue and incidents above all come directly from the account of Herodotus. Now, I grant that Frank Miller and Zack Snyder took great liberties with their visual depiction. Certainly Xerxes was not an exotic Brazilian with elaborate piercings. I also admit that a great deal of poetic license is taken with the plot line relating to political intrigue inside Sparta. But the story line hews closely to Herodotus’ account of the Spartans’ military valour and sacrifice.

    Perhaps it is the depiction of Spartans as defenders of Liberty that is troubling? Liberty is very different from Equality. The Spartans considered Liberty to mean the independence of the individual city-state to govern itself, free from the dictates and interference that issue from the imperial capital. But the Greeks did not believe in equality. They would certainly reject the notion that a free Spartan was “equal” to a helot or to a foreigner. Indeed, Aristotle states that some are slavish by nature, requiring a master to tell them what to do and to provide food and housing and healthcare.

    It is certainly not fair to describe the movie account as “the opposite” of Herodotus. (Incidentally, you should correct the spelling of this gentleman’s name in your title, to maintain some small credibility as his defender against the depredations of Millar and Snider.)

    Oops. Miller and Snyder.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I did not describe the whole movie as the opposite, only the affair I quoted at some length.

      Yes, I recognized all the lines from Herodotus in Miller, and they were in the comic book version also. The laconic wit of the Laconic Spartans still fresh after 2000 years. I even liked the wire-fu and such.

      • Comment by Nostreculsus:

        You are certainly correct. The affair of the envoys Sperthias and Bulis and Xerxes’ noble restraint was omitted. This is regrettable. It would have added depth to the portrayal of Spartan and of Persian culture.

    • Comment by Mrmandias:

      Could you give me a link to the “Spartans, eat hearty!” part? I’m not finding that in a couple of versions of Herodotus I’ve looked at online.

      • Comment by Nostreculsus:

        By Zeus, you’re right!

        The remark, “αριστάτε ως εν άιδου δειπνήσομεν”, is actually from Plutarch’s “Apophthegmata Laconica”, attributed to Leonidas.

        Me, I’m more of a deipnosophist.

    Leave a Reply