Grossing over 70 million dollars in its first week of release, the movie “300” is set to crash into the list of highest grossing Hollywood blockbusters. Its strong opening is a clear indicator of its success with the North American and by implication, European audiences. Although this picture is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and directed by Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”), it is already being portrayed as a “historical” movie, and will be perceived as such by many (less discerning) viewers. More significant however, are the conclusions that are being derived from this picture.
The producers of the movie (as well as the actors) are honest in stating that they did not consult primary historical sources. The writer of the comic book appears to have relied on the writings of Greek historian Herodotus, whose works, though valuable, inevitably contain an element of bias, as do any historical works from any culture.
My article will not discuss the cinematography (a job best left to the film critics), nor is it a criticism of the cast and crew. There has been no agenda on the part of the original novelist, movie director, cast and crew to promote an anti-Iranian agenda. The movie however (no matter how sincerely it was intended as entertainment), is nevertheless purveying messages; messages most certainly unintended by Miller or the film producers.
The following commentary is specifically directed against the very human biases and distortions that currently pervade against ancient Iran and Iranians; the very same views that “300” has (inadvertently) stimulated.
Though perhaps trivial, I feel my background gives me a unique perspective. Born of Iranian parents in Greece, I am a student of both ancient Greece and its “East Roman” successor, Byzantium, alongside my main research interest, ancient Iran. My Greek friends often cite me as a blend of ancient Iran (or what the west terms as “Persia”) and “Hellas” (Greece). It is often overlooked that an Iranian can admire ancient Greece just as a Greek can do likewise with Persia. A Greek friend stated this to me in an e-mail on Monday, March 12, 2007:
“I watched the movie 300…and I was totally disappointed…The movie demonized the Persians, everything that was depicted in the movie about the Persians was untrue. The movie demonized also the Greeks and through some words of Leonidas Greek philosophers and Athenian civilization were downrated…I wonder why I should watch demons and Spartans with a false image…there was no showing of glorious brave and smart people from both sides. I have learned that what Spartans did in Thermopyles was magnificent, that they did not match any enemy but what they did there was really magnificent because it was achieved against a very brave, worthy and glorious enemy. …very few understand it.”
In the course of their historical intercourse, Greece and Persia have created breathtaking works in domains such as the arts, architecture, sciences, music and of course, democracy and human rights. It is interesting that many modern Greeks acknowledge and appreciate ancient Iran as a civilization as worthy as their own, yet the same is not necessarily true in northwest Europe and North America.
This review will focus on eight items for discussion:
1) The Notion of Democracy and Human Rights
2) What really led to War
3) The Military Conflict: Separating Fact from Fiction
4) The Error of Xerxes: The Burning of Athens
5) The “West” battling against the “Mysticism” of “the East”
6) The Portrayal of Iranians and Greeks
7) A Note on the Iranian Women in Antiquity
8) 'Good' versus “Evil”
(1) The Notion of Democracy and Human Rights
What struck me about the movie was its portrayal of the Greco-Persian Wars in binary terms: the democratic, good, rational “Us” versus the tyrannical, evil and irrational, “other” of the ever-nebulous (if not exotic) “Persia”. Central to this dichotomy is the following message:
“300 men stood between victory and the collapse of Western civilisation.… If the barbarian hordes…overran these defenders, Greek democracy and civilisation would fall prey to alien forces whose cruelty was a byword.”
[Christopher Hudson, “The Greatest Warriors Ever”, Daily Mail, London, England, March 9, 2007]
Note the key words “collapse of Western civilization”, “barbarian hordes”, “democracy and civilisation” and “alien forces whose cruelty was a byword”. These key words are reminiscent of political sloganeering, targeting the “other” with slanderous propaganda. These simplistic (and patronizing) statements are a clear indication that the general media and much of the audience is seeing “300” as much more than just a movie of a “graphic novel”. This has been astutely observed by Tomas Engle, a student at a West Virginia College, who has noted with some concern that many people are viewing the movie to “inform themselves on history.'
The citations from popular media outlets (such as The Daily Mail) are yet another vivid demonstration of the gross prevailing ignorance as to the actual origins of the notions of human rights, democracy and freedom, as well as the complex factors that led to the Greco-Persian wars.
The origins of democracy and human rights are not as simple as we are led to believe. As we will see below, these notions share both Greek and Iranian origins.
