By A.J. Cave
Last week we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968), the legendary African-American civil rights movement leader, who fundamentally changed the way we tackle the thorny issue of race and racial equality in the United States.
And speaking of calendars, on 7 March 2014 (less than 7 weeks), the 300: Rise of an Empire movie will come to a theater near you. The website for the movie, stuffed with trailers, posters, and other information, is at www.300themovie.com, and as expected, die-hard comic-book fans, video-gamers, friends and haters (those who don’t agree with your point of view) are already flocking to various blogs and websites to square off against each other.
The interest here is not the cultural, historical, moral, social and theatrical merits of these movies (and their derivatives, like comic-books, video-games, toys and what not). What is at stake is how these movies (could) reflect on us (as Iranian-Americans), and impact western political diplomacy and policy toward the modern day (Islamic Republic of) Iran-or more accurately, the fate of our families and friends in Iran. Peace or war?
The original 300 movie (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007) by the American director Zack Snyder was a shot-for-shot adaptation of a gritty graphic novel (Frank Miller, 300, 1998) roughly based on the account of the Battle of Thermopylae from the Histories of Herodotus. And if you were a fan of that sort of storyboarding, you probably knew what to expect. I wasn’t and I didn’t. I hadn’t even heard of Herodotus and the Hot Gates (Thermopylae).
Studying history in Iran was about memorizing a long and boring list of dynasties and dead kings. So the 300 movie felt more like a tsunami than a spring shock.
The Iranian-Americans are predominantly professionals: academics, scientists, artists, technologists, bankers, doctors, lawyers, financiers, inventors, planners, producers, scholars, teachers, writers, executives, engineers, and entrepreneurs (and, yes, some are in real estate). But when it comes to historians, the numbers drop off a sharp cliff and you can count the historians of Ancient Persia on two hands and have fingers left over.
When I reached out to the prominent Achaemenid scholars and touched a tower of silence, I vowed that I would teach myself how to fish in historical muddy waters.
Ancient history was not a zero-sum game. All civilizations contributed to our common heritage and humanity, and learned from each other in the process. But that view won’t sell at the box-office.
With a budget of roughly $65M+, the 300 movie made over half a billion dollars globally, and when it comes to making big budget movies, there are only 2 rules: rule #1: making more money, and rule #2: see rule #1. So a sequel was a no-brainer, and yes, they are baaack!
That sequel (called: side-quel) is also based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller that won’t be published until after the movie is released. But this time around, we can guess the plot using a wealth of publicly available information.
It is the same old familiar formula:
East=Persians=inferior=bad boys (or more accurately barbarians, what the Hellenes called all non-Hellenes, Persians in particular).
And when it comes to the endless East-West clash of civilizations, we can’t go any further back than the Helleno-Persian Wars of roughly 2,500 years ago (490-479 BCE) that inspired the narrative style of historical writing in the first place.
What we think we know about the “first wars of the worlds” (Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and Battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale in 480-479 BCE), comes from the ancient Graeco-Roman writers-collectively creating the classical sources (vs. the biblical references) of ancient history. The classical sources, written mostly a few years to a few centuries after the historical events, were more like historical fiction than factual history.
There are no comparable narrative accounts by the ancient Persians themselves, so the world according to the Hellenes (ancient Greeks) and their Hellenic political propaganda is now the backbone of the western view of ancient Persian history.
The basic plot of the 300: Rise of an Empire is rooted in the Persai (The Persians), by Aeschylus (dated to around 472 BCE), and the Histoire (Inquiries) of Herodotus (dated to around 440 BCE).
In a nutshell, in 480 BCE, Persians won the land battle at Thermopylae, came out slightly ahead at the battle off the headlands of Artemisium, and (against all odds) lost the sea battle at Salamis.
The exuberant enthusiasm of the Hellenes is certainly understandable. It was like an underdog team throwing a “Hail Mary” [a desperate long forward pass praying to score a touchdown] in the last minutes of the (American) Super Bowl and clinching the coveted championship!
The original 300 was about the moral victory of the Spartans at Thermopylae. So, this time around, it is the turn of a handful of angelic heroic Hellenes to save the democratic world by military victory over the horde of demonic despotic Persians at Salamis.
The rest about the vampish Carian dynast, Artemisia, promising to make the Persian Achaemenid Great King Xerxes (Persian: Xasayarsa, 486-465 BCE) into a god-king falls into the category of creative interpretation and familiar Hollywood showbiz-a gimmick to get to the girls who have made the Twilight and the Hunger Games into golden cash cows. In a comic-book flick, history is secondary to entertainment.
The Persians (Greek: Persai, Latin: Persae), a Greek tragedy written by the Athenian playwright Aiskhulos (Latin: Aeschylus, lived around 525-455 BCE), about the Persian defeat at the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, is the oldest surviving play in the history of theater.
Aeschylus and one of his brothers fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Reportedly Aeschylus was around 45 years old at time. His brother was killed during the battle. 10 years later, Aeschylus either witnessed or fought at the Battle of Salamis, and 8 years later, in 472 BCE, he wrote The Persians with the financial backing of the 20-year old Pericles (the famous Athenian politician, 495-429 BCE)-either as an independent play or the second part of a trilogy-which won the first prize at the City Dionysia, a large festival for the performance of tragedies in Athens.
Classical writers traditionally wrote about heavenly myths and heroic legends, but Persai was the only surviving Greek tragedy about contemporary events. As a writer, Aeschylus was free to write his own version of the events and reshape the historical account for the sake of theatrical dramatization.
