My dears, this is my 300th post and I wanted to celebrate my ability to churn out endless drivel with you all. I decided that clearly the best thing to do was to free associate with the number, but of course, I only got as far as that film and then ran into a cul-de-sac. So I am going to write about Leonidas instead, and why he is a banner boy for the peace movement. To be fair, this is also because I realise I have failed to respond to Kozo’s challenge to write about Acts of Kindness this month (I am interpreting a bit liberally here), so if nothing else my 300th post will allow me to meet my commitment and evidence a creative flair for twisting the facts to fit my own agenda.
Specifically I am not going to write just about the film, you understand, although in itself it is a guilty pleasure. Guilty because it is really not very good, and because it promotes a world view that I do not subscribe to. However, I think we miss something important it if we dismiss it altogether. Here, in my circumlocutory way, is why.
As a child I started to learn difficult words like “Spartan” fairly early because I was a prodigious reader. I associated the word in my mind with “spare” (as in “gaunt” or “basic”), because my brain likes to make those kind of links to help it understand.
Later I learned about Leonidas and his army of Three Hundred Spartans, in their bronze armour and red cloaks, and the inspirational story of their courage (the Spartan soldier Dienekes is credited with the response to the news that the enemy archers were so numerous their arrows would block out the sun that then the Spartans would fight in the shade – Herodotus 7.226) and betrayal – the treacherous dog Epialtes who showed the army of Xerxes the way around the mountain to ambush the Greeks. It’s a great story and all the better for being about real people.
That quote of Dienekes underpins it all, and sounds ridiculously modern and sound-bitey. But the reference is irrefutably Herodotus, reliable or not.
Equally Leonidas was a man for a James Bond quip, almost certainly said with a slow drawl and raised eyebrow. According to Plutarch this time, when invited to surrender his arms by Xerxes, he replied “Come and take them.” You can hear the follow-on “…if you think you’re hard enough.” Who knew Leonidas spoke with a Glaswegian accent?
In short, Spartans admired brevity of word and the term “laconic” derives from their other name – Lacedaemonians. I am sure Twitter would have been more to their tastes than blogging.
The Spartans were unflinching in their dedication to duty and their commitment to military excellence. They understood the psychology of intimidation, and polished their bronze armour until it shone so brightly their opponents were terrified (being more familiar with leather than metal war gear). They had a rigid hierarchy and rigid rules; in a sense they were utterly egalitarian within clearly defined and enforced social strata. When their Three Hundred died at Thermopylae, the Greeks remembered them with a specially dedicated inscription (apart from the many other Greeks who died there, about 4,000 in all – never forget in real life they were not alone by a long way).
“Stranger, report this word, we pray, to the Spartans, that lying
Here in this spot we remain, faithfully keeping their laws.”
Those laws, so beloved by the Spartans, were fierce, and bred fierceness. Spartans were required to put the state above all else, including family. They exposed weak babies on the mountainside to die. They rationed food to teach children to survive by stealing, punishing any who were caught for carelessness. Both boys and girls had to participate in the education programme, but the boys went onto the military lifestyle, through a rigorous and dangerous series of competitions which not all survived. It was a Spartan woman who is credited (Plutarch again) with telling her departing son to return from war either with his shield or on it. Failure was never an option. The rest of the Greek states thought they were insane.
They would not have had much time for Bloggers for Peace or other such wordy tree-huggers. Their culture was founded on the antithesis of what we moderns call kindness.
Would kindness have made them stronger? Might it have allowed them to forge tighter links with the other, quarrelling Greek states and so present a stronger face to the Persians? The Persians were allegedly defeated because of the Spartan stand – not because the Spartans won the battle, but because it gave the rest of the Greeks time and encouragement to make their own more united defence, a bit like Chamberlain was credited with buying time for Britain to re-arm to fight Hitler. (The Persians also lost because of geography – crossing the Hellespont – and the complex logistics of keeping such a vast army fed and watered so far from home, maintaining incredibly extended supply lines over enormous distance. But who’s counting? The Persians were amazing; but we remember the Spartans, in part because they are better documented.)
And yet, and yet, the peace movement can still learn from them. We can learn as much about kindness by its absence, and the consequences of that absence, as we can by its demonstration. A friend of mine, now sadly no longer with us, used to talk about the need to study and understand war if we are to be harbingers of true peace. As a committed Quaker and refugee from Germany in the 1930s, he became an influential Reader in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He saw it as his best opportunity to work towards peace in the world.
So, back to that film. Apart from the undeniable enjoyment of watching graphically enhanced chaps running around in leather kilts and being tewwibly tewwibly macho (bless them), what can it teach us as a peaceful people? The inherent cultural norms in the film are not dissimilar to key Spartan values of freedom (as a justification for war) and military prowess as the pinnacle of achievement. Although the cultural practices of the Spartans have been softened in the film to make them acceptable and therefore sympathetic to a modern audience, the messages are recognisable across the millennia. Leonidas remains the hero. He does not flinch from what he sees as his duty. The story we continue to tell our youth is that we admire courage against the odds, in a very specific sense of going to war.
Be not downhearted though! We can redeem this story and make it shine. We can take back the narrative. We can oppose armies and the need for armies with our bodies and minds and hearts. We can learn to stand firm and throw back a light hearted quip as we continue to deliver our message, no matter how unpopular or risky that may feel. If some of us are not up to the task, and I am often not, then we can hope that there remain at least three hundred who will not relent. We can hope that while they stand firm, unlike the Spartans, they can show the rest of us some kindness in our frailty.
Being asked why the best of men prefer a glorious death to an inglorious life, Leonidas said
“Because they believe the one to be Nature’s gift but the other to be within their own control.”
Let us take control and lead glorious, peaceful lives.
Other bloggers taking control include:
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