Ancient History & Civilisation

NINE

THE THERMOPYLAE LEGEND II: FROM ANTIQUITY TO MODERNITY

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Of the three hundred grant but three.

To make a new Thermopylae!

Lord Byron, Don Juan

Older than we are by however many ages,

it doesn’t need defending against anything.

No more do air or fire, earth or water.

Not even in our empty times. Neglected, it will

go underground, or into interstellar space.

Until out of the blue someone calls it up,

Where was he from? ‘Spar-ta’, he said.

‘You are a Spartan!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh no’,

he said, ‘there are no Spartans any more.’

Andrew McNeillie, ‘In Defence of Poetry’,

Times Literary Supplement, 16 August 2001

THE MAINLY Italian Renaissance, as it has come to be known, of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries was explicitly a ‘back to the future’ movement of cultural perception and political action. Rediscovery of the wisdom, truth and beauty of the best ancient Greeks and Romans would instigate advance and progress away from what later came to be derogated as the (benighted) Middle Ages. This Renaissance was more of a Western than an Eastern movement, more Roman than Hellenic in inspiration and reference. But there was one notable exception to that rule, Ciriaco dei Pizzicolli, a merchant more familiarly known from his town of origin as Cyriac of Ancona. Cyriac did more than anyone else, probably, to bridge East and West by bringing the East to the West. To him we owe a travelogue of 1447 that outdoes even the second-century Pausanias the Periegete’s jeremiad over the lamentable present and his recherche of a much better temps that had been perdu. Cyriac, unlike Pausanias, approached Sparta via Mistra (a short distance to the west). Founded in the mid-thirteeenth century by the Franks, Mistra was still, just, the capital of the despotate of the Morea (Peloponnese), a junior outpost of the Byzantine world that was very soon to fall to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror. As he approached, Cyriac lamented the absence of a very long list of Spartan warriors of olden, golden times, among them – of course – Leonidas.

About the time of Cyriac’s Spartan visit one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance was born, Pietro Vannucci known as Perugino (c. 1450–1523), most celebrated now as the teacher of Raphael. His Fortezza e Temperanza (‘Strength and Temperance’) composition, in Perugia’s Nobile Collegio del Cambio, includes a selection of ‘uomini forti’ (‘brave men’, but it goes better in Latin – viri fortes). At the side of Horatius Cocles, great defender of ancient Rome, stands another great defender, labelled ‘Leonida Lacedemonio’, ‘Leonidas of Sparta’. Horatius (as he’s better known to generations of English schoolboys reared on Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome) looks up and to his left, as do the figures on either side of these two. But Leonidas, strikingly, breaks the pattern and looks down; more precisely, he looks down perhaps a trifle ruefully at the extraordinarily long sword he grips at the hilt and which he tilts at an angle with his right hand and holds two-thirds of the way down with his left. Apart from its inauthentically un-Spartan length, what catches the eye is that the sword is seriously bent out of true. The viewer is presumably intended to interpret this proleptically, as a fore-shadowing of Leonidas’s heroic end.

The ‘early modern’ period in Europe is conventionally taken to run from about 1500 to 1800. In the second half of the sixteenth century, an interesting debate involving Spartan antiquity can be observed taking place right at the other end of Europe, in Scotland. In 1579 the humanist and historian George Buchanan praised Leonidas, along with Agesilaus II and some others, for being a true king, whereas the monarchs of his day were, he thought, too much sunk in luxury. Adam Blackwood, however, in 1581 took an opposite, constitutionalist as opposed to moralistic view. In Sparta, he believed, the kings enjoyed merely the name and empty title of ‘king’, rather than the substance of kingly power. In a way he was right – and certainly power divided is unlikely to have carried the same clout or implications as undivided monarchy. But careful investigation shows that those Spartans who wielded the greatest power and authority in their day – and abroad, too, not just at home – were kings: Cleomenes I, Leonidas, Agesilaus II, Cleomenes III. The one obvious exception is Lysander, but after a brief paroxysm of excessively personal power he too was cut down to a more Spartan size – by first King Pausanias and then King Agesilaus II.

