Ah Those Greeks, Part I: The Origins of Consistency

Down to his city’s bright red battle colours, this is how a Spartan warrior might have looked between 5th & 3rd Century BCE. The large shield, often known as hoplon, gave name to the core soldier of the Greek city-state: the hoplite. These warriors were suited for tight formations known as phalanxes, where each man’s shield may have given partial protection to the man on his left, while long spears from several of the most forward lines could protrude menacingly from the advancing formation. Within such structures indiscipline was most fatal, so ideally each soldier was placed near his family, neighbours, or friends, toward whom he might feel added staying-power. Note the short sword for closer mêlée. This combination of long spear & shorter sword has proved lethal, effective, & stable. The pilum & gladius of the Roman legionnaire, the lance & sword of medieval knights, the spear & often overlooked short sword (wakizashi) of Japanese warriors, the bayoneted musket & short sabre (briquet) of the common Napoleonic infantry soldier. (Image credit Johnny Shumate/Wikimedia Commons.)

In this the first of 3 postings about ancient Greece – about how this now obscure culture could influence the rise of modern Europe – I’d like to look at one ancient historical event, even more recondite until a few years ago, when it was adapted into the language of pop culture.

The heart of this event is the military engagement which took place by the pass of Thermopylae, between Persians & a vastly outnumbered Greek army, some 2500 years ago in 480 BCE.

Now ever since that moment, European thinkers have highlighted precisely this battle of Thermopylae as defining the limit to Persian (read “Eastern”) expansion westward, & grounding Greece’s (read “Western”) cultural & geographic identity. So much so that the event itself really isn’t that well known any longer. We moderns mainly know it through a few earlier historical causes we’ve had the fortune to uncover, & more importantly through countless later embellishments: historical narratives of which the most canonical is by Herodotus (484 – c425 BCE), who appears to have been only 4 years old at the time of the battle; interpretations from a gallery of political theorists – left, right, or neither – who have seen in Thermopylae the harbinger of fundamental social changes; plus endless artistic renderings or references in plays, novels, visual art. Not least movies such as Rudolph Maté’s 300 Spartans (1962), a work which reportedly had great influence on the boyhood world of one comic book storyteller known as Frank Miller.
It is because of Frank Miller that we can now renew acquaintance with ancient Greek lore, through the vigorously rejuvenated universe of his “graphic novel” (essentially a comic book with artistic & intellectual intent) & subsequent movie on the battle of Thermopylae. Both these works are known under the title 300, & I use the word “universe” because of the tight unity between the film & the slightly earlier graphic novel that inspired it.

Having said this, I’d like quickly to do away with a couple of important differences between book & film:

1) Spartan King Leonidas’s wife, Queen Gorgo, receives considerably more room in the film – though not really contradicting what was hinted in the graphic version. More important, in the comic she was not criticized by the Persian envoy before the latter was “chastised”.

2) In the graphic novel this Persian envoy was not warned that, “by Spartan law”, even an immune ambassador like him might be called to account for his threats. Since in the graphic novel he didn’t provoke the Queen either, that he & his following were nevertheless summarily executed appeared more arbitrary than similar treatment in the film. Not much of the vaunted Greek “rule of law” there, as an alert adapter seems to have noted & remedied.

Yet on the whole the differences are strikingly few, so from now I’ll refer to 300 as the joint world of both movie & graphic novel. I should add that both have been greatly successful on their terms. They have certainly put Thermopylae, & the storytelling attached to it, back on the map for some time.

But success is one thing, truth (in any meaning we give it) is another. The central questions that arise for anyone interested in history or European identity, are naturally these: first, are Frank Miller’s 300 & more generally the main elements of the Thermopylae myth – the outnumbered, yet morally victorious Spartan Greeks – true to historical fact, at least in essence? Do these ancient stories, before we even address their “message”, hold informational value as statements of naked fact? And second, does the myth recreated in 300, whether fully true historically or not, express a core of wider & more universal insight about who we are as modern Europeans or Westerners? Or is it, as has been claimed notably by modern Iranians, just xenophobic propaganda?

The first question, the issue of historical truth, is the simplest to answer: we should simply acknowledge that 300 isn’t true historically, at least not to the letter.

