Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Myth of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

The movie 300 shows King Xerxes of Persia as a deranged seven-foot tall hairless creature who wears bizarre jewelry, talks in a booming voice, is convinced that he is God, and is probably delusional and sexually deviant. If the real Xerxes had been this kind of a “cartoon figure” he would not be the ruler of the Persian Empire (the Achaemenid Empire), which was bigger than any previous empire in history, spanning 5.5 million square kilometers. At its peak, the Persian Empire stretched from Asia Minor to Egypt, and to Central Asia, right up to the Indus Valley.

Alexander the Great was not the first great conqueror of the world. The Persians under Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, and Darius the Great had already conquered much of the same territory that Alexander won. We know a lot about Alexander because so many history books have been written on his exploits, and relatively little has been written on Cyrus and Darius.

In the case of the Battle of Thermopylae, the negative portrayal of Xerxes and his Persian soldiers is the result of the one-sided history written by the Ancient Greeks. The Greeks were good story tellers. They knew how to write texts which would glorify their own side and portray the other side as monsters and slave-drivers. Much of what is known about Xerxes’s invasion of Greece comes to us from Herodotus, whose account is full of spurious information. He is often regarded as the “father of lies.” The other important Greek sources are Thucydides and Xenophon—both were military men. They fought for the Greeks and were biased against the Persians.

There are a number of Persian resources which give a totally different account of Xerxes, Persian culture, and of the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians. Even in the Greek and Roman tradition, there are resources which offer a balanced account. Plutarch has written a positive biography of the Persian King Artaxerxes II. In the Hebrew Bible (the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), the Persian Emperors are given a favorable treatment—they are praised for their tolerance and compassion. In 605 BC, the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem in 539 BC.

Persian kings did not see themselves as God. Xerxes never claimed that he was God. The people in the Persian Empire did not worship him. The population of the Persian Empire at the time of Xerxes was around 50 million, and the world population was 150 million—this means that one third of humanity of this age was living under Persian rule. The number of Persians in the empire was just one million but they were ruling over a multiethnic, multi-religious, and multicultural population of 50 million. In contrast, the population of Athens was 200,000 (only 30,000 had rights). The population of Sparta was 50,000 (between 20,000 to 25,000 had rights).

The Greeks were a significant chunk of the Persian population. There were more Greeks living in the Persian Empire than the combined population of Athens and Sparta. Xerxes probably had more Greek soldiers fighting for him than the combined military of Athens and Sparta. Many Greek and Macedonian kings, including Alexander I, the ancestor of Alexander the Great, were on the Persian side. It is not true that Xerxes had one million troops and the Spartans at Thermopylae numbered only 300. Most historians estimate that Xerxes had 80,000 troops and 10,000 cavalry.

In August 480 BC, when the Persian army reached Thermopylae, they found that the mountain pass was being guarded by 7000 Greeks (this included 300 Spartans under King Leonidas). Since these 7000 soldiers were well-entrenched, it was difficult to evict them from their positions. The commanders of the Persian army followed the textbook military strategy of distracting the Greeks by frontal attacks, while they found a path through the mountains that led inland. A contingent of Persian army went on the other side of the mountain and outflanked the Greeks.

When Leonidas found that he was being outflanked, he ordered the other Greeks to withdraw. Only the Spartans remained and they were all killed by the Persians. It had taken Xerxes less than a week to clear an entrenched mountain pass, which was the only obstacle in his path to Athens. His army marched through the territory of Boeotia and the city of Thrace, both of which were on the Persian side, and late in August, they reached Athens. Most Athenians had already fled. The Persians stormed into the city, killed all those who were still there, and set the buildings on fire.

If Xerxes had continued to attack the Greek cities on land, he would have won. He became overconfident by the easy victories that he had won at Thermopylae and Athens, and he made the mistake of sending his fleet to Salamis to engage the Athenian navy. The naval Battle of Salamis took place in late 480 BC. The Athenians knew the water and the wind, and the Persians did not. The Persian navy got smashed by the Athenian triremes, and they lost many ships. They were forced to withdraw. With the loss of his navy, Xerxes could not supply the massive army that he had brought to Greece and he was forced to withdraw. 

The defeat at Salamis did not mean the end of the Persian Empire, which continued to flourish till 330 BC. Why did Xerxes invade Greece? In my opinion, both sides were at fault. The Athenians tried to stir up a revolt in Ionia, which was Persian territory, and the Persians retaliated by invading Greece. The argument that the Greek side was pro-liberty is ridiculous. Athens and Sparta had such a large slave population that they were constantly in fear of slave uprising. As soon as the Persians withdrew from Greece, the Athenians and Spartans went back to slaughtering each other. Their war would go on till 404 BC, when Sparta defeated Athens. 

The lies for which a civilization is truly punished by history are the lies that it tells itself. Despite its economic strength and technological superiority, America has not been able to win any war since 1945 because its view of other cultures is founded on false accounts of history. They believe in the ridiculous myth of 300 spartans at Thermopylae and many other such historical myths, and they have formed the habit of underestimating every non-Western culture. They send their troops to fight overseas battles without making adequate long term preparation.

No comments: