Free Slave-Holding Phallocrats Defending Freedom From Squirmy Middle Easternesque Drag Queens, or A Meditation on Historical Accuracy

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

If you want to see a Rube Goldberg machine, you could play the game Mouse Trap. Or watch any number of videos available online.

Or read Victor Davis Hanson’s appraisal of ‘300’ appearing in the op-ed pages today.

Hanson starts off by asking, “Is ‘300’ historically accurate?”

There are some intellectually consistent answers to that question that a historian can give. The first might be to outright reject the entire question, to give up the self-appointed role of “accuracy scold” that many historians fall into all too easily when dealing with film or popular culture. Hanson could just choose to say, “’300’ does what all creative works that draw upon history do, reshape images and tropes and narratives to some contemporary imaginative purpose, and the only critical evaluation historians need make of it in the present is, ‘Is this a good film, or an interesting film?” But he doesn’t do that: the question of accuracy is for him a pertinent one.

You could make an argument that the ideological needs of the present completely outweigh any need for fidelity to history. He doesn’t say that, though I get the feeling that this may be his real view. You could make an argument that the transition to the medium of film requires some sacrifice of historical fidelity, but given that “300” doesn’t aim in any way for historical realism (as Hanson well knows and admits), this doesn’t make much sense.

What Hanson does instead is to make arguments like, “At the real battle, there weren’t rhinoceroses or elephants in the Persian army. Their king, Xerxes, was bearded and sat on a throne high above the battle; he wasn’t, as in the movie, bald and sexually ambiguous, and he didn’t prance around the killing field. And neither the traitor Ephialtes nor the Spartan overseers, the Ephors, were grotesquely deformed”. Glad we cleared that up. Once you write that sentence, you have to either say, “Accuracy is not the issue”, or ask some intelligent questions about those kinds of representational choices and about their meaning for audiences.

Here too there are other coherent options available to Hanson. You can say, “Look, audiences largely see the violent action in the film in the idiomatic register of a comic book, and so there really isn’t any grand meaning to be gotten from this film: it’s just for fun.” You can suggest that audiences are proficient meaning-makers in their own right, and likely to build any variety of messages out of the iconography that “300” offers of deformed and racialized Persians versus anglicized Spartans, that the politically correct reading of this (or any) film is a reductionist one that doesn’t trust the critical capacity of audiences. You can say, “Get over yourselves, people: it’s just a movie”. But he doesn’t say any of that, though he does note that the film’s representational mode is (appropriately, given the source material) that of a “comic book or video game”.

This is where the machinery of his argument gets really contrived. He says: the Greeks had comic books too, sort of, well, at least they wore masks in their theater and painted semi-nude warriors on their vases. The Greeks had propaganda, too. The Greeks liked dramatic exaggeration in their war stories. The Greeks were violent, too. Verdict: 300 = accurate!

Oh, and the Greeks thought highly of themselves and badly of their enemies, too, so it is historically accurate to make a movie about Thermopylae that thinks highly of the Greeks and badly of the Persians.

And yes, the Greeks had acres and acres of homoeroticism in their visual and written culture, just like “300” does. Oh, wait, Hanson doesn’t make that point.

Yes! “300” is historically accurate because the Greeks also used language and symbols and images to communicate with audiences, just like “300” does! “300” is historically accurate because there are human beings in it just like there were in classical Sparta. (Well, except for the deformed mutants in “300”, but! Greek mythology did have giants and monsters and shit in it. Accurate!) The Persians, as we all know, did not have culture, language or iconography.

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25 Responses to Free Slave-Holding Phallocrats Defending Freedom From Squirmy Middle Easternesque Drag Queens, or A Meditation on Historical Accuracy

  1. Fats Durston says:

    Does this take html?

    300 is rapidly becoming my favorite movie that I haven’t seen. It’s inspired many hilarious put-downs, sharp analysis across the web, and at least three demolitions of V.D. Hanson (each using a different approach). I just don’t understand how he wrote a whole dang article on the Persians without blaming Jimmy Carter for the fall of Western power in the region.

    The debate has even spread to a few of my students, and one of them even loaned me the graphic novel. The best I can say for that is that it is comic book history.

