|‘White pride’: members of the Shield Wall Network pose with their ‘Spartan’ shields. The lambda symbol adopted by this group in Mountain View, Arkansas, is ‘supposed to signify the defense of Europe against "nonwhite hordes."’ (Source: ADL, retrieved 31/10/19.)|
|Note: a press release from the office of Rep. Matt Gaetz named 41 members of Congress; 13 of them were on committees involved in the hearing, and so were authorised to be there (but not to take photos or films). The other 28 were committing a crime. Press release, 22 Oct. 2019.|
Interviewer. Anyway you just single-handedly led a group to shut down this entire impeachment investigation right now. And what were you thinking about?
Gaetz. We were, uhhh ... like ... the 300, standing in the breach to try to stop the radical left from storming over our democracy. And I think we have made the point that President Trump deserves due process.
-- TMZ, 23 Oct. 2019
What part of the 300’s experience was it most like?Entertainingly, after Gaetz tweeted from inside the SCIF, he realised belatedly that it’s very very illegal to do that. So he posted a follow-up tweet, claiming
The part where every one of them was killed?
The part where Leonidas’ head was cut off, fixed to a pole and paraded before the cheering Persian troops?
The part where Xerxes took the Spartans’ arms?
-- Myke Cole, Twitter, 23 Oct. 2019
**Tweet from staff**-- presumably hoping no one would notice that his staff tweets are on a different account, and use Media Studio or the Twitter web interface. The tweet in question was posted on his personal account, using the Android app. Oopsie!
-- Matt Gaetz, Twitter, 23 Oct. 2019
Thermopylae and the alt-rightAnyway, Gaetz’s language about the 300 is nothing new from alt-righters and white nationalists. Thermopylae, the 2007 film 300, and the 1998 comic book it’s based on, are all part and parcel of the language of modern racism.
To document this fully would take a large book. Tharoor (2016), Bond (2018), and Cole (2019a, 2019b) make a start, though.
Tharoor points out that a motto associated with the 300 Spartans, molōn labe (‘come and get them’), has come to be closely linked to alt-right merchandise, nationalists, and gun rights activists. (See for example here; here at bottom; here.) He mentions a YouTuber called ‘Aryan Wisdom’ who in 2016 edited Trump and his political opponents into scenes from 300.
Bond discusses Steve Bannon’s fondness for Sparta, and the historical use of ‘come and get them’. She gives an incisive analysis of the problematic relationship between Hellenistic-era Spartan propaganda and modern America, especially in relation to eugenics.
Cole reports that in 2012 a representative of Golden Dawn -- a Greek political party that instigates racial violence -- described present-day immigrants as ‘descendants of the first waves of Xerxes’ army ... wretched people’. A prominent supporter of the terrorist acts in 2011 that left 80 people in Norway dead went by the pen-name ‘Angus Thermopylae’.
In his more recent essay Cole points to an Italian fascist political party using panels from Frank Miller’s 300 in its propaganda posters. He also reminds us that members of the UK Conservative Party’s Brexit wing, the European Research Group, call themselves ‘the Spartans’ -- language echoed by the far-right newspaper Daily Mail. I’ll add that according to a March 2019 report, some hard-line Brexiteers refer to themselves as the ‘Grand Wizards’ -- in other words, they see ‘the Spartans’ and the KKK as interchangeable.
|Leonidas in the film 300 (2007) is modelled on the painting Leonidas at Thermopylae (1798-1814), by the French artist Jacques-Louis David. David carries the main responsibility for the modern myth that Spartans fought in the nude.|
- Thermopylae can be imagined as a battle for racial purity: ‘pure’ Spartans versus ethnically diverse Persians.
- Thermopylae can be imagined as one force defending its home against an external threat.
- If alt-righters think of themselves as a minority defending a set of values against a tyranny of the majority, they will readily imagine Thermopylae as a tiny force of 300 making a heroic stand against a vast faceless enemy.
- Thermopylae can be imagined as a conflict between individualism and freedom (the Spartans) versus coercion and autocracy (the Persians).
- Thermopylae can be imagined as a religious conflict by proxy: western Greeks stand for Christianity, eastern Persians stand for Islam.
- Thermopylae can be imagined as a case of self-sacrifice, and can additionally be used to rationalise terrorist acts: kamikaze squad and suicide by cop aren’t worlds apart.
- Thermopylae can be imagined as an instance of losing the battle but winning the war.
If only that weakened the battle’s potency as a symbol!
