Barry Strauss, 'Under the Banner of Women', City Journal, March 27, 2014
Hollywood might not know much about history, but it has an advanced degree in sex and violence. Yet somehow, it can manage a surprising amount of insight into the human condition. A case in point is 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel to 2006’s hugely successful 300. Both films are loosely based on fact. The first is about the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), where 300 Spartans fought to the death to defend Greece against a massive invading Persian army. The dead included Sparta’s king, Leonidas. Terrible as the defeat was, it inspired Greece’s resistance and eventual victory.
The sequel focuses on the war at sea, and particularly on two battles: Artemisium, which took place around the same time as Thermopylae, and Salamis, one of history’s greatest naval encounters, which occurred about a month later. Thermopylae had been the Greek equivalent of a bare-knuckle battle, and the Spartans prided themselves on being the manliest of men. The Athenians, who saved Greece at sea, fought a different kind of war. Ships and seamanship, rather than brawn, proved decisive. And when brains rule, women can rise to the challenge. In fact, the two naval battles saw the participation of probably the first female admiral in history—Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus. Though half-Greek, she fought for the Persians.
Rise of an Empire rewrites many of the facts. In 480 B.C., the Greeks were infuriated that the Persians sent a woman to fight them, but the movie ignores this reaction. Instead, it makes Artemisia into the stunning and deadly leader of the Persians, rendering the Persian king, Xerxes, as a figurehead. In the charismatic French actress Eva Green, Artemisia is entirely credible. She is a masterful killer, equally at home with swords and sex as weapons—not a surprising role for Green, who has portrayed a Crusader queen, a Parisian pleasure-lover, and a James Bond girl.
Themistocles, leader of the Greek fleet, played by the muscular Australian Sullivan Stapleton, is no figurehead, but he fades in comparison with Artemisia. The historical Themistocles resembled a cross between Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon—heroic and cunning, a Machiavellian bulldog, with Lord Nelson’s audacity thrown in. But the film’s Themistocles can’t quite pull off a victory against the Persian fleet. In the big-screen telling of Salamis, another woman comes to the rescue: Gorgo, widow of Leonidas, the fallen king, who brings the Spartan fleet with her to polish off the enemy. Played by English actress Lena Headey, Gorgo is gorgeous but all business, a cold but still-inspiring leader. The real-life Gorgo stayed home; the celluloid version saves Greece.
A less than vital hero and two women who decide the war’s outcome—is this political correctness run wild? On the contrary, it’s closer to being political philosophy on the silver screen. As anyone who remembers Helen of Troy knows, men have marched to war throughout history under the banner of women. Often, their inspiration is a virginal figure, supposedly pure and idealistic—such as Elizabeth I of England, called the Virgin Queen, or France’s Joan of Arc. But men sometimes follow a more full-blooded woman, like Cleopatra or the bare-breasted “Liberty Leading the People” in Delacroix’s famous painting about the 1830 revolution in France. Roman generals such as Julius Caesar went to battle in the name of Venus.
The 1960s youth culture urged us to “make love, not war,” but love and war are not always opposites. In fact, they often go together. Whether for Gorgo or for Artemisia, men are willing to die for love. Gorgo symbolizes freedom and the austere virtues of the Greek city-states; the voluptuous Artemisia stands for the power and glory of Persia, accurately portrayed in the film as the greatest empire the world had yet known. Both represent ideals that inspire passion for victory.
The 300 sequel may have a lesson for today’s world. We instinctively root, say, for Ukrainian liberty over Russian imperialism, but believers in Russian national greatness would feel otherwise. They choose empire, and well they might, if empire offers Artemisia. Gorgo is the more subtle, less obvious choice—but then freedom has never been easy.