Wednesday, November 29, 2006

video journals

I was browsing the official website of the movie: and was very impressed with the video journals.

You may find them on the section "Making of 300", 8 very interesting videos about how the movie was made. I think they are also available on youtube.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Statue of King Leonidas in modern Sparta.

King Xerxes I, watching the naval Battle of Salamis from the top of mount Egaleon.
The Great King expected an easy victory over the Greeks, instead he witnessed the Greek triremes triumph over his fleet and his men being slaughtered or drowned.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Leonidas I

Leonidas (Λεωνίδας=Lion’s son) the first, one of the two Kings of Sparta, reigned from 488 to 480 BC. He was the 17th King of the Agiad line, son of Anaxandridas II and was born around 508 BC. According to legend his father’s bloodline descended from the mythical Hercules. Leonidas succeeded his half brother Cleomenes I, who was put to death by the Ephors (5-member council elected by the citizens every year), the Ephors however, claimed he committed suicide. Leonidas was married to Gorgo, daughter of Cleomenes.

In spring 480 BC the Persians crossed to Europe and moved towards Greece. At the initial war council, held at the Isthmus of Corinth, the Greek city-states, failed to reach an agreement on the defense strategy which they would follow. Moreover a number of city-states had secretly agreed with the Persians to appear neutral and refuse any aid to the cause. The allies were warned by Alexander I of Macedon (the north-most Greek Kingdom) about the intentions of the Persians and planned to dispatch a defense force at the vale of Tempe in Thessaly, however they did not trust the Thessalians (who later joined of the Persians anyway) and decided to abandon their positions.

While most Greek city-states were undecided on how to defend their land, Leonidas was ordered by the council of the Ephors to leave for Thermopylae with an expedition force of 300 Spartan equals. All men sent to Themopylae had sons to ensure the continuation of their bloodline.

Leonidas, obeying the laws of Sparta, marched in August 480 BC and arrived at the site of the Battle where he met an army of Greek allies not more that 6,000 or 7,000 strong. Most city-states had not sent any troops at all, or they had sent a lot less than they could afford. Being a professional soldier and an excellent tactician Leonidas predicted the outcome of the Battle for two reasons: (a) although the chosen battleground favored the smaller army, the Persian outnumbered the Greeks, at least 20 to 1 (possibly a lot more), and (b) the Asopos river pass which was leading directly behind the Greek line could be the “Achilles tendon” of the allied army (as it indeed happened).

Still Leonidas decided to stay and fight, he desperately asked re-enforcements, but his requests were ignored. When Xerxes offered him to become King of all Greeks once the Persians conquer Greece, Leonidas refused, and when Xerxes demanded from the Greeks to surrender their arms (weapons) Leonidas replied with the legendary “Μολών λαβέ” (“Molon lave”=come and get them).

During the first two days of the Battle the Greeks under Leonidas leadership defended their position successfully crashing continues waves of Persian assaults. They inflicted terrible losses to the Persians and enraged Xerxes. During the night of the second day, a local traitor, Ephialtes, led the Persians through the Asopos river pass, which was guarded by the Phocians. The Phocians under a shower of Persian arrows fled their position without a fight.
Leonidas was informed that he would soon be encircled and was offered a chance to retreat to the South. The Athenians, at that time fighting the naval Battle of Artemisium off the coast of Thermopylae, sent a trireme to evacuate Leonidas. In both cases the Spartan King bravely refused to leave his post.

He immediately ordered a battle council among the allies and asked them to leave the battleground and join the rest of the Greeks, preparing a defensive southwards at the Isthmus of Corinth (according to another version the other Greeks abandoned Leonidas and ran to save their lives). Of the 6,000 Greeks, only 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians remained. Leonidas also forced 400 Thebans to remain and fight for them, since Thebes was obliged to Sparta. The Thebans however, surrendered immediately to the Persians without a fight and their city joined Xerxes after the Battle. It is said that on the dawn of the third day, before the approach of the Persians, Leonidas urged his men to eat a full breakfast, because that night they would all dine in Hades (the Greek underworld).

The Persians soon encircled the Spartans and the Thespians. Leonidas was one of the first to die during this last stage of the battle, he charged towards the Persians and was fatally wounded. His men fought a desperate fight to retrieve his body. According to Herodotus, the Greeks “were fighting with daggers, if they had one, with their hands and their teeth” «μαχαίρησι, τοίσι αυτών ετύγχανον έτι περιέουσαι και χερσί και στόμασι». Two of Xerxes brothers were killed during the final stand of the Greeks and the Persians were so disheartened that they killed the last defenders with arrows.

When the body of Leonidas was recovered, Xerxes ordered the head to be cut off and the body crucified. He later regretted this act and returned the remains of Leonidas to the Spartans. Leonidas was then buried on the hill where his men took their last stand, together with his 300 braves. A stone lion was set to commemorate their sacrifice. Forty years after the battle, Leonidas body was moved to Sparta were he was buried with full honors. As Perikles later noted (not for Leonidas, but still quite fitting): «Ανδρών επιφανών πάσα γη τάφος» meaning: “To Great Mean all earth may be their grave”.

On top of the burial mound of the 300 Spartans, an Epitaph composed by Simonides engraved on a commemorative stone was placed. The epitaph said:

«Ώ ξείν, αγγέλειν Λακεδεμονίοις ότι τήδε
κείμεθα, τοίς κείνων ρήμασι πειθόμενοι»

Which could be translated as: “Oh stranger, announce to the Lacedomonians, that here we lie, obeying their word/laws”. A number of more loose translations have been recorded, this is probably my favorite:

“Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie”

Frank Miller in his graphic novel 300 uses the following:

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie”

Xerxes I

I think that a short biography of the leaders at the Battle of Thermopylae would be a good introduction to the events before, during and after the epic battle. I will begin with Xerxes the first, King of Kings and absolute ruler of the Persian Empire.

