Weighing Spartan Sacrifice

The Spartan ideals of duty and physical stamina are appealing, argues Claire Jeantheau (’21), but the society which the Spartans defended is one marked by the elimination of independent thought and the physically vulnerable.

Before the final, climactic battle of Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) sees Sparta-born Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), who had been cast out of Sparta because of his physical deformities, and who betrayed to the Persians the pass over the mountains that sealed the doom of Leonidas and his men. As Leonidas, about to die, faces Ephialtes one more time, he offers parting words: “May you live forever” (1:38:27-1:38:30). This scene is wholly fabricated from Herodotus’s original telling of the battle of Thermopylae. There, Ephialtes is simply “a man from Malis” who shows Persian king Xerxes a way to reach the Spartans through the mountains, and never once converses with Leonidas (7.213-17).  But for me, the alteration of his role to directly contrast with Leonidas creates an effective illustration of the values the Spartan system cherished.

Mount Taygetus, where weak or deformed Spartan babies were exposed to die.
Mount Taygetus, where weak or deformed Spartan babies were exposed to die. Photo: Flickr user Aris Gionis

While Ephialtes enters the tent of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and finds temporary wealth and physical pleasure (1:15:51), Leonidas’s last appearance finds him mortally wounded, but with a lasting legacy (1:46:19). When the two cross paths on the battlefield, the scene evolves from a clash between men to their opposing ideals they represent: duty on one side, the excess of life “forever” on the other. The Spartans’ emphasis on physical sacrifice, and its admirable result, is evident from Snyder’s depiction. Additional historical background from authors like Plutarch, however, brings to light another kind of sacrifice prevalent in Sparta, one where individuals could be eliminated as easily as the enemy for perceived divergence from physical perfection.  Do acts of glory like Thermopylae justify this culling of difference?

The film, as well as Herodotus’s account, would say yes. Both place emphasis on the Spartans’ strict brand of battle valor. Herodotus takes care to list exact numbers of fighters and contributions from other Greek city-states at Thermopylae (7.202-3), but seems to distinguish the three hundred Spartans from the rest of these “Dorian Greeks.” He quotes the inscription placed after the battle that singles out the Spartans: “Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by, That here obedient to their words, we lie” (7.228). (300’s Spartan narrator Dilios, played by David Wenham, utters a similar phrase at the film’s end [1:46:42–01:46:45]). Herodotus also tells anecdotes about individual Spartans that drive home this point. One soldier, Pantites, finds himself at such “dishonor” at surviving that he “[hangs] himself” (7.232).  Snyder takes a different approach, choosing to magnify Leonidas’s actions above those of the other Spartans and Greeks—perhaps to appeal to the individualist tastes of an American audience. Other Greeks are included in the script, but only representing Arcadia (0:28:12-0:28:16) and these are dismissed from the action with a simple “Hundreds leave” (1:28:40-1:28:43). Leonidas, on the other hand, receives an extended focus of attention. His final fight is backed with the dramatic weight of a score of battle drums (1:40:33); an aerial shot moves slowly over the resulting carnage (1:46:19 – 1:46:55). The closing shot of the last stand features him in sacrificial posture with arms outstretched, the lighting creating a halo-like aura behind his silhouette (1:43:18). The stream of Persian arrows that transition the frame into darkness lend a sense of finality, as though Leonidas has singularly ensured glory (1:43:22).  Though different contributions are prioritized in each telling of the battle, each one on their own shows, to me, a powerful display of tenacity on behalf of the Spartans.

What is notable to me about the battle’s end in 300, beyond the sacrifice itself, is the depth added to it by Snyder’s depiction of the Spartan upbringing. The film begins with Leonidas, as Plutarch writes, taken from his family and “enrolled” with other Spartans “in various ‘herds,’ so that they became used to playing together and learning together under the same rules and regime” (16). This place of intense training, the agoge, “…forces the boy to fight. Starves them. Forces them to steal. And, if necessary, to kill” (0:02:52-0:03:02) in Dillios’s brief, lurid description. While the culmination of this training in 300—in which Leonidas fends off a wolf in a mountainous wilderness (00:03:55)—doesn’t seem to be historically consistent, it acts as important foreshadowing for when he faces a situation of equal intensity at Thermopylae. There is even a flashback to the moment in which he faces down the wolf as he stands before the full Persian army, reinforcing the outcome of the grueling physical regimen (1:36:25). Snyder differs from Plutarch’s account, however, in excluding from his depiction out a component of Spartan education I appreciate—their efforts to strengthen the intellect in tandem with physicality.  Perhaps statements that the Spartans “were … interested in studying poetry and song” (21), or about their belief that “Good playing of the lyre counterbalances iron weaponry” (21), would be out of step with the aggressive tone Snyder adopts. I think, though, that they round out the real Spartans and show that their pursuit of combat was not a mindless one.

