Bright Lights Film Journal

300 Lies? Give Poetics a Chance

What’s Greek history without distortions, inaccuracies, and falsehoods?

In the western Aegean, in a narrow pass by the Gulf of Malis, 300 Spartans and their Hellenic allies, led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), stand defiantly against the invading armies of King Xerxes, circa 480 BC. As wave after wave of wrathful invaders attack Leonidas’ stubborn hoplites,1 the Spartans hold their ground and grind their enemies. After a few days of gory, grimy fighting, the Spartans are betrayed, overwhelmed, and slaughtered.

With 300, director/co-writer Zack Snyder portrays the battle of Thermopylae in horrific, gruesome fashion. But rather than use a historical approach to tell this story, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Snyder opts for two poetic genres — allegory and heroic epic — to frame his film. Though 300 has been popularly received, academic critics, particularly historians, have decried Snyder’s embellishments and his omission of certain historical facts, challenging his perspective of Spartan life and questioning his depiction of the battle. They argue that Snyder’s use of historical materials to construct a periodic narrative is illegitimate because “history” neither supports nor authorizes his interpretation.2

The problem with this perspective is the lack of literary contextualization. Film and literature are different kinds of texts in relation to historical writing, and these historians clearly wish to rescue history from foolish storytellers. The problem is that historical events do not stand free from human narratives. In fact, oral poetry’s role in the creation of historiography is quite profound. In early antiquity, poetry met both artistic and intellectual needs to preserve knowledge, and the rhythmic patterns and other mnemonic systems made knowledge fixed (in stories) and easier to recall because they were often cast in poetic narratives.

Though oral knowledge represents a culture’s effort to preserve its traditions, this knowledge was also vulnerable to revision or loss. No doubt, historians are concerned about the veracity of historical claims, but they often fail to affirm the role poetry and sophistic rhetoric played in the creation of the historiography of Hellas, for without poetic structures or rhetorical techniques, vast amounts of knowledge would have been lost.3

Snyder frames 300 within the ancient poetic tradition, one in which a bard allegorizes a story of Leonidas, his life, and the battle itself. Here, the narrator is the poet Dilios (David Wenham), and he is one of Leonidas’ hoplites. His narrative is expository and dramatic, but, most of all, highly rhetorical. His verse-making is a blending of prose and poetry meant to penetrate the hearts of his audience and galvanize their passions, for his listeners are an army of pan-Hellenic warriors ready to charge the Persian perimeter at Plataea a year after Leonidas’ defeat.

This war poet-as-teacher makes a number of arguments about civic responsibility, pride, and ethics.4 He even makes a fortiori arguments using patriotic themes and ancient oaths to illustrate the importance of sacrifice and justice.5

This poetic tale — even with the embellishments — is what is called an epideicticportrait, one in which an audience learns of the virtues of a person and his life. One probable reason why Snyder chose a poet to tell this story is because the poet was a potent persuader, a credible authority, and a moral guide to warriors in early antiquity.6

In this heroic narrative, Dilios employs a range of tropes (particularly metonymy) to simplify yet illustrate the political, cultural, and moral contrasts between the west and the east. Here, we must remember that Sparta was an oral society that relied heavily on the memories of its citizens to communicate its traditions and histories. Particularly, right before battle, troops would be reminded of their previous fights to rouse their passions.

However, modern historians often find this part of the ancient world deeply problematic. Why? For one, academic historians try to portray history from a value-neutral viewpoint, so ancient oral accounts (that were later transcribed) are too subjective for their standards. But too often we forget that our modern notions of historiography are the offspring of an ancient Hellenic culture in which philosophy, poetics, and rhetoric constituted important social activities. The dynamic tension created among the ancient interplay of emotive speaking, narrative-making, and history scripting represents the norms of another culture, norms that are often at odds with modern standards for historiography.

As we listen to our bardic storyteller, the film unfolds in allegorical and heroic fashion. In this soldier’s tale, the world is dichotomized between heroes and monsters — between the hypermasculinized Spartans, with their echoing voices and intense stares, and the heavily gothicized and imperious Persians. Like most allegories, both the heroes and enemies are idealized and caricaturized. Snyder contextualizes this allegory with modern perspectives, all in a baroque mixture that pits civilization against its zombified enemies. Within these contrasts are some potential problems with the narrative, but more on that later.

