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300 > Artifacts from the real-life March 18, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Americas, Movies Life.

On the grave mound of 300 Spartans immortalized at Thermopylae in Greece is this haunting inscription >

Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by,
That here obedient to their words we lie

This epic battle against invading Persians in the late summer of 480 B.C. was essentially a suicide mission. For three days the warriors under King Leonidas held off at least 600,000 invaders of Xerxes at a narrow pass northwest of Athens.

The new movie, “300” depicts the hand-to-hand combat in gory detail. While the movie rakes in big money at the theaters, rare relics from that very battlefield, and other objects from the rival city states of Athens and Sparta, are on display at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York through May 12.

300_artifacts1.jpg  Arrowheads from the battlefields of the Persian Wars

Arrowheads and javelin tips from Thermopylae are “the most poignant objects of all – these could be the very ones that killed some of the 300,” said Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek history at Cambridge University in England who consulted on both the movie and the exhibit.

Although Thermopylae meant defeat, the manner in which Leonidas and his 300 specially selected Spartans went to their chosen deaths “was such as to inspire their Greek allies to eventual victory,” Cartledge said. “It was the Spartans who crucially led that victory at Plataea in 479 B.C.”

300_artifacts2.jpg  A bust of Leonidas, the Spartan King who died with his troops at Thermopylae

“Had the Greeks lost, and the Persians had taken over mainland Greece, the course of Western history, and especially the history of democracy, philosophy and theatre among other, would have been hugely different… So in that sense Thermopylae, though a defeat in itself, was ‘the battle that changed the world.'”

Cartledge rates the film good entertainment, though not as “a documentary of what actually happened at Thermopylae” or of the situation in Greece and Persia at that time.

“The movie both suggests what is false, that the Persian king was an outlandish giant with multiple piercings, etc., and suppresses what is true, the Spartans were in fact fighting as the lead members of a Greek alliance.”

Also, the Persian Empire “was not a one-dimensional barbaric despotism but actually quite civilized and tolerant in many ways, even if by no means well disposed to Greek-style democracy,” he noted.

Cartledge praised “authentically Spartan material and spirit” in the film, including gallows humor in comments like, “Eat a hearty breakfast, men, for tonight we’ll be dining in Hell.” “And it makes Leonidas’ wife, Gorgo, a spunky political actor, which does reflect what little we know about some politically active and interventionist Spartan wives,” he said.

Historians rely on Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, for what transpired at Thermopylae.

“No other surviving historian gives a full-dress account,” Cartledge said. “No other sources permit a broader, non or anti, Herodotean interpretation. We have to do that for ourselves.”

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