Tuesday 11 October 2016

Naked Spartans

Spot the difference. Left: Richard Egan as Leonidas (The 300 Spartans, 1962). Right: Gerard Butler as Leonidas (300, 2007).

Ancient Greek art often shows legendary heroes fighting nude. When did the modern imagination decide that this was also how historical soldiers ought to be imagined?

Zack Snyder’s hit film 300 (2007) makes a big thing of this. The comic book it was based on, Frank Miller’s 300 (1998), does the same -- in the film the Spartans have less crotch exposure, counterbalanced by more bulgy muscles and fat starvation. In both, the Spartans’ armour consists only of shields and helmets, sometimes supplemented by greaves.

In a 2007 Entertainment Weekly interview, Miller explained his clothing choice:
The inaccuracies, almost all of them, are intentional. I took those chest plates and leather skirts off of them for a reason. I wanted these guys to move and I wanted ’em to look good. ... I was looking for more an evocation than a history lesson.
A complete list of inaccuracies in 300 could fill many, many pages, but most of them can be hand-waved away with the reasoning, ‘ahistorical but AWESOME’. This one is the one that really puzzles me. Naked Spartans aren’t awesome; they’re weird. Really weird.

Left: Greek hoplite fighting a Persian soldier (Attic, 5th cent. BCE). Note the presence of clothing and breastplate. Right: heavy-armed soldiers on the ‘Chigi vase’ (Corinthian, 7th cent. BCE). Notice that the nearest Chigi warrior is going commando: the one item that Spartans in 300 wear consistently, the leather Speedo, is precisely the one that was optional in antiquity ...

Miller’s explanation to Entertainment Weekly was no post hoc rationalisation: he wasn’t just trying to wriggle out of admitting he’d made a mistake. Previously, he had given a fuller explanation to the New York Times:
The real Spartans, for instance, wore heavy body armor, clunky stuff that weighed about half as much as they did: handy in a pitched battle, but hardly sexy or eye-grabbing, certainly not for an action comic.
‘My first versions of the soldiers looked like beetles,’ [Miller] said. ‘They looked like they couldn’t move faster than two miles an hour.’
So Mr. Miller ditched the armor in favor of a more natural look. In his series, Leonidas and his warriors wear red capes and little else; when in battle, they cover their privates in what appear to be leather Speedos. ‘When you look at the ancient Greek vase paintings, you’ll see that soldiers are drawn nude, for the same reason I did,’ Mr. Miller said.
-- New York Times, 26 Nov. 2006, page A9 (subscription required)
So, according to Miller, soldiers in pitched battle are more ‘natural’ if they’re naked. Now, there are many levels of explanation for this. One obvious element is the very strong current of homoeroticism. Carol Borden puts it succinctly in an essay written for The cultural gutter:
It’s not like sex is necessary in a war story and nothing’s more irritating than Freud when he’s right, but this whole comic is tumescent. And I’m not sure it’s even fair to call the sexuality repressed, what with naked Spartans sleeping [with] spears between their legs and those spears later erupting from the mouths of Persian scouts. ... But the homoeroticism is denied and the Spartans presented, historical sources be damned, not only as not homosexual but as homophobes, spitting insults at ‘pretty’ Athenian ‘boy-lovers’ in an attempt to provide a different context for lines like, ‘I’m ready for my punishment, Sir.’
-- Borden 2010: 131-132
In a more academic vein, some commentators have interpreted the Spartans’ nudity as just one side of a clothing-based symbolism:
[T]he digitally perfected, semi-nude bodies of the Spartans stand in contrast to the monstrous, disfigured horde of their Persian enemies ...
-- Beigel 2012: 66
He presents the Achaemenid Persians as morally deviant and corrupt and as ethnically Africans and Arabs. ... [T]hey are a bizarre and frightening collection of characters, with a variegated appearance that contrasts with the simplicity of the Spartan costume.
-- Fairey 2011: 159-160
Miller uses Persian piercings and gimp suits to suggest sexual deviance; for vanilla, it’s homoeroticism disguised as straight, dressed up with spears, Speedos, and lots and lots of white skin (tanned, but not too tanned ... but we’d better not stray into the subject of Miller’s racism). Both sides have bare flesh bulging through taut leather straps for no apparent reason -- but Xerxes wears more of them.

So we’ve got plenty of potential motivations for Miller/Snyder to adopt the trope of hoplite nudity. That doesn’t explain where the trope comes from, though. Miller didn’t invent hoplite nudity for 300: he just exposed it to a bigger audience.

Here’s a 2005 online forum where one user is bizarrely certain, based on nothing whatsoever, that Greek hoplites fought in the buff, but without any apparent awareness of the 1998 comic (the user describes it as a ‘relatively new’ discovery); here’s a 2001 war-gaming page claiming that hoplites fought naked, but only in ‘the earlier period’ (so the writer must be thinking of mythical scenes on vases); here’s a 1999 article in The Onion which surely doesn’t take knowledge of 300 for granted; here’s an article that appeared in an obscure journal called The Longbow in 1990. It gets harder to trace the trope the further back we go, but this is plenty to show that Miller didn’t invent it out of thin air.

