Sparta and graphic novels

This year marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae, an unimportant battle in a minor war which has grown in cultural significance for all the wrong reasons. 

In Greece, facist organisations hold vigils to the battle. In Britain, the right wing elite centred around Boris Johnson liken themselves to the last Spartans. In America, gun supporters wear clothes with the Greek words Molon labe “Come and take it”. 

These are supposedly the words spoken by Spartan soldiers at the battle in late summer 480 BCE (as there is no ‘year zero’, you count 499 years before the common era and then 2,001 years after). A force of around 7,000 Spartan soldiers and their allies held up a Persian army at a mountainous pass, while the naval battle of Artemisium also took place.

The events have inspired politicians, thinkers and creatives for many years. Recently Sparta has been the subject for several graphic novels and films, which explains its resurgence in recent years. 

300 

Frank Miller’s 300 was published in 1998 and has been very influential on a popular understanding of the Battle and the City State of Sparta. It tells the story of Thermopylae in a stark and simple way. 

The wider political context is only sketched and brought into focus as required to tell the story of Leonidas the Spartan King. So much of the necessary detail is missed out – the supporting army of slaves who fought with the Spartans for example. This creates a tight and driven narrative, but lacks something of the political ambiguity of war and the psychological responses of people experiencing conflict. 

The art work is gritty, dominated by shade and earthy tones. Figures are exaggerated and what it lacks in psychological realism, it makes up for in taut, almost expressionistic depictions of extreme states of human emotions and physicality. This belies the essentially monochrome characterizations of Good v Evil. 

300 presents an intoxicating world of stoic men extolling in their manly virtues of courage, loyalty and skepticism. Yet outside of books, have people ever acted thus? 

Although Leonidas is presented as a hero, there is an underlying trauma in his psyche. A flashback to his childhood perhaps explains why. Spartan boys had a tough education, emphasising self-sufficiency and physical endurance. Reading Plutarch’s account in his life of Lycyrgus, if we take it on face value, it might better be called brutalisation than education. 

At their best graphic novels, like other narrative art forms, present complex and multi-layered stories. This is not 300, but it excels in creating a totalising world view, that although historically inaccurate is persuasive. Ultimately however, this is a comic book for oversized boys. 

Xerxes

Miller returned to the topic of Sparta in 2018 with Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander. This book covers nearly two centuries. It lacks the narrative and visual cohesiveness of 300. 

The art is also more stylised, creating almost futuristic portrayals of antiquity. One scene of Darius fleeing the Battle of Issus is similar to an image from Pompeii. 

As history the book is not great, but it nevertheless takes an interesting approach to the sources, for example using the Biblical Story of Esther (who has been linked by some scholars to Xerxes) but leaving the ending ambiguous. The Athenians also rout the Persians through a combination of Greek fire (first used 1,000 years later), while Aeschylos (better known as a playwright) is a ninja