By Lex, On February 22, 2007
New movie coming out next month, and I have to admit that I’m looking forward to it. I do love me some martial history, but I’ll be watching “The 300” more for the entertainment value than for the history that’s in it.
Don’t get me wrong, what those 300 Lacadaemonians and their Thespian allies did by standing up to the vastly superior forces of the Persian emperor Xerxes deserves to be remembered both in song and cellulose, and there’s little doubt that their sacrifice at Thermopylae – along with the subsequent naval victory led by the Athenians at Salamis – ensured that we today have the opportunity to communally decide whether Western democracy is worth fighting for – and hey, good news: Bets are open!
But, as attractive as the Spartan dedication to their homeland and stolid military virtue appears from a distance, the more you know about them, the less attractive they appear. While the Athenians developed the notion of city-state democracy into a high ideal (while subjugating their less enlightened city-state peers), the Spartans restricted their suffrage to the Spartiate themselves – no one could be a citizen of Sparta unless he was in arms. Their economy – sword practice harvests no crops – rested upon the efforts of the Periokoi bourgeousie class and the Helot serfs, who were horribly abused. The movie’s King Leonidas may rail about “freedom” from the Persian foe, but from the historical record it’s pretty clear that he was talking about a restricted class of philosophical beneficiaries.
Then there was that whole, “Women are for babies, boys are for fun” aspect, which – when combined with life in the barracks – ended up with damn few chances to make more Spartans. Far be it from me to judge – the best of us will no doubt be held to account a thousand years or so from now – but even at the time, that had to seem a little, you know: Manipulative.
Finally, once they’d finished paying the post on all those easterners, the Athenians and Spartans set about flailing at each other for the next 30-odd years or so, setting themselves up for eventual domination by Rome but not before the Spartan oligarchy made common cause with the Persian foe.