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Depiction of The Culture of Ancient Sparta in The Film 300

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The film 300 retells the story of the battle of Thermopylae while also shining light on the societal and governmental structures that drove Sparta’s city-state forward. Ancient Sparta was one of the most powerful city-states in Greece. Their influence and might was widely renowned as a product of their militaristic mindset. Ancient Sparta designed a warrior culture solely for training soldiers to ensure that they were victorious in every battle. Sparta military might have become a massive source of interest for modern media. Films like ​300​ aim to capture the physical prowess and vigor of ancient Spartan warriors while expounding on the different factors that lead to their rise to become such a powerful city-state; such as infanticide, the agoge tradition, and the role of the ephors in government. 

Infanticide was a practice performed by countless ancient city-states, with Sparta being among them. Infanticide is the intentional practice of disposing of a child shortly after their birth. The idea of infanticide was such a major practice in ancient Greece that it became woven in their culture and included in prominent mythological stories. In Hesiod’s epic poem, “Theogony”, infanticide is a recurring concept, such as when the titan Cronus devours his children shortly after birth. For the ancient Spartans, the practice of infanticide was used as a means to ensure that only the healthy and strong would have a place in their society. Plutarch was a Platonist philosopher who took notes of ancient Sparta’s practice of infanticide in his early writings, ​The Life of Lycurgus​. Plutarch explained that, “the elders in Sparta would examine all newborn infants and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so‑called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus.” Zach Snyder (the director of 300​) attempts to capture this image in the opening scene of the film. Leonidas is taken to the edge of a cliff and is observed for any faults. Finding none, he is soon returned to his mother, a fate hundreds of Spartan babies couldn’t share, as the camera pans below the cliff and the audience observes the bones of countless dead babies. 

Contrary to ancient scripts and the representation of infanticide that ​300​ epitomized, modern researchers have found no evidence that Spartan babies were thrown off a cliff. The practice of infanticide was still a reality though, just not as extreme as ​300​ and Plutarch made it out to be. Athens Faculty of Medicine Anthropologist Theodore Pitsios claims that, “​after more than five years of analysis of human remains culled from the pit, also called an apothetes, researchers found only the remains of adolescents and adults between the ages of 18 and 35.”3 The bones were those of forty six men that dated back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC. This finding, though dismissing the fact that Spartan babies were the ones thrown off the cliff, confirms a different argument from ancient sources that the ancient Spartans tossed captured prisoners and traitors off of the cliff. Spartan babies, if judged as unfit to serve under the state, 4 would be abandoned on a hillside, being left for nature to consume or on the slim chance, getting adopted by strangers. Though ​300​ took the path of Plucharch when it came to explaining infanticide, Plutarch’s description of infanticide and modern description of infanticide in ancient Sparta both describe the reason of infanticide in Sparta as a result of their determination to only keep strong abled bodied people in the state. A strong abled bodied male would lead to a skilled soldier, and a strong abled bodied female would grow and give birth to more soldiers. 

Sparta’s methods for conducting infanticide starkly contrasted the ways other city-states practiced it. One of the main distinguishing components was that when it came to infanticide in Sparta, a member of the Spartan council of elders was the one who would inspect and determine the fate of the child. Plutarch discussed how the council of elders was a creation made by king Lycurgus, and they were tasked with infant inspection. This is distinctive from the 5 methods of other city-states like Athens, who just required the father to do the inspection and dispose of the child if it was seen as unfit to serve under the state. 

Ancient Spartan society rovolved around military might, making the army a key aspect to Sparta. To produce such a formidable military, Sparta created an educational system that would take in young boys at the age of seven and train them in the art of war until they graduated and joined the army. This system was called the agoge, and it conditioned these children both physically and mentally to prepare them for the battlefield. ​300​ did a great job capturing this ancient Spartan tradition. After Leonidas is checked for deformities, the film time lasps to the future when he is about seven. Two soldiers forcibly take him away from his mother as she is restrained from chasing after him. The way Snyder portrayed Leonidas’s mother highlights how difficult of a time the agoge is for a Spartan mother. She is crying and calling out Leonidas’s name but she can’t chase after him because a soldier is holding her back, putting the audience in a state of an empathetic bystanders who can feel her pain. 

The agoge subjected the young boys to extreme measures to teach them discipline, obedience to authority, and athletic prowess. They were often deliberately starved to strengthen their mental fortitude but also encouraged to steal food from the mess hall to teach them to be sneaky. Unfortunately if they were caught they were severely punished, usually with flogging, but if pulled off correctly it taught the kids the skills required to spy and sneak. “To prevent their [agoge boys] being too distressed by hunger, while he [agoge magistrate] did not make it possible for them to take whatever they wanted without trouble, he did permit them to steal something to alleviate their hunger.” It was an important Spartan ideal to be crafty and sneaky 6 on the battlefield. Stealing food was one way to strengthen these skills, and they would build upon these skills to help them complete their right-of-passage. 