At almost exactly the same time as this Scottish debate was being conducted, across the water in France the prodigious and prolific Montaigne (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne) was compiling his Essais. One of the best known has the arresting title ‘On the Cannibals’ (1580), but its contents went well beyond its ostensible subject-matter. One might not expect to find here, for example, this remarkably astute and acute observation:

There are triumphant defeats that rival victories. Salamis, Plataea, Mycale and Sicily* are the fairest sister-victories under the sun.

Yet they would never dare compare their combined glory with the glorious defeat of King Leonidas and his men in the pass of Thermopylae.1

Fénelon, a fellow countryman and fellow littérateur of Montaigne, used Leonidas almost a century later as a character in one of his Dialogues des Morts (‘Dialogues of the Dead’); he was the only Spartan to be employed in this way. The idea and title for the work were borrowed from Lucian, who had staged imaginary dialogues of a historically possible and intrinsically plausible character – as well as dialogues that were neither of these. But the notion of a dialogue between a Spartan king and Great King Xerxes goes back ultimately to Herodotus (though, strictly, Demaratus was by then an ex-king). Like Buchanan, Fénelon depicted Leonidas as a true king, in contrast to the merely despotic Xerxes, and painted him in thoroughly local Spartan colours:

I exercised my kingship on condition that I led a hard, sober and industrious life, just like that of my people. I was king solely to defend my fatherland and to ensure the rule of law. My kingship gave me the power to do good without permitting me the licence to do evil.2

Xerxes was in Fénelon’s eyes simply ‘too powerful and too fortunate’; had he not been so, he ‘would have been a quite honourable man’. Handel, composing his comic opera Xerxes in the following century, was far less generously inclined; he shared the general anti-despotic tendency of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

That Enlightenment assumed different shapes and shades in different European countries and in America, and was divided against itself on major moral and intellectual issues. There was a broad division, for example, in attitudes to the ancients between the modernizers and the traditionalists. This entailed choosing, not between Athens and Jerusalem, but between Athens and Sparta. In the Sparta corner were the Swiss and French Rousseau, Charles Rollin, Helvétius and the abbé de Mably, the Scottish social theorist Adam Ferguson and, in his very long 1737 epic poem Leonidas, the Englishman Richard Glover. Expressly going against the ancient myth of Gorgo encouraging Leonidas to his patriotically inspired rendezvous with destiny, Glover has her criticizing him for placing death for his country above life with her! Glover’s Leonidas attempts to turn that criticism on its head by claiming that to die for country is to die for family – that is, to keep one’s family free. Sparta was presented by these eulogists as both a political and especially a moral exemplar, a state whose power rested on her virtue – disciplined, harmonious, obedient. Nor was such pro-Spartanism the preserve only of elite intellectuals. In 1793 the apostate citoyens of the French town of Saint-Marcellin, having abandoned their Christian faith, renamed their community ‘Thermopyles’.

The other side of Leonidas’s exemplary public virtue is represented in Handel’s Xerxes of 1738. This selected for its mise-en-scène a variant version of the unpleasant domestic plot hatched by Xerxes as recounted towards the end of the very last book of Herodotus. To cut a long story short, Xerxes will stop at nothing to get his hands on his brother’s beloved. A strange subplot portrays Xerxes as hopelessly enamoured of a plane tree – perhaps a distant reminiscence of the ancient Greeks’ jibe at the Great King’s artificial golden plane tree that symbolized for them the utterly debauched luxury of the Persian monarchy.*

Not all the illuminati of the eighteenth century by any means agreed on eulogy of Sparta. The Frenchman Voltaire and the Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith, for example, were conspicuously hostile critics, Voltaire not surprisingly having no time for a city that had openly affected to despise both book-learning and luxury. But perhaps the most notably hostile of all was the proto-democrat Cornelius de Pauw, in his Recherches philosophiques sur les grecs published the year before the French Revolution broke out. Even Leonidas does not escape de Pauw’s barbed strictures – he hid behind a wall, the coward …

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It is hard to beat Jacques-Louis David’s own description (see pp. 1846) of his magnificent history painting, completed in 1814 only after many years of work and without the approval of his master-patron, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Heroic self-sacrifice does indeed shine out, but so too does Leonidas’s sexual allure and David’s predilection for naked male beauty.