Another, more disquieting, aspect of Spartan education that Snyder doesn’t dwell on is the drastic influence the state had in controlling the individual’s path through life.  The enforced removal of a child from his family and the prescribed brutal training runs counter, in my view, to declarations of “A new age…an age of freedom” (1:25:03-1:25:10) in 300.  This has its advantages militarily—as Leonidas explains to Ephialtes in 300, “We fight as a single, impenetrable unit. That is the source of our strength” (0:43:03–0:43:08). But the regimented process doesn’t allow for any critical reflection on Spartan society, or individual pursuits deemed out-of-step.  The Spartans’ charge at Thermopylae may show an admirable outcome of this kind of education, but I am equally interested in its other side, and the sort of individuals it excludes. Leonidas’s foil of Ephialtes in 300 provides an example which, while mostly fictional, is rooted in Spartan ideas.
By altering Ephialtes’s historical character so that his assistance of the Persians was a betrayal rather than only collaboration, Snyder depicts him as departing from the Spartan values Leonidas embodies. In emphasizing what the Spartans so greatly hate, what they truly value becomes more evident. In Ephialtes, it’s his hunchbacked appearance, a deformity not present on the historical man (7.213–17). The limitations of his body prevent him from holding a shield (00:43:25), causing Leonidas to turn him away from the force and motivating his betrayal. The scene builds on the standards established by other real Spartan rituals. Plutarch details how “a session of the eldest men of [a father’s] tribe” determined whether an infant was “sturdy and strong”; if not, they were to be abandoned on “ a rugged spot near Mount Taygetus” (16).  This is dramatized in the opening scene of 300, with a chilling cut from the first shot of a blackened mountain of skulls to the vulnerable infant Leonidas (0:0:59-0:01:05).

Conversely, when 300’s plot finds Xerxes luring Ephialtes to the Persian side, the king emphasizes that he would find company; he persuades him that “The Spartans, too, were cruel to reject you. But I am kind” (1:16:38–1:16:48). Indeed, in Xerxes’s tent Ephialtes passes through others alike him in their physical deformities, including women with no arms (1:16:04) and facial burns (1:16:14).  These figures contrast with the sparse costuming on the bare-chested, muscular Spartans fighting a few moments before (1:15:33). Elsewhere in the battle, Snyder veers into horror convention with the design of monstrous Persians, whether a giant-like soldier (1:04:57) or a man with claws resembling a crab’s (1:11:43). Physical oddity is associated with the enemy Persians, while the heroic Spartans are physically ideal, sending a clear visual message: physical weakness, even if unpreventable, is equivalent to moral decay. The monstrosities of the Persians may be historical distortion, but the same attitudes about physical weakness, as Plutarch shows, were foundational in Spartan society.  This historical context lends a new tension to the earlier dramatization of Leonidas’s upbringing, making the consequences of any failure more obvious. In my view, the Spartans’ system operates on a cruel contradiction, one where death is preferable to dishonor and yet the abandonment of an infant deemed physically weak is still considered just.

I suppose, then, that my greatest issue with the Spartans’ values lies not in the values themselves, but in what they are used to fight for. The ideals of duty and physical stamina are appealing, especially when they allow for the kind of defense mounted at the battle of Thermopylae. But the society which the Spartans defend is one marked by the elimination of independent thought and the physically vulnerable. What is even more troubling is the Spartan view that these two concepts are inseparable—that such a level of courage can only be developed in a system to brutal to others. Leonidas and Ephialtes’s last confrontation in 300 represents this on a visual level as they stare from their respective sides, with no safe ground to cross between them. Maybe to occupy that middle space would represent a different kind of sacrifice—one that might lessen unifying strength, but would increase individual value.


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