June 20, 2006 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Ω ΞΕΙΝ', ΑΓΓΕΛΛΕΙΝ ΛΑΚΕΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΟΙΣ ΟΤΙ ΤΗΔΕ ΚΕΙΜΕΘΑ ΤΟΙΣ ΚΕΙΝΩΝ ΡΗΜΑΣΙ ΠΕΙΘΟΜΕΝΟΙ: "Climbing on the hills, I had a surprise. On the top of the highest hill I found a small plaque with a Greek inscription dedicated to the Spartan king, and someone dropped there a bouquet of flowers, still fresh. Fresh flowers. Twenty five centuries after the battle." With a Frank Miller movie on the way, here is some background on the Battle of Thermopylae, maps of the battlefield, debate over the size of the invading Persian force, and insight into life in Sparta, a city often overshadowed by Athens.
posted by Alexandros (39 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Nifty. Miller's book took some dramatic license, but it was good dramatic license.

They always forget the hairdressers in counting the dead among the '300' though.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:06 PM on June 20, 2006

Admirable psychopaths.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:06 PM on June 20, 2006

Ah the spartans. The first facists.
posted by delmoi at 12:07 AM on June 21, 2006

One must admit, however, that "Come and take them!" is a very dramatic line.
posted by Justinian at 12:23 AM on June 21, 2006

I don't know that you can describe them as fascists. The idea of being governed by laws was still pretty new. Before then it had been pharohs and kings and emperors. No denying they were militaristic.
But I remember the Athenians getting well fed and heading out to settle just about everyone else's hash.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:13 AM on June 21, 2006

Another great quote from Thermopylae:
Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespaians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numberous that, when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. Dienekes, however, quite undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. then we'll have our battle in the shade.' -Herodotus, The Histories
Some inspired lines from Frank Miller's '300':
Leonidas, Spartan King: Then the army is as enormous as they say?

Agathon the Spartan Spy: Leonidas, it is bigger than anything you can imagine. For six days, I watched them pass. Six days! I ran out of numbers and still more of them came. They're drinking the rivers dry. And at night there are more of their campfires than there are stars in the sky!

Leonidas, Spartan King: Good. When I was a boy, I always wanted to reach the stars with my spear.
After the first morning of fighting at Thermopylae (The Hot Gates) Leonidas is to meet Xerxes

[Xerxes] Leonidas. Let us reason together. It would be a regrettable waste -- it would be nothing short of madness -- were you and your valiant troops to perish. All because of a simple avoidable misunderstanding.

[Leonidas] Do not lose sleep worrying over us. We are having the time of our lives.

[Xerxes] Brave words. Spartan words. It is a fascinating tribe. There is much our cultures could share.

[Leonidas] We've been sharing our culture with you all morning.
posted by Davenhill at 1:45 AM on June 21, 2006

Mmm. Speaking as the inhabitant of a small island, this has always had more relevance to me:

you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As for the Spartans, I like Larry Gonick's summary:

"Our only pleasures in life are a job well done, a glorious death, and humping little boys."

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:23 AM on June 21, 2006

Grr. That first quotation was from here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:25 AM on June 21, 2006

... job well done, a glorious death, and humping little boys."

In that order? Whoa!
posted by rob511 at 2:31 AM on June 21, 2006

i_am_joe's_spleen: Ah but the passage from the Melian dialogue that describes Sparta (as it was perceived by its great rival) is the most relevant here:

When the Melians state their hope about the Spartans (Lacedaemonians) coming to their aid, the Athenians have this to say about the Spartans:
But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians, when their own interests or their country's laws are in question, are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.
posted by talos at 2:41 AM on June 21, 2006

"I don't know that you can describe them as fascists."

Well no, they predate corporations and nationalism. But you can see them as fascist precursors. Oppressors of helots, xenophobic, tribal, militarist, honouring women only as child-bearers, valuing discipline and loyalty above all else - those aren't democratic characteristics. Aristotle saw a democratic element in their constitution but it was a very limited democracy - far more limited than say the contemporaneous Athenian one.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:47 AM on June 21, 2006

Well they would say that, wouldn't they? But no, I mistrust adulation of Sparta AND Athens, because I'm a yokel. Keep those hoplites well away from me and my garden.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:49 AM on June 21, 2006

I was able to visit the set of "300" for a few days while it was filming in Montreal.The movie promises to be good! It is very faithful to Frank Miller's version of the story, the visual impact will be stunning. It is due out early in 2007.

Thanks for the link....
posted by HuronBob at 3:35 AM on June 21, 2006

Sounds like you're describing many other male dominated societies of the age, less a pre-cursor to Fascism. I think they were unique in that they DID include aspects of democracy in their system of governance. Essentially, they crafted a society that was militaristic in nature. With that in mind, everything else makes a lot of sense.

I've always wondered how much longer the Greeks would have held out, if not for the Persian flanking maneuver. Could they have discouraged Xerxes from pursuing his invasion? Of course, the Battle of Salamis was an equally amazing event.
posted by Atreides at 4:45 AM on June 21, 2006

Spartan quotes (as recorded by Herodotus and Plutarch) are some of the most awesome quotes around, if indeed they were true. I know quite a few military men who idolise them and hold them to be the ultimate soldiers. In my own mind I consider them to be not exactly the most independent of people but this could be explained by the concept of the phalanx and the unwavering trust in your colleagues and the shield wall. Still; their reputation as a military nation is an honest one - they never pretended to be something they were not.

An old man wandering around the Olympic Games looking for a seat was jeered at by the crowd until he reached the seats of the Spartans, whereupon every Spartan younger than him, and some that were older, stood up and offered him their seat. The crowd applauded and the old man turned to them with a sigh, saying "All Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it."
posted by longbaugh at 5:33 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm partial to Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire because I think it was a much more realistic portrayal of Spartan life than Frank Miller's 300. Of course, a book lets you go into much more detail than a graphic novel.

I'm also holding out hope that the movie portrays the phalanx as it was actually used, and that the film makers don't pull a Troy and use all blond-haired, blue-eyed actors as Greeks with Brendan Gleason thrown in for good measure, cause that's just kind of insulting. I'm not saying they should have had a casting call with a "Sparti Only!" sign, but it can't be that hard to get at least one or two Greek or Greek-American actors.

longbaugh and Talos -- Thanks for the great quotes.

i_am_joe's_spleen -- while certain relationships were most likely tolerated in Sparta as they were in all ancient cultures, Sparta did not have a sexual pederastic institution like Athens did. All the historic evidence points to a mentoring system that actually was for mentoring, not for sex, and Sparta was a society that frowned pleasure for the sake of pleasure or excess of any kind.

As for fascism? Well, it was 489 B.C., most men (the Spartiates and perokoi) could vote, the women could own property and the dual kings had almost no power except as field generals during war time. Political power rested with an elected council of citizens. Was it a pleasant place to live? Hell no. But considering it was 2,500 years ago, it's amazing the Spartans had more rights than some people do today.
posted by Alexandros at 6:48 AM on June 21, 2006

Alexandros... The discussion re "Gates of Fire" vs. "300" has been taking place on the imdb board regarding the movie.

You'll find that the movie being done by Zack Snyder is true to the graphic novel. Was Miller accurate...well, sort of, but he never intended the work to be a history lesson, he takes liberties in a number of ways.
posted by HuronBob at 7:01 AM on June 21, 2006

I hope that "300" will be a good movie, but I'm a little sad that it means that Michael Mann and George Clooney's adaptation of Gates of Fire is dead and buried.
posted by elgilito at 7:16 AM on June 21, 2006

Χαιρη! Thanks for the toothsome post!
posted by sciurus at 7:55 AM on June 21, 2006

Plutarch's Quotes of the Spartan's is an exceptional treasure trove Alexandros - if you've not had the opportunity to read it I'd definitely recommend it (though I do get the idea you probably already have - you seem to be well read on the subject).

