eXile - Issue #259 - War Nerd - Triumph Of The Vile - By Gary Brecher
Fact: Sparta was about as romantic as North Korea. Give or take a little egalitarianism, Sparta WAS North Korea. Spartan laws did everything they could to break down the family. Sparta was more anti-nuclear family than any Hollywood liberal could ever be.
Wanna know what a Spartan wedding night was really like? It's pretty hilarious, in an insane way. As soon as a Spartan girl got her first period, they grabbed her, shaved her head, dressed her as a boy, threw her down on her new husband's bed, and then, well, he had his way with her. What way was that? Since hubby had been in an all-male dorm since age seven, I'm betting that that night of lovin' was more like a skinny white boy's introduction to San Quentin after lights-out than it was like a chick flick. So when this movie shows the Spartan hero saying to his wife, "Goodbye, my love," I just had to laugh.
No Spartan ever told his wife he loved her. That would've been like treason, because the Spartan rulers wanted family ties snapped, so the only bond left was to the state. They left room for folks' natural urges by letting the women drink, which they did non-stop, and the men form what you might call close comradely bonds with their fellow soldiers.
In the ancient world, gay was a matter of who was on top. If you were a topper, that was fine; if you were the one getting in the ass, not so cool. In other words, prison rules. Sparta's leather-bar ways were a running joke to the ancient Greeks. The Spartans were stone killers - but they also preened like teenage girls before a battle. They grew their hair long, and before a fight they'd comb it, oil it, try out fetching new styles, put little baubles in their ears, anything to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.
None of that in this movie. Just the opposite. The script even has Leonidas taunt the Athenians calling them "boy-lovers." Athens, the true hero of the war against Persia, gets dissed time and again in this movie. You won't hear a word in 300 about Salamis, the real decisive battle of the war - because it was Athens, not Sparta, that destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis. The Spartans wanted to run away from the Persian fleet and wall themselves off in the Peloponnese (you wouldn't believe how many times I've messed up the spelling on that damn word). They didn't have a clue about combined-arms operations (which the Athenians handled durn well). In fact, the Spartans, who are called "the finest soldiers in history" over and over in this movie, were a mediocre, one-dimensional, inflexible military force.
Sparta understood only one kind of fighting: land battle, the hoplite shield-wall - a Big Ten offense from the old school, "three yards and a cloud of dust." In any shield-wall vs. shield wall battle, the bigger offensive line will break the opposing team's wall, leaving them open to massed spear thrusts. Once the opposition's wall was broken, the citizen-soldiers would scatter to fight another day - a totally sensible reaction, since the alternative was annihilation. In battles like that, psycho varsity offensive-line types like the ones Sparta bred did just fine. But vary the conditions of battle in any way, and they were as helpless as Woody Hayes' Ohio State teams were against a team that could stop the run.
So it was actually fairly easy to stymie the Spartans: just put them in a situation where they had to think for themselves. Imagine a Spartan army up against a Mongol scouting force. Even if the Spartans outnumbered the Mongols by, say, 4-1, I'd have no hesitation betting on the Mongols. They were truly tough, not artificially hardened by sick PE games but by life in the saddle, on the steppes. And they were smart enough to realize that smarts count on the battlefield, that negotiation and alliance-building, scouting and propaganda are all important aspects of war. Only amateurs are dumb enough to think that being dumb, mean and inflexible like the Spartans is the route to military success.
The Thebans under a really brilliant general, Epaminondas, crushed the Spartans in the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.) because Epaminondas just plain out-thought those lummoxes. He knew exactly how the Spartans would stack their forces in battle order, because they always did it the same way. So he tinkered with the conventional phalanx-stacking set-up and those Thebans, most of them ordinary Greek citizen-soldiers, mere amateurs by Spartan standards, kicked Spartan ass right down the line. The Helots, the locals the Spartans had enslaved and terrorized for generations, finally got a chance for payback and Sparta withered away to nothing. Game over.
Eh. I agree. It's not a historical movie, and doesn't give the awesome Athenians their props. But's its a fun bubblegum movie. I'd see it again. Let's face it, the average person who sees the movie is never going to read any real history of Greece anyway. So just shut up and enjoy the movie!