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:

Please read and support my work on Patreon!