The problem is, how the battle is depicted is more important than what actually happened at Thermopylae. These bullet-points, above, that’s how Frank Miller and Zack Snyder depicted the battle. So, in the popular imagination, that’s what Thermopylae represents. In 300 the Persians are darker-skinned than the Greeks, they’re an external threat attacking without any sensible motive, the 300 Spartans are left to fight all alone, Greekness represents freedom, Xerxes represents enslavement, Miller and Snyder are both militant islamophobes. Add in a touch of homophobic/homoerotic self-hatred, and bang, you’ve got 300.
That hasn’t always been the subtext. In the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, the conflict was political, not religious: capitalism versus communism. But the way the battle comes to have this meaning is much the same:
‘O stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their word.’ This last message of the fallen heroes rallied Greece to victory. First at Salamis, as predicted, and then at Plataea. But it was more than a victory for Greece. It was a stirring example to free people throughout the world -- of what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny.West versus east, Xerxes in blackface, self-sacrifice, losing the battle but winning the war, freedom ... the name of the enemy is different, but the racism and the symbolism haven’t changed much.
-- The 300 Spartans (1962), closing voice-over
The historical battleI don’t expect to persuade any committed alt-rightists and racists, but for the sake of interest, and for the record, here are a few notes on the real-life battle in 480 BCE.
1. The Spartans lost. Take heed, all you self-proclaimed ‘Spartans’. (Incidentally, there have been at least six battles of Thermopylae over the millennia, the last one in World War II. The pass has never been defended successfully. See Londey 2013 for full details.)
2. The Spartans didn’t stand alone. They were a minority of the southern forces -- only about 5% of the force initially stationed there, less than 15% of the force that remained and died. Besides the Spartans there were 700 Thespiaean troops, 400 Thebans, and several hundred Laconian perioikoi and helots; one source reports that there were 700 perioikoi. (Laconia was the region that had Sparta as its capital; perioikoi were residents without citizen rights; ‘helots’ were an ethnic group that served as a slave caste.)
3. It wasn’t a racial conflict. Many northern Greek states fought on the invading side, from Thessaly and Thrace. Herodotus reports that there were 300,000 Greeks in Xerxes’ army. That’s certainly an exaggeration -- Xerxes’ entire army probably didn’t have that many soldiers. But we can be certain that at Thermopylae, there were more Greeks fighting for Xerxes than for ‘Greece’. There’s an excellent chance that the Spartans were slain by Greek forces. This was a north-south conflict as much as a west-east conflict.
4. It wasn’t an ideological conflict. Various parties involved did use religion for propaganda purposes -- Xerxes, on his way over to Greece, supposedly paused at Troy to make sacrifices to Ilian Athena, and visited other cult-sites too -- but it was certainly not grounded in religion.
It wasn’t a conflict of political systems either. Yes, Persia was ruled by a single king, while the Greek world was a cluster of city-states, but Persian subjects typically enjoyed greater freedoms and economic benefits than people in Greece did. (Go ask one of the Spartans’ helots how much Greek ‘freedom’ is worth.)
Persia wasn’t simply making a territory grab. They were dealing with a clear and present danger. Their territorial possessions in Anatolia and the east Aegean had been threatened by Greek unrest for decades, so from the Persian perspective, mainland Greece was a threat that had to be neutralised. (A nationalist might argue that Persia didn’t have a legitimate claim to those territorial possessions: if you want to play that game I’ll be happy to shift the goalposts too.)
5. It (probably) wasn’t a heroic self-sacrifice. Not intentionally, anyway. That’s how ancient sources cast it -- but these are the same ancient sources that tell us in tremendous detail what happened towards the end, when there were supposedly no witnesses who survived.
Some historians in the modern era have seen the battle as a heroic self-sacrifice too -- Paul Cartledge (2006: 130) compares them to Japanese kamikaze pilots -- but it’s never backed up by any reasoning. There’s no good reason to think of self-sacrifice as an effective strategy. There was nothing to be gained from
And don’t go suggesting that a three-day delay was an essential military goal, to get Athens evacuated or something like that: even ancient sources don’t try to get away with that notion. The ancient writers suggest instead that the idea was to delay the northern forces until reinforcements could arrive. Even if there’s any truth to that, it still isn’t the whole story. If reinforcements had arrived, there was no way they could engage the northern army. The whole point of Thermopylae was that it was too confined for a large engagement.
One thing that the ancient sources do agree on is that Leonidas ordered a withdrawal of the bulk of the southern forces. The question is whether the Thespiaeans, Thebans, and Spartans remained to spend their own lives in cover the retreat of the other southern forces, or whether it was supposed to be a graduated withdrawal -- that the Thespiaeans, Thebans, and Spartans were intending to withdraw too.