Meanwhile, the Greeks (the Athenians and their Ionian kin in particular), created the notion of “Demos” (the people) and “Kratus” (government). This government by the people is what excites the imagination of the contemporary “western world”. However, few acknowledge the role of “the East” in helping place modern democracy as we know it today, within the context of racial, religious and cultural equality, or (more succinctly), human rights.
The founder of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great, was the world’s first world emperor to openly declare and guarantee the sanctity of human rights and individual freedom.
Cyrus the Great as reconstructed by Tim Newark, 2000, p.21
(Ancient Armies, Concord Publications, painter Angus McBride)
Cyrus was a follower of the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathustra), the founder of one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions.
Portrait of Zarathustra as depicted in a Mithraic Temple in Dura Europus (in modern Syria) in the 3rd Century AD.
Zoroaster taught that good and evil resides in all members of humanity, regardless of racial origin, ethnic membership or religious affiliation. Each person is given the choice between good and evil – it is up to us to choose between them. It is that goodness, and a firm belief in its divinity, that is the key to human liberty, according to Zoroaster. As a consequence, every individual is entitled to liberty of thought, action and speech. This is enshrined in Zoroaster’s guidelines: Good Thoughts (Pendar Nik), Good Deeds (Kerdar Nik) and Good Speech (Goftar Nik).
As a result, freedom of thought, action and speech are laden with the awesome responsibility of wielding these for the good of all mankind. Zoroaster taught that there is no such thing as a “bad race” or “bad religion”. The only divide is that between good and bad people, both within one’s own community and those outside of one’s community. Zoroastrians often referred to ancient Iran as “the land of the Free/Freedom” (Zamin Azadegan).
Zoroaster preached the concept of an all-powerful single god known as Ahura-Mazda (the Supreme Angel), who stood for all that is good. However, the acceptance of Ahura-Mazda was a personal choice. There were to be no forced conversions and the gods of all nationalities were fully respected: Cyrus prostrated himself in front of the statue of Babylonian god Marduk after his conquest of Babylon. As noted by Graf, Hirsch, Gleason, & Krefter “Belief in a heavenly afterlife for good people and torment for evildoers may have been partly responsible for the moral treatment that Achaemenid Kings accorded subject nations…”
The Greek warrior-historian Xenophon, spoke highly of Cyrus in his Cyropaedia. Cyrus is described as being void of deceit, arrogance, guile or selfishness. Cyrus is the first “one world hero” in history, namely the ruler who sought to unite all the peoples into one empire while according full respect to all languages, creeds and religious practices. Alexander the Great, who greatly admired Cyrus, adopted his mantle of the “world hero” after his conquests of Persia in 333-323 BC.
Cyrus’ system of government has been forever immortalized by the Cyrus Cylinder. This is a clay cylinder of a decree that was issued by Cyrus the Great in 538 BC shortly after his conquest of Babylon.
The Cyrus Cylinder. This is the first human rights charter in history. A facsimile of the Cyrus Cylinder is present at the United Nations building in New York City
There three main premises in the decrees of the Cyrus Cylinder were:
(1) the institution of racial, linguistic and religious equality
(2) all exiled peoples were to be allowed to return home
(3) all destroyed temples were to be restored.
When Cyrus defeated King Nabonidus of Babylon, he officially declared the freedom of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. This was the first time in history that a world power had guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people, religion, customs and culture. Cyrus allowed the Jews to rebuild their Temple and provided them with funds to do so. The empire continued that support as indicated by a decree by Darius the Great in 519-518 BC by allowing the Jews to complete the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Ezra, 4:1). Cyrus’ magnanimity is reflected in the Old Testament where he is cited as Yahweh’s anointed (See Book of Ezra 1). Koresh (Hebrew for Cyrus), was hailed as a Messiah by the Jews. Isaiah cites Cyrus as “He is my Shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” (Isaiah, 44.28; 45.1). The Biblical characters Ezra, Daniel, Esther and Mordecai played historically important roles in the Persian court. The tomb of Esther and Mordechai still stands to this day in Hamadan, the site of the ancient city of Ecbatana, a city that has hosted Jews for over 2500 years. The Persian king Xerxes himself was married to a Jewish queen named Esther.
A more humane 1962 Hollywood picture of ancient Iran: Xerxes (played by Richard Egan) and his Jewish queen Esther (played by Joan Collins)
Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran.
