300: Rise of an Empire – history infantilized into fiction (with spoilers)

300: Rise of an Empire is replete with so many head slap worthy whoppers, that I had to stop before they resulted in a concussion.  I went into the theater expecting that history would be shredded…the result surpassed my exceptions.  The end product easily surpasses the collection of whoppers in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.  It is a pity that Hollywood seems incapable of producing historical epics without infantilizing them to the lowest common denominator.

The movie is not really a sequel.  Most of the action runs parallel to the 2006 film 300, dedicated to the cult of Thermopylae. The move is a narration by Gorgo, the widow of Leonidas who utters the first historical whopper as soon as the movie commences.  A run down of the movie and its myriad inaccuracies is below:

  • “They hate us for our freedoms”

The movie commences with Gorgo channeling her inner George W. Bush indicating that Darius I launched the first Persian invasion of Greece a decade earlier due to his hatred of Greek freedom.  The premise itself if laughable and conveniently whitewashes the casus belli the Persians had against Athens from the Ionian Revolt.

In 499 BC the Greek cities on the Ionian coast revolted against the Persians.  The Athenians who had just become a democracy by overthrowing their tyrant Hippias were sucked into this conflict.  Facing Spartan intervention to restore Hippias, the Athenians briefly even acknowledged Persian overlordship.  Failing to regain power with Spartan help Hippias fled to the Persians whose satrap Artaphernes (brother of Darius I) advised the Athenians to take him back.  The Athenians refused and decided to join the Ionians in open war (egged on by the Milesian tyrant Aristagoras whose initial successes promised an easy victory).  However, the Ionian revolt exposed the vulnerability of the Greek hoplites to the Persian missile cavalry.  Athens quickly abandoned the Ionians and the Ionians were crushed by 493.

The Persians then launched their first invasion of Greece to punish the Athenians for daring to support the revolt (and from the Persian perspective ignoring their previous acknowledgment of Persian overlordship).

  • What the heck happened to the Greek phalanx?

Before proceeding to the next bout of alternative history, it appears that the phalanx seems to have disappeared from Greek military tactics in the movie.  This is puzzling given the exposition given by Leonidas to Ephialtes in the previous movie about the need to maintain the cohesion of the shield wall. (Video below:)

Yet in this movie the Greeks cheerfully break the phalanx for individual battle heroics as if they were gladiators from the Starz TV show Spartacus.  Even more amusingly they fling around their heavy bronze shields without showing any signs of exhaustion.  These truly are Supermen.

  • Darius was not mortally wounded at Marathon

The depiction of Marathon is on par with the rest of the movie.  For starters, Darius was not present at Marathon, needless to say he did not receive a mortal would there.  The Great King would die peacefully in his bed in 486 BC.  Themistocles did fight at Marathon, but he did not command.  Militiades is credited with the Athenian strategy at the battle.  The Greeks did not attack while the Persians were disembarking.  Both armies stood facing each other for a few days – the Athenians unwilling to expose their flanks to the Persian cavalry as they waited for the Spartans to show up, the Persians not willing to attack the Athenian defensive position.  Then the Athenians broke the standoff by suddenly charging the Persians, possibly due to the Persian cavalry being embarked onto their ships for a flanking attack on the city of Athens itself.  The lightly armored Persian infantry was no match for the Athenian phalanx and the Athenians won a great victory.

Yet the war was not won, since the exhausted Athenians had to march back to Athens to prevent the Persians from landing.  Seeing the opportunity lost, the Persians sailed away.  Marathon was a major victory for the Greeks since it demonstrated the Persians were not invincible – yet it must be noted that the hoplites had not yet proven their worth against the Persian cavalry.

Contrary to the assertions in the movie Darius did not warn his heir Xerxes I to leave the Greeks alone.  He was planning a new invasion, this time to be led by himself.  However, a revolt in Egypt delayed it and he died before it could be launched.  Xerxes would then launch the invasion.

The new movie contains a mystical explanation for Xerxes turning into a 10 foot tall, depilated creature in tights replete with body piercings.  Words fail me in describing this paranormal transformation.

