It's nice to see the kids tuning in to the classics. This week, I attended a super-jammed sneak preview of the movie "300," sponsored by hip-hop radio station JAM'N 94.5. The title refers to the 300 Spartans who defended the pass at Thermopylae against the invading Persian hordes in 480 BC.
Richly imbued with graphic violence and old-fashioned, man-on-woman sex, the ancient tale spoke to the contemporary audience. The college-age crowd guffawed loudly as the Spartan hoplite warriors meandered among the fallen Persians, nonchalantly snuffing out the survivors with their long spears. The Spartans were, like, totally not into taking prisoners.
The movie, due in theaters March 9 , uses Frank Miller's best-selling comic book , "300 , " as its source. At the back of the comic, Miller gives a shout-out to the H-man, Herodotus, the venerable Father of Lies, who lays out the Thermopylae tale in Book VII of his "History."
Yo, G! It all goes back to the classics. True that.
The Spartans' stand at Thermopylae, the 50-foot wide mountain pass in northern Greece, has inspired generations of writers, commentators, and filmmakers. Everyone approaches the "Hot Gates" ("thermo" + "pylae;" the site was a geothermal, pre-Canyon Ranch spa) bearing a theory as to What It All Means.
I remember seeing the clunky, emotional Richard Egan vehicle "The 300 Spartans" in a Washington, D.C., movie theater when I was a little boy. Egan , of course , played Leonidas, the Spartan king who fought and died with troops. It was "Spartacus" on the cheap. In 1962, critics read it as a commentary on the ongoing Russian-American Cold War, with the Spartans fighting for freedom against the nasty totalitarian Persians invading from the wrong side of the Eurasian land mass.
Novelist William Golding, author of "Lord of the Flies," wrote about Thermopylae, and opined that "A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free." Spartans as free men is a theme that runs through Miller's comic book, director Zack Snyder's movie, and also through Steven Pressfield's easy-reading 1988 novel about Thermopylae, "Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae."
Freedom turns out to be in the eye of the beholder. Most modern scholars acknowledge that Sparta's "freedoms" fed off the enslavement of its immediate neighbors and on its huge population of helot slaves. They did all the work in the militarized city-state, freeing the male population to practice warfare. In his book "The Peloponnesian War," Yale's Donald Kagan edges close to describing Sparta as a fascist government, "subordinating individual and family to the needs of the state."
In a similar vein, Thermopylae is often hailed by military dead-enders as an evocative triumph of the few over the many. Even if Xerxes's army didn't number 2 million, as contemporaries believed, it did number 400,000, which put the Spartans at well over 1,000-1 underdogs. But, as classicist Victor Davis Hanson points out, the Spartans didn't win. They lost. He calls Thermopylae "perhaps the greatest loss in the history of Panhellenic operations, and one of the few times in history that an Asian army would defeat a Western force inside Europe."
The last great parable about Thermopylae highlights the confrontation between the disciplined, ascetic Spartans and the lascivious sybarites of the multiglot Persian army. In "300," Leonidas and his corps of body builders seem bent on keeping the world safe for homophobia. They deride the "boy lovers" from Athens, and . . . well, has Xerxes ever been this gay? Actor Rodrigo Santoro, sprouting piercings from every orifice and tinted an appealing shade of oxblood for the occasion, vamps up a pretty good Grace Jones imitation.
But Herodotus is kinder to the Persians, generally praising their valor and spiritual bent, if not their diet; "They eat little solid food, but abundance of dessert." On a grimmer note, Herodotus records that Xerxes, whose name means "warrior," lost two brothers at Thermopylae.
Although the Persians are portrayed as decadent, hookah-wielding slobs in "300," Herodotus emphasizes that they were, on measure, a well-mannered lot. The Persians never vomited, relieved themselves, nor broke wind in the presence of others. Can your civilization say that?
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.