300 vs. Iran (and Herodotus)

I always take in the Hollywood period dramas set in ancient Greece or Rome. My film-buff son is into this too, so we went last week to see 300, the Warner Brothers’ blockbuster produced by Zack Snyder and based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller about the epic battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and Persians. It had by that time grossed over 100 million dollars and no doubt influenced a lot of minds.

The film tells a familiar historical tale. (Rather, it ought to be familiar, but history instruction in our public schools is not necessarily comprehensive.) In 480 BCE, Greece was threatened by an invasion by the Persian army, the greatest war machine of its day. The empire of King Xerxes extended from the Indus River to Egypt, and drew its troops from the ends of the realm. The king personally led them in battle against the Greeks.

Or rather, some of the Greeks. Greece at the time was a collection of city-states, politically disunited, divided as much as unified by dialect and culture. Some city-states, including Argos and Thebes, actually aligned themselves with Xerxes. Herodotus, the “Father of History” and perhaps the world’s first professional historian, paints a picture of a “free” Greece united against an oppressive “Asia.” But that is a chauvinistic simplification. The fact is, Persia and the Greek city-states were all slave-based societies whose notions of “freedom” had little in common with our modern conception.

According to Herodotus (our sole source), 300 Spartan warriors alongside 700 Thespian volunteers defended the pass of Thermopylae against the invaders, inflicting heavy losses on Xerxes’ forces. Led by Spartan King Leonidas, they went down in defeat but gave rival Athens time to prepare the fleet that decisively defeated the Persians at Salamis a few months later.

The story has been dramatized before, notably in the 1962 Hollywood production 300 Spartans starring Richard Egan as Leonidas and David Farrar as Xerxes. This new version is distinguished by what one critic calls the “monochromatic, cartoonish quality of [its] computer-generated special effects”—and by its timing. Warner Brothers had been planning a remake of the 1962 film since the late 1990s, based on a novel by Stephen Pressfield entitled Gates of Fire, with Bruce Willis in the role of Leonidas. But that project fell through, paving the way for 300—just in time to help subliminally shape the movie-going public’s perception of Persians prior to the attack planned on today’s evil empire by Vice President Cheney and his neocon staffers.
Persia is Iran. (I want to say, “Persia, of course, is Iran.” But I can’t assume that all or even most Americans make the connection.) The word comes from “Fars,” a region of modern Iran, while “Iran” is related to the word “Aryan” and connotes “land of the Aryans.” In 1935 the Persian shah opted to use the name “Iran” but the two terms are basically interchangeable. “Persia” just doesn’t have the emotional baggage of “Iran.” During the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, many dealers in Iranian rugs decided to call them “rugs from Persia.” Persia on occasion has thus served as the good Iran, the historical cultural Iran, as opposed to the modern evil enemy. But 300 makes Persia evil too.

The Iranian government has protested the film; last Wednesday President Ahmadinejad in his Iranian New Year’s address called it part of a “psychological warfare” campaign against his country. Javadd Shamaqdare, a cultural advisor to the Iranian government, also denounced the film as “psychological warfare,” accusing its producers of “plundering Iran’s historic past and insulting its civilization” Editors of the Iranian newspaper Ayandeh-No declared that the film “seeks to tell people that Iran, which is in the Axis of Evil now, has long been the source of evil and modern Iranians’ ancestors are the dumb, murderous savages you see in ‘300’.” Iran’s UN mission has stated that the film is “so overtly racist, so overflowing with vicious stereotyping of Persians as a dangerous, bestial force fatally threatening the civilised ‘free’ world”, that it encourages “contemporary discourses of hatred … [and] a ‘clash of civilisations’.”

Some western film critics have echoed Iranian objections. Dimitris Danikas notes that 300 depicts Persians as “bloodthirsty, underdeveloped zombies” and feeds “racist instincts in Europe and America.”

Slate’s Dana Stevens calls it “a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.”

On the other hand film critic Dale McFeatters calls the Iranians “picky, picky,” alleging (quite falsely), “Well, your leader did threaten to wipe Israel off the map.” And Stanford history professor Victor Davis Hanson, reportedly admired by Cheney and his (professional historian) wife, posts his opinion on the right-wing “RealClearPolitics” website: “We rightly consider the ancient Greeks the founders of our present western civilisation ­ and, as millions of movie-goers seem to sense, far more like us than the [Iranian] enemy who ultimately failed to conquer them.”

Even if Zack Snyder and Frank Miller had no intention of making an anti-Iranian film, or promoting any sort of “psychological warfare,” they’ve made a film in which Iranians are indeed generically depicted in the worst possible light. A Warner Bros. spokesman says, “The film 300 is a work of fiction inspired by the Frank Miller graphic novel and loosely based on a historical event. The studio developed this film purely as a fictional work with the sole purpose of entertaining audiences; it is not meant to disparage an ethnicity or culture or make any sort of political statement.” But it does disparage.

