Article by Rob Sealey. Edited by Rose Colville. Additional Research by Kathy Stein.
In 2006, Zack Snyder released an epic telling of the battle of Thermopylae, based around the film-noire inspired graphic novel of Frank Miller. The film centres around Spartan king Leonidas and his three hundred Spartan warriors as they face the seemingly insurmountable odds of the million men of the Persian army. However, can the truth of Thermopylae live up to Snyder’s brutal depiction? Or is the movie such an extreme embellishment of events that it ceases to be a depiction at all?
Let us start with an important qualification about the film. This is that it is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, as opposed to historical sources such as the historian Herodotus who chronicled the Persian wars. This explains why, as Snyder describes, it is stylistically and visually fantastic, rather than bearing the marks of a historical drama. Despite this, however, the film retains much of the essential truth about Thermopylae
The world explored in the film was one of absolute opposites. Persia was an empire of unrivalled mass, ruled dictatorially by a so-called “god-king”, while Greece was made up of comparatively “free” states known as Poleis or “citizen-states”- in this much the film follows truth. The citizen-states followed a variety of forms of organisation, of which Athens is most famous as being the cradle of democracy, but all held the general creed that no citizen is to be dominated by another, something that made Greece a natural enemy of the autocratic Persian Empire. Under King Darius, and after his death his son Xerxes, the Persian empire attempted to expand across the Aegean sea and gain a foothold in what is now Europe. This ambition led these two contrasting societies to butt up against each other and the Persian wars ensued.
The film portrays the Spartans as clichés of masculinity. Their speech and behaviour is designed to make them appear simple and proud, as well as strong and honourable. This is a bit of artistic license, a means of setting them up as the heroes of the story, but it also has a historical basis in the works of Herodotus among other Greek and Roman writers. The Spartans lived a warrior’s life from a young age, and were brought up to shed any overly weakening emotional attachments. For example they were raised communally so as to avoid the attachments of family. The other Greeks in the film, mainly Athenians were not depicted in such a favourable light, reflecting their focus on less war-based ways of life.
The film also captures the warfare, at least until the monstrosities of the latter scenes, very well. The Spartans work together to form a hard shell of shields that protects them from the Persian attacks. The battle formation of the “Phalanx” has been an anthropological keystone for historians and archaeologists in their understanding of Greek (particularly Spartan) warfare. The idea was that every man was critical to the formation as his shield protected half of his body and half of the next man’s. Therefore if one man fell a domino effect could follow as others would be left partially unprotected. This has indicated to historians that the Polis communities were more equal than previous communities in Greece.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the so-called Persian “Immortals”. Although not the monstrous creatures of the film (another visual embellishment by Frank Miller and captured by Snyder) they were fiercely skilled in battle. Trained from a young age the warriors got their name from the fact that there was always a warrior in reserve to replace any killed in battle, maintaining the numbers and creating the impression that they were immortal.
The outcome that Snyder captures is also historically solid. The deformed figure of the Spartan traitor Ephialtes may be an embellishment (the truth of his original exodus from Sparta is not fully known) but his behaviour as in the historical record is basically true. He led the Persian force round the back of the “gate of hell” (a narrow pass between two cliff faces that the Spartans used to render Xerxes’ superior numbers irrelevant) to outflank the Spartans. In response to this information King Leonidas sent many home to preserve their lives, leaving but a few of his Spartan warriors. In the final battle Xerxes attempted to defeat these last few in the Persian tradition of close combat, but lost so many warriors to the savage Spartans that he had to draw back his army to destroy the Spartans with arrows. The symbolism of the film whereby Leonidas reveals Xerxes’ humanity with a spear blow can perhaps be paralleled to the historical symbol that Thermopylae had in revealing to the rest of Greece that Persians were far from invincible.
The film also fits into the historical trend of “orientalism”. Orientalism first developed in the western world of the eighth century in reaction to the spread of Islam under Mohammad. Orientalism is an aberration, and was devised as a means of setting up the East as an “anti” to the West. The Western world picked what it saw as faults- in fact its own faults- and applied them to the East to create a false sense of “natural” superiority. The East was depicted as corrupt and despotic, morally degraded and socially backward. One scene in the film in particular shows this as the Persians are shown to indulge in strange sexual practices, while King Xerxes overlooks from his place of power; the whole film sets up the Persians as being corrupt and dishonourable in comparison to the pure motives and honour of Leonidas fighting in the name of a free Greece.
The film must therefore be viewed in a context of historical inaccuracy, where the East is depicted as mirror to the West. The story follows truth but the way it is told is suspect; the characters and the nature of the battle has a strong historical and archaeological basis, but their depiction in the film is unashamedly fantastical.