Interpreting 300

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

As I'm sure many comic fans are writing in to tell you regarding this reader's email, the monstrous and orientalized depiction of the Persians in the film 300 is right out of the comic of the same name, written and drawn by Frank Miller.  I have no idea if Miller read Shanameh, before or since making 300, but his bizarre, grotesque, homoerotic Xerxes is all his own, for better or for worse.

The blockbuster film did cause some controversy when it was released in the spring of '07. The Ahmadinejad regime called it "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture." Touraj Daryaee, a professor of Ancient Studies, had a considerably calmer critique:

What do you get when you take all the “misfits” that inhabit the collective psyche of the white American establishment and put them together in the form of a cartoonish invading army from the East coming to take your freedom away? Then add a horde of Black people, deformed humans who are the quintessential opposite of the fashion journal images, a bunch of veiled towel-heads who remind us of Iraqi insurgents, a group of black cloaked Ninja-esque warriors who look like Taliban trainees, and men and women with body and facial piercings who are either angry, irrational, or sexually deviant. All this headed by a homosexual king (Xerxes) who leads this motley but vast group of “slaves” known as the Persian army against the 300 handsomely sculpted men of Sparta who appear to have been going to LA (or Montreal) gyms devotedly, who fight for freedom and their way of life, and who at times look like the Marine Corps advertisements on TV? You get the movie “300.”

He then provides some useful historical context:

[T]he Persians had no plan or desire to go into Europe. The tiny Greek archipelago was probably almost beneath the notice of the Persian king. But then an Athenian attack on a major  Persian province, which culminated in the sacking and burning of the city of Sardis, naturally alarmed the Persians. It is this destructive event that started what is known as the Greco-Persian Wars. It was not an unprovoked Persian invasion of Greece. Nor did Aristagoras start this trouble for “freedom” or “democracy,” but rather as step in his intrigue to take control of another Greek city (Naxos) on the Anatolian coast. The Athenians did not bring freedom or democracy to Sardis either. It was burnt and looted. [...T]he subsequent battle between Xerxes and the Greeks is taken out of context, manipulated, and the freedom-loving, democratic Greeks are set against the slave empire of Achaemenid Persia. Is this is a fair and balanced view of history?

I also found this passage about the role of women interesting:

The sentence [in the film] “We are the mothers of men” was actually never said to the Persians in history, but rather was part of a completely Greek debate on the position of women, regarding the fact that Athenian women were forced to stay in the andron (inner sanctum of the house) so that their reputations would not be tarnished. Spartan women were different than the Athenian women, but Persian women of this period had more freedoms than either the Spartans or Athenians and interceded not only in political matters, but also joined with the army, owned property, and ran businesses. The only time Persian women are shown in the film is as the usual fanciful Odaliskic Oriental women who do nothing but crawl on the ground, perform sexual acrobatics to fool the Western man, or just swarm around the water-pipe, high and happy.

But another scholar of ancient history, N.S. Gill, shows how the film can be interpreted a much different light:

It should be noted that in the movie, Persians try to spare lives -- offering peace and power, instead. The Persians keep offering the Spartans the opportunity to become part of the Empire. Leonidas would hold power within the Empire. It is the Spartans who do the uncivilized and unthinkable when they toss the ambassadors into the bottomless put. It is the Spartans who are eager for killing. The Spartans, the losers in this battle, are the ones behaving like wild barbarians to the cultured, civilized, mostly sedate Persians. It is the rare Spartan who only in an un-Spartan emotional breakdown laments that he never told his son he loved him. It is a Spartan who rapes (or at least sodomizes) the queen, not a Persian. The Spartan ephors are described as inbred. The two traitors are Greek. The Persian allied forces dress elegantly. They are an inclusive group who don't toss their imperfect babies off a hill at birth. Et cetera.