Incidentally - William Golding's The Hot Gates is worth a read as well.
posted by longbaugh at 7:57 AM on June 21, 2006

I'm glad that Miller didn't write the screenplay himself.
posted by hoborg at 9:28 AM on June 21, 2006

'The Isle of Stone' a fictionalized account of the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria is pretty good too. It gives you an idea of how sick their culture was by our standards.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:09 AM on June 21, 2006

"I hope in the future Americans are thought of as a warlike, vicious people, because I bet a lot of high schools would pick 'Americans' as their mascot."
-- Jack Handey

The Greeks had some phenomenal generals, man. Not like our current approach of "just throw more troops at it."
posted by Eideteker at 10:32 AM on June 21, 2006

Nice post. As for the Spartans, it's silly to call them "fascist precursors"; not only is it inaccurate for the reasons Alexandros gives (among others), it makes it harder to understand any ancient society when you view it through the lens of some much later phenomenon. Spartans were Spartans, much feared and admired by others, and their society wasn't like anything we're familiar with today.
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on June 21, 2006

Eideteker - to be fair the current approach is "force-multiplication" which is less men and higher technology and firepower to bring to bear on an enemy. If you think back to the times before the invasion when it was made clear that maybe a third of the required manpower was all that was to be made available for the afterparty. Throwing more troops into Iraq would actually be more effective since then you'd actually be able to cover all the areas required, as opposed to retreating behind a defensive curtain and only appearing in public during aggressive patrolling. Not the best way to win hearts and minds, but then it's way too late for that to happen now.

Oh, and soldiers aren't police. Clearly. I could have written you a better game plan than the dipshits at the DoD.

Back to awesome Spartan quotes -

Herodotus reports that just before the Battle of Thermoplyae, a Spartan warrior named Dienekes was told that the Persian archers could blank out the sun with their arrows. He replied "Good, then we shall have our battle in the shade."
posted by longbaugh at 11:52 AM on June 21, 2006

Thanks for all this info - I recently read (and loved) 300, and I'm heading off to Europe and Greece in particular soon. I hope to spend some time in Sparta, I'll let you all know how it goes.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:59 AM on June 21, 2006

Ralph Richardson was in the 1962 movie on the same subject. For those addicted to movies. Or repelled by the thought of Bruce Willis as Leonidas. (Does America produce the kind of king actor who could pull it off anymore? Does anyone? I await the 300 with interest.)

As far as the fascist thing goes, can we drop it? Pretty soft work, tossing anachronistic insults from a twentieth century first world easy chair. Sloppy, even. Ungenerous. Ignorant.

History demands more from the student. Try to understand why they arranged themselves as they did. Ask yourself how far you would go to defend your family, your tribe, your city, your state, your gods. If the question makes no sense to you, ask yourself why not.

(Good post, btw)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:00 PM on June 21, 2006

Bruce Willis as Leonidas

posted by vertriebskonzept at 12:46 PM on June 21, 2006

Ignorant? I certainly appreciate the educational comments from Alexandros.

"Try to understand why they arranged themselves as they did."

To maintain the more numerous helots in hereditary slavery and live off their labour. Isn't that why?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:47 PM on June 21, 2006

There's an amazing metal song about this battle: Countess - Therompylae (full, legal mp3). Lyrics here.
posted by vorfeed at 1:02 PM on June 21, 2006

There was an old man of Thermopylæ,
Who never did anything properly;
But they said, "If you choose,
To boil eggs in your shoes,
You shall never remain in Thermopylæ."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:10 PM on June 21, 2006

longbaugh -- I have a good amount of stuff on the ancient Greeks, from the Histories to the modern Victor Davis Hanson books, but I don't have the Plutarch book. That's a beautiful quote and it's the first time I've seen it -- I'll definitely be getting that quote book. Much thanks.

The Dienekes quote is a classic and shows that these were brutal people, but amazing at the same time, to have a sense of humor like that when they knew they were going to be annihilated.

