Why 300 is the best modern film about ancient Greece
Spartan propaganda and modern love
300 is one of the best recent movies of antiquity – and a model for male and female relationships.
The story is familiar. Revolving around the battle of Thermopylae and adapting Frank Miller’s comic book, 300 defined stylized action movies of the late 2000s and 2010s.
At first pass, the film is best understood as Spartan propaganda. The kind of myth Spartans – or people enamored by Spartans would produce for themselves. The film preaches an alien foreign value system. In it, the good people are strong, brave, and beautiful. The evil people are barbaric, emotional, and either ugly or effeminate. Many are literally monsters. Most importantly, they aren’t Spartan.
In modern stories, like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the ugly is redeemed. Victor Hugo’s original story, though a darker and deeper affair, has the same moral. We are taught that appearance is only skin deep. The unattractive are misunderstood. Unaesthetic bodies are a cause for pity, not judgment. If anything, the fault is not in the viewed, but the viewer. The best person sees anyone as beautiful.
Not so in Sparta.
In 300, the hunchback Ephialtes attempts to join the Spartan phalanx. He’s rightly rejected because he’s too weak to wield a shield. His external appearance and capabilities express his vices. He betrays the Spartans for pleasure and wealth. He sought the pleasures of this world because he had no place in Sparta. May he live forever.
In contrast, the virtuous Spartans possess andreia. Their exaggerated model-like bodies are external expressions of their courageous character.
The movie implicitly justifies the Spartan practice of infant exposure. Ephialtes was saved by a mother who pitied him. Spartan values would have had him killed – and it would have, by the logic of the story, been better if the Spartan norms were upheld.
So, it shows us a world that is foreign and justifies the Spartan world on its own terms. It brings to mind Étienne Fortier-Dubois thought experiment:
Imagine that Carthage had won, and had made everyone today believe that it was a great good, even a thing of beauty, to perform ritual sacrifices of children to Moloch.
This reading of the movie is undercut by historical inaccuracies. It may be a good film, but it’s not a great one. The ephors are portrayed as goblin-like priests, instead of noble statesmen. The helots are nowhere to be seen. Queen Gorgo is awesome, but her speech to the Spartan senate sounds like something written by a 21st-century liberal defending the war in Iraq or proposing an invasion of Iran:
Freedom isn't free at all, that it comes with the highest of costs.
The “senators” were martial people, in need of no reminder about the nature of freedom. Proper Spartan propaganda would be even more alien. Freedom is exemplified by self-mastery of the excellent, the rule of the strong, and the beautiful. 300 doesn’t go all the way. Perhaps that’s for the best. Nonetheless, I think it’s the best movie of antiquity from the 2000s because it is less captured by our moral scheme than its blockbuster competitors like Gladiator or Troy.
Characters give voice to laconic sayings reported by Plutarch and Herodotus.
We also see a model relationship between Queen Gorgo and King Leonidas. The Spartan woman had more standing than other Greek women. So we also have a nod to Spartan history, even if not the portrayal of sex roles we see in Plutarch.
Being asked by a woman from Attica, "Why is it that you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men," she said, "Because we are the only women that are mothers of men."
Queen Gorgo, Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartan Women
King Leonidas rules Sparta, but his decisions are harmonized with, even approved by Gorgo. When he kicks the messenger into the pit before doing it what does he do? He looks at Gorgo for her approval. He decides to defy the oracle but wants her loving approval for doing so. He gets it (“The only woman whose opinion should matter to you is mine”). Gorgo provokes him to aspire to greater things. In turn, Leonidas is devoted to her. His final words are erotic:
“My queen, my wife, my love.”
Now, I can’t say that this fits the spartan model of love. But it’s a positive image of a kind of modern love. Where decision-making is delegated, yet unified. Both men and women are strong and made stronger in each other’s presence. And yet neither need the other. Throughout the film the two of them are separated in space, but not mission. Strong men and women do not need each other, but they can be made better by the other.
Leonidas lives for Sparta, as does Gorgo, but he dies with the image of his Spartan queen.