A Spartans soldier’s rite of passage was an event that marked their transition from child to an adult citizen of the state. ​300​ portrayed the right of passage as a young Spartan boys task of killing a giant wolf. The film shows Leonidas alone in the snowcapped mountains using the resources around him to survive in the brisk weather. Using all the skills he learned from the agoge, he manages to kill a wolf and returns back as a champion. This representation of a Spartan boy’s rite of passage goes in direct contrast with ancient script. While ​300​ expressed the right of passage as one that was a noble test of bravery and courage, in reality it was a dark and appalling tradition that the Spartans dubbed as, “Helot killing”. The Helot’s were a class of unfree laborers who were treated maliciously by the Spartans. According to Plutarch, “The magistrates [Ephors] sent out into the countryside at large the most discrete of the young [Spartan] men, equipped only with daggers and necessary supplies. During the day they scattered into obscure and out of the way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet. But in the night, they came down to the roads and killed every Helot whom they caught.” In ​300 ​ it’s laughable when Stelios defiantly says to one of Xerxes ambassadors, “Run along. Go tell your Xerxes that he faces free men here-not slave.” Sparta was one of the biggest slave owning city-states so it’s absurd that they had the audacity to say that free men were standing up against tyrants when they were excercising unjust tyranny domestically towards the Helots. Snyder overglorified how respectable the Spartans were. This was done in an effort to appeal to the audience. When presented with a main protagonist, the audience prefers them to contain minimal flaws because they represent the ideal, “hero” in one way or the other, so it wouldn’t be wise to expose one of Sparta biggest flaws in a movie honoring the three hundred. However this doesn’t do justice for those who the Spartans were abusing. Snyder focused on making the Spartans great and noble while making the Persians evil, and accomplishing that by focusing on the physical ugliness of the Persians. However, it would’ve been much more moving if he would’ve added in at least some of the plight of the Helot’s and therefore let the audience themselves decide whether or not there were any good guys in ​300​, rather than just labeling the Spartans as good and the Persians as bad. 

The Spartan government was the entity that developed a warrior culture and made it the first priority of ancient Spartan society. Influential to the spread of a militaristic mindset throughout ancient Sparta were the Ephors. The Ephors were five male magistrates who were selected annually from each territorial settlement in Sparta. Contrary to the belief of most 8 scholars that the Ephors were directly elected democratically by the populace, they were actually chosen by pure luck through an annual lot. “The kingships were hereditary, while the ephorate. . .came, Plato tells us ‘near to being an allotted power’ and seems to have been filled either by lot from a large elected pool or by some other similar procedure.” Once in office, the 9 Ephors largest role was the implementation of public policy. “They [the ephors] could introduce laws, decrees, and declarations of war and peace.” The ephors exercised power that was almost completely unchecked. The laws they made governed the state, and nobody was above the law- not even the kings. The kings who would question the authority of the ephors would be imprisoned or threatened with death. Making an example of the kings, and showing how even the kings weren’t above the laws in the state served as an example to every citizen in Sparta that the rule of law was absolute and no one could question it. Part of the law was that every male had to serve in the army and join the agoge at age seven. The ephors enforced these laws with threats of death and these threats fostered obedience of the Spartan people towards the government. Civilian subordination towards Spartan government, allowed them to easily accept the warrior culture and militaristic values of society since they were set in place by the law, and nothing was above the law. 

300 ​perfectly encapsulated the strength and influence the ephors wielded over ancient Spartan society. Even as a king, Leonidas had to consult with the ephors before he could take the army and lead them against the Persian Empire. No matter how much Leonidas implored the ephors, they remained steadfast in their answer that Leonidas shall not wage war on the Carnier. Leonidas, unable to go against the word of the ephors, then had to improvise and only take three hundred Spartans instead of the whole army in what he dubbed as, “body guards accompanying him on a stroll.” By showing Leonidas’s refusal to outright go against the ephors, Snyder captures the immense power that the ephors had. Ancient Spartan society had learned to obey the law, and the law gave the ephors numerous powers. By making them a supreme unchecked power, Spartan government moved much smoother. Without the conflicting values that come with branches of government with equal power, it made it easier for the Spartan people to know who to obey. Another way the ephors fostered obedience, was the fact that they themselves were the ones who inspected a baby at birth (instead of the father or mother of the child) and determined whether it should be cast away or not. This showed that the Spartan government, had control over the people’s life and their voice couldn’t sway the government. With obedience throughout Sparta, the ephors laid down the foundations that their militaristic state would be built on, such as the agoge tradition, and the people accepted it because it was the law. 

300​ offers valuable context to ​battle of Thermopylae as well as societal and governmental structures that laid the foundation in which ancient Sparta used to grow into one of the most powerful city-states of ancient times. However, though it does this, it isn’t a faithful retelling of the way society and civilization operated in ancient Sparta. Zach Snyder leaves out critical aspects in the history of Sparta. He refuses to include anything regarding the Helots and enshrines the Spartans in light of high respect and honor, when their true historical actions were far from honorable. There is also an intense focus on the Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae that takes away the fact that it was more than just three hundred Spartans fighting, it was the Spartans fighting alongside their allies. Spartan military might has often been overglorified by modern media. Their military strength earned them the symbolic reputations of bravery and courage that is used in many mascots today, but it was much more than just military prowess that leads to their rise of power. It was also the societal and governmental structures that lead to their rise; such as such as infanticide, the agoge tradition, and the role of the ephors in government. All of these things being set in place by the states control over the people and the people’s obedience to authority. 

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Depiction Of The Culture Of Ancient Sparta In The Film 300. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/depiction-of-the-culture-of-ancient-sparta-in-the-film-300/
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Depiction Of The Culture Of Ancient Sparta In The Film 300. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/depiction-of-the-culture-of-ancient-sparta-in-the-film-300/> [Accessed 2 Dec. 2021].
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