So where did it come from? As far as I can make out, there are four possible origins.
  1. a misunderstanding of the word gymnēs, which is related to gymnos ‘naked’ but means a ‘light-armed infantryman’ (i.e., expressly not ‘hoplite’);
  2. a mistaken generalisation of the fact that Greeks competed in athletic games nude and trained at the gymnasion (literally ‘nudity place’);
  3. the ancient custom of sometimes depicting mythological figures in the nude (so-called ‘heroic nudity’);
  4. the French neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
Miller claims inspiration from option three (see the New York Times interview, above). But for my money, I’d bet option four played a more important role.

Jacques-Louis David caused a certain amount of consternation among his contemporaries when he depicted The intervention of the Sabine women (1796-1799) with an unclothed Tatius and Romulus. This was in sharp contrast to an earlier treatment of the same theme (1633-1634) by Nicolas Poussin. David went on to produce another famous painting, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1798-1814), which shows a Leonidas with remarkable similarities to the Leonidas of 300.

Jacques-Louis David, Intervention of the Sabine women (1799); Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814).
(Louvre; source: Wikimedia.org)

However, we need to add some provisos to that explanation. For one thing, David was himself influenced by ancient art (see option three). And for another, it is perfectly feasible that, subsequently, modern people sometimes may have bolstered the myth by drawing on options one and two.

David based both Tatius and Leonidas on the same model, an Italian named Cadamour. But he had not always painted classical heroes in the nude. In The oath of the Horatii (1784) David has the legendary Horatius brothers comfortably wrapped up. When it came to the Sabines, he stirred up controversy over his heroes’ nudity, perhaps deliberately, by charging admission to the exhibition -- an unusual move, making his public display non-public, and adding more than a hint of pornographic theatre -- and by distributing a brochure to all the visitors entitled Note sur la nudité de mes héros (‘note on my heroes’ nudity’). In it, David sums up:
En un mot, mon intention, en faisant ce tableau, étoit de peindre les mœurs antiques avec une telle exactitude, que les Grecs et les Romains, en voyant mon ouvrage, ne m'eussent pas trouvé étranger à leurs coutumes.
In a word, my intention in making this painting was to depict ancient traditions with such exactness that the Greeks and Romans, if they saw my work, would not have found me alien to their customs.
The public profile of Greek art had enormously increased around that time, with publications like Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens (1762) and the work of Winckelmann. So the adoption of neoclassical nudity was a predictable move. But David was the first, so it was also bold and new. As well as that, the Sabines painting stirred up a class controversy, documented in an interesting article by D. G. Grigsby (1998): in David’s painting, the plebeians ironically have rich clothing, while the elites have none -- a touchy subject in Napoleonic France.

Leonidas, fifteen years on at the tail-end of the Napoleonic era, takes all that for granted. There, David abandons his earlier claim to a faux historicity, and he makes the artistic tradition the chief consideration. Here’s how one art historian explains it:
The climax of David’s pursuit for artistic purity, a purity free of both academic prescriptions and adherence to historical realism, can be found in the painting Leonidas at Thermopylae, completed in 1814 ... As in the Sabines, the heroes in Leonidas are nude and are not fully integrated into a dramatic context within the scene; instead, each is meant to have an individual impact. Thus, they become citations of works of art, and in creating his central figures David borrowed generously from existing works, such as those found in Winckelmann’s publications.
-- Kohle 2006: 79
Degas, study for Young Spartans exercising
(1850s; Chicago)
Now, David’s ahistorical, discursive approach wasn’t the only model for post-1814 depictions of Greek hoplites. The nudity in Degas’ Young Spartans exercising (ca. 1860) seems to be based more on ancient texts than contemporary art: where David worked from ancient statues, Degas was thinking more of Plutarch’s account of the Spartan agōgē --
... as they grew in age, their bodily exercise was increased; their heads were close-clipped, and they were accustomed to going bare-foot, and to playing for the most part without clothes. When they were twelve years old, they no longer had tunics to wear, received one cloak a year, had hard, dry flesh, and knew little of baths and ointments ...
-- Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 16.6
Plutarch’s account is late, wildly untrustworthy, and in any case only refers to Spartan children, not fully-armed hoplites. But there’s no doubt that it was Degas’ inspiration.

Miller and Snyder went along with that at least partially. In 300, the adolescent Leonidas has his head close-shaven, and he’s barefoot. But for adult warriors, it seems to me they were thinking more of art. Not the ancient statues that David drew on, in spite of Miller’s words: rather, David himself.

Snyder is the more self-conscious about this. He’s on record as having visited the painting at the Louvre, and he called David the ‘Michael Bay of French painters’. In the film’s final battle he actually quotes David’s painting. There is a failed attempt on Xerxes’ life (is this Miller’s invention, or an adaptation of Diodorus’ account?), then Leonidas is struck by a couple of Persian arrows -- the first of many -- and for a moment he collapses into the pose of David’s Leonidas (YouTube link).

Left: Zack Snyder's 300 (2007). Right: David's Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814).