Themistocles and Artemisia

Fighting the Persian Wars in Slow Motion, or My Relation with Historical(ish) Movies

TV and Movies

I have a love-hate relationship with historical movies. I don’t expect them to be documentaries, and if they get someone interested in a person or event or time in history, terrific. (One of my issues with Reign is that it references nothing historically important and puts most of the focus on utterly fictional issues. It’s not going to inspire anyone to learn more of Mary Queen of Scots.)

Generally speaking, the more a movie claims to be historically accurate, the harder I judge.

King Arthur Movie Poster
Sweetheart, it’s chilly in England.

Thus, when King Arthur came out in 2004, I knew I was going to witness something terrible, since they were marketing it as marketed as “The Untold True Story That Inspired the Legend.” Really, the true story about a bunch of people only written about centuries later and who supposedly hung out with a wizard? In a movie whose poster features Keira Knightley in a leather bikini?

I was nearly out of my chair laughing before the end of opening credits. I couldn’t get past the initial voice-over exposition. No.  Just…no.

Also, I’m generally fine with changes in details so long as the larger themes remains intact. (I apply a similar logic to comic book movies.) There is so little known of William Wallace, for example, that Braveheart had to be inventive. That’s doesn’t, however, mean they can teleport a three-year-old princess to England, make her an adult and send her off to be a diplomat.

300 and 300: Rise of an Empire

That said, I’m really a pretty big fan of 300 as fun entertainment. They make zero attempt to portray their tale as historical. Quite the opposite, by the time the monsters start showing up it should be clear this is fantasy. Nevertheless, it gives you the general impression of what happened at Thermopylae: several thousand Greeks holding off a hundred-thousand Persians.

300: Rise of an Empire, however, left me more ambivalent.

As every critic has stated, 300: Rise not as good as 300. There’s too much voice-over narrative that contributes nothing. The characters are even more one-dimensional than in 300. I’m pretty sure several of the major characters are never mentioned by name; I had to look them up on IMDB.

It’s title makes no sense.  Persia is already an empire, and Greece never has an empire, so I’m not sure who is supposed to be rising.  I’m not sure why Xerxes is running around in gold underwear either, so maybe I’m thinking too hard.

Still, it’s fun.  It’s just not stellar.

Eva Green as Artemesia
The rest of the women in the audience might be watching the nearly naked guys, but I’m mostly eying up Artemisia’s costumes.
(c) Warner Bros.

Artemisia I

When I originally saw the trailer, I mentally facepalmed.   No matter how much leeway I give for fantastical retelling, a female commander just makes no sense.

So I looked her up.

And she’s real.

She’s queen of Halicarnassus, a city within the borders of the Persian Empire.  According to Herodotus, who provides most of the information we have on her, she actually warned Xerxes not to attack by sea at all. Since the Greeks were primarily naval fighters, she suggested just overrunning them by land.  Nevertheless, she commanded several ships when Xerxes ordered the fleet to battle.

What she did not do:

  • Die at Salamis. She returned to Persia and continued to be in Xerxes’ favor.
  • Murder Xerxes’ advisers.
  • Become a child sex slave rescued by a Persian. Her father was the king of Halicarnassus.

But still….damn. I wish there was more information available about her because, seriously, female naval commander in 480 BCE.

Themistocles

There are lots of people in history that I admire, or identify with, or am fascinated by, but I might just be a Themistocles fan girl. And, seriously, when are you ever going to hear that phrase again?

Themistocles was a very clever man. After Marathon, he encouraged Athens to spend the wealth from a newly found silver mine on a navy rather than dividing the wealth among citizens, as was customary. He was confident Persia would be coming back, even though others seriously doubted. Greece won Salamis because they had a fleet of damn good ships.

…and because Themistocles was a sneaky bastard.

And the movie kind of forgot that.  They left out the coolest part about Themistocles.

Themistocles let Persia know the sorry state of the Greek navy and how it was retreating to Salamis. In truth, the Greeks had arranged an ambush at Salamis, taking advantage of its narrow straits.

I figured he was going to play that card after banging Artemisia in one of the least necessary sex-scenes ever. (Even her guards seemed to find it implausible.) When that didn’t happen, I figured they would highlight that he had dropped word of Greece’s weakness in front of the hunchback who then ran back to Xerxes. But I doubt viewers got that impression.

Instead, a bunch of extra ships just show up and kick Persia’s butt.