The American Revolution, like the French, was inspired in part by the founders’ notions of Classical antiquity, though – like the Renaissance – this was far more a Roman than a Hellenic thing (hence there is a ‘Capitol’ in Washington, DC, not an ‘Acropolis’, and a ‘Senate’, not an ‘Areopagus’ or ‘Gerousia’). But there are literally hundreds of Athenses and Spartas in North America.*

So far as the mass dissemination of ideas was concerned, the eighteenth century was still a world of the spoken word and of visual images rather than the written word: hence the importance of Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée the Elder’s famous A Spartan Mother and Son of 1771, now at Stourhead in Wiltshire. This was painted to illustrate the devotion of the ideal Spartan mother to the state and the privileging of community above family. More famous still by far is a history painting in the strict sense (begun in 1800, completed in 1814), which takes Thermopylae, and not least the prowess of Leonidas himself, for its subject. Here is Jacques-Louis David’s own view and vision of his masterwork (as conveyed in a printed note accompanying the exhibition of the painting in his studio):

Leonidas, king of Sparta, seated on a rock in the midst of his three hundred heroes, reflects, rather moved, on the near and inevitable death of his friends. At Leonidas’s feet, in the shade, there is his wife’s brother, Agis, who, after putting down the crown of flowers he had worn during the sacrifice, is about to place his helmet on his head; with his eyes on the general, he awaits his orders. Next to him, at the sound of the trumpet two young men run to take their weapons that are hanging from the branches of trees. Further away, one of his officers, a devotee of the cult of Hercules, whose arms and outfit he wears, rallies his troops into battle formation. He is followed by the high priest, who calls on Hercules to grant them victory. He points his finger at the sky. Further back the army parades.

What David does not mention here is the warrior on the left who appears to be carving an inscription in the rock with the hilt of his sword.* On the other hand, he did reportedly tell E. Delécluze, a former pupil of his and the compiler of David, son école et son temps, that in the painting he had wanted ‘to characterize that profound, great and religious sentiment that is inspired by the love of one’s country’. To that uncontroversial motive, we must surely add, if not as a conscious motive at least as an effect, the strong homoerotic (not just homosocial) charge that the painting conveys. David himself had strong homoerotic proclivities, and he will surely not have been unaware of this key dimension of ancient Spartan social life nor blind to the legitimacy that appeal to the authorizing Spartan archetype might confer.

However, David’s principal patron, the by now Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was frankly puzzled at first as to why his official court painter should have wasted so much time and effort on depicting a bunch of ancient losers. Later, however, he happily changed his mind and tune, and would presumably have responded with an emphatic oui to the proud painter’s rhetorical question, ‘I suppose you know that no one but David could have painted Leonidas?’

For the philhellenes of the early nineteenth century it was love of another country than their own, namely Greece, by which they were motivated, and for them the legends of Thermopylae and Leonidas were a gift not to be overlooked. Among the new plays on Greek or Roman themes staged at Covent Garden in the 1820s was a Leonidas, King of Sparta, the stage set of which boasted an extraordinary (and quite unhistorical) temple of Heracles. This was probably an Englished version of Michel Pichat’s tragedy Léonidasthat had been performed originally at the Théâtre Français in Paris in 1825, while Greek independence still hung in the balance.