The most significant factual distortion seems to be an underestimation of Spartan numbers & overestimation of the Persians, because this may inflate the very core of Sparta’s claim to fame, while reducing the moral standing of the opposing Persians.

The key inaccuracy where Spartans are concerned is the suspicious absence of the helots from the battle. Helots were the slaves working the Spartan land, so that the “average” Spartan citizen had the luxury of becoming the super warrior portrayed by Frank Miller, by devoting himself full-time to military training. To modern historians’ best knowledge, at least twice as many helots accompanied the 300 free Spartans, probably to the very end. Let us put these helots at 600. Suddenly the heroic Spartans are 3 times as many. Worse, they keep slaves…

The Persians suffer a reverse fate. An already gigantic army of 500.000, to much modern evidence historically correct, is here swelled up to a million, making it even more cumbersome, imperial, & liable to ridicule. Still more provoking is the speculation that, while the Spartans did historically have slaves, the Persians apparently didn’t. There is uncertainty about actual practice but, in principle at least, slavery was abolished in Persia by Cyrus the Great, reigning 550 – 530 BCE. Yet in 300, the force of Cyrus’s grandson Xerxes (reigning 485 – 465 BCE) is insistently called an “army of slaves”.

Clearly, even such revised odds of 500 or 1000 Persians (instead of over 3000) to each Spartan, remain overwhelmingly heroic for Sparta. And Frank Miller has more to say for himself below. Still, that some factual distortion did take place is surely worth noting.

Not least because it brings us closer to the second question, the issue of xenophobia. At first sight, things don’t look too promising here either. The Persian culture, appreciated today by a number of specialists for tolerance & advanced ideas appears as a bloated, hedonistic, & arbitrary dictatorship, worshipping little but raw power & the glitter of status. Another culture, the Spartan, known even among enthusiasts of classical Greece for at least some elements later found in fascism, living nicely off its tributary states & its slaves, performs what could be judged a vainglorious, narcissistic, & theatrical act of joint suicide – engineered not even from the ranks, but by the supreme manipulative authority of its exalted leader Leonidas!

Or at least, that is one alternate way of putting things. Has truth really been turned upside down, in the name of a Eurocentric message? This is what many modern Iranians, identifying with ancient Persians, seemed to feel when the film came out. We can understand them partly – but still this may not be the whole story.

For all his fiddling with the finer details of History, Frank Miller – again he is only the latest such opinion-maker in a millennial tradition – clearly feels there is a story. A story of values, that were perhaps only dim before, & which precisely Thermopylae crystallized.

Let us listen to Miller’s own, always painstaking choice of words – here through King Leonidas:

“The Law. We do not sacrifice the Rule of Law to the will & whim of men. [To do that] is the old way… The way of Xerxes & every creature like him.
A new age is begun… An age of Law.”
(300, Chapter 5, emphases in the original)

Or Miller’s rendering of the famous epitaph of the 300:

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby:
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.”
(300, Chapter 5, emphasis mine)

What is this seemingly obsessive concern with the notion of “law”? After all, the Persians too had laws, some of them arguably more progressive than any Greek. They’re not the ones murdering foreign ambassadors. Are we dealing with law only in the legalistic sense of a formalized, literal code, or is a far more general consistency alluded to? One which, from a certain Greek angle, might supersede almost anything else?

If not, how could Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), famously holding that only Greeks were built to be free while slavery was entirely proper for “barbarians”, acquire enough universal appeal to be studied & translated by such same “barbarians” as the medieval Arabs, with enormous dedication & for centuries?

Only a single cause can truly explain why a non-Greek culture should find such seemingly parochial thought worth passing to posterity: the notion that “Greekness” – regardless of what the Greeks themselves believed – might not only be a question of geography or ethnic group. That being Greek also had a universally attainable part.

But if so, what part? Could it tie with Miller, Leonidas, & the “rule of law”?

Consider the deity – the system of forces & values – which the Greeks held as being most peculiar to themselves & their own culture: Apollo.