As an Aside: Years after Salamis, the Athenians exiled Themistocles over a political dispute. Know where he went? Persia. He entered the service of Artaxerxes, Xerxes’s successor, and lived comfortably for the rest of his life. According to Plutarch, the Persian king exclaimed, “I have Themistocles the Athenian!” Basically, he took it as a compliment that the Greek had turned to him.

Freedom!

Damn near every historical epic has a freedom speech, and this time Themistocles is practically channeling Mel Gibson’s William Wallace.

Historical people do not view freedom the same way we do. Just because Athens was democratic (and even that was only among landowning citizens in a place where citizenship was a luxury), does not mean they had any sense of equality. One-third of Athen’s population was enslaved, for example. They had some of the lowest opinions of women in the Western world. Infanticide was legal and socially acceptable.

And there was absolutely, positively, not a concept of a united Greece. Each city-state was fiercely independent, and only a portion of them allied with Athens against the Persians. The participating city-states were, however, all in on the plan. They didn’t magically show up at Salamis in Themistocles’s darkest hour and rally to the banner of Greek freedom.

Being Clever: Naked Guys

There’s lots of complaints and jokes about the state of undress of most characters in 300 and 300:Rise. Certainly, the Greeks did not actually go into battle with nothing but a loincloth and cape. They had armor. However, Greek art depicted heroes as naked, including in battle scenes. Greek values were all about perfection, and a perfectly formed body was one way of reflecting other forms of perfection.

Everything about this image confuses me greatly. (c) Warner Bros.
Everything about this image confuses me greatly.
(c) Warner Bros.

But they weren’t going to make a movie about hundreds of totally naked guys. Thus: leather panties.

You might notice the Persian soldiers were in more appropriate states of dress, except for Xerxes.  They weren’t the heroes.

Galley Rowers

Something else they got right: the rowers.  There are several shots of whipped rowers chained to their oars. The editing is confusing (one of my complaints throughout the movie), and at first I thought that was supposed to be the Greek fleet, which is 100% wrong. However, there’s a couple of shots clearly of the Greek ships which are  focused on the hands of the rowers which are clearly unchained.

Greek rowers weren’t slaves. Every Greek in combat was there willingly.

Typically, warriors were the well-to-do, since they had the means to procure equipment. Most places did not have professional armies. Athens (and other cities) was wealthy enough that a sizable number of people could afford armor, but there were still large numbers of poorer citizens.

In Greece, to not be interested in the welfare of the city was the mark of a very low character. So those who could not afford personal equipment voluntarily manned the oars of triremes, the best damn ships on the Mediterranean.

Places of Note: Persepolis

The city which Xerxes overlooks is very much modeled on Persepolis, the capital of Persia. It really was a magnificent place, although presumably it did not have the imperial diving tower that Xerxes seems to be standing on.

Xerxes at Persepolis: 300 Rise of an Empire
(c) Warner Bros.

The Hellespont

Early in the movie you see Xerxes’ army traveling on what looks like a bridge. You might have noticed that the bridge is balanced on boats: Xerxes built a pontoon bridge across the Hellespont (the strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara) to move his army from Asia Minor into Europe.

Burning of Athens

Athens absolutely burned to the ground during the Persian Wars.  It didn’t, however, look like this:

Athens as depicted in 300: Rise of an Empire
Source: FXGuide

That high hill on the left is the acropolis, and the largest building is the Parthenon, the temple to Athena.  The problem is the Parthenon wasn’t built until after Athens was burned.

And the 100 foot tall statue in front of it?  Not a clue.

Those aren’t the bits that get me.  The FX guys created a Athens built very vaguely on the idea of what Greek things looked like, which still makes it way more authentic than their Xerxes.

Except that building in the middle.  It’s the Pantheon.

From Rome.

Built 500 years later.

The circular portion is capped with the largest dome (which weren’t even known to the Greeks) ever built until the 20th century.  It represents the pinnacle of Roman engineering, and it is absolutely unique.

And it’s sitting in Athens.

What Empire?

I still don’t understand the title. Persia has been a powerful empire for decades by the time of Thermopylae and Salamis. And Greece never has an empire. Athens gains sizable influence over many of the city-states which join what’s known as the Delian League, but that’s still just a handful of cities scattered over a very small area of land.

And since the movie ends mid-battle, they don’t even mention the Delian League. So, seriously, what empire is rising? I don’t understand.

Cassie Beyer

Medievalist historian writing about history, religion, alt-history, steampunk, occultism and occasionally pop-culture. Former Site Expert for Alternative Religions at About.com. Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

http://blog.cnbeyer.com