Dilios portrays the Persian army, led by the goliath-sized but svelte Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), as an exotically multicultural yet highly grotesque array of animals who are enslaved by Xerxes’ realpolitik. While the God-on-this-Earth Xerxes prostrates his slaves and sits in the rear, his soldiers charge the phalanx’s whirlwind of swords and spears. By sharp contrast, Leonidas fights alongside his troops because he is grounded by many ethical beliefs and civic codes, one of which is that battlefield conduct brings judgment on the entire city-state. Because Spartan citizens closely identify with their polis, or city-state, their ethos is collective, an ethos engrained in the lockstep formations of the phalanx and the chain of command that orders the battlefield.

Within this disciplinary sphere is knowledge of how a group of warriors hang together against overwhelming forces. The film explains the importance of the phalanx and illustrates compellingly some of its martial strategies. Because each soldier relies on the other for his life, he must willingly transform his individual skills to create and maintain group cohesion in the killing zone. In a key scene, the importance of this belief is emphasized when Leonidas, who believes that one weak member weakens the entire group, rejects the help of a Spartan outcast because of his physical limitations and lack of battlefield experience. Despondent, this disfigured outcast is then seduced and bribed by Xerxes into betraying the Spartans.

In many ways, this sequence portrays Spartan culture as an exclusive society, open only to its citizens, in which social power flows from group dynamics. For Snyder, the phalanx is emblematic of Spartan life, but we begin to see this life as something more than a construct for the privileged when we see Xerxes and his army in less than human terms. Grotesque in their makeup and swarmish in their movements, the Persians do not merely want to preserve their own traditions; they wish to devour people and consume cultures. The garish and ghoulish Xerxes doesn’t desire to persuade a hostile audience — he hungers for their servitude or death.

300‘s allegorical universe is simple, even oversimplified. Snyder celebrates certain western values and condemns eastern hegemony because he wants his audience to understand what’s at stake — the fate of western civilization. His sympathies are clear because the Spartans, even with their overdetermined masculinity, look more human and act more human than their serpentine enemies. This portrait illustrates how Spartan heroes prosper in a variety of western virtues — civic, moral, physical — while Xerxes bewitches his followers with his exotic mysticism.

Although Spartan culture esteems public honor and civic service as its noblest of virtues, there are severities in Spartan communal life that are dramatized early: they practiced infanticide, as imperfect infants were routinely killed as a matter of policy, and boys had to survive the wild alone to earn their promotions. Although these points stress the draconian nature of life in an armed camp of professional soldiers, they become concessions (and thematically ancillary) to Snyder’s larger argument regarding the greatness of the public sphere in which Spartan life is conducted. Through conversations, meetings, and councils, warriors and their leaders compete to give good advice and compose persuasive speeches on how to live their lives.

In addition, Snyder couches his themes in an epic manner. Certainly, the battles are grand in shape and scope, and the consequences of this invasion are significant. But Snyder is also interested in illustrating a conflict between competing definitions of battlefield valor. True to historical accounts, Spartans based their strength on the phalanx. At their most effective, the phalanx easily plowed its enemies, piling up the dead quickly.

Quite interestingly, Snyder organically contrasts the phalanx with the one-on-one Achillean fighting style his audiences are used to seeing. For instance, when Spartan soldiers break the rank-and-file and charge ahead, they expose themselves and endanger others. Although their individual fighting skills are quite remarkable, the Spartans begin to fall when they fight outside of the phalanx. The manner in which they perish may go unnoticed to the causal observer until the Captain’s son is beheaded when he stands apart from the group.

I don’t know if this thematic point is Snyder or Miller’s, but 300 chooses the Spartan method of combat over the Achillean method as the means by which valor is earned. For the Spartans, personal arête (the goodness or excellence of a thing or person) must be subsumed to the greater excellence and honor of the group. However, the final image of the Spartans is as a wave of sword-wielding individuals and not as a phalanx. Unfortunately, this lasting portrait undercuts Snyder’s argument that the phalanx is emblematic of Spartan life.

