Jumat, 09 Januari 2009

Come back with your shield, or on it.

Greece, 480BC. The Pass of Thermopylae. 300 Spartans. Led by King Leonidas, they stare death in the face. Death in the form of Persia's God-King Xerxes.

So here I am talking about the Battle of Thermopylae. For any of you who don't know off the top of your head, that's the one where 300 Spartans held their own against millions (apparently) of Persians (at the Pass of Thermopylae). Most people know about it from Frank Miller's 300.

But I already knew about it. It fascinated me since I asked my Ancient History teacher who the toughest warriors were - ever. Without hesitation, he replied "the Spartans." We asked why and he explained. It took him a whole lesson (when we should have been revising) but he jumped up and told in amazing wisdom the whole story. And we sat captivated. The politics, the motives, the bravery, the defiance, the honour, the whole Spartan way of life - all of it has thrilled me ever since.

So you can imagine my annoyance when 300 came along. It's not that the film is bad. Yes it takes a few liberties, but on the whole, it's pretty accurate. No, it's that they got there first! Damn them!

So it's impossible for me to write a film about how King Leonidas and his 300 defied the government, marched across Greece and held their ground against all odds for 6 days, all so that the rest of Greece could launch a counter attack. The Spartans knew they were going to die. They fought with their hands and teeth before being overwhelmed.

I mentioned earlier that it's the whole Spartan way of life that interests me. Take a look at 300 and at the beginning they explain some of it. You may think that they're being dramatic. "They didn't really throw babies into a pit if they sneezed," you may laugh. But they did. Age 7 and they went through the Agoge, where they really learnt to fight. It's all in the film and most of it is true.

The line "Come back with your shield or on it" was the Spartan motto, meaning - either come back victorious, or dead. Die in battle. Never surrender.

The reason the Spartans lasted for so long is simple. The Pass of Thermopylae was narrow. Wide enough to fit maybe 50 men let's say. So the Spartans wait there. Their history and training make them stronger individual warriors than the Persians. Put one Spartan against one Persian (or two for that matter) and the Spartan would walk away.

So the Spartans wait there. The Persians filter in. They bottle-neck. They can only fit 50 men in the pass. So those 50 men fight the 50 Spartans at the front line. As I've said, the Spartans are superior, so they cut the Persians down. Another 50 charge in. But it's still 50 vs 50. And the Spartans are better.

With all the men in the world, King Xerxes could only fit 50 of his men into the pass at any one time. The only thing that made the Spartans fall was fatigue. A few were killed in the battle and as they grew tired, they lost energy.

Remember that, people - if you have superior warriors but they have superior numbers; bottle-neck. It's a sound plan.

Quite a story eh? Don't believe me? Madness you say? Madness? No. THIS...IS...SPARTA!!!!!!

Sorry, it had to be done. Please forgive me.

So as I write this, I start thinking about another Spartan film I could write. Maybe one about the Agoge? I know a fair bit about it, so why not use it? But are people interested in what a seven-year-old boy goes through in ancient Sparta? I know I am. Anyone else interested in ancient history would be, but is the audience?
I could maybe tell the story of a Spartan from his childhood, through the Agoge, to joining the army, to earning a place a King Leonidas' side and setting off to Thermopylae.

Interesting. Could be an audience for it, but there might not. What do you think? A shiny idea, so a classics-geek pipe dream?

To leave you with the classic Spartan line, I say -

"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

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