Saturday, March 10, 2007

Once Again, Hollywood Morphs History

In response to seeing 300 last night, Hollywood has chosen to distort history for it's own purposes, leaving the audience as ignorant as ever. Although 300 is visually impressive in places, the distortion of the Spartan society is drastic. I feel obliged to put forth this brief, and probably unwanted, history lesson. While some in the modern audience may be bothered by the exaggeration of the godlike persona adopted by the Persian God-King Xerxes, including negative racial and sexual characterizations of the fusion of eastern societies ruled by the Persians, these characterizations were at least thematically consistent with the extreme xenophobia prevalent in most of the Greek historical sources. The bigger thematic distortion actually occurred regarding the issue of slavery as a moral dynamic. The Spartan 300 are represented as the last bastion of democracy and freedom against the enslavement of Greece by the Persian hordes. While it is true that this battle was critical in preserving emerging western traditions involving democracy from being subjugated by a highly stratified Persian social structure, the Spartans only allowed the 300 to be sent because of concerns they had involving the potential revolt of their massive slave population of helots. The majority of the army remained behind to maintain control over the slave population. It was this massive slave population that allowed the Spartans to create their totalitarian society of professional soldiers (taken from their mothers by the state at the age of 7, and brutally trained for 11-12 years before entering the military). So while Spartan society did not live in opulent splendor, and upper class Spartan women had the highest level of female agency in the ancient world at this time, it was not a bastion of freedom. This battle was a conflict between two different forms of highly stratified societies. Eventually, Greek intellectual freedom would continue to develop in ways that would allow a greater degree of philosophical dissension in the western world, and Alexander the Great would spread these values throughout much of Asia when he conquered the Persian Empire. The Spartan training regimen did allow them to become the best soldiers of this period, but they would not have fought individually, or barely covered, as the movie depicts. They had an extreme armor advantage (very covered) and fought in highly organized, tightly compacted phalanxes. The Greek formations could not be penetrated by the cavalry dominated, lightly armored, and poorly equipped Persians. The 300 Spartans, at a very narrow pass (along with 8000-10000 other Greeks in reserve), held Xerxes army of probably 300,000 (Herodotus reports in the millions) long enough to galvanize Greek solidarity and expose the potential weakness of Xerxes supply lines. An army of that size needed enormous supplies by sea, which the Athenian navy, led by Themistocles, kept bottled up on a narrow strait of the sea. Even after all of this success, it only delayed Xerxes; Athens was evacuated, and Xerxes burned it to the ground. However, despite the destruction of Athens, weaknesses of the Persian army were exposed at Thermopylae. In later land and sea battles, Xerxes was defeated and chased back to Asia. Please forgive the historical digression, or I will be forced to strap you to the "wheel of pain".

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Grand Opening for 300

In honor of the opening of 300 on Friday night, and the Grand Opening of the new theater (free drinks and popcorn!) in Valley River Center, I thought I would give a sample of some of the primary source references employed by the movie involving the accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae ("warm gates") in 480 BC recorded within the histories of Herodotus.

"Of all the Spartans and Thespians who fought so valiantly, it is said the best man (who provided an example of courage), was the Spartan Dieneces. It is said that before the battle he was told...when the Persians (Medes) fire their arrows, there were so many of them they hid the sun...

(I tried to enter the Greek here but the blogsite wouldn't support it.)

... in his contempt for the multitude of Persians said,'that this is good news the stranger from Trachis announces to us: if the Persians hide the sun, we shall fight the battle under the shade, and not in the sun.'"
- (Herodotus, 7.226.1-2)

My Greek translation is getting consistently better, as you can see. However, it is extremely difficult to express the elegance and nuance of Greek utilizing modern English. Some things simply do not translate properly. Although this movie will be shot in an over-the-top mythological and visually unique style (akin to Frank Miller's Sin City), it is good that some primary references are included. It will be interesting to see how the script and imagery incorporates Herodotus.

In the trailer for 300, I found it amusing that they also lifted this line from Conan the Barbarian - "few stood against many" which is related to this personal rendition of a classic Conan prayer. "Crom, I seldom pray to you I have no tongue for it, not even you, will know (remember), if we were good men or bad, why we fought or why we died, know that few stood against many, that's what is important. Valor pleases you Crom, so grant me one request, grant me revenge, and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!"

Monday, March 5, 2007

Lethargy on a Monday

After completing a major overhaul of the introduction of my thesis this past weekend, I ran out of energy for Greek translation and felt obliged to miss class on Monday. I have taken myself off of energy drinks, and just can't seem to summon up the appropriate drive to overcome my state of lethargy on a Monday afternoon. I have the feeling I will be worthless tonight and watch TV most of the evening; the Monday night lineup has been improving considerably in recent months. If I was like most Grad students, I would feel guilty at the lack of production. However, I have skillfully cultivated my ability allow my brain to engage in short, yet frequent, states of ambivalence toward academic endeavors. It helps retain a degree of sanity, and prevents descent into the dark region that is exemplified by crazed postal worker behavior.

On a positive note, I will be flown down to UCLA for wining and dining in the middle of April. I will try to make it the equivalent of a nice little working vacation before my thesis defense. Here is an appropriate image of how I envision my thesis defense going. Of course, I will emerge bloody, but victorious, after I beat the academic high council back into the shelter of their ivory towers.