Nevertheless, 300‘s epic approach emphasizes the best possible ideals of Spartan life. We see soldiers sacrificing their lives to defend their land; we see a classical culture that allows women (or a noble woman) a public voice; we see the free inquiry of debate in council and even witness the problems associated with political sophistry. Because Snyder uses allegory to create thematic clarity, his poetic choices mean he will distort and even omit bleaker and significant historical truisms.7

But what is pan-Hellenic history without distortions and inaccuracies? Most modern historians have a deeply ambivalent understanding of classical narratives. In this era, the emerging art of historiography has been influenced by two traditions — poetics and rhetoric — both of which are steeped in oral systems of memorization and communication. For Hellenic storytellers, the choice to rely on poetic embellishment or rhetorical training was a learned one, for the accumulated tradition of myths, legends, and speeches was all that the early Greeks had. Homeric bards, for instance, used poetry to sing heroic tales not so much to preserve historical facts but to teach cultural values. Herodotus walked the fault line between fact and fiction to create his version of reality, and even the empiricist Thucydides (student of the rhetorician Antiphon) warned his audiences about his historical embellishments.

This juxtaposition of fact and fiction was part of the norm of early Hellenic historiography. As Sylvie Honigman noted, “Chronological and factual inaccuracies, the blending of fact and fiction — none of these would have undermined the reliability of the narrative in the eyes of the author’s contemporary readers” (Honigman 66). Early historiographers relied on a creative and dialectical synthesis of fact and fiction to weave their narratives because historical storytelling was meant to entertain and persuade. Because of these circumstances, when modern historians focus on early antiquity, they encounter a confusing and ambiguous world characterized by mysticism and legend, prophecy and drama, gossip and truth, fact and fiction, advocacy and argument.

But the reason why the poet-at-heart Snyder embraces allegory is because he is trying to evoke the pathos of his audience, so he never lets us forget we are watching a quasi-poetic narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. He uses allegory to put into narrative form some artistic and political truths that were never fully meant to demonstrate pan-Hellenic history and its conflicts with the east because his goal is to persuade his audience to the virtues of western civic life. Snyder’s approach is, of course, more comic book poetics than a documentary of early Hellas, but he does make some interesting points about ancient historiography.

One problem with the narrative is that Leonidas sends Dilios away (to communicate messages to Sparta and his wife, Queen Gorgo) before the decisive battle ever occurs. However, Dilios manages to retell Leonidas’ death in clear fashion. This blunder would seem to undermine the credibility of the narrative, but Snyder’s point is that this kind of transition between the facts at hand and a poetic retelling of events serves to underscore a larger point that the poetic oratory, and language itself, enacts history not just as a fact-based compendium but as a highly instructive and persuasive enterprise — one in which fact and fiction (or rhetoric and poetics) exist dialectically. In this sense, Snyder is honoring a classical approach to historiography.

The film also tries to come to terms with this tension (the blending of fact and fiction) by identifying oral memory and history as two converging sources of valid knowledge. In this sense, oral history can present valid arguments about episteme, but this historical knowledge is prone to amplification and fallacy because of its oral nature. In300, Dilios’ verses are distilled from the spirit of poetic storytelling and rhetorical techniques, both of which are legitimate and important parts of Hellenic historiography. And this perspective is the basis of the narrative of 300, one that critics and historians have grossly overlooked or purposely ignored.

Complimenting this poetic perspective is Snyder’s baroque approach to dramatically blending illustration or “painterly effects,” CGI and live action. This baroqueness is a prominent part of the film’s style, a style with highly idealized details. What makes his aesthetic approach baroque is his synthesis of classical if not rhetorical ideas with the modern effects of cinematic artistry. Interestingly, though Snyder seems to develop an empathic understanding of Spartan culture, his approach to filmmaking is not at all Spartan-like.

Lavish, excessive, and often self-indulgent, 300‘s moral universe embraces a highly elaborative aesthetic style to make simple ethical arguments, yet this baroqueness does compliment Snyder’s more interesting scenes regarding collective action. For many critics, Snyder’s historical distortions and allegorical embellishments create aesthetic dissonance; however, I find Snyder’s baroque view of classical storytelling rhetorically appealing — and persuasive.