  • The cult of Thermopylae

Over the years the Battle of Thermopylae has morphed into this history changing epochal event due to Spartan valor alone.  Yet even Leonidas was not suicidal enough to try to stop the Persians with only 300 men.  The Greek army was larger with a few thousand other Greek allies.  The narrowness of the pass made it extremely defensible and would have strained the ability of the far larger Persian army to keep itself supplied.  The Greek flank was protected by its navy in what would become the concurrent Battle of Artemisium (which comprises the bulk of this movie).  The plan was strategically sound, however it was destroyed when the betrayal of Ephialtes that allowed the Persians to flank the Greeks.

The decision of Leonidas to die fighting has been debated – whether it was to fulfill the prophecy of an oracle or to cover the retreat of the Greeks.  Contrary to what the new movie suggests, Thermopylae was a military disaster.  It forced the Greek navy to withdraw.  Athens was now indefensible and many of the Boetian cities were sacked or abandoned.  The Spartans advocated a withdrawal to the next choke point at the Isthmus of Corinth.  Whatever “moral victory” the Athenians received was fleeting given that they faced the destruction of their city.

The battle achieved its cult like significance for the heroic sacrifice of Leonidas and his 300 (nobody seems to remember the 1,500 other Greeks who chose to die with him or the approximately 4,000 Greeks who died during the three days of the battle) over time.  The result has been an inflated reputation for a battle where a solid strategy went horribly wrong.

  • Anybody remember the Battle of Artemisium?

The cult of Thermopylae means that the concurrent naval battle of the Greek fleet at Artemisum has been largely forgotten.  This movie spends about two thirds of screen time focusing on CGI heroics related to this battle, but the name of the battle itself does not appear.

Map showing Greek & Persian advances to Thermopylae and Artemisium (Source: Wikipedia)
Map showing Greek & Persian advances to Thermopylae and Artemisium (Source: Wikipedia)

The Greeks were heavily outnumbered (271 to 800 ships), though not as badly as the movie depicts.  The Greeks do appear to have started the battle by arranging their ships in a circle and ramming the Persians in the middle.  The battle however did not include the movie’s Middle Eastern suicide bombers.

The Greeks held off the Persians for three days and lost about 100 ships to 200 for the Persians.  As a smaller fleet they could not continue to take losses at this rate.  At the end of the third day they were debating whether to continue holding their position, when news arrived of the fall of the Greek position at the hot gates.  With the original plan gone, the Greeks engaged in a tactical retreat.

The movie depicts Artemisium as a military disaster for the Greeks leaving them with a handful of ships.  Yet the battle appears to have been a tactical stalemate and more of a morale booster than Thermopylae.  Many Greek sailors had now taken part in their first military action and held their own against the superior seamanship of the Persian Navy.  How much of a role that played in the final victory can be debated, but the Greek Navy retreated to fight another day.

  • Whither the Spartan diarchy?

Both of the new 300 movies ignore the distinguishing feature of Spartan government – the diarchy.  Sparta was unusual in having two concurrently ruling royal families i.e. Leonidas was not the only King in town.  This was not too difficult a concept of the 1962 movie “The 300 Spartans“, which depicts Leonidas’s co-ruler King Leotychydas who played a major role in the battles to come.  Yet he and the entire Eurypontid royal line have been excised from these movies.

Also, jarring is the role of Gorgo in this movie.  The first movie depicted Spartan sexism to the full.  Even though she was the daughter, wife and mother of Kings, Gorgo held no political power.  After the death of Leonidas his brother Cleombrotus and then his nephew Pausanias assumed the regency for the Agiad royal line.  They commanded Spartan armies in the field.  The historical record appears to be silent about Gorgo after the death of Leonidas.  Yet the movie depicts coming Themistocles coming to Gorgo for help at various times in the movie when he seeks for Spartan military assistance.  Lena Headey’s Gorgo then channels the strategic wisdom of Cersei Lannister and rejects the claims – since Sparta has now done enough by sacrificing a king the Persians will for some reason magically leave them alone.

