Sunday, March 18, 2007

300 Ironies

I specialize in arguments that don’t convince anybody. I used to encounter students who were impressed by the theories of Erich von Däniken, especially his notion that aliens from outer space taught the Egyptians about pyramids and helped build them too, which was necessary since handling big stones were hard for people who hadn’t even invented ropes yet. Since it didn’t help to show students Old Kingdom bas reliefs that depicted Egyptians using ropes, I tried another unsuccessful tact. I pointed out how strange it was that a space faring species of fantastic technical sophistication favored an architectural form that amounted pretty much to a big heap of stones. If something like Chartres Cathedral or one of those rock-cut temples from medieval India turned up in Luxor, we’d be entitled to marvel. But pyramids? Of course that consideration was pretty much a flop. Indeed, to judge by the success of the Star Gate franchise, adolescents continue to imagine that intergalactic super beings, dressed in jackal outfits no less, not only favor the design but fly around the Universe in enormous pyramid ships.

When 300, the semi-cartoon version of the Battle of Thermopylae, arrived, I had another idea that was sure to be dead on arrival. It struck me as an incredible irony that the movie cast the struggle between the Greeks and the Persians as a fight between light and darkness, good and evil. The trouble with this narrative, aside from its mind-numbing banality, is that the Greeks themselves didn’t think of the war in this way. Herodotus, who literally wrote the book on this patch of history, represented the struggle as the latest episode in a long quarrel between Europe and Asia. It was no more a showdown between the cowboys in white hats and the cowboys in black hats than the Trojan War had been a matter of good guys versus bad guys. Indeed, in his quasi-epic framing of the history, Herodotus specifically refers to the Trojan War as an earlier bout in the same ongoing contest. A century after Herodotus there were Greek writers who reinterpreted the Persian Wars as a contest of civilization versus barbarism, but the propagandistic efforts of orators like Isocrates, which were part of a public relations campaign that justified in advance Alexander’s conquest of the East, still did not represent the issues in terms of moral dualism for the very good reason that this way of thinking is about as non-Hellenic as you can get. It is, in fact, Persian. So 300, which recounts the brave stand of the Spartans against Xerxes bestial horde, a military feat that led to the invader’s eventual defeat, actually underlines how the Persians won in the long run

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