Xerxes I, son of Darius I (the Great) and Atossa daughter of Cyrus the Great, was born in 522 BC, his name is the Hellenized version of the ancient Persian Ksayarsha (or Ksayar) which means "Ruler of men" or simply "King". Before the death of his father and his ascend to the throne (485 BC), he was commander of Babylon for 12 years, where he acquired military and administrative experience. His father proclaimed him his successor, bypassing his older half-brothers, because in Xerxes the two branches of the Achaemenid dynasty met, thus guaranteeing the safe continuation of the dynasty.

Following his father’s death, two major rebellions: in Babylon and Egypt, shook the foundations of his Kingdom and forced him to campaign against the local Satraps and restore the Empire’s unity by force. He plundered the delta of the river Nile and demolished the walls of Babylon, enslaving most of it’s population. From that point on he seized using the title "King of Babylon and Pharaoh of Egypt" (terms his predecessors used) and was referred to by his subjects as "King of Persia and Media".

These victories improved his status and increased the influence of the pro-war fractions within the royal palace. Xerxes brother-in-law Mardonius (or Mardony) was able to convince Xerxes to lead a campaign against the Greeks. His motives were definitely not economic since he already possessed the most rich lands and kingdoms of the known world. It was more a matter of prestige and a display of his absolute power over all nations. It was considered an outrage that such a small nation was defying the will of the Great King.

This was actually one of the legacies his father Darius had left to him. Following the revolt of the Ionian Greeks (Asia Minor) in 493 BC which was encouraged by mainland Greek city-states (Athens, Eretria and Naxos), and the defeat of the Persians at Marathon (490BC) Darius had sworn revenge and had a slave to remind his daily "oh Great King, do not forget the Athenians". Darius was preparing a new campaign against the Greeks before his death. The campaign was delayed by the revolts in Babylon and Egypt. However, Xerxes did not begin to conquer Greece without adequate preparations. To the contrary, he worked for three whole years, from 484 to 481 BC, gathering the finest troops from all over the Empire and planning the supply and maintenance of a vast army which soon (Spring 480 BC) would cross from Asia to Europe. It is important to mention that in the Persian royal court there was a number of prominent Greeks, expelled by their countrymen. Among them, Xerxes most important advisor, was Demaratus, ex King of Sparta, who had fled his homeland a few years earlier. He also formed an alliance with Carthage and agreed on a simultaneous campaign of the Carthagians against the Greek city-states of Southern Italy and Sicily, thus blockading any re-enforcement of mainland Greece from the powerful Greek kingdoms of Italy.

Such was the determination of Xerxes that he ordered his army to build two floating bridges between Europe and Asia so they could cross the Hellispont entering Europe safely. His men also dug a channel through the peninsula of Mount Athos (the third peninsula of Chalkidiki) so his fleet would bypass the stormy weather at the edge of the peninsula (at the same spot his father’s fleet had been destroyed a decade earlier due to a storm).

Xerxes moved unopposed through northern Greece and Thessaly, until Thermopylae, all Greek city-states immediately surrendered at the sight of his endless hordes. The Battle of Thermopylae, though a bitter victory for Xerxes was the turning point of the Greco-Persian wars. Xerxes plundered Athens in September 480 BC, but was defeated in the naval Battle of Salamis by an outnumbered Greek fleet lead by the Athenian Themistokles (on the same day the Greeks of Southern Italy and Sicily crashed the Carthagians and forced them back to Africa). He returned to Asia after the Battle of Salamis and left Mardonius to continue the campaign. A year later in 479 BC, the Persians were annihilated at the battlefield of Platea where an army of over 100,000 Greeks crashed the troops of Mardonius (estimated about 300,000), killing Mardonius himself. On the same day the Greek fleet destroyed its Persian counterpart in the naval Battle of Mycale off the shores of Asia Minor.

These latter battles concluded Xerxes interest over Greece. He spent the rest of his life in more peaceful works, building grand palaces in Sousa and Persepolis. Very little is known about Xerxes final years, it is said that with age he gradually withdrew from power and lost control of the Empire. He and his oldest son and heir to the throne were assassinated in 465 BC by the commander of his personal guard Artabanus. He was succeeded by Artaxerxes I.

Xerxes tomb was carved in the great rock-complex of Naqsh-e Rustam, located 7km west of Persepolis, close the tomb of his father.

A few thoughts on the graphic novel

Better late than never... I finally received the graphic novel "300" last week and had the opportunity to read it. I think I now have a pretty good idea about what we are going to see in the movie next March.

The storyline has some historical basis, but there are also some big faults (I will analyze further in future posts). I was impressed by how small the graphic novel actually is. It takes you only a couple of hours to read it (a lot more of course if you wish to enjoy the pictures). Another notable feature is that, at least from the movie trailer, it seems that the producers quote the novel word by word... of course I am sure they will add a lot more dialogues and battle scenes to fill the apprx 2 hours of the movie.

A few obvious differences, between the novel and the film, beginning with Gorgo (Leonidas wife) who in the novel appears very briefly, while her role in the movie seems a lot more significant. There is no rhino in the novel going crazy and running over the poor Persians...

I will return to this topic later. I sure don't want to spoil the movie to the visitors of this blog, so I will focus a bit more on the historical background of the movie in the next posts.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thermopylae, poem by C.P. Cavafy

Honor to those who in their lives
have defined and guard Thermopylae.
Never stirring from duty;
just and upright in all their deeds,
yet with pity and compassion too;
generous when they are rich,
and when they are poor,
again a little generous,
again helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hatred for those who lie.
And more honor is due to them
when they foresee (and many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will finally appear,
and that the Medes in the end will go through.
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