Herodotus depicted the Persian ruler positively enough: “Among all this multitude of [Persian] men,” he wrote, “there was not one who, for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes himself to wield so vast a power” (Persian Wars, Book VII, 187). But the Miller-Snyder Xerxes is not even an Iranian-looking man but (like some other Persians in the film) a distinctly African figure, who happens to be effeminate and wholly vicious. Leonidas in contrast is white and manly and wholly heroic in his fight for “freedom.”

Color is kept to a minimum in the film; the warriors appear in shades of black and white, with the Greeks’ red cloaks standing out provocatively around the uniformly chiseled abs of the heroes. The Persians in contrast are ugly or deformed.

“The Greeks will know that free men stood against tyrants,” says the cartoonish Leonides (Gerard Butler) preparing for his suicidal defense against the evil Persians. Greece is the “world’s one hope for reason and justice” versus the “dark will of the Persian kings.” “We rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny,” he declares. “No retreat, no surrender. That is Spartan law. A new age has dawned, an age of freedom, and all will know that Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”

The message is indeed clear. Sparta = Greece = the Western World = freedom. Persia = slavery and oppression. This was perhaps the gist of Herodotus’ message; he did write that while the Greeks knew that men were free, the “Asiatics” knew only that one (the ruler) was free. But that was a skewed notion in his time and can only dangerously circulate in our own, while Iran is in the neocons’ crosshairs. Again, I think the Iranians might be over-concerned, since much of the film-viewing crowd won’t even associate the ancient Persians with the modern Iranians, but the “clash of civilizations” theme is definitely there.

I would propose that those exposed to it imagine a different Xerxes that the nose-pierced caricature in the film. Imagine a Xerxes who addresses the American audience, including the Christian fundamentalist audience, as follows:

“I am Xerxes, Emperor of Persia, son of Darius, grandson of Cyrus. My grandfather Cyrus liberated the Jews from their Babylonian exile and let them return to Judea and rebuild their temple. My father Darius urged our people to revere the ‘God of Daniel.’ I myself married Esther, a Jew.”

“I come from a long line of believers in the One God preached by Zarathustra, our Persian prophet whose teachings have influenced the Jews during their exile among us. I refer specifically to their concepts of Satan, Heaven and the future Messiah which weren’t part of their pre-exile belief system and are clearly borrowings from our Persian religion.

“I am now embarking on the conquest of Greece, a backward region populated by primitive polytheists who worship capricious amoral deities and practice absurd religious rites. But my ancestors and I, having already conquered many Ionian Greeks, respect Greek philosophers and indeed have many of them in our employ. We have established a multi-ethnic empire. In that empire, Greeks fill important roles from the Mediterranean to India.

“These Spartans confronting us at Thermopylae are cruel men who annually–for sport!– make war on the defenseless helots that live around them. They have nothing to tell us Persians—or the world in general—about ‘freedom.’!”

The writer of such a script could claim Biblical authority. In Isaiah 44:28, the God of Israel declares through his prophet that Cyrus “is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.” Throughout Chapter 45 of Isaiah he speaks directly to Cyrus—“his anointed”—calling him “righteous” and informing him that “the wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia” will “come over to you, and be yours.” The Book of Ezra opens with King Cyrus issuing an edict declaring, “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.” In Daniel 6:26 a King Darius issues a decree that “in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.” Esther 2:15-18 describes Xerxes’ marriage to the Jewish maiden Esther. None of this is historically reliable; Daniel and Esther are indeed novelettes rather than history. The point is, these texts revered as Holy Writ by many if not most Americans depict Persia positively.

The Greeks, on the other hand, cause “many evils on the earth.” They build a gymnasium in Jerusalem, for example (1 Maccabees 1:8). The Jews don’t approve of that sort of Greek thing, so Judah rises up in rebellion against Seleucid rule in the second century BCE. Their rebellion against the “free,” “rational” Greeks is depicted as heroic.

The Greco-Roman world continued to make war on Persia off and on up to the end of the Roman Empire. But Alexander the Great, having defeated the Persian King Darius a century and a half after the battle of Thermopylae and acquired his vast empire, admired Persian ways and actively promoted the cultural synthesis we call Hellenism. Roman troops brought the worship of the Persian god Mithras back to Rome from their Persian campaigns; the cult of this god born on December 25 was a formidable rival of Christianity to the fourth century. The greatest of the late Roman philosophers, the second century Neoplatonist Plotinus, admired and sought to learn from the Persians. Manicheanism, founded by the Persian prophet Mani, was another religious rival to Christianity from its inception in the third century. The knowledge of the Persian Magi (Zoroastrian priest-astrologers) was respected in Rome and Magi of course appear in the New Testament (Matthew 2:1-12).

In short: 300’s depiction of the battle of Thermopylae is not merely inaccurate, as any film adaptation of a graphic novel has the perfect right to be. It’s what the Iranians say it is: racist and insulting. It pits the glorious Greeks with whom the audience must sympathize against a “mystical” and “tyrannical” culture posing an imminent existential threat. It is, de facto, an anti-Persian/anti-Iranian propaganda film, and should be rated appropriately: not just R (for racist) but X—for extremely stupid and vicious and dangerously ill-timed.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu