Where do I begin? Did I love the movie “300”? Yes. Was it based in reality? Somewhat. Here and there. Just put a little Wite-out on the ugly parts and blow up the good parts by 1,000.
Well, it’s kinda like how, over time, certain people and/or events become…let’s say…changed from what actually happened or who they actually were, and all of this becomes viewed, in time, through a distorted lens that’s only telling part of the story. Yeah, yeah, history is written by the victors. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Examples? No problem. Two that stand out in my mind are the Rhodes Scholarship and Margaret Sanger. When one thinks of a Rhodes Scholar and the associated scholarship, one generally conjures up benign brainiacs, geeks and nerds of Mensa or Jeopardy! qualifications, whose brains are bigger, synapses fire faster, or maybe are simply gifted in the retention of trivia and facts.
The scholarship, however, is named after British mining magnate and South African politician Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of the De Beers diamond firm, a corporation which enjoyed a global monopoly for many generations of exploiting/raping natural South African resources while treating its workers as much, much, much less than human. As the creator of the 1913 Natives Land Act, Rhodes’ brainchild would limit the areas of the country that black Africans were allowed (less than 10%) and this, along with altering voting laws, helped pave the road for apartheid.
In the meantime, Planned Parenthood is still going strong today. I don’t think the average person even knows about Margaret Sanger when they think of Planned Parenthood. I know I didn’t. But when you hear about the “founder” of Planned Parenthood, you’re probably inclined to think, “Oh, what a forward-thinking lady. What a maverick!” since she was engaging in the struggle for women’s rights back in the ‘20s.
A couple of years ago, Ms. Sanger was named one of Time magazine’s “20 Most Influential Americans of All Time.” But considering what the founder of Planned Parenthood contributed to the eugenics movement, it gives one pause, does it not? Eugenics?! you say.
In 1939 Sanger wrote in a letter to Clarence Gable: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”Woman, Morality, and Birth Control. New York: New York Publishing Company, 1922. Page 12.
It was nice of her to lend a caveat to her ultimate goal which was, most likely, not to exterminate blacks, but to definitely keep them from having more than an acceptable amount of babies, whatever that number may have been, as was evidenced in a video recently unearthed from 1947 of the intrepid defender of all womankind—ahem—I mean defender of most of—some of—the appropriate women—of Ms. Sanger demanding no more babies for 10 years in developing countries.
So back to “300.” Back to Sparta.
No one more than I loves the expression on Gerard Butler’s face as he’s proclaiming, “This is Sparta!”
But what’s the low-down on Sparta behind the cinematic majesty?
Well, it’s common knowledge these days that the Spartans were slave-owners, dominating who were probably the original inhabitants of Laconia (the area surrounding the Spartan capital). Although this population, called helots, greatly outnumbered the Spartans, an iron heel was kept firmly ground on their collective neck to keep them down.
Spartans, during their early training, did not have to go out into the snow and kill giant wolves as much as they were required to perform the equivalent of today’s gang drive-by in order to gain warrior status within the ranks. So instead of the lyrical representation of the half-naked boy facing down a wild animal, a more realistic scene in “300” would have been a testosterone-crazed 13-year-old shadowing an unarmed helot on his or her way to market in a rite known as the Crypteia, jumping said clueless person, and probably slitting their throat on the spot.
Portrayed as a freedom-loving culture in the movie and in popular media today, what they actually only valued was their own freedom. Certainly not that of the helots.
And let’s take a look at Ephialtes, who betrays the Greeks by disclosing the location of a secret goat path to the Persians. Ephialtes is changed from a local Malian of sound body into a Spartan outcast, outrageously disfigured and later outrageously vengeful toward Leonidas and the warriors. Aside from the fact that Ephialtes was the leader of radical democrats in Athens and whose reforms prepared the way for the final development of Athenian democracy, his character is demoted to monster-like proportions in both body and mind, along with the general representation of the Persians as twisted creatures, malformed and debauched, offering up an endless supply of gigantic stampeding beasts and horrific ogres to do their fighting for them.
Oh, well. It made for good drama in the movie.
At the end, in history, the Spartans knew they were gonna die. And they stayed. Graciously, they volunteered their own slaves. I can just see the Spartan warrior going, “Yes, and Thesius will remain behind also,” while Thesius does a double-take and drops the cape he was trying to mend in the dull light of a bloody sunset.
In the end, Spartan bravery isn’t in question. It looks like they had that in spades. But the circumstances that allow such a society to live and thrive, on one level at least, contaminate everything else that happens afterwards, don’t they?
Like the questionable “honor” of being dubbed a Rhodes Scholar.
Like the much, much less than egalitarian principles of an overly esteemed Margaret Sanger.
Like the founding of the United States with a constitution stating that “all men are created equal” except…it was really only men. And really only a certain type of man. And look where we are today due to that ignoble beginning…
It’s nicer to stick with fantasy sometimes. So for now I’ll sink back into the glory of “300” with its chiseled stomachs and call for honor, swirling with empathy and altruism for all the innocents and worthy of the world. Truly a beautiful idea. Really a wonderful, captivating fantasy.