Second to no other philhellene, whether English or French, and whether on paper or in the field of combat, was George Gordon, Lord Byron. He was and is the principal avatar of what may fairly be called the ‘Age of Leonidas’ in the early nineteenth century. Edmund Keeley, widely known for his distinguished translations of the poets George Seferis and Constantine Cavafy among others, has written sensitively of Byron’s ‘well-traveled path in bringing Greece to the page decade after decade’. He then cites the famous stanza from the canto of Don Juan – the one that is sometimes called ‘The Isles of Greece’ – in which Byron’s noble lord, having dreamed ‘that Greece might still be free’, calls the valour of his enslaved contemporary Greek audience into question ‘through allusions to their nobler ancient history’:

Must we but weep o’er days more blest?

Must we but blush? – Our fathers bled.

Earth! Render back from out thy breast

A remnant of our Spartan dead!

Of the three hundred grant but three

To make a new Thermopylae!

Earlier still, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), Byron had echoed and sought to encourage the early native Greek strain of liberationist patriotism displayed in Constantinos Rhigas’s Patriotic Hymn of 1798, itself clearly inspired by the ‘Marseillaise’. Rhigas had made a stirring address to the spirit of Leonidas; so here, likewise, Byron invokes Leonidas’s shade:

Sons of the Greeks, arise!

Brave shades of chiefs and sages,

Behold the coming strife!

Hellenes of past ages,

Oh, start again to life!

Sparta, Sparta, why in slumbers

Lethargic doest thou lie?

Awake, and join in numbers

With Athens, old ally!

Leonidas recalling,

That chief of ancient song,

Who saved ye once from falling,

The terrible! the strong!

But it was not only abroad, in Greece, that the Thermopylae experience could be used as an inspiration to fight for freedom. Much closer to home, and uncomfortably so – for ‘freeborn Englishmen’, that is, who ‘never never would be slaves’ – were the stirring words of the poem ‘A Nation Once Again’ penned by the Irishman Thomas Davis (1814–45). This was to remain one of the unofficial anthems of Irish nationalist liberation propaganda well into the twentieth century, and I quote just a snatch:

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood,

I read of ancient freemen

For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,

Three hundred men and three men.

I prayed that I would live to see

Our fetters rent in twain,

And Ireland, long a province, be

A nation once again.

The Victorian British fought back. Glover’s Leonidas of 1737 had been a patriot to the core, a public-spirited lover of freedom and observer of austere self-denial, opposed on principle to the luxurious Persians who languished under the ‘absolute controulment of their king’, the abominable and abominated Xerxes. That voluminous work can be seen as having kick-started the construction of a modern myth: one that evolved from Glover’s literary paradigm into a rallying cry of moral rearmament. In the shape of the Victorian public school tradition inaugurated by Thomas Arnold of Rugby and continued well into the twentieth century by Kurt Hahn’s Gordonstoun in Scotland – alma mater, if that is the phrase, of both the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales – it has centrally informed one of the most powerful vectors of British or English political and cultural identity.

The legendary Classical exemplar of the eighteenth century thus became of central importance to the Classical tradition as a whole. This surely is what explains the nomenclature of one particular Victorian British Leonidas, whose name – or rather whose slew of culturally resplendent and resonant names: Benjamin Leonidas Arthur Lumley Griffiths – I found written out in a copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern donated to the church of St John the Baptist, Finchingfield, Essex, to commemorate his baptism. ‘Benjamin’, I would guess, is Old Testament, ‘Arthur’ traditional British, and ‘Lumley’ a family name used as a forename. ‘Leonidas’, last but not least, nestles among them as a modest classicizing tribute to our hero. Here is a perfect local illustration of the continually changing reception of Classical antiquity that since the Renaissance has often dominated so many aspects of European and American culture.