Today Apollo is a god not even all classicists feel they understand. Not only does he rule over a great many diverse phenomena. Over the last century or so he has indeed lost appeal, not least to Nietzsche’s knotty insistence on Dionysus as a force of equal, if opposite importance to the Greeks. But Dionysus is easily enough adapted to other cultures. All you need is a few jars of cheap wine. Without batting an eye, the Romans dubbed him Bacchus. Just like they named Zeus Jupiter, Aphrodite Venus, & Hermes Mercury. Yet to the Romans, Apollo was always Apollo, & it took a universal mind like their emperor Augustus (reigning 27 BCE – 14 CE) even to get a notion of what he was about. The precedents for this deity in earlier cultures are also blurred, or at least lack the iconic clarity that Apollo held for the Greeks. All told, his strongest equivalent may be Egypt’s enormously influential Horus. To the Greeks themselves, & to notable foreigners observing them, Apollo was truly the most Greek of Greek gods.

Yet I submit that Apollo is before all else god of autonomy – understood not only as freedom, but as the consistent mastery of more or less self-gratifying whims in the service of a freely chosen, unifying norm (nomós). Aùtó-nomos thus means, very precisely, self-legislating. Bringing one’s own “will & whim” under a law, as Miller’s Leonidas would put it.

Not only does this nicely unify a great deal of Apollo’s responsibilities, such as education or dance, it adds an essential piece to our puzzle. Because here is, quite exactly, what that interminable line of thinkers have felt Thermopylae was about. Rightly or wronglyGreeks held themselves to be special, not just because they had been born where they had – this being of limited relevance to anybody else – but, far more interesting to a Roman, a medieval Arab, or an Enlightenment European, because they felt they had cultivated the ability to rule themselves. Collectively to some degree, through laws equally applicable to all citizens (in principle). But also individually, through the (male) Greek’s culture of personal mastery: his proclaimed & repeated attempt to subordinate his more “animal” whims – sex, power, material abundance, vanity – to what he considered more fully integrated, human aspirations: contemplating universal truths; creating art; refining the body through games or sports; generating works larger in space & time than any single generation. & finally what was hardest of all: the martial sacrifice of his own brief but nor unpleasant existence to the commonwealth – Sparta, Athens, all Greece – perceived as the very incarnation of the above pursuits.

Of course the Greeks, wizards that they were of lógos the ruling word, codified all this in prose of authoritative elegance – which may be why we moderns keep thinking they had a monopoly on their ideas. Meanwhile even the enemy Persia, under the influence of the remarkable Zoroastrian religion, was working with concepts not unrelated to this Greek cult of consistency. The cult of truth is an instance.

But time to force a conclusion. The trick must surely be to put the place of Greece, Europe, or the West in simple perspective: neither overly exalted, nor too self-humbling. No doubt the legend of Thermopylae contributed with a massive stone to Europe’s long, meticulous walling itself in against perceived outsiders. Surely there’s no reason to deny populations outside the West any gift for autonomy or consistency, as Frank Miller undeniably seems to. But I see no reason either to critique Westerners for claiming Apollo & his autonomy as their foundation, even if the manner was long exclusive. Why? Because good has come of it. The Greeks themselves may not have been too concerned with technology, but there’s very little doubt, to highlight only a decisive example, that global progress both scientific & technological since the late renaissance has been supported by the passion for impressing on our world the transparent consistency, regularity, & predictability of law. A passion shared today by an overwhelming number of non-Westerners.

For long this passion or drive had an imperial part, shaping terms on which apparently “whimsical” cultures were conquered by the West. But things need not be so forever. The Web on which I post these lines may still prove a generator of new global autonomy. Yet several of the earliest & most guiding ideas behind the internet – reliability, universalism, self-regulation – are in debt to the rule of law asserted, if perhaps not invented, at Thermopylae.

If Europeans & Westerners can continue to build upon their own remarkable heritage without dismissing or repressing those who opt for different solutions to similar concerns, they will live up to all things universal in a Herodotus or Aristotle, rather than to the merely provincial.


300. Graphic novel by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 1999. ISBN 978-1569714027.

300. Film by Zack Snyder. Warner Bros, 2007. Page at IMDb.

Herodotus. The Histories. English Translation by Robin Waterfield. Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2008. ISBN 978-0199535668.

Wheeler, Everett L. “Battle: A. Land Battles”, in Philip Sabin & al, The Cambridge History of Greek & Roman Warfare, vol 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2007. ISBN 978-0521782739.

Categories: History Unplugged, Ideal Europe

Tags: , , , , , , ,