There has been a lot of talk about ancient Greek history, mostly due to the release of 300, the motion picture adapted from a historically based graphic novel (or, rather, “comic book movie, with period piece decapitations”). And while most of that is sidetracked by the bluescreen magic of digitally creating an altered historical world enough to create an R rating, the basis for the movie’s plot has not gone unacknowledged.
The story of the Battle of Thermopylae is one that seems lifted right out of a comic book, rather than the other way around. The Persians, led by the Scrabble-friendly Xerxes I, initiated a rather grand scheme to conquer the scattered Greek city-states. The Greeks, then known as rather states’-rightsish in their politics, declared that banding together to fight the future Iranians would be in everyone’s self-interest, not least the Greek blacksmiths and fisherman, though perhaps not so much so the Thespian mercenaries who had yet to negotiate a valid health care plan in their contracts.
The rather ad hoc collection of defenders is the type of arrangement usually fraught with difficulty; it’s much easier to fight for “Queen and Country!” than it is for a “Federalist System of States in a Delegated Organization of Overlapping Economic and Political Interests!” This collection of states was called “the Greeks who banded together” by the Greek historian Herodotus. I’m pretty sure that seems like it should be a rather dismissive description, less a “We shall stand together or we shall fail” patriotic call to arms and much more like Britain calling the newly formed United States “a ragtag collection of worthless drunks, thieves, whores, and politicians who couldn’t fight a war sober or with any amount of effect and will die of shame if the syphilis doesn’t get to them first.” But I can’t verify that, since sarcasm is rightly regarded as a difficult thing to ascertain in Greek translated scripts from a millennium-old armchair historian without tenure.
Xerxes then sent envoys to each of the separate city-states to demand tribute in the form of “earth and water,” code words for food and wine or at least bottles of Evian and Jalapeno pita chips, in exchange for not slicing their necks open and salting the olive orchards. The Greeks, prompted by this threat, responded by throwing the envoys down the well in what is largely regarded as a deviation from normal diplomatic protocol. They chucked the hapless diplomats down the stone passageway to an aquatic death while stating “Dig it out for yourselves,” engaging in a sort of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions style of diplomacy, one that admittedly has not been met with a significant amount of success since.
After numerous war councils and maneuvers on both sides, the Greeks chose as their last stand to defend the chokehold at Thermopylae. After consulting the Oracle (A dozens lines in Latin hexameter verse is boiled down to “Defend at Themopylae, and take the under for the Athenians, and oh, by the way, you’re probably gonna die”), the force of three hundred Spartans, led by Leonidis, arrived at their destination and proceeded to engage in their usual pre-battle preparations, a somewhat comical mix of calisthenics, hair-braiding, and latent homosexuality, assuming here that we are treating “latent” and “blatant” as synonyms. Joining the Spartans were a collection of other nationalities and mercenaries, adding up to between 5,000 and 7,000 men, against a Persian attacking force of two and a half million.
And then the battle began. The battle itself was no doubt as exciting as ancient warfare always is, complete with phalanxes, showers of arrows, walls of dead bodies being used as defense entrenchments, and obligatory shots of some poor extra getting his nose caught in another man’s mace ball. The totally perplexed Xerxes, sitting upon his chair, sent thousands upon thousands of elite troops just to see them die against a relative handful of men.
In retrospect, of course, Xerxes was making the fatal error of sending his troops to battle in concert with a solid if unimpressive mix tape of standard classical music pieces, while every modern general knows full well the attackers much be accompanied by “Cold Hard Bitch” by Jet in order to win battles.
One classic motto derived from this battle is the butchered Latin “Molon Labe,” which roughly translates into “Come and get it, pussbag.” During the battle, Xerxes sent a missive to the defenders offering to spare their lives if they set down their weapons. Leonidas responded with the above bon mot, displaying a manner of wit and relisilance that was no doubt respected by all presence for the remainder of his life, which of course was about three more days. In modern times, this motto has been adopted by many gun control opponents, drawing the historical parallels of the defending force’s overwhelming ability to fend off a vastly superior opposition with shortswords and bronze shielding with the right to shoot a rabbit eating your turnips in the garden at 30 yards with an elephant shotgun.
Another famous quotation from the battle is another response from one of the fighters. When advised that the Persian arrows would be so numerous it would block out the sun, one apparently underconcerned Spartan replied, “So much the better, for we shall fight in the shade.” (At this point, most historians assume the Greeks were more interesting in selling novelty bumper stickers than winning battles.) The rather offhandedly macabre remark has represented the fighting spirit of willingness to fight under any adverse conditions. So much so that the motto has been adopted by the modern Greek 20th Armored Division, something that no doubt gives them a significant amount to be proud of when they roll into a Patra ghetto to throw canisters of mustard gas at longshoreman protesting the EU decision to permit the importation of Bulgarian lamb meat.
As for the outcome of the battle—well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Well, okay. Everybody dies except the box office.