Even more amusingly at the end of the movie, Gorgo dons armor and picks up Leonidas’ sword to enter battle against the Persians.  The mind reels.

  • The rape of Athens

The opening montage of the movie depicts the Persians sacking Athens (which gives us the first view of female mammaries in the movie).  The sack of Athens reappears at various times showing the Persian soldiery slaughtering hapless Athenians and raping women.  These scenes are the product of the lurid imagination of the film’s creators and have no basis in reality.

After the defeat of Thermopylae, the Athenians were evacuated to the island of Salamis. Other than a token force who engaged in a suicidal defense of the Temple of Athena in the Acropolis, there were no Athenians left to be raped and slaughtered.  Xerxes then ordered Athens razed.

  • How does a movie about the Battle of Salamis get the battle wrong?

The movie’s depiction of the Battle of Salamis is an obscenity.  The movie portrays the shattered Athenian fleet sheltered in the Bay of Salamis (no mention of the straits).  With nothing to lose they launch a suicide mission against the huge Persian navy to kill its commander, which somehow will mean victory (even though the “God King” is still alive).  The Persian commander Artemisia of Caria enraged that Themstocles is still alive (need I mention an energeting boinking session on a military map) decides to launch an attack to eliminate him once and for all.  During the battle Themistocles produces (I kid you not) a horse to ride from ship to ship for the climactic duel with Artemisia.  The horse somehow manages to do this without shattering its knees.  It is hard to figure out where to begin with this parade of whoppers.

The Battle of Salamis was THE turning point of the Persian War – which makes the laughable depiction of the battle in this movie even more egregious.  The childish depiction of the politics in the movie obscures the strategic moves and counter moves in this battle.  The Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies had now decided to defend the Isthmus of Corinth.  However, this military position was indefensible if the Persian fleet could outflank them.  As a result there was a genuine debate among the Greek allies on the course of action – withdraw to defend the Isthmus (favored by the Spartan commander Eurybiades) or forcing a battle in the straits (a move demanded by Themistocles who threatened to withdraw the Athenian fleet if his strategy was not followed).

It is not clear why the Persians chose to sail into the straits of Salamis.  They had enough numerical superiority to bottle up the Greeks in the straits and land troops in the Peloponnese.  It is possible Xerxes wanted a quick decisive victory to end the war – the Great King being away on the western fringes of his Empire was a recipe for revolts at the other end.  Legend has it that the wily Themistocles engaged in subterfuge, sending a messenger to Xerxes that the allies were disunited and ready to evacuate Salamis and by sealing off the straits he could win victory.  Themistocles also appears to have suggested that he was ready to lead the Athenians to the Persian side.  With the deployment of the Persian fleet, the Greeks had no option but to fight.

Schematic diagram illustrating events during the Battle of Salamis (Source: Wikipedia)
Schematic diagram illustrating events during the Battle of Salamis (Source: Wikipedia)

The narrowness of the straits appears to have disorganized the Persian battle lines and the narrowness of their straits eliminated their numerical advantage.  As the first line of the Persian ships was pushed back, they ran into the vessels behind them.  Many Persian ships ran aground.  A central wedge of Greek ships split the Persian lines into two.  More ships were lost in the disorganized retreat.  Xerxes execution of some Phoenician captains for cowardice cause many Phoenicians to depart in the night.  The Persians lost between 200-300 of their ships, which was 1/2 to 1/3 of their fleet.

With the huge Persian numerical naval advantage eliminated, Xerxes now faced the real possibility that his retreat across the Hellespont would be cut off.  As a result, the Great King, who had watched the disaster of Salamis from Mount Aigaleo, left with the bulk of his army never to return.

The holding force under Mardonius would be destroyed at the Battle of Plataea the next year.  However at Plataea the two armies would face each other on relatively equal terms, something that would not have happened at without Salamis.  Other than Xerxes watching the battle from his vantage point, almost nothing in the movies depiction of this climactic battle is accurate.

  • Guess who comes to rescue in the movie?

Which brings up the most laughable portion of the depiction of the movie – even better than the horse jumping from ship to ship.  The battle turns when the hopelessly outnumbered Athenians are bailed out by – you guessed it – the Spartan navy led by none other than Queen Gorgo.

The movie contains scenes of Themistocles making desperate attempts to visit Sparta for NAVAL assistance – the Athenians built more new ships than the Spartans contributed during the war.  Sparta did contribute 20 triremes to the allied fleet (about 5% of the total) and a Spartan was the nominal commander of the fleet (because they would not fight under an Athenian).  But the much ballyhooed Spartans had little to do with the victory and left to their leader’s judgment would never have engaged in battle within the straits of Salamis to begin with.

Athens provided half the ships of the allied fleet and Salamis was ultimately an Athenian victory.

It is par for the course for the cultish fascination with Sparta – a brutal, eugenics practicing regime whose small cadre of citizens were able to play soldier full time because they were supported by a bunch of oppressed helots.  The number of actual Spartan citizens was very low, which meant over the years the Spartans were unwilling to throw the much ballyhooed army into bloody battles.  The helots would ultimately be the achilles heel of the Spartan state as Sparta’s enemies recognized that arming them would cripple Spartan power.  The Theban general Epaminondas manage to do this a century later by freeing the helots of Messenia – which cost Sparta a third of its territory and half of its helot population.  Spartan prestige would never recover.  All of this has been white washed in 300’s homoerotic depiction of Spartan abs.

  • The real Artemisia

Artemisia of Caria was not an escaped Greek sex slave.  The daughter, widow and mother of satraps of Halicarnassus she was very different than the sex crazed Amazon depicted by Eva Green (however pleasing the movie’s depiction is to the eyes).  Herodotus is very complementary of her military judgment and contrary to the movie she appears to have advised against the engagement at Salamis.

According to Herodotus she told Mardonius:

Tell the King to spare his ships and not do a naval battle because our enemies are much stronger than us in the sea, as men are to women. And why does he needs to risk a naval battle? Athens for which he did undertake this expedition is his and the rest of the Greece too. No man can stand against him and they who once resisted, were destroyed
If Xerxes chose not to rush into a naval encounter, but instead kept his ships close to the shore and either stayed there or moved them towards the Peloponnese, victory would be his. The Greeks can’t hold out against him for very long. They will leave for their cities, because they don’t have food in store on this island, as I have learned, and when our army will march against Peloponnese they who have come from there will become worried and they will not stay here to fight to defend Athens
But if he hurries to engage I am afraid that the navy will be defeated and the land-forces will be weakened as well. In addition, he should also consider that he has certain untrustworthy allies, like the Egyptians, the Cyprians, the Kilikians and the Pamphylians, who are completely useless.

The Athenians outraged that a woman led armies against them put a bounty on her head.

During the retreat, she escaped pursuit from the Greeks by ramming and sinking a ship from her own side.  The pursuers seeing her attack a Persian ship abandoned pursuit.  Xerxes thinking she had sunk a Greek ship is reported to have mused – “My men have become women, and my women men.”  It helped that nobody survived from the ship she sank to correct the Great King.  She then advised Xerxes to return home leaving the task to Mardonius.  That would give him credit for any victory and absolve him from any blame.

It must be noted that Hollywood is unable to prevent sexualizing Artemisia.  The 1962 movie depicts her making out with Xerxes while trying to surreptitiously feed information to Leonidas.

  • The fate of Themistocles

It is unclear whether this will be the last movie in the 300 stable.  The previous movies depicted the Greeks massed at the Battle of Plataea.  That along with the naval Battle of Mycale (by legend fought on the same day) ended the Persian war with twin Greek victories.  However, with Salamis and the departure of the Great King the drama goes out of the struggle.

Victory in the war would bring Themistocles to the height of his power.  Yet by the end of the decade Athenians were tired of his boasting and like many Athenian statesmen he would be ostracized.  Forced into exile, he would ironically spend the rest of his life in the Persian Empire sponsored by Emperor Artaxerxes I (son and successor of Xerxes) and died in Magnesia in 459 BC at the age of 65.

Given the 300 series affinity for blood and gore, I shudder to think how they will depict this timeline.

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