The roots of our current war between west and east, between Christianity and Islam, stretch back in time before either religion was invented, back to the fifth century BC and the wars between the Persian Empire and various Greek city states.
Greek victory in the Persian Wars is a defining moment in western history. In fact, it defined what is west and what is east, establishing the boundary between Europe and Asia. In a series of battles the world’s then only superpower tried to invade the tiny “terrorist” states on its fringes. Each time the Greeks repelled them. These victories forever placed an idea in the minds of Greeks — and westerners who followed in their wake — that they were an exceptional people chosen by god(s) for greatness.
The forthcoming film 300, a man-flesh epic based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, depicts the bloody battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas died fighting off a monstrously larger Persian invasion force commanded by the Great King himself, Xerxes. There’s no denying it was a glorious victory. But Miller’s approach to history repeats the hoary old myth that it was a victory for freedom. “A new age has begun,” says Leonidas (hunk Gerard Butler) in the film, “an age of freedom.”
Granted, victory secured independence for the Greek states on the mainland. But only Athens was experimenting with democracy. In Sparta, freedom wasn’t the order of the day, submission was. The struggle was to continue between Athens and Sparta over which regime would be paramount.
For some historical background, I have three words: gay, gay, gay.
Isolated on the rocky edge of civilization, Sparta and Athens had both weathered severe agrarian crises by developing radical forms of government: Athens had invented democracy, while Sparta had created one of the strangest societies imaginable, a severe form of militaristic communism. In this paranoid and murderous regime, everything and everyone was subservient to the military needs of the state.
Spartan fighters, with their long hair and scarlet cloaks, were the terror of the Greek mainland, subduing and enslaving their Greek neighbours. Spartan males were raised communally in barracks from the age of seven to 30 and trained in the arts of war in a conscious effort to destroy individuality and instill discipline.
Is it any wonder that in this all-male world, where even married men would have to sneak off to have sex with their wives, other sexual practices would emerge? “Pederasty was widely practised in Greece, but only in Sparta was it institutionalized — even, it is said, with fines for boys who refused to take a lover,” writes novelist and historian Tom Holland in his acclaimed book Persian Fire.
Over in Athens, many monuments were raised to the fledgling democracy. One of the most important was a statue of Harmodius (“the handsomest man in Athens”) and Aristogiton, the pair who had murdered the tyrant Hipparchus in a blow for freedom and equality. Or so the myth goes. The reality, according to Holland, is a little more lurid. The two men were lovers and feared the machinations of Hipparchus because he had his eye on Harmodius. So they killed him and were slain in turn.
When asked if there would be any acknowledgement in the film 300 of the ancients’ propensity for a different kind of manly action, Frank Miller is reported to have said, “No. This is fiction.”
Why is it the same fictions keep getting repeated?
With the hubris and vulnerability of the world’s current superpower plainly visible, it’s highly ironic that a movie can still buy into the myth of virile liberty in the west fighting off degenerate despotism from the east. Men from the east are portrayed as less than human and men-loving men are erased from the story altogether.
Love for your fellow man can still be outflanked by fear of the unknown foreigner, the other.
Gordon Bowness is arts and entertainment editor of Toronto’s Xtra.