Wednesday, May 28, 2003
I’LL TAKE THERMOPYLAE FOR A THOUSAND, ALEX
Sometime soon, a lot of people are going to have to learn how to spell “Thermopylae.” As I write this, the automatic spell-checker on my Word 97 program angrily underlines it in red, clearly wanting nothing to do with it. But alas—the Persians and the Spartans, Xerxes and Leonidas, are coming, marching unstoppably into our national consciousness.
The Greek revival, so to speak, began with the 1998 publication of Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield’s literate popular novel—somehow not an oxymoron in this case—and the simultaneous appearance of Frank Miller’s award-winning graphic album 300. Both books retold the Thermopylae saga in dramatic fashion from different perspectives: In Miller’s graphic album, the Spartan king Leonidas is essentially the protagonist, and most of the story is seen through his eyes. Gates of Fire invents a wounded helot who has survived the destruction of the 300, and who recounts the story for the Emperor Xerxes.
Although they did well, neither of these books was a landmark commercial success. Pat Conroy’s jacket blurb tells us that “[Pressfield] did for [the Persian] war what Charles Frazier did for the Civil War in Cold Mountain.” However, Gates of Fire did not achieve Cold Mountain’s enormous popular success, probably because—in my opinion—all those funny Greek names on the printed page are a little daunting to the casual reader. For its part, the graphic novel 300 was probably the best-selling “war comic” in 30 years—of course, there have been almost no war comics in 30 years.
The joint appearance of these two books would have been a brief but welcome blip on the mass cultural horizon, except for one event: Gates of Fire is being made into a movie.
Pressfield is best known as the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Gates of Fire the novel is itself highly cinematic. Not surprisingly, the $120 million production is to be filmed by director Michael Mann with the lead performed by either George Clooney or Bruce Willis. This, in a diseased, celebrity-obsessed society utterly unwilling to acknowledge any event older than five minutes ago unless Tom or Mel takes us firmly by the hand and leads us to it, was the turning point. For the first time since Rudolph Mate’s 1962 The 300 Spartans (a film known for its bad acting, inaccurate costumes, and great action sequences), Thermopylae is coming to your local theater, and now people are going to have to learn how to spell it.
Mind you, I am not complaining. Certainly, a well-made historical film is always welcome. And Thermopylae is such a great story—the ultimate AGAINST THE ODDS story, in fact—that it would be hard to mess it up. Even the worst contemporary reviews of The 300 Spartans all mention what a great story it is. The real problem here, especially for us—the people who really care about such things—is historical accuracy. So…are there any problems with the source material—Pressfield’s novel itself?
The most obvious thing is Pressfield’s title. Gates of Fire is an extremely loose translation of the name of the battle. As almost anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the conflict can tell you, Thermopylae is literally “hot gates”—as Pressfield tells us himself in the course of the novel. The title Hot Gates is probably a little too cryptic for the mass audience for which the novel is intended. Pressfield’s choice of title seems clearly less an error than a concession to publishing necessity. But overall Gates of Fire does not offend too much in this area.
Miller’s 300 takes more liberties—most strikingly in how, for dramatic impact, he invents face-to-face scenes between Leonidas and Xerxes that never took place. But the scenes are so well done that the reader tends to forgive Miller.
However, in a larger sense it’s pointless to criticize the accuracy of these popular entertainments: They are only being faithful to the source material. “Herodotus’s description of the combat reads like a fancy picture and can hardly be trusted in detail,” carps The Cambridge Ancient History. Historians have had problems with the telling of this story for two and a half millennia. But it continues to be told. And why?
Because the story of Thermopylae is more important as an object lesson than as a history lesson.
At the most basic human level, the story is incredibly compelling: A few thousand Greek warriors holding off an army of hundreds of thousands. The bravery and morale of these men could not possibly be emphasized too much.
But there is a much larger lesson. It’s one of the areas where the historical record and all the various fictional accounts agree: The supremely important lesson is that not all civilizations are the same.
One of the most annoying and corrosive anachronisms in the recent telling of history is the imposition of modern values into ancient societies that would have looked upon them like Martian artifacts.
In vain, we search the history of (in Karl Wittvogel’s famous phrase) oriental despotism for the idea of human freedom. It’s not just that we fail to see, for example, slave revolts. It’s that the very idea of a slave revolt is inconceivable. Barring divine intervention—as in the book of Exodus in the Bible—a slave is a slave forever. The Old Testament, like the Koran, gives instructions in how a righteous slaveowner should treat his slaves. The belief that slavery is inherently wrong simply did not exist in the ancient world. Saying that Xerxes’s Persian Empire was opposed to human liberty is somewhat like saying that Teddy Roosevelt was opposed to nuclear proliferation. For the Persians, the concept did not exist.
Human liberty in the Greek model was a genuinely new idea in world culture. In 486 B.C. the idea existed only in that place. It could very easily have been snuffed out.
And this is precisely where every historian, novelist and screenwriter has always placed the point of conflict at Thermopylae, at the level of ideas. Says Pressfield’s Leonidas, talking to his troops about Xerxes and his empire:
His comrades are not Peers and Equals, free to speak their minds before him without fear, but slaves and chattel. Each man, even the noblest, is deemed not an equal before God, but the King’s property, counted no more than a goat or pig, and driven into battle not by love of nation or liberty, but by the lash of other slaves’ whips.
And Miller’s Leonidas is even more specific:
We do not sacrifice the rule of law to the will and whim of men. That is the old way. The old, sad, stupid way. The way of Xerxes and every creature like him. A new age is begun.
This is why Theromopylae is important: Not so much that it changed history. Lots of things change history, including weather, geology, disease, and so forth. These changes in history have affected our speech, dress, technology, customs, and, in general, the way we live our lives. But Thermopylae was more than that.
Thermopylae changed the way we think.
And so, I’m steeling myself to prepare for the mangled corpses of a perfectly good foreign place name that are sure to be appearing (and preserved for at least the near future) on the Internet, the Hall of Fame for bad spelling.
Thurmopellay. Thermoplea. Throwmommaplay.
I can live with them.