The Sparta of the Graeco-Persian Wars has also made many appearances in, or been the main subject of, novels and short stories, romantic and otherwise, from the Victorian period on. To name but a few of the most prominent, there have been Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Pausanias, the Spartan(1873), Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The Spartan (1911), John Buchan’s ‘The Lemnian’ (1912), Jill Paton Walsh’s Farewell, Great King (1972), Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Il Scudo di Talos (1988), translated on the back of the success of his Alexander the Great trilogy as Spartan (2002), and Steven Pressfield’s epic novel Gates of Fire (1998). There are incidental mentions of Thermopylae, too, in such conspicuously successful Greek-related modern novels as Olivia Manning’s Friends and Heroes, the final volume of her Balkan Trilogy, and the Greek-American Jeffrey Eugenides’sMiddlesex.

Perhaps the most revealing, because of the knowledge it assumes of its readers, is the following passage from chapter XIII of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Miss Twinkleton, who runs an academy for young ladies, is addressing them as they leave for their Christmas holidays:

‘And when the time should come for our resumption of those pursuits which (here a general depression set in all round), pursuits which, pursuits which; – then let us ever remember what was said by the Spartan General, in words too trite for repetition, at the battle it were superfluous to specify.’

Scholars are agreed that ‘the battle’ in question is Thermopylae, but they are divided on what are the words referred to as ‘too trite’ to bear repetition. I myself am pretty sure that Dickens’s more or less well educated Victorian readers would have had no hesitation in supplying the following apophthegm preserved by Plutarch (supposed to have been delivered by Leonidas to his wife Gorgo on the point of his departure for the battle): ‘Marry good men and give birth to good children.’

In the disabused twentieth century that followed, however, one of its most potent voices, the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, struck a cautionary note early on. For no matter how noble a life is lived, he argued, no one can prevent an Ephialtes, the Greek traitor at Thermopylae, enabling ‘the Medes’ to ‘break through after all’. Hardly offering greater comfort is the final stanza of the Classical scholar-poet A.E. Housman’s ‘The Oracles’, published in his Last Poems (1922):

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning

Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,

And he that stands will die for naught, and home there’s no returning.

The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

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It was a local Spartan workman who dubbed this remarkable Parian marble torso ‘Leonidas’ when it was excavated in a British School dig below the Spartan Acropolis (where it had originally stood) in 1925; but actually the complete statue had been part of a heroic or divine group from a pedimental building and could not have been set up as a memorial to Leonidas, since it was fashioned in the 480s, while he was still alive.

Those who do not relish the thought of the Medes figuratively breaking through – as they did, for instance, via the perverted uses to which images of Sparta were put in Nazi Germany before and during the Second World War – or of dying for naught (as many perhaps felt was the case in the world war that had recently ended) will turn their minds perhaps, with relief, to the excavations conducted at Sparta by the British School at Athens betwen 1924 and 1928. In 1926 in the theatre area underneath the acropolis the excavators unearthed the head and torso of a naked male warrior executed in fine-quality white marble from the island of Paros in the Cyclades. He was instantly, and understandably, nicknamed ‘Leonidas’ by a Greek workman, and the name has stuck. Yet that name, for all its charm, is a factoid, not a fact.

The original complete statue was part of a group, not a stand-alone piece, and the statue group was probably affixed to the pediment of a temple, where it would have represented a hero or a god of myth, not a mortal man. Not even a dead Spartan king – ‘seed of the demigod son of Zeus’ (that is, Heracles), as a Delphic oracle later referred to a descendant and successor of Leonidas – would have qualified for such a representation. Besides, the date of the sculpture is, to go by the latest expert opinion (admittedly somewhat subjective and imprecise), before rather than after 480. This means that in order really to be Leonidas the statue would have had to be a portrait of a living king – and yet this was far too early for anything like a portrait statue properly so called to have been created anywhere in Greece, let alone in community-minded, anti-individualistic Sparta.

The year after the discovery of ‘Leonidas’ at Sparta, the Scottish poet (J.) Norman Cameron (1905–53) published a fascinating riposte to any simplistic eulogy of Spartan heroics at Thermopylae, entitled ‘The Thespians at Thermopylae’:

The honours that people give always

Pass to those use-besotted gentlemen

Whose numskull courage is a kind of fear,

A fear of thought and of the oafish mothers

(‘Or with your shield or on it’) in their rear.

Spartans cannot retreat. Why, then, their praise

For going forward should be less than others’.

But we, actors and critics of one play,

Of sober-witted judgment, who could see

So many roads, and chose the Spartan way,

What has the popular report to say

Of us, the Thespians at Thermopylae?

Cameron couldn’t resist a pun on ‘thespians’, since actors are sometimes known as such in tribute to the supposed founder of Athenian tragic drama in the later sixth century BCE, one Thespis. But his point about the nature of the self-sacrifice of the Thespians wasdeadly serious and has almost as long a history. It goes back all the way to Thucydides’s immortal version of the Funeral Speech that Pericles delivered over the Athenian war dead in the first year (431/30) of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War. There Pericles is reported to have contrasted the Athenian and the Spartan ways of courage. Basically, his claim was that, whereas the Athenians decided consciously and voluntarily to be patriotically brave, the Spartans were merely coerced or brainwashed into being so.

This is a point that has been echoed many times in recent years, especially within the rhetoric of the ideological wars, cold and hot, waged between the ‘free world’ and various kinds of ‘totalitarian’ or authoritarian regime from the 1930s onwards. It is not without all substance, but as I have tried to show, it overstates the difference between Athens and Sparta and underplays the extent to which in Sparta too there were choices to be made and debates to be had over first principles as well as merely over operational decisions.

Cameron’s poem ends with the rhetorical question:

What has the popular report to say

Of us, the Thespians at Thermopylae?

Well, actually, it now has quite a lot: there is today, for conspicuous example, an official memorial to the seven hundred Thespians alongside that erected to the Spartans at Thermopylae itself. But we should in all fairness add, as Cameron’s Thespians do not, that in sacrificing their seven hundred men the Thespians seem to have sacrificed absolutely every Thespian who could afford to equip himself as a hoplite – one hundred per cent of their hoplite body, that is, as opposed to the Spartans’ only 4 per cent. A sobering, but also an ennobling, thought.

Come the Second World War, and even the disenchanted W.H. Auden could seek some inspiration from Thermopylae in his post-Brechtian poem ‘Grub First then Ethics’. ‘All we ask for’, he writes:

is a good dinner, that we

may march in high fettle, left foot first,

to hold her [our city’s] Thermopylae.

For real life-and-death behaviour in the first uncertain years of that ghastly war, this summary evocation pales beside the implications of the Leonidas legend. Leonidas and his three hundred proved as important a ‘Few’ in ancient Greek and Spartan history as the Battle of Britain pilots hailed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 did in British history, and the comparison between the two groups has been explicitly drawn. Contrary to a widespread misperception, England was not the only European country that in 1940 was still actively resisting Nazi Germany and the Fascist Axis powers. Greece was too, as the British ancient historian Robin Burn, parachuted into Greece like several other ancient historians to work behind the lines as a liaison officer, knew at first hand. Poignantly, he later dedicated his excellent 1962 monograph Persia and the Greeks ‘To the Greeks of 1940’, reminding his readers implicitly that the British Empire had then had just one ally in Europe who was neither yet under the Nazi–Fascist yoke, nor a subject of the Soviet empire (then still in a non-aggression pact with Germany). Burn’s subtext was that the Greeks of 1940, by declaring a firm ‘No’ to the attempted occupation of their country by Hitler’s Italian Fascist allies, had behaved in a manner entirely worthy of their forebears at Thermopylae in 480 BCE. The shade of Lord Byron would surely have nodded its agreement and approval.

Not all professional ancient historians were quite so starry-eyed, though. By June 1941 the Greeks had failed to prevent the occupation of Greece by Nazi Germany, whose land forces had entered almost inevitably through Thermopylae. Three years later, a remarkable collective tribute to the modern Greeks, The Glory That Is Greece, was published, in the critical year of 1944 when Greece was still occupied. In his contribution Marcus Niebuhr Tod of Oxford University, despite the temptation to extreme eulogy of the ancient Spartans’ key role in ridding Greece of a foreign would-be occupier, delivered a properly balanced scholarly judgement that would not have disgraced Herodotus.*

Likewise deflationary was Constantine Trypanis’s elegiac poem ‘Thermopylae 1941’, which ends:

The Stranger will still go to Sparta, but he will

Announce also the death of the Australian farmer.

Leonidas is only a matter of precedence.

That jarring cultural intrusion from the New World and misleadingly flip backward reference to 480 BCE are literary tropes entirely worthy of a distinguished university professor, a Culture Minister in a Greek government, and the editor and translator of the utterly wonderful Penguin Book of Greek Verse (1971).

And perhaps it was no bad thing not to go overboard in praising the ancient Spartans at that particular juncture of world history. For it was not only the supposed good guys who celebrated the memory of Thermopylae during the Second World War. The Nazi Third Reich did so too. Indeed, it spawned its fair share of ‘Sparta-maniacs’, as the German ancient historian Stefan Rebenich has feelingly called them, people who were ‘fascinated by the idea that the people on the Rhine and on the Eurotas were racially connected and had a common Nordic background’. This sort of race mysticism had prompted a frenzy of excitement in 1936, the year of the ‘Hitler Games’, the propaganda-ridden Berlin Olympics. The German Archaeological Institute’s excavations at the Athenian cemetery the Cerameicus yielded identifiable skeletons of Spartans, some of whom were even named in the accompanying honorific inscription.

These Spartans were among those who, as we learn from Xenophon’s Greek history, had been killed in 403 in the process of putting an end to the bloodstained reign of the originally Sparta-backed junta of the Thirty Tyrants led by the fanatical Athenian laconizer Critias.* Germany’s leading physical anthropologist was at once dispatched to Athens to verify and confirm that the Spartan skeletons conformed to the classic ‘Nordic’ type. In the event, his results proved insufficiently clearcut, and his findings were never properly published. But it was exactly the same spirit of racialist identification that animated Reichsmarschal Hermann Göring when he addressed his failing troops during the last days of the siege of Stalingrad in 1942. He reminded them of Leonidas and the three hundred, and predicted a new reading of the famous Simonides epitaph: ‘If you come to Germany, tell them you have seen us fighting in Stalingrad, obedient to the law of honour and warfare’.3 Indeed, according to Martin Bormann, Hitler himself on his fiftieth birthday on 20 April 1945 enjoined the fellow members of his last-ditch bunker to ‘Just think of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans’.4

The other side of that Nazi racialist coin is the desperately unhappy experience of the excellent German-Jewish ancient historian Victor Ehrenberg, who found himself condemned in the late 1930s to abandon his university post in Prague for one in London. Ehrenberg happened to be an expert on ancient Sparta and, while he was full of praise for the Spartans’ defence of a concept of freedom at Thermopylae, he also soberly observed that there can be no true freedom in an ‘authoritarian’ state such as he believed Sparta itself to have been. In using that term, he was thinking mainly of the limits on free expression imposed by the authoritarian (others would have said ‘totalitarian’) regimes of his own day. These did not necessarily enslave all their subjects in the literal or legal sense. But we should not forget the Spartans’ Messenian and Laconian Helots, who were indeed formally and legally unfree (and as such could be subject to instant execution as enemies of the state), even though they were no less Greek than their Spartan masters and indeed on numerous occasions, Thermopylae not the least of them, played indispensable roles in their – and Greece’s – support.