My money is on the latter. The remaining troops would cover the general retreat, then they would leave as well. It should have been a full withdrawal, like that of the Greeks who defended Thermopylae against the Celts in 279 BCE, or the ANZACs who defended it against the Germans in 1941. However, Persian troops managed to scale the hills and get in behind the defensive line. That’s the reason that the southern Greeks were surrounded and cut off. It was too late to complete the withdrawal, and so they died.
|Some of the key locations and cities involved in the battle of Thermopylae|
The land itself is an ally to [the Greeks] ...If the southern force could delay Xerxes for even a week, and southern reinforcements came via another pass and appeared behind the northern army at Heraclea in Trachis, Xerxes’ forces would be trapped at the very moment that they were weakening from hunger, thirst, and disease. The southerners might have annihilated them. But, as it turned out, they couldn’t hold the northerners that long. Leonidas only managed three days. It wasn’t enough.
killing with hunger an army that is far too numerous.
-- Aeschylus, Persians 792-794
6. The 300 Spartans weren’t Leonidas’ personal guard. This myth is widely reported in modern accounts of the battle, and also in 300. The idea is supposedly that Sparta refused to engage its military officially, because of a religious festival or for some other reason, and so Leonidas decided to ‘go for a walk’ with his own retinue. In reality they were regular soldiers, sent by the Spartan state in an official capacity. Herodotus reports that the Spartan royal guard was 100 in number, and that their function was to protect the king(s) while campaigning (Herodotus 6.56). Matthew shows that 300 was a typical number for Spartan contingents on special assignments (2013: 71-72).
7. Spartan soldiers weren’t invincible killing machines. The typical alt-right caricature of Spartan soldiers is an anachronism. The Spartan agōgē as seen in 300, the idea that a Spartan phalanx was unbeatable in the field, the trope of ‘Never give up, never surrender’ -- all these things were invented as Spartan propaganda, centuries after the battle.
In the 300s BCE, Sparta was reduced to a minor power with big ideas about itself. The south did not rise again. Instead, Sparta drew on its propaganda successes from the 400s BCE to create a national image of a glorious past, which ended up being more for the tourist trade than anything else. Plutarch’s stories of Spartan military training and Spartan laconicisms are products of that period of self-invention.
Late archaic/early classical Sparta did have a better organised military than most other states, that much is true. They were very good at propaganda -- why else would a crushing military defeat like Thermopylae be celebrated? But they didn’t have their well organised military because they were autonomous freeholders, as the likes of Victor Davis Hanson fervently believe. They were able to specialise because they owned an ethnic slave caste.
There’s probably some truth to the notion of a Spartan ‘heroic code’, as idealised in the poetry of Tyrtaeus. But then again, Tyrtaeus wasn’t Spartan. He was an immigrant. Tyrtaeus was a weeaboo. If you look at actual Spartan poetry, by Alcman, you’ll see it’s largely about men leering at dancing girls.
|Some outstanding spear-throwing from The 300 Spartans, 1962. (Hold up ... why are they throwing their spears?)|
Being Spartan wasn’t about independence and choice. It was about exerting power over other people. They weren’t racially pure plucky freeholders: they were just people. They had a powerful city-state, and the power of that city-state rested on slavery.
And often, it seems, three days was all it took to beat them.
- Bond, Sarah E. 2018. ‘This is not Sparta.’ Eidolon, 8 May 2018.
- Cartledge, Paul 2006. Thermopylae: the battle that changed the world. Pan.
- Cole, Myke 2019a. ‘How the far right perverts ancient history -- and why it matters.’ Daily Beast, 2 Mar. 2019.
- Cole, Myke 2019b. ‘The Sparta fetish is a cultural cancer.’ The New Republic, 1 August 2019.
- Londey, Peter 2013. ‘Other battles of Thermopylae.’ In Matthew and Trundle 2013: 138-149 and 208-211.
- Matthew, Christopher 2013. ‘Was the Greek defence of Thermopylae in 480 BC a suicide mission?’ In Matthew and Trundle 2013: 60-99 and 178-196.
- Matthew, Christopher; Trundle, Matthew (eds.) 2013. Beyond the gates of fire. New perspectives on the battle of Thermopylae. Pen & Sword.
- Tharoor, Ishan 2016. ‘Why the west’s far right -- and Trump supporters -- are still obsessed with an ancient battle.’ The Washington Post, 7 Nov. 2016.