Written by Gabriel Blondeau
The Battle of Thermopylae has been subject to a number of retellings, reinterpretations, revisions and most importantly, lies. We must distinguish the historical facts from the historicised narrative fiction presented as the former, often used as a basis for legitimacy. The Battle of the Thermopylae pass was fought in 480 BC between the Persian Empire, led by Xerxes I, and an alliance of Greek city-states led by Sparta under Leonidas I. The pass of Thermopylae was chosen as a strategic point by the Greeks in order to stem the flow of the Persian invasion. Leonidas was at the head of a Greek force the size of around 7000 men, facing off against Xerxes’ great Persian army, estimated to be between 120,000 and 300,000 men. The Greeks held off for seven days before their rear guard was decimated due to Ephialtes (a local Malian resident) revealing the existence of a path leading behind Greek lines. Leonidas, betrayed, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and remained to guard the pass with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and reportedly 900 Helots and 400 Thebans. The latter surrendered while the Greeks fought to the death. The Persian invasion would be stopped at the Battle of Salamis and Xerxes would eventually retreat. This retelling constitutes most of what we know to be accurate about the battle: the battle took place; it was lost and the Persians advanced. Yet most interesting today is the way this battle has inspired such patriotic feelings, extreme Westernised and false retellings of the story in the form of film and comics, and finally, how the Thermopylae has stoked the flames of nationalistic sentiment and provided a mythologised narrative upon which to transplant xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric.
From its inception, it is no wonder why this Battle has inspired so many tales and myths of courage and bravery. Leonidas’ final sacrifice can be seen as a martyrdom, his actions – condemning his men but providing solace and security to his nation – making him a national hero. It is however the singular and brutal nature of the battle, the resolute determination to carry out the fight to the death in the face of impossible odds that makes this battle ripe for artistic inspiration and state propaganda. Throughout History, it has inspired poets (Richard Glover, Willem Van Haren), painters (Jacques Louis David), political comparisons (the Battle of the Alamo), and even Nazi propaganda. As the 6th German Army was on the brink of defeat during the 1943 siege of Stalingrad, Goering (the Nazi head of propaganda) supposedly borrowed Leonidas’ epitaph “Oh strangers, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their words”, and remodelled the phrase: “Go tell the Germans, passer-by, that you saw us fight here in Stalingrad, obedient to the laws of the security of the people”. Not only is this a potent example of the discursive and symbolic power the battle of the Thermopylae has come to harbour, but it also signals an insight into Nazi thought; they viewed themselves as the rightful successors to the Romans.
This battle, used in historical narratives as justification of Western superiority or proof of the never ceasing Asian invasion is rife with deliberate misconceptions and lies, thus contorting the historical facts to fit the theories. To begin with, the nationalistic obsession with Leonidas as an eternal hero ready to die for his nation merits some nuance. A contributing factor to Sparta’s staunch implication in the battle and final decision of sacrifice may very well be a deep feeling of shame, stemming from when Sparta sat out the battle of Marathon as they were obligated to honour the Carneia, a religious festival during which military engagements were forbidden. Leaving the battle to the Athenians and seeing it become enshrined as a founding myth of the Grecian narrative must have undoubtedly contributed to Sparta thus ignoring the Carneia and investing so heavily in the outcome of the battle of the Thermopylae. As such, it reveals itself to be not a triumph of Western will, but rather a continuation of petty squabbles, jealousy, and pride of the city-states. Furthermore, the role the Persian empire plays in the myth and retellings is one of evil and perversion. The perspective of heroic victory against a barbaric invader is shouted all the louder because so many Greek states avoided or gave up this fight and as such, the moral victory is amplified to bury the shame. Where do these lies come from? Conducting a genealogy of the myth reveals a tradition of using the battle in the eternal East vs West debate, reifying the battle in terms of a civilizational clash, thus distorting historical facts. Frank Miller, in his 300, a fictionalised retelling of the battle, participates in this very process: he castigates the Athenians as ‘boy lovers’ and codifies the Persians as homosexuals when in reality the Spartans were famous for enforcing man-boy love as a way of military bonding. The subsequent film adaptation of the comic by Zack Snyder is practically a shot for shot translation of the graphic novel; going so far as to rely on Islamophobic tropes, morphing Ephialtes into a grotesquely disfigured troll-like figure betraying the noble Spartans. The 300’s Persians are ahistorical monsters, carrying the underlying threat of perversion and corruption. However this goes much further than simply using a battle as proof of superiority. The battle becomes the impetus for legitimising the genesis myth and justifying violence upon the other.
In the retellings of the battle, the asymmetry of numbers is exaggerated and emphasised every single time. The 300 movie portrays the Persian Empire as a faceless horde, monster men devoid of identity while the plucky 300 Spartans face them, chest bare and ready to die for an ideal. What underlies this depiction is the fear and threat of assimilation, it is the terror of losing agency and identity. This battle as a story retold countless times comes to signify the martyrdom of the West vs East, the heroic stand Spartans took to preserve the flame of the West protecting its sacred identity with their dying breaths. Marathon, Salamis but most importantly Thermopylae cease being historical conflicts pitting political actors against one another to become symbols of Western nobility, fighting prowess and proud identity, victorious against the faceless and savage invading Eastern masses. These readings can be found in nationalism(s), particularly exemplified by Guillaume Faye, who links Western declinism to emasculation and de-virilization. Another example is Anglin who equally suggests that these men understood at a spiritual level that in giving their lives, they were assuring the survival of the White European race, thus achieving immortality. Using the battle in a West vs East narrative leads to an existentialist and accelerationist perspective, with Anglin concluding “This is not about individuals. This is about us. We are in a war for our very survival. This is not a game. Hail Victory.”
Golden Dawn supporters celebrated the battle annually, reuniting at Thermopylae, dressed in black and chanting the Greek national anthem, deifying Leonidas, his troops, and the sacrifice they made in a battle against Eastern incursion. The Greek extreme far right party’s leader, Eleftherios Synadinos, has stated that “the message of Leonidas is as timely today as ever for everything tormenting Greece (…) we’re not like everyone else with heads bowed down. We’re upright, we’re standing and the message will be delivered on Sep 20. We must not surrender arms. We must not back down”.
This stands as a powerful reminder of how powerful the historicization of battles and the mythologisation of narratives can be, and how these historical events can be distorted and reified into nationalist myths. The danger of letting nationalism control History’s narrative is the danger of letting the truth go, of surrendering to ideology.
Featured Imagery: (1) David, Jacques-Louis. Léonidas aux Thermopyles. 1814 (2) Golden Dawn supporters rehearse for a ceremony in Thermopylae, outside Athens, on Sept. 5, 2015. (Fotis Plegas/Reuters.