This debate about the character of the Spartan polity is a reminder that after 1945 the hot war of the previous six years turned into the Cold War of the next forty-five: a nerve-jangling contest of ceaseless propaganda and intermittent sabre-rattling, popularly construed as (yet again) a struggle of East versus West, a clash of civilizations. Popular culture too had its part to play in this contest, on both sides, and the massiest of mass media available for the purpose was the full-length feature film. A classic example of the genre of (not very) covert anti-Soviet propaganda movies that poured out of Hollywood and other Western studios was The 300 Spartans of 1962, also known as Lion of Sparta. This simply dripped with Cold War imagery, even to the extent of splashing across the screen uplifting slogans about the defence of freedom against slavery. It boasted a fine cast including Anna Synodinou, a great Greek stage tragedienne, playing Gorgo, and the no less great English actor Ralph Richardson as Themistocles. Leonidas, it is almost needless to add, was played – very well – by an American of Irish descent (Richard Egan).*

Strong traces of this frankly martial and celebratory outlook still persist. Arguably, it lies significantly behind the recent and current Western intervention in Iraq. Take a look, for example, at the pages of the suitably named Amazon website that are devoted to readers’ reactions to Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire. These offer an illuminating snapshot of the vitality and vibrancy of the Thermopylae myth in its latest, Western incarnations. Several of the contributions here come from (male) US veterans, some going back as far as the Korean War, who as well as endorsing a fairly simplistic ‘us against them’, ‘West v. East’, ‘goodies against baddies’ mentality praise Pressfield for having captured in a positive way what they take to be universal constants in the experience of warfare.

Likewise frankly celebratory is Frank Miller’s brilliantly drawn ‘comic strip’ or ‘graphic novel’ version of Thermopylae, entitled simply 300. Originally issued in five parts in 1998–9 as a comic book series, 300 makes an even more major impact in single book form. Miller is probably most widely known up until now for his bestselling Sin City series, made into a ‘noir’ movie in 2005. But this perception may be about to change. With its verbal echoes of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (the Spartans advance fearlessly ‘into hell’s mouth’) and visual allusions to Japanese Samurai warriors (as often, Japan is co-opted for ‘the West’), this is a fairly sophisticated production, formally speaking. Its content, however, is much cruder. Leonidas and his three hundred ‘boys’ stand for reason, justice and law in opposition to the ‘whim’ and whips of the autocratic Persian monarch Xerxes, who also commits the cardinal error of believing he is a god. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, on both artistic and ideological grounds, that it has been taken as the basis for a Warner Brothers feature film entitled The 300 that is in production as I write and scheduled for release in 2007.*

However, such relatively gung-ho commentators and celebrators are no longer the norm. The more sombre mood regarding war that now prevails in American public discourse and elsewhere in the Western world can be traced as far back as 1978, to another movie with a Simonidean flavour and echo in its very title: the Vietnam War movie, Go Tell the Spartans. Its unrelievedly bleak, flat visual style was designed, in the words of expert film-historiographer Martin Winkler, to support its ‘dark view of the war’. Even President George W. Bush was said to have understood at last in 2005 that the support of the American public for war, and especially the war in Iraq, was conditional on his demanding only little of that great public. The contrast with Sparta in 480 BCE could not be starker. There and then, absolutely everything was demanded by the state not only of the adult males of fighting age, but also – and, in their different ways, no less – of their wives and other female relatives, and in general of the Spartan demos (people) as a whole.

Such a holistic attitude, which in Greece was not unique to ancient Sparta but was given there its fullest and most extreme expression, paid exceptional military and cultural dividends. The Battle of Marathon in 490, won by Athens with the help of little Plataea, had been essential to the development of Greece and of Athens as a cradle of democracy and high culture. Ten years later, the Battle of Thermopylae, spear-headed by Sparta, gave the tottering Greek coalition the will and the breathing-space to continue the struggle of resistance to a successful finish, and to make possible thereby the subsequent flowering of Greek culture and civilization. This florescence was eventually crucial, by extension, to ancient Greece’s and ancient Sparta’s continuing impact on the modern Western world, an impact that is betrayed – not least – in our English words ‘spartan’ and ‘laconic’.

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