Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Battle of Thermopylae

The recent movie “300” is generating a lot of money – mostly from the young male audience world wide – those who read comic books rather than anything resembling a real book. This movie has also gotten the Iranians (Persians) all stirred up because of its portrayal of Persians as some sort of monstrous, androgynous, barbarians. But the real issue here is the impact this sort of movie has overall on history.

This movie purports to show the Battle of Thermopylae which was fought in August 480 BC between the Persians under King Xerxes and the Spartans led by King Leonidas. This was a bloody battle where the Greeks lost a total of approximately 1400 people including all 300 of the Spartans to the Persians suffered losses of approximately 20,000. The Persians heavily outnumbered the Greeks but Leonidas had selected the narrow defile at Thermopylae which was only 50 feet wide as the place of battle. This allowed his Spartans standing shoulder to shoulder to fend off an army of approximately 150,000. On the third day a shepherd showed a secret pass to the Persians allowing them to flank the Spartans. The Spartans continued to fight a rear guard action allowing the Greek Army to escape. The Persians simply stood back and killed the Spartans in a hail of arrows. These are the essential facts of this battle.

My concern is that in reading various versions of this battle I discover that the details of the battle can vary and in some cases dramatically. For example in some versions Leonidas is killed on the first day and a substantial battle rages over his body with the Greeks eventually capturing it. In another version Leonidas is killed on the third day and the remaining Greeks protect his body. This is actually a small point but if Leonidas was killed on the first day then the Spartans fought leaderless for the remaining two days. Again a small point but without Leonidas who made the decision to stay as a rear guard and order the Army to retreat?

In some versions the Greeks built a wall and fought in front of this wall. Of course this was a mountainous defile so where did this wall come from? In one version this wall was built with the bodies of the Persians, which is quite plausible given that the Persians lost a total of 20,000 men. Fighting in front of a wall constructed completely of corpses would certainly have a psychological impact and this is probably the reality. Some maintain that these bodies were buried by Xerxes to avoid having his troops march by thousands of dead troops, but again this was a mountain pass so where could these corpses have been buried? Were they burned?

Then we have the Immortals, the crack troops of the Persian Army and the personal body guard of Xerxes. In the movie these troops are shown with dramatic silver masks – dramatic but not very practical. In some historical versions these troops were indeed masked but with a gauze like material that did not obscure their vision. In earlier versions no reference is made to the Immortals being masked. So which is it? Masked or unmasked? Does it matter?

Then there is the final day and how it was conducted. Xerxes sent 10,000 troops over the pass to outflank the Greeks who are still in the narrow defile and actually number slightly more than a thousand men. While the odds are overwhelming and the outcome foregone, the reality is that the Greeks could still have fought the Persians to a standstill because the terrain was still in their favor even if the numbers were not. However, the final battle was short lived but in one version the Greeks fought the Persians face to face. Their spears were broken, many had no swords and the fighting was hand to hand. This would only have occurred had the Spartan Phalanx broken but how did that happen? Was it because Leonidas was dead and there was no one in command? In another version the Spartans retreated to a hillock and formed up to fight but Xerxes had his archers simply kill them off and there was no face to face battle. This version is less dramatic but would certainly explain why the third day of battle was relatively short.

The movie provides a very distorted view of this battle, which is not surprising since it is based on a comic book. But for many young people this is the only view they will ever see or read about of this battle. If this is the only view they ever have over time it could easily replace the historical facts. The only point here is that it is easy to see how a historical event like the Battle of Thermopylae, which was described shortly after it was fought can be distorted into something quite different from the reality. The story of the battle rests on variable descriptions based on memories, that morph into legends, and ultimately become myth. Of course the movie is simply one of those versions but what of other legends -- how real are they?

We have Jason and the Argonauts which is considered to be a legend, but there is evidence that real gold in collected in sheep hides. This gives credibility to Jason and the Golden Fleece so is the legend of Jason fact or fiction? The Trojan War was considered to be a poem and nothing more until the location of Troy was discovered. So if Troy was a real place was there a Trojan War as described by Homer? Was there an actual Achilles, Hector, Paris, Helen, and the whole roster of people found in the Illiad? What about the almost universal view of Dragons? Did these exist? Were these dragons dinosaurs and are described as Dragons? If so then this means the paleontologists view is wrong and dinosaurs and man co-existed at some point. The world is filled with legends and myths so it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, but based on a historical battle that was documented at the time, it is easy to see how in the course of 2500 years this actual event can fade into legend and then into myth – so what else has this happened to?

1 comment:

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