Under the cover of concern for the defeated and dead Persians, Aeschylus described the frenzied slaughter of the barbarians (like the ritualistic killing of red-blooded Bluefin tuna) that turned the waters in the Straights of Salamis blood-red.
Over a generation later, Herodotos (Latin: Herodotus, lived around 484-425 BCE) wrote Histories, (Greek: Historie, meaning Inquiries), the first known narrative account of the Persian Empire from 559 to 479 BCE-from the rise of Cyrus the Great (559-529 BCE) to the Persian defeat at the battle of Plataea-in order to explain how the formidable royal army of Xerxes was (unexpectedly) defeated by the Hellenes in 480-479 BCE.
By then Xerxes was long dead, Persian Empire was as powerful as ever, and Athenians and Spartans and their allies were arming again, not to fight the Persians, but to fight each other-a bloody civil war lasting some 27 years-the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE. Who knows? Maybe it was an attempt to redirect a civil war by refocusing on a foreign enemy.
After the Helleno-Persian wars, the Persians returned to “Asia” and never returned.
We don’t know the Persian side of the story, but as the blind Irish poet Antoine Raifteiri (Anthony Raftery, 1779-1835 CE) wrote:
Bionn dha insint ar sceal agus dha leagan deag ar amhran.
There are 2 tellings to every story and 12 versions of every song.
According to another classical writer Dio Chrysostom (lived around 40-110 CE), the Persians had a different view of the Helleno-Persian Wars:
I heard a Mede declare that the Persians admit none of the claims made by the Greeks, but maintain that... when he invaded Greece, Xerxes was victorious over the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] at Thermopylae and killed King Leonidas, then he took and devastated Athens, sold into slavery all those people who had not fled and, after this success, imposed tribute on the Greeks and returned to Asia.
Was this indeed the official Persian perspective-their version of “Mission Accomplished!”?
Or were Xerxes and the Persians afraid of the Hellenes after their military setback and covering up with political spin? (Unlikely-just watch any football coach breathing fire after losing a game.)
Imperialist Persians were pragmatic administrators and bureaucrats who counted every “penny” (actually a quarter=0.5 grams) and accounted for every nail. Their close encounters of the first kind with the Hellenes and Spartans had taught them a valuable lesson: gold was mightier than sword-and a lot cheaper! And it seems that a subtle foreign policy of divide and conquer with gold effectively replaced the need for another costly large-scale military operation in the north-western border(s) of royal provinces of the Persian Empire. Standardized Persian gold and silver coins became the preferred form of currency in western royal provinces backed by the Persian royal treasury-the Great King.
For an interesting plot twist, when the Athenians ostracized Themistocles (524-459 BCE), (kicked him out of Athens), the hero of Salamis made his way to the royal court of Artaxerxes (465-424 BCE, royal son and heir of Xerxes), learned (Old) Persian in about a year so he could talk to the “King”. What did the Persians do to him? Well, they gave him the income of 3 villages in the north-west, so he could live comfortably as befitting a war hero. Persians knew how to be gracious hosts. Themistocles lived as a royal subject for the rest of his life. And over time horde of Hellene mercenaries found themselves at the service of the Persian Great Kings.
Whatever the historical truth, continuous telling and retelling of the Helleno-Persian Wars since the antiquity (in print and on stage) has reassured the westerners of the ultimate victory and superiority of the West.
Here is a sampling of non-fiction books published in the last decade for the general readers:
2004: Salamis: The Greatest Battle of the Ancient World
2005: Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece-and Western Civilization
2006: Thermopylae: The Battle that Defined History
2007: Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World
2010: Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization
Do movies, novels, plays, and popular history books really matter?
On the personal side, we see ourselves as active participants in the American society and we want to be seen in the (multi)media as contributors to the American way of life.
On the political side, we see ourselves as active participants in the peace process.
Good, bad, or ugly, there is no shortage of Iranians in the media, both behind and in front of the cameras, from documentaries and travelogues to reality shows and movies.
On the personal side, we can certainly learn from other minority coalitions who are making inroads in working with media outlets to advocate a balanced portrayal of ethnicity and diversity.
On the political side, public political power is rooted in consistently delivering votes and dollars to politicians-period.
According to a thought-provoking article by Michael Glennon, Professor of Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, “National Security and Double Government” (forthcoming) in Harvard National Security Journal, our publicly elected government is supported by a bureaucratic “government” that explains why the U.S. security policy has not changed much from one administration to the next, despite different public promises by the politicians.
If the legal reasoning holds up to scrutiny, the U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is in the hands of unknown bureaucrats and if, how, and how much they are influenced by popular media is anybody’s guess. The suspicion of the “charm offensive” by the newly-elected leader of the Islamic Republic is not likely to dissipate overnight, unless and until he delivers the “goods”.
It also means that our populist democracy is slowly drifting toward an elitist monarchy.
Something to think about.
Returning to the movies, there is of course another side (or indeed many sides) to the business of movies.
It would have been business as usual today, if Martin Luther King and other civil rights advocates and activists had not finally stood up and said: Enough! And now, movies (like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave) about the horrific practice of slavery in colonial America make the coveted shortlist of Oscar nominees in the Best Picture category.
And the winner is...
About the author: A. J. Cave is a San Francisco Bay-Area Iranian-American writer. Her first novel, Roxana Romance: Roshanak Nameh[Book of Roshanak] was published in 2008 followed by a novel about Cyrus the Great: Cyrus 0.9: Highlander, published in 2013.
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