Professor Victor Davis Hanson (Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Professor emeritus at California University) summarizes the issue of “Freedom versus Tyranny” very succinctly:
“If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy…in almost all wars, one side is defending its freedom. The Greeks were not the first human beings to defend their freedom…monarchy is not something Eastern…when these 'freedom-defender' Greeks were united under Alexander, they did the same thing…they invaded Persia, Egypt and India and created their own empire…so did their Roman successors…”
[For full text see: http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson101106.html]
(2) What Really led to War: The Untold Story
As noted above, Western popular opinion and academic historiography portrays the Greco-Persian wars as being an epic contest between liberty, as represented by Greece, and “Persian Tyranny”. Professor Richard Nelson Frye, however cautions us that such historical narratives are “…an example of imposing modern concepts on the past…distorting our understanding…” [Richard Nelson Frye, 1984, p.93
Yes, indeed it is true that the Ionian revolt on the west Anatolian coast and the support of the Athenians for their Hellenic ethnic kin against the Persian Empire was a major factor that led Darius the Great (549-486 BC), the father of Xerxes, to invade Greece in 490 BC. But this is only a part of the story. Very few western historians have discussed the role of economic rivalry as a factor in the Greco-Persian wars.
By this time, the Greeks had established a powerful maritime economic empire in the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks established colonies in southern Italy as well as contemporary southern France; an example of this legacy is seen in the name of the city of “Nice” (pronounced /nees/) in southern, France – “Nice” is derived from the Greek Nicea (modern Nice). Greek trading posts had also been established in the Caucasus, in the Modern Republic of Georgia.
The Achaemenid Empire became a marine empire as soon as it reached the Aegean Sea. Darius the Great built the world’s first formal “Imperial Navy”, many of its ships manned by Phoenician, Egyptian and (Hellenic) Ionians. More importantly, the Persian Empire began to “muscle in” on the economic sphere of the Greeks in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (see Cook, The Greeks in Ionia and the East, 1962, 98-120; 132-133; Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 2007, Chapter 4). Italian researchers such as Nik Spatari have confirmed that Darius had sent naval scouts as far as Southern Italy to gain information on possible trade contacts with the western Mediterranean (Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, 2007, Chapter 4).
Reconstruction of Achaemenid ships in 1971.
Persia’s growing economic strength in the Mediterranean was certainly of great concern to the Greeks and their prosperity. The Greco-Persian wars were as much about economics, as they were about systems of government. For further references consult the bibliography.
(3) The Military Conflict: Separating Fact from Fiction
There are very few historians who doubt the tenacity and military skill of the Greek defenders who faced the invading army of Xerxes. The 300 movie displayed the equipment of the Spartans relatively well, considering that the producers were intent on reproducing the images of a comic book, leaving little room for consultation with modern scholarship. If the portrayal of the Greek side was adequate, that of “the Persians” was pure fantasy. This being said, there are already a large number of viewers who have taken these images in a very “literal” and historical context – the human mind is indeed a very impressionable organ.
The discussion here is a very quick and overall analysis of the actual military factors that were in place during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC – however we will digress into the post-Alexandrian eras, notably the evolution of the Persian knights during the Parthian (238 BC- 224 AD) and Sassanian (224-651 AD) eras. I will closely scrutinize the veracity of whether Xerxes actually wielded 1,700,000 troops during his invasion of Greece. By no means is this discussion adequate, however it is hoped that the reader’s curiosity will be sufficiently evoked as to encourage further research and readings.
Greek spears and swords were longer than their Achaemenid counterparts. This meant that in hand to hand combat, the Spartans held the advantage and were able to “outrange” their opponents with their swords and spears, which were primarily used for thrusting (see Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert, 2007, Chapters 4-5). The swords of “the Persians” in the movie are of no historical relevance – many of the Iranian swords of that era were short and dagger-like. These were known as the “Akenakes”.
Scythian (left) and Mede (right)
Saka Tigrakhauda (Tall-capped Scythian to the left) and a Mede (round cap to the right) appearing before the Achaemenid kings at the Imperial palace of Persepolis. Note the short size of the Akenakes daggers, which proved inadequate in hand to hand combat against Greek warriors.
For a thorough examination of the Akenakes daggers, as well as all Iranian military gear from the Bronze Age to the 19th century, consult Manoucher Moshtagh Khorasani’s comprehensive book on the subject:
Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to end of the Qajar Period
Greek troops were far better armored than their opponents, although it is not clear if all the Spartans wore heavy armor at Thermopylae. Greek helmets, body armor and greaves provided excellent protection against blade weapons in hand to hand combat, whereas the vast majority of the Achaemenids lacked significant armor protection. Scale armor was available, but not to the majority of troops.
Read rest of Dr. Kaveh Farrokh's article.