Here's another, attributed to Leonidas on the third (and final) day of fighting: "Now eat a good breakfast, men. For we'll all be sharing dinner in hell."

One more note on the whole "fascist" thing. We can draw comparisons and debate who's a fascist, but the fact is that no Mussolini or George Bush or Kim Jong Il would ever personally lead their men on a suicide mission to save their people, nevermind the fact that it was disgustingly bloody, close-quarters combat and Leonidas was supposedly in his 60s (!) when he went to Thermopylae.

In ancient Greece, it was also common for city-states to conquer each other. The Lakedaemonians did it not for territory but for future guarantees of military aid in situations like the Persian invasion. They knew the Persians were going to invade, and they knew they weren't going to win by fielding 5,000 Spartiates and a few thousand Gentlemen-Rankers, so they needed the help of the other city-states. Some of the city-states were reluctant to resist the Persians, so the Spartans lit a fire under their asses.

And with the exception of Thermopylae, Plataea and the Peloponnesian War, they were loathe to cross the Isthmus of Corinth. So in the grand scheme of things, it's hard to call them aggressors, particularly when they could have conquered more territory but chose not to.
posted by Alexandros at 5:25 PM on June 21, 2006

When the banished Samians reached Sparta, they had audience of the magistrates, before whom they made a long speech, as was natural with persons greatly in want of aid.

Accordingly at this first sitting the Spartans answered them that they had forgotten the first half of their speech, and could make nothing of the remainder.

Afterwards the Samians had another audience, whereat they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, "The bag wants flour."

The Spartans answered that they did not need to have said "the bag"; however, they resolved to give them aid.
The History of Herodotus, Book 3
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:40 PM on June 21, 2006

Beginner Spartophiles might like this.

This [Warning 1.1MB of HTML] seems to be a translation of Plutarch's Sayings of the Spartans, along with the rest of the Morals.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:58 PM on June 21, 2006

Nice post. As for the Spartans, it's silly to call them "fascist precursors"; not only is it inaccurate for the reasons Alexandros gives (among others), it makes it harder to understand any ancient society when you view it through the lens of some much later phenomenon

Quoted for truth.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:42 AM on June 22, 2006

To maintain the more numerous helots in hereditary slavery and live off their labour. Isn't that why?

No, maintaining helotry and living off their labor is how. The why is to keep the clan going as a unit over the generations. As to the excellence of that aim, that's a topic for another post - but it has been a driving force throughout most of history.

By the way, helots were exempt from fighting of any kind. I'm guessing most people I know (we're so soft!) would opt for the planting and gathering and even the spear carrying rather than the, well, Spartan life of a Spartan. At least you could go home to the wife at night.

(Yeah, yeah, I know- they didn't have a choice. Who did back then? Who does now? I work a nine to five I don't much like, but for the sake of the family, the town, the future both personal and general- I do.)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:30 AM on June 22, 2006

Don't forget that the young Spartans-in-training would go out hunting rogue helots out after curfew. This was done as part of their training and also as part of an in-built form of terrorism - the helots would never consider uprising if the people forming the plans were assassinated at night.

Helots were slaves and considered disposable. They were not even remotely within the class of a normal citizen of Sparta, but then the whole civilisation was much more complex than simply Helot-Spartan (i.e. way too complex for me to go into here at work...)

On the subject of women in Sparta, it was considered okay for extra-marital affairs to take place with the permission of the husband. The woman was there to make babies (preferably male) and the man behind this was not as important as the end result. The women of Sparta were generally allowed more freedom than those of Athens, despite their role as brood-mare for the state - able to own property themselves unlike those in the more democratic city-state.

I'll stop yapping on now but not before agreeing that judging the Spartans by today's moral standards is a silly exercise.
posted by longbaugh at 9:52 AM on June 22, 2006

judging the Spartans by today's moral standards is a silly exercise.

So on what basis are we admiring their virtues? It seems tautological to admire Spartans according to the standards of Spartans.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:27 PM on June 22, 2006

One can speak of virtues without invoking moral standards.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:45 PM on June 22, 2006

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