  2. emschwar says:


    I think you’re reading too far into Hanson’s review. The only bits that are about accuracy are the two paragraphs saying what they got wrong (the elephants, Ephialtes, the lack of mention of the Thespians and Thebans). Everything after that is not a defense of the movie’s accuracy, it’s a defense of the movie’s inaccuracy– the comic book stylings, in other words.

    When Hanson writes about the Greek’s impressionistic adaptation, he’s not using that to say “See, the Greeks did the same thing, so 300’s accurate”; he’s saying, “it’s okay for 300 to get some things wrong, because it’s in our Western tradition to adapt major historical events into impressionistic stories.” When he points out that the movie is one-sided, he’s not saying that’s okay, because if the Greeks can be inaccurate, so can we; he’s saying that 300 has a viewpoint, and it’s the Greek one. If you want the Persian viewpoint, go watch another movie; this one doesn’t have it.

  3. emschwar says:

    Oops, I forgot– to be punctilious, the paragraph about the quotes is about the accuracy of the movie, or at least its faithfulness to Herodotus and Plutarch.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    He’s saying that 300’s representational style is a direct, and therefore “accurate” transcription of the representational modalities of the Greeks on violence, war, the near-nudity of soldiers, and “freedom”. Which is therefore why reading 300 as a highly compressed allegory of contemporary “civilizational conflict” in which the Greeks are “us” and the Persians the Islamicist fundamentalist “them” is “right”. Which is bollocks. Just in purely structural terms, if there’s an analogy (which I don’t really see at all), we resemble the Persians, right down to a leader prosecuting an imperial war to avenge an earlier slight to his father.

  5. withywindle says:

    No, that’s an unpleasant slander you’re repeating–as is any equivalence between the US and ancient Persia.

    I can’t say Hanson’s argument is likely to persuade me to sit for two hours in a movie theatre–but I will note that two classicist friends of mine rather like the movie, and are mulling incorporating it into the classroom somehow.

    I do rather think there is a civilizational conflict, and, indeed, we are the Greeks and the Persians are still the Persians. My upcoming graphic novel of Pres. Ahmedinejad, however, will not portray him as bald or sexually ambiguous. Instead, in the scenes seen through his eyes, the world will be suffused with a green aura.

  6. emschwar says:

    Hanson is doing two different things there, Tim, and you’re conflating them. The first thing he’s doing is talking about why it’s okay for 300 to not be accurate: it’s not trying to be, it’s intentionally impressionistic, that’s okay because it’s in our tradition as Western storytellers to do that.

    Then he switches gears at the end (clumsily, I’ll grant) and says, “Oh yeah, and the Greeks were better than the Persians, because they had elections, and because they were questioning both the universal subjugation of women and slaves.” Not, please note, because of the way director Zack Snyder told his story, or the way Frank Miller wrote his, nor because the Persians are supposed to represent Islamic fundamentalists– he never even mentions Islam in his review.

    If you want to get in his face about that, go right ahead– I wouldn’t be surprised to find there are counterexamples that show that Persians were thinking along the same lines as the Greeks when it came to women and slaves, and there’s certainly a lot of ignorance about Persia in general in the US; too many people think they’re Arabs, for instance, which is so wrong it doesn’t even approach funny. But all you’re really complaining about Hanson saying is in the last 5 paragraphs, none of which are at all about the movie in any way.

  7. jpool says:

    It’s that last paragraph of his review where his argument goes completely off the rickety rails and into some other essay that he’s been writing on “the ancient Greeks as the founders of our present Western civilization.” Up to that point it’s possible that, as emschwar suggests, that he’d been making an argument about the movie reflecting an ancient Greek point of view of Hellenistic civilization against Persian barbarism, even if one might want to raise a point or two about logical consistency (how does fidelity to either the graphic novel or to Greek accounts get to count in the same way towards greater accuracy?) or details of content (didn’t Spartans basically think that democratic Athenians were weirdos?). So unexpected is this move toward defending, not the movie or its historical whatzits as such, but our presumed identification with the Spartans, that one might almost suspect that he had a more contemporay reference in mind for “the enemy who ultimately failed to conquer them.”

