Friday, March 9, 2007


Hmm. This turned into an essay. That’s ok. This is one of those things that just had to be written to make myself happy

When it comes to books or films based on history, I’m just a little obsessive compulsive. Once I discover that the author or writer never let a fact stand in the way of a good story, let’s just say I’m outta here.

I loved the film, Becket, when it came out. Great costumes, beautiful music, great voices. Nobody could beat either Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole. Then the downers came along. Henry is portrayed as a neurotic, dithering momma’s boy with a strange, almost sexual fixation on his disgraced Archbishop, Thomas Becket.

Henry’s queen, Elinore of Aquitaine, (in her one scene) comes off as a whining shrew who threatens to complain to her father about Henry’s treatment of her. Newsflash. Elinore’s dad has been dead  for going on thirty years and when Elinore got pissed off, she didn’t whine about it. She raised an army and took to the field. Which is probably why she spent the last years of Henry’s reign under house arrest in various castles. She came too close to winning once too often.

I’m not sure about Henry’s neuroses, or lack of them but, his string of mistresses, capacity for work, inability to stay in one place for more than a day or two and his temper tantrums are the stuff of legend. He was the grandfather of the English common law and went to war with his own sons.

All of this leads into the new film, 300. I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen the film (it officially opens tonight) and frankly I’m not planning on seeing it. I’m going strictly by the dozen or so reviews I’ve read. Even the critics who praise it focus on the visual style, not the story. Making a movie that looks like a comic book and a video game. Guess I know who the target audience is, and I’m not in it.

Incidentally, a film about the same few days that made history  was made back in the early sixties. The 300 Spartans holds up fairly well, as long as you remind yourself this is a sixties film. It’s out on DVD, I just got it and it’s swords and sandals tonight. The sixties Spartans wear more clothes than the traditional Greek warriors probably did, at least the ones on the vases, but the shots I’ve seen from 300 appear to take it too far the other way. Going into battle wearing nothing but a load of gold jewelry was a Celtic tradition, not Greek. Even the Spartans didn’t go into battle without their armor. They may have only been wearing armor, cloaks,  and a little kiltie thing around the waist, but going into battle without all that bronze would have been suicidal. I'll admit I haven't looked for shots of the actual battle scenes from 300 so maybe they do actually go for bronze instead of the buffed, bare chested, body builder look. Checked out some more reviews on my break, yep they stuck with the barechested, leather speedo look. The Spartans may have believed that the best way for a warrior to go was in battle, but they weren't suicidal. Actually, the berserker battle rage was more of a Celtic thing, at least in the legends.

That said, the earlier film doesn’t go into how the Spartan state was organized. A small number of full citizens was subject to compulsory military training and members of the army from the ages of 20 to 60. A larger number of free inhabitants functioned as tradesmen, craftsmen, back up soldiers and had few if any political rights. At the bottom a large serf population tied to the land. The helots also received some military training and could occasionally earn their freedom by showing courage in battle. They may have also been able to purchase their freedom, the history is a little murky on this. What is certain is that the government attempted to keep tight controls on the serf population and was reluctant to commit the full army outside the city state because some of the troops were needed as a police force.

I suspect what most of us would find most disturbing is that the head of the family had the power of life and death over his family. A father could decide to not accept a newborn and the child would be exposed and left to die. I have read that it became customary to leave the children in certain places where they could be found. Many were raised as slaves, apprentices  or by the temples. Nice choice.

The Spartans took this one step further. Newborns, at least the boys, were examined. Children who appeared weak or had visible defects were rejected. The sons of full citizens were destined for the army, so…. I wonder how many were actually rejected. I haven’t been able to find any numbers at all.

Given the lifestyle of plain food and plenty of exercise the  parents were probably disgustingly healthy. Strong mothers made for strong children so the girls were encouraged to get plenty of exercise and follow a good diet, as well. Marriageable age for girls was twenty, so they probably didn’t have too many early teen mothers and the problems that go with it. I suspect that most of the kids passed examination and they lost more from the military training that started at the age of seven. That’s right boys, and girls, boot camp started at seven.

It’s not the actual training that was probably so difficult although it was hard enough. Life was risky for just about everybody. But, the Spartan citizen apparently accepted a degree of control over their lives that most of us would never agree to. Those who chose not to accept the life of a full time member of the army or couldn’t afford to contribute their share of the common mess bill lost the rights of a full citizen. Since there was no provision for recruiting the willing from the middle class of freemen, the city gradually ran out of full citizens. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t field an army if they needed to. They just literally ran out of full citizens who made the army their lives.

A lot of the customers on Amazon who reviewed 300 Spartans had problems with speeches about freedom from people who held slaves, and didn’t regard women or most men as full members of the political community. Well, neither did some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence so I really don’t have a problem with that part of the story. We learn and we grow. Most of us anyway. Doesn’t mean I’d want to hang my hat on a circa 480 BC Greek hat rack.

Another note. Sparta had two kings. They functioned more as generals of the army than what we would define as monarchs and were subject to at least some control by an elected council of five. Whether Leonidas actually attended a meeting of the leaders of the Greek city states where Sparta was offered full command of the Greek forces if they would field their full army, I don’t know. Makes for some interesting speeches and a little squirming when the Athenian delegate reminded everyone that the Spartans didn’t make it to the defeat of the last Persian army to invade Greece ten years ago at Marathon. Seems they were celebrating one of their seemingly endless religious festivals.

Anyway, faced with a prophecy and another festival, Leonidas headed for the narrow pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece. The prophecy from Delphi stated that either the city would fall or one of the kings would die and the festival gave the council the power to block deploying the full army until it was over. He did have control over his three hundred personal troops. Men with no living sons were replaced with volunteers who did. Deep down, I believe he knew they wouldn’t be coming back.

If you add in attendants, cooks, servants, maybe he had 600 or so men. They were joined by a few thousand volunteers from other city states and a small naval contingent from Athens. In all, say 10,000 troops and auxiliaries. And that’s being generous. Going up against the largest army the ancient world had ever seen and managing to occupy the choke point at the pass.

I don’t think Xerxes actually broke out laughing at the idea, but terms were offered and rejected. The Greeks were given a few days to come to their senses. When that didn’t work, the fighting started. They held for two days. When they received word that the Persians were flanking their position by taking a path through the mountains to the other end of the pass, Leonidas sent the ships and most of the other Greek troops back to fight another day. The troops from Thespia, perhaps 1,000, were sent to hold the other end of the pass as long as possible. Faced with the final Persian advance the Spartans attacked. Attacked mind you. And died to the last man. They knew what they were doing and they bought enough time for the Athenians to gather their navy at Salamis. There was another prophecy you see, that spoke of a burning city and the Athenians taking refuge behind their wooden walls. As the Persian army advanced the bulk of the population of Athens was evacuated to the island of Salamis where they waited and watched as their fleet (wooden ships) defeated the Persian navy. Xerxes retreated to the east leaving part of his army to fight a third battle. With the second defeat, the threat from Persia was ended for the time being and the Greek city states could go back to one or their favorite pastimes. Fighting with each other. The more things change........

I don’t think we need to make the ones we consider heroes any better than they were, they do well enough on their own.  And we don’t need to make the ones we consider the bad guys any worse than they were. Xerxes had enough ambition for any ten men, there’s no need to make him a monster. There were reports in the reviews of elephants, rhinos, a giant and some troops in really weird getups. The original story stands on its own. Would I want to live in ancient Sparta? Probably not. Given the odds, I'd more likely end up the wife of a serf than a citizen. Would I want Leonidas and his 300 at my back in a fire fight? Probably.Trouble is, you can’t have the one without the other.


tenyearnap said...

You would think that humans could have "evolved" past all this by now, but here we are with the same sorts of hierarchies and military leanings. Hmmm. --Cin

thesheatons said...

Kind of an addendum. The Leonidas of the original film is a cheerful sort. He's proud that Sparta has been asked to lead the defense. He gave his word that the Spartan army would be at Thermopylae, if it's him and 300 personal troops so be it. He loves Sparta, but he loves Greece too. I'm not sure I'm expressing this well. I think it's less the berserker ethic than the samurai. He didn't want to die, but he believed it was a fair exchange. At least he went into battle at the head of his men, he wasn't tucked away in some bunker.

hestiahomeschool said...

I loved the play Becket, too, and actually performed in it as a teen. I was crushed later when it was revealed that Becket was actually as good of a Norman as his king... :-(

lisaram1955 said...

I suppose as a student of history, you would need to study, understand and appreciate war.  After all, it's one constant thread that runs throughout human history.  But to me, it just demonstrates that we were assholes then, and we're still assholes.  Pardon the language...  Lisa  :-]

hestiahomeschool said...

I thought of your entry last night when we watched the new Pocohantas...and how they sexualized a child, and warped history...