The story of '300: Rise of an Empire' comes from a graphic novel, but it's based on a travesty of history that has long existed in the Western imagination
Shortly after the 2007 release of 300—Zack Snyder’s computerized gorefest about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae—the Iranians issued an angry response. Then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not take kindly to the film’s garish depiction of hordes of feral Persians, swarming and dying around the famous band of Spartans whose last stand 2,500 years ago briefly checked the Persian Empire’s advance into mainland Greece. The film was “an insult to Iran,” said one of Ahmadinejad’s spokesman; it was “part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture,” said another.
The current, more diplomatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has yet to react to the movie’s sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, which made $45 million on its first weekend in U.S. cinemas. But he surely won’t be pleased. Like its predecessor, the new 300 presents a spurious clash of civilizations. The muscled, taciturn Greeks—this time fighting on sea—carry on flexing their freedom-loving biceps, hacking and slashing their way through faceless mobs of easterners. The Persians remain the incarnation of every Orientalist stereotype imaginable: decadent, oversexed, craven, weak, spineless. They are also incapable of winning a battle against the Greeks without the help of a Greek traitor: in the new film it’s Artemisia, a woman consumed by a crazed desire for power and destruction. “My heart is Persian,” she says in a viperous voice.
A quick turn to the source material—specifically, The Histories by Herodotus, the most famous Greek chronicler of the Persian wars—shows how ridiculous some of this is. Far from being a lone, blood-thirsty warmonger, Artemisia was one of countless Greeks serving in the Persian armies and a figure of considerable wisdom. According to Herodotus, she cautions the Persian Emperor Xerxes against fighting the disastrous naval battle at Salamis, which, in the film, is an engagement she pursues with a furious mania. The burly Themistokles, the new 300‘s jacked Athenian protagonist, is made out to be a selfless champion of Western liberty; according to ancient Greek accounts, though, he later defects to the Persians and joins Xerxes’s son.
The larger cultural picture painted by this new 300 is not any more edifying—it sets a tyrannical, violent East against a folksy, democratic West. At various moments in the film, the narrator reminds the viewer with mind-numbing seriousness that the Persians “fear” or “mock” or even “are annoyed by” Greece’s fledgling democracy. To hammer home the crude, ahistorical message, the Persians win their only victory in the film when a suicide bomber is able to destroy a number of Greek ships.
It would be nice to chalk off this atrocity, as many have, to the silly imagination of Snyder, the film’s producer and co-writer, and Frank Miller, the graphic novelist whose blood-drenched books form the immediate basis for the movies. In no other chronicle of antiquity is Xerxes a hairless, bejeweled creature of camp fetish. To be sure, the film’s creators know this isn’t a story based on facts: it takes place in a “fictionalized, mythological world,” says Snyder in notes distributed to reporters at an advance press screening last week.
But Snyder’s bludgeoning Hollywood franchise is hardly alone in its fictions. A tradition of Western myth-making gained traction in the 19th century that insisted these battles between Greek city-states and the Persian Empire were a showdown over the fate of Western civilization itself. Preeminent historians of the time believed that Xerxes’ defeat helped preserve supposedly Greek attributes of free-thought and reason in the face of Eastern backwardness and mysticism. It’s a dubious view that some conservative scholars in the West continue to propagate to this day. The far-right, anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party in Greece holds ceremonies at Thermopylae, as TIME reported in 2012, chanting “Greece belongs to Greeks” before a bronze statue of the slain Spartan king Leonidas.
300: Rise of an Empire shamelessly indulges this demonization of the Persian—of the alien, dangerous “Other.” That’s far removed from the way many of the ancient Greeks saw their world at the time. The Persians by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, who actually fought at the Battle of Salamis, imagines the scene in the Persian capital in the wake of the empire’s disastrous defeat. There is weeping, lamentation and a cautionary tale about hubris and imperial overreach. It’s a lesson not just meant for Persians. Flush with glory, Aeschylus’s Athens is about to enter a long, grinding war against other Greek states, especially Sparta, that will bring decades of devastation to the Greek world. That’s a story I challenge Snyder and Miller to tell.