Works Cited

Borza, Eugene N. “Spartans Overwhelmed at Thermopylae, Again.” Archeology: A Publication of the Archeological Foundation of America. 22 March 2007. 11 April 2007.http://www.archaeology.org/online/reviews/300.html.

Finley, M.I. The World of Odysseus. Intro. Bernard Knox. New York: Viking, 1982.

Hanson, Victor David. “History and the Movie ‘300.’” Private Papers. 11 October 2006. 23 June 2007. http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson101106.html.

Honigman, Sylvie. The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the ‘Letter of Aristeas.’ London: Routledge, 2003.

Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Lytle, Ephraim. “Sparta? No. This Is Madness: An Expert Assesses the Gruesome New Epic.” 11 March 2007. 15 April 2007. Toronto Star.http://www.thestar.com/article/190493.

  1. A heavily armed infantry soldier of ancient Greece. []
  2. Ephraim Lytle, assistant professor of Hellenistic History at the University of Toronto, in his “Sparta? No. This Is Madness,” attacks 300 for its idealization of Spartan life. Strangely, Lytle criticizes the caricaturized characters but doesn’t mention the allegorical framework of the narrative. Remarkably, he concedes that stories often make liberal use of the facts, but he goes on to discuss how 300 abuses history. In an equally problematic analysis of the film, Eugene N. Borza, professor emeritus of ancient history at Penn State, also doesn’t address the poetic narrative. Although he concedes that judging the film based on a historical analysis would do the film a disservice (because the film is more interested in promoting comic book heroics than adhering to the known facts), he goes on to point out historical and geographical inaccuracies of the script and production anyway. Furthermore, he acknowledges the caricaturizing, but he does not explicitly affirm the film’s allegorical framework. He then addresses the speaking style of the characters but does so in a somewhat decontextualized or anachronistic fashion. Rather than critique the narration in relation to known poetic and rhetorical narratives of early antiquity, he situates 300‘s rhetorical style with the Graeco-Roman Plutarch. Finally, even the usually alert Victor David Hanson fails to inspire in his defense of Snyder, praising the film for honoring the spirit of Hellas rather than focusing on a defense that contextualizes the narrative (important, since the Greeks invented narratives). []
  3. In our era, many historians are still caught between the binary that history is “objective” and historical literature is “subjective.” []
  4. We can be certain that Dilios, with his poetic omniscience, represents Snyder. []
  5. Snyder’s a fortiori arguments are directed at us. []
  6. M. I. Finley makes this point in The World of Odysseus. []
  7. Historians and critics have gleaned 300 for inaccuracies and glaring omissions. And there are plenty. For instance, Sparta wasn’t a free society in the modern sense, for Spartans did have helots, serfs who were neither slaves nor free men. Initially, the Hellenic soldiers under Leonidas numbered more in the thousands than 300 to 600 as the film portrays. Leonidas, by historical accounts, probably died much sooner in battle than portrayed. There is also some debate regarding Spartan helmets. The historian J. E. Lendon, in his excellent Soldiers and Ghosts,argues that Spartan hoplites in the fifth century were known to have preferred conic helmets (pilos) that didn’t cover their faces. Literally, the soldiers wished to fight their foes face-to-face. In 300, their helmets are more Corinthian. Why? Though the Spartans may not have switched to conic helmets until later in the century, I suspect such helmets crowning masculine warriors may provoke unintended laughter. But we must also contend with any number of titanic statues of Leonidas donning a Corinthian helmet. There are, of course, linguistic anachronisms, such as use of the words hell and the term Greece itself. Never mind the British and Australian accents of these English-speaking Grecians and Persians. These particular artistic choices speak more to the needs of contemporary western audiences than to a director’s commitment to authentically recreating a historical period, more recently attempted in The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. These embellishments, which exist in relation to many of the historical truisms in the film, serve to illustrate how literary or cinematic history works as a partner to historiography. For historians, I suspect their ire is stoked because literary history merely stands in for the real thing itself — history. Much worse, these kinds of representations are often false or illusory substitutes for the truth that historical writing rather than literary history can best represent. []