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'300' is more thana bloody number

Buried beneath the bodies is a history lesson.

Published March 18, 2007


A bloody, horrifyingly graphic movie that glorifies war and is based on a comic book is setting box-office records. By the booming thunderbolts of Zeus, this is surely just one more sign of the apocalypse. Or at least the end of Western civilization.

Which would be a pity, because the film 300 depicts a seminal event at the nascent rise of the West. The movie put up about $70-million in ticket sales in its opening weekend or, as one wag calculated, a quarter-million dollars per dead Spartan.

Those who hate the flick, and they are legion (a sampling: the New York Times: "300 is about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid;" the Washington Post: "an overblown visual document with an IQ in the lower 20s") are missing the point, even though they're right - it is bombastic, bloody, bad and banal.

But instead of wailing that our civilization in this video-gamish movie has been diminished by a race-baiting look at the cartoonish Good of ripped-ab Greek white guys versus the Evil of effeminate, dodgy empire-backing Persian wimps of color, we should be celebrating the teachable moment. In a word, class- icists the culture over should rejoice at the chance to correct the caricature.

While this movie is based on a hard-cover comic book known as a graphic novel, both, even if ever so tenuously, come from history - an event that did actually happen. Maybe, just maybe, a few people watching this film will be less interested in the computer-generated blue-screen blood-red special effects and will want to learn a touch of that history.

And that history is the Battle of Thermopylae, a rear-guard action by Spartan King Leonidas and 300 hand-picked men. He chose only warriors who already had sons to carry on the family name as he knew everyone would die in battle. He and his small band repelled thousands of Persians at Thermopylae, the "hot gates," a mountain pass too narrow for much anything but an ox cart.

The Spartans held out long enough for the main body of the Greek army to retreat and regroup to fight another day. With the extra time the Spartans died to give them, the other Greeks consolidated their forces and won the war. Sure, Athens was sacked and burned, but Greek civilization endured and then transmitted to us the traditions of democracy - okay, and also pretentious open-air theater and overpaid athletes - we have to this day.

Arguably, without the Battle of Thermopylae, there would have been no Greek heritage to hand down. But without a history of the Battle of Thermopylae, we would have no way of knowing that the fight ever occurred.

Enter Herodotus. The father of history, Herodotus was a curious man, a traveler who scribbled down on scrolls what he saw and heard, culminating in The Histories, likely the first history book ever written. Take a course in Greek thought and literature, and you'll read at least part of The Histories and its themes of East versus West, Greek versus Persian, democracy versus autocracy - or you should. Learn about the politics of the times, the shifting alliances, the ethics, the beliefs, the tactics, the attitudes toward heroes, toward slaves, toward outsiders, toward war and peace. How could democratic Athens work with far-from-democratic Sparta? Did the Persians have some righteous justification for their invasion?

Now, Herodotus' fact-checking is decidedly minimalist by modern standards. A better drinking buddy than stickler for detail, he is credulous in taking at face value stories of myth and magic. But his Histories is a starting point for understanding how the West and the concept of democracy grew from what it was in the rocky landscape of 480 B.C. Athens to what it is today. How else would we know that plucky little city-states came to believe that if they could defeat a huge eastern empire, they must be something special? Of course, the so-called golden age of ancient Greece lasted mere decades as the unity of facing a shared enemy gave way to intrigues, jealousies, slights, bad political decisions and disastrous wars. But if we learn that history, maybe we won't have to repeat it. At least we'll know where we came from.

So my advice to culture critics and history teachers is this: Enough about 300. Sure, on some level it's just bizarre that PlayStation is selling a 300 game, "packed with brutally intense and graphically violent fighting scenes," Sony assures us. Still, there is basic truth even there - fighting with long spears and arrows was a pretty grisly, messy affair. And yes, it's easy to complain that the comic book has a page with only two actual words on it ("we march"). But that's facile and pretty pointless.

Use the film or the book or the game and their gratuitous violence as a step stool to the bookshelf and the real past. Reach up and grab a copy of The Histories. Blow off the dust. Look in the index under "Thermopylae" and get to work. While you're at it, pluck that volume of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (talk about your bad political decisions - the war's not going well here in Athens, so let's go invade Sicily!) and even Aeschylus' The Persians, the oldest surviving play in Western history ("Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thraldom save your country, save ... the temples of your gods, the sacred tomb. Where rest your honor'd ancestors; this day the common cause of all demands your valor.").

Use a comic-book/movie/videogame as a chance to tell how the forebears of Western civilization thought and felt - and how in many ways their system of duty, honor and democracy was far different from our own, we who are the descendants of those beliefs and traditions.

Get back to the original works. As the noted arbiter of civilization and its discontents Casey Stengel - or was it James Thurber? - put it so succinctly, You could look it up.



The Histories

By Herodotus

Edited by Carolyn Dewald; translated by Robin Waterfield.

Oxford University Press, paperback (illustrated), 840 pages, $10.95



[Last modified March 18, 2007, 10:02:27]

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