Sunday, March 23, 2014

300 Sequel Stylishly Lays Waste To History

An ancient history resource article by  © 2014

Note: although this article refers to historical sources, film viewers unfamiliar with history may consider some of the examples provided as spoilers.

Years ago when I went to the theater to see "Troy" and within the first few minutes saw Menelaus skewered by Hector, I muttered to myself, "So much for Homer". To me, that plot point signaled that I shouldn't expect much as far as literary parallel was concerned. I felt the same way watching 300: Rise of an Empire" when Themistocles drew a bead on Darius and skewered the great king with an arrow during the battle of Marathon. At least Menelaus was at the siege of Troy! Darius wasn't even present at the battle of Marathon and I'm afraid Xerxes wasn't either!

However, at least Themistocles is thought to be was one of ten strategoi (generals) that rotated command at Marathon. But, It was Miltiades who was credited with the charge that ultimately succeeded in routing the Persians.

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the
doorway of his palace at Persepolis, modern-day Iran.
The bearers of the parasol and the towel-and flywhisk
symbolize the royalty and power of the monarch.
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Remembering the appearance of Xerxes in the original "300", I was surprised to see an average-looking Xerxes at the beginning of this sequel. The battle of Marathon, of course, preceded the battle of Thermopylae so this little flashback is provided to give us insight into Xerxes development. The backstory reveals how the rather ordinary princeling is bullied by Artemisia into undertaking a mysterious religious rite that converts him into the towering God-King dripping with gold chains attached to a plethora of body piercings that we first encountered in "300".

Bas reliefs at Persepolis do depict Xerxes as significantly taller than his servants but size differences were often used in ancient art to indicate differences in social status. And as for Xerxes fashion sense, he is shown wearing the traditional royal robes of an Achaemenid ruler and sports the intricately curled beard in fashion with Persian nobles at the time - a far cry from the hairless punk rocker pictured in the film.

As for Xerxes deification, there is some disagreement among scholars as to Xerxes religious beliefs. But, Herodotus reports Xerxes claimed he ruled by divine rite bestowed by Ahura Mazda - a clear reference to the Zoroastrianism adopted by his father Darius and an acknowledgement of a power greater than him.

So, what of his fetish for gold? Xerxes actually punished his subjects in Babylon by destroying their temple of Marduke and melting down the god's golden statue. None of the ancient sources say what he did with it.  I suppose the imaginative among us could propose he ordered a pair of gold speedos but I seriously doubt it. The gold was most probably used to finance Xerxes' ambitious building projects. According to Herodotus, Xerxes oversaw the building of the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the largest and most imposing structures of the palace. He oversaw the completion of the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius as well as having his own palace built which was twice the size of his father's.  He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa. With Xerxes' taste for projects even more gigantic than his father's I doubt that there was a lot of that gold left by the time Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE.  It's too bad the film makers couldn't have worked that into the story to lend at least a little authenticity to the "god-king" claim.

Xerxes I lashes the sea for destroying his first
bridge across the Hellespont during the second
Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I was surprised, though, that Xerxes played a much more minor role in this film than he did in the original. He appears to have been used by the filmmakers as a visual linchpin to the original film but little else. Most of the action is centered squarely on Themistocles and Artemisia. We get a little backstory on Artemisia that is pure comic book fantasy in which she is captured and abused until near death. Then a kindly passing Persian saves her and trains her up to be a great warrior. This fictional background is provided to explain Artemisia's bitterness and rather homicidal behavior.

But, in fact, Artemisia's father was the king of Halicarnassus, Lygdamis I and she was probably raised in a palace. How she developed her leadership skills was not divulged in the ancient sources.  Herodotus does not describe her martial prowess either, just her considerable cunning. But I doubt Xerxes would have entrusted the care of some of his offspring to Artemisia after the battle of Salamis if she had been the female psychopath portrayed in the film.

The film makers do not provide any significant backstory for Themistocles. This is where the film makers drop the ball. Themistocles' mother was born in Hallicarnassus - a countrywoman of Artemisia. His mother's ancestry was a major obstacle to Themistocles in his rise to political prominence in Athens and it could have served as a basis for heightened tension between Themistocles and Artemisia if Themistocles psychologically transferred his deep seeded resentment of his mother's heritage to Artemisia. But, perhaps this would have been considered too "intellectual" for the film's targeted demographic.  Instead we get a revenge-crazed female super warrior taking on a representative of male martial superiority.

Of course anytime you have a contentious male-female relationship, Hollywood cannot pass up the opportunity to inject a lascivious sex scene. The one in " Rise of an Empire" is nothing short of raw brutality. There is no seduction and definitely no submission - just a vicious wrestling match with each participant trying to end up on top. I certainly hope young male viewers do not idolize this approach to human sexuality.

The climax of the film is even more comic book fantasy. Rather than portray Artemisia's actual hair-raising escape from the Greek trap at Salamis by ramming friendly ships that got in her way or quickly switching flags to confuse pursing Greek ships, film makers give us a fight to the death that simply never occurred.

I was also dumbfounded by the appearance of a Spartan fleet that supposedly saved the day. Spartan warriors were admired for their prowess on the battlefield but Sparta was not a formidable sea power. In fact, I didn't even think they had any warships but found in my research that they did contribute a meager 16 ships to the Greek allied fleet. In contrast, Athens manned about 180 ships at Salamis.

I was also exasperated by the film makers inferring that Themistocles did not really plan the trap in the straits of Salamis but merely fought the battle as it developed out of sheer desperation - a great disservice to the genius of Themistocles!

In summary, I admit that I enjoyed the male eye candy as much as any other female viewer, but I would encourage anyone truly interested in the actual events and the amazing female admiral that survived the real battle of Salamis to check out Herodotus' actual account.

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