  8. emschwar says:

    jpool: I bet that’s exactly what happened– he got that far, and forgot what essay he was writing, and presupposed a bunch of arguments he forgot to make in that particular review.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Emschwar, come on, what culture doesn’t have representational traditions that are “intentionally impressionistic”? That’s what I find silly here, Hanson trying to claim that the representational modes in 300 directly descend from or are specifically mappable to classical Greek representations, and therefore secure the film’s fidelity to its subject.

    It’s not just the “we are the Greeks, the Persians are the others” at the end. It’s that in the middle, he wants to say that the way 300 tells its story has a direct filial relation to classical Greece in the first place. On the evidence he cites, 300 has just as much of a relation to 18th Century Zulu discourse about war, or idealizations of the masculine bodies of soldiers in Aztec codexes.

    The only point about “accuracy” that’s right has not to do with 300, but with how we understand classical Greece–e.g., if someone wanted to say that both the reality of classical Greek warfare and the idealized representation of it were by our standards uberviolent and entertaingly cruel, sure, that’s fair enough. But not 300’s geist as far as that goes isn’t the geist of the Greeks, and that’s what I read Hanson as saying: the way 300 represents these things relates directly and specifically to the Spartans.

  10. emschwar says:

    Tim, you’ve switched arguments now, to one I’d be happy to generally agree with you on. You started off claiming that Hanson thought 300 was historically accurate because it used Greek tropes and bought into the Greek version of the story of Thermopylae. Clearly, that’s not what he was saying, and I think I showed that.

    Now you’re saying that his arguments for deriving 300’s visual and storytelling style from Greek tradition are flawed, and I’m not terribly inclined to disagree. I’d quibble a fair amount here and there– although certainly many other cultures exhibited the same traits, if we got our version from the Greeks (which is a debatable proposition to be sure), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to credit them with it. But that’s not an argument Hanson makes, and his article is poorer because of it.

    All I was trying to say was that Hanson, in no uncertain terms, claims 300 is *NOT* historically accurate, and he believes that makes it a better movie. Your original article seemed to be attacking him for saying that it was. If you want to revise it to say that Hanson’s review sucks because he assumes facts not in evidence– i.e., that the storytelling tradition Snyder and Miller draw on is not based in Greek drama, go for it. I think there’s a strong case to be made that it is, but Hanson didn’t try to make it, and he should have. Of course, arguably that sort of argument is not really best made in a movie review, but hey.

  11. gbruno says:

    “Tim, you’ve switched arguments now,”

    Actually, he seems to me to have been entirely consistent in his argument. I think you misread him.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    My reading is that Hanson is claiming that the fidelity between 300 and Greek representationalism makes the film “accurate” in that sense, accurate as a synonym for “faithful”. Look at the structure of the review. Here’s how I break it down.

    1. Is 300 accurate?
    2. No, there are rhinos, drag queens and grotesques.
    3.Also, it’s a comic book.
    4. But: it’s accurate in that it captures the essential “message” of Thermopylae.
    5. But: actually in its violence and its “impressionism”, it’s very much just like the Greeks *in specific*.
    6. And the Greeks were good, and we are the Greeks, and we are not like the dirty Persians.

    Your reading is that he starts by saying, “It’s not accurate” and then goes off into some other kind of argument. I think you miss the entire transitional link between the first confession of “inaccuracy” and the second half of the review. Look at the paragraph, “Still, the main story line mostly conveys the message of Thermopylae”. Isn’t that basically a claim that the film’s superficial inaccuracies are less important than its underlying faithfulness to the underlying essential truths of Thermopylae? Which, in his reading, include a sense that the representational style of the film is specifically a descendent of the representational style of the classical Greeks?

    You may be right that you could make that claim, actually, but I’m reacting to just how badly and stupidly Hanson does it: it shows that he is WAY WAY out of his depth when it comes to cultural history. 300 operates “in the surreal manner of a comic book or video game”. Then look at the next sentences. “The Greeks themselves often embraced such impressionistic adaptation. Ancient vase painters sometimes did not portray soldiers accurately in their bulky armor.”

    That is very much a claim that 300 is true to a specific cultural mode that Hanson identifies as Greek, but conceptually, all it really says is that 300 is not a realistic form of representation and that the Greeks also were sometimes not realists or naturalists in their visual culture. As I said, big fucking deal. Visual realism or naturalism is an idiosyncratic thing in human history: by this standard, 300 is just as faithful to Khoisan-rock-art visuality.

    Try this one: “Athenian tragedies that depicted stories of war employed contrivances every bit as imaginative as those in 300”. Again, I read that as a kind of claim about close kinship or “spiritual” accuracy between 300 and classical Greece. But holy Socrates on a stick, what human society HASN’T employed imaginative contrivances in their stock or recurrent narratives about war and conflict? Including, you know, Darius’ Persia. All this says is, “Yup, we have culture and the Greeks had culture. Isn’t the Western tradition AMAZING????”

  13. emschwar says:

    gbruno: maybe so; I’m certainly not immune to that. I’ll let Tim correct me if so. But I read his original post as claiming that Hanson thought that 300 was historically accurate, and tried to justify it by various stretches of the imagination (Hanson’s that is, not Tim’s). The problem is that Hanson explicitly denies the movie has any but the most very general historical authenticity (he spends more time and detail pointing out what it got wrong than what it got right). So if you weren’t claiming that Hanson thought the movie was historically accurate, Tim, I apologize– I did indeed misread you.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    See above. I think he’s conceding the simple empirical version of “accurate”, but insisting that 300 has a specific fidelity to classical Greece, and that this amounts to a deeper, better kind of “accurate”.

  15. emschwar says:

    Tim, your specific complaint, as I apparently misread it, was that Hanson thought the movie was “historically accurate”. That’s the phrase you used in the title here, and throughout your original post. I interpreted that to mean you think Hanson believed that 300 conveyed the facts of the event, where he claims he’s not. Okay, fair enough.

    Look at the paragraph, “Still, the main story line mostly conveys the message of Thermopylae”. Isn’t that basically a claim that the film’s superficial inaccuracies are less important than its underlying faithfulness to the underlying essential truths of Thermopylae?

    Yes, that’s exactly what it’s saying, but I don’t read that as saying anything about historical accuracy. That phrase looks like little more than something he tossed out in the first paragraph mostly so he could debunk it and move on. It seems clear to me that he’s using the term here to mean “the basic facts of the situation”, and you’re interpreting it as “fundamental, essential truths” that may or may not actually correspond to actual happenings on the ground at the time.

    That is very much a claim that 300 is true to a specific cultural mode that Hanson identifies as Greek, but conceptually, all it really says is that 300 is not a realistic form of representation and that the Greeks also were sometimes not realists or naturalists in their visual culture. As I said, big fucking deal. Visual realism or naturalism is an idiosyncratic thing in human history: by this standard, 300 is just as faithful to Khoisan-rock-art visuality.

    Yeah, that paragraph was pretty lame. So what? It’s not a statement about accuracy, historical or otherwise; he’s trying (badly) to say that 300 draws directly on Greek storytelling traditions.

    I think this next bit might explain the disconnect with which we read his article better:

    “Athenian tragedies that depicted stories of war employed contrivances every bit as imaginative as those in 300?. Again, I read that as a kind of claim about close kinship or “spiritual” accuracy between 300 and classical Greece. But holy Socrates on a stick, what human society HASN’T employed imaginative contrivances in their stock or recurrent narratives about war and conflict?

    The last sentence of that paragraph is the meat, not the first (yeah, bad writing, I’ll agree): “The audience understood that dramatists reworked common myths to meet current tastes and offer commentary on the human experience.”

    Here’s the thing: Hanson, as I read him, is trying to say “300 is not historically accurate. This is okay. Look at this example of Greeks not being accurate. Look at this other one. See? 300 is doing something similar. Don’t get your panties in a bunch about it; try to see the broader story they’re telling.” He’s carefully and painstakingly pointing out that the movie… is *fiction*. And then there’s this weird bit at the end (“yaay Greece, boo Persia!”) that doesn’t really fit the rest of the article, and just doesn’t read well. Don’t ask me what that’s about, I don’t really care.

    I specifically don’t read him as saying that nobody else did non-realistic representations of historical events, which you appear to be doing. He’s just saying that, “Hey, the Greeks (you remember the Greeks, this movie is about them?) did the same kind of stuff. So get off Snyder’s back about it, already.”

  16. emschwar says:

    Ops, forgot to close the italics. Sorry.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    You’re very generous. I really don’t read the review that way at all. I think it’s trying to claim that 300 is faithful to the essence of Thermopylae and the Greeks, not just that it’s a fiction like other fictions (including those of Herodotus, et al).

