By John Trikeriotis
The historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote in Book 7, Chapter 187 (Aubrey De Selincourt translation) that: “Amongst all these immense numbers there was not a man who, for stature and noble bearing, was more worthy than Xerxes to wield so vast a power.” Yet, the Warner Bros.’ movies “300”, and its followup “300: Rise of an Empire” which premiered last week, elected to characterize the Achaemenid king based on the eponymous Frank Miller comic book series. His depiction in both of these films as a multi-pierced, bejeweled royal has greatly contrasted with the appearance of Darius the Great’s son, who was immortalized on the palatial reliefs of Persepolis, and more accurately portrayed in the 1962 20th Century Fox motion picture, “The 300 Spartans”.
While this physical transformation in the movie is disconcerting, it pales in comparison to the embellishments with respect to Xerxes’ reign over his forces during the Graeco-Persian Wars. More succinctly, it is the symbiotic relationship between Xerxes and Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus which is appallingly ahistorical. Herodotus recorded through oral testimony that Artemisia commanded five vessels, and added that Xerxes was so impressed as to her gallantry during the Battle of Salamis (September 480 BCE) that he stated, “My men have turned to women, and my women to men.” While this anecdote may be apocryphal, screenwriters, Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, have significantly expanded the role of Artemisia beyond incredulity. Portrayed by French actress Eva Green, the Queen of Halicarnassus’ influence over Xerxes coincides with her ascension to the rank of admiral in the Persian king’s navy. In a series of vignettes, any officer or official of the court who remotely looks as if they will present a challenge to her rise in power is deftly dispatched.
In what is perhaps one of the most implausible scenarios from this latest motion picture, Xerxes I (Rodrigo Santoro), as a result of Artemisia’s Machiavellian maneuvering, plays a subordinate role and is essentially emasculated in the process. Furthermore, historicity continues to suffer when the queen in another moment of bravado and posturing declares “I will attack the Greeks...with my entire navy.” While this rhetoric may fit into the context of the movie, in reality her fleet was so proportionately small relative to that of the entire Persian armada of 600 plus vessels that it is highly improbable that she could have had a major impact on either of the naval battles of Artemisium (August 480 BCE) or Salamis.
There is one bright spot in the film which begins with the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) and ends with the Battle of Salamis. It is the image of the construction of the two bridges over the Hellespont (modern day Dardanelles), which enabled Xerxes’ army to march from Abydos to Sestos. Measuring a distance which has been conservatively estimated at approximately 1,400 yards, while spanning over the Hellespont’s turbulent waters, these structures are considered one of ancient history’s greatest engineering achievements.
The battles and several of the combatants featured in “300: Rise of an Empire” have been chronicled by ancient historians, as was the three-day naval engagement at Artemisium. As one of the focal segments of the film, it was fought concurrently, on the same days as the conflict at Thermopylae. However, the fighting at Thermopylae is not depicted, only its aftermath is included. Apparently the studio felt compelled to reference the death of King Leonidas and the Spartans during the last stand since it would validate the application of the “300” moniker in the follow-up film’s title. Furthermore, Noam Murro, who succeeded Zack Snyder as director, continued linearly with his predecessor’s visual style. Unfortunately, “300: Rise of an Empire” also maintains the same approach for rendering much of what is shown on the screen as caricature.
All images © Warner Bros.
About the author: John Trikeriotis is a lecturer of ancient Greek warfare and member of the archaeological group, “The Leonidas Expeditions”. In addition, he created the 300spartanwarriors.com, which is used by schools and libraries as a resource on the Battle of Thermopylae.
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