Friday, March 09, 2007

There were 300 men...against a million...ummmmmm not quite...

I do plan on seeing 300, the story of the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae (Greek for the Hot Gates which don't really exist anymore), but I am interested in seeing how faithful the movie is to Herodotus, but reading Victor Davis Hanson's preview doesn't give me much hope (I am a purist and unabashedly so). I mean did the Greeks fight in the heroic nude as they are portrayed in black-figure vases and the promo against clothed "degenerate, effeminate" Persians?

I am also interested in seeing if there is any mention of the contingent of Thespians and Thebans. Of course 300 makes a well-rounded number, easy to remember, plus it's more oh I don't know, romantic I guess in saying 300 instead of maybe 750. Most likely, all focus is on the Spartans and all. I wonder if there will be any mention of the lone Spartan, Aristodemus, who missed the battle to his utter disgrace, which would not be made up by his almost-suicidal fanaticism and heroism at Plataea to make up for his disgrace?

I have to admit that I have not read the comic book inspired by Herodotus called 300, written by Frank Miller which the movie is based upon, but it's something to look forward to, once I get the time...along with Gates of Fire.

I saw the promo on touting that 300 Spartans faced death in the guise of millions of Persians. Herodotus gives the figure of 5,283,220 with half of them as combat troops. Considering the nightmares of logitistics Xerxes would have faced, it's really hard to believe the stories of rivers being dried up as the horses and men drank from them (Herodotus 7.108). But hey, the greater the odds faced by our Greeks, the more glory for them, right? Wouldn't that fit Herodotus' theme of how the Greeks faced overwhelming odds and defeated the slavish Persians who prostrated themselves daily to the Great King? And how can we condemn Herodotus for exaggerating if countless generals and soldiers have exaggerated the odds they faced in their victories and battles (the notable example in my mind being General George McClellan and his endless hordes of Confederates)? Besides, the greater the number of Persians Xerxes led to utter defeat, the greater and more spectacular his fall. After all, this was a man who lashed the sea after a storm, an act Herodotus condemned as utter hubris, which of course would lead to his downfall.

Arther Ferrill argues in Herodotus and the Strategy and Tactics of the Invasion of Xerxes that even Arrian who had extensive knowledge of military tactics and strategy was prone himself to exaggerating the numbers that Alexander faced. In this sense, the movie and comic book both keep faithful to the Greek tradition of pitting the Greeks fighting for their freedom against overwhelming hordes of Persians whose numbers seemed as endless as the stars.

In an interesting point, Ferrill argues that much of Herodotus' reputation as a total amateur when it came to military matters was due to this mathematical exaggeration. At first glance, his tendency to exaggerate the Persian army seems to serve to discredit him as a military historian. To support his argument, he cites Herodotus 7.173 where Herodotus argues that the Greeks, contrary to being afraid of Alexander of Macedon's warnings, were more afraid of the Persians outflanking them through another pass and in 7.177 where he states the Greeks chose Thermopylae so that the heavy advantage the Persians had in cavalry would be negated. After all, you can't do much with a cavalry force on a narrow pass barely 50 feet across. His point is that Herodotus deserves more credit than what many are willing to give him.

I'll see the movie eventually, once I get motivated enough to actually do anything other than sleep...

P.S. I encourage you to read Herodotus. It is a rich history full of anecdotes such as Arion charming the dolphins with music so that they save him when he jumps overboard to escape his captors, divine intervention in the form of a rockslide saving Delphi, stories of ghostly Greek heroes rising up to slaughter the Persians, the clever thief who so impressed the king whom he stole from that the king offered his daughter in marriage...etc. After all, the movie should do more than just entertain, it should be an opportunity to explore the world of Classics...because everyone knows the CATS love Classics.

Arther Ferrill: Herodotus and the Strategy and Tactics of the Invasion of Xerxes: The American Historical Review, Vol.72, No.1.(Oct.,1966), pp.102-115. (Accessed through JSTOR)

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