  18. emschwar says:

    I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Also, I know plenty of people (the SCA is full of ’em) who will happily give dissertation upon dissertation about the historical inaccuracies of A Knight’s Tale, with special emphasis on the anachronisms of Queen’s music in the Middle Ages. These people are tiring beyond belief. These are the people I figured Hanson was talking to.

  19. withywindle says:

    One small thing Hanson got wrong in his review–“The film has actually been banned in Iran as hurtful American propaganda, as the theocracy suddenly is reclaiming its “infidel” ancient past.” My understanding is that 1) the Persians always retained some connection to the pre-Islamic past, not least by means of the preservation Persian folklore (Rustum, etc.); and 2) the last Shah successfully inculcated a reintegration of modern Persian identity with Ancient Persia, which reintegration was not obliterated by the Islamic Republic. So the reclamation of the infidel past is not sudden.

    It isn’t a very well written op-ed–the transitions could certainly be filled out. (I wonder if a slightly longer original was edited down?) But if the main complaint is style, I confess I find Tim’s emotional animus against the piece somewhat startling. Is it just that he mentioned comic books and video games, which triggered an IGNORANT FOOL!–WHAT DOES HE KNOW OF THAT? button?

    Meanwhile, speaking of the Greeks and comic books, I rather liked the two (only two?) Epicurus the Sage graphic novels. Which betrays my own vulgar taste, I suppose.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    I just find the desperate straining of the piece annoying as hell.

  21. Sarapen says:

    There’s something amusing about the claim that such a grim bunch of proto-fascists as the Spartans were actually fighting to preserve freedom and equality. The historical Spartans would have liked nothing better than to eradicate democratic government entirely as well as anything that smacked of frivolity, especially all that Athenian art classical Greece is remembered for (which makes it ironic that Hanson is defending a movie about Spartans by making reference to the plays of their despised Athenian rivals).

    And by the way, there were more Greeks fighting in Xerxes’ army than there were fighting against him.

    Tim, I understand your annoyance with the article. It’s such a badly argued POS that I can’t help pointing out every flaw I can find in it. It’s like something from Real Ultimate Power, except Hanson was trying to be serious:

    Hi, this article is all about Spartans, REAL SPARTANS. This article is awesome. My name is Hanson and I can’t stop thinking about Spartans. These guys are cool; and by cool, I mean totally sweet.


    1. Spartans are mammals.
    2. Spartans fight all the time.
    3. The purpose of the Spartan is to flip out and kill people.

  22. PreachyPreach says:

    The viscerality of my response to 300 surprised me. All I’m saying, rather than ranting on about how it is one of the finer expressions of the fascist aesthetic[1], is that a film where the heroes make a wall of corpses may have lost its moral bearings somewhere along the way.

    [1] Which I did to the poor critic friend who got me into an early preview.

  23. Endie says:

    I read your piece before reading the article, and the word egregious did spring to mind: for once, your treatment seemed really rather unfair, and I felt that I had been a touch misled in some of your representations of the author’s arguments.

    As a non-American looking in on the debate on 300, I can’t help but feel I keep seeing a proxy war between those who think it would be wrong to enjoy it, and those who think it would be wrong not to.

    As regards the author’s final piece, I am damn sure that I am glad the Spartans, Phocians, Thebans, Thespians and others held the Persians for long enough for the first autumn storms to take place; I am damn glad for Salamis; and I am particularly glad about Plataea and Mycale (not to mention Marathon. Perhaps the world would have been better without Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Euripides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Hppocrates and more. But it’s a gamble I’m glad we don’t have to take.

  24. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a different argument, I think, than the one Hanson is making about this film, or that this film is playing around with.

    Though on the other hand, I think it’s a complicated counterfactual question about what the Greeks would have been or said as a distant imperial possession.

  25. Endie says:

    Yeah: by way of explanation, the third paragraph of my reply there was originally the fourth: I edited for wordiness without re-reading, and the jump suddenly became jarring (as well as leaving unclosed parentheses, due to more bad editing). What would have happened, as you say, is completely different from discussing the article. I just can’t resist that sort of game.

    I should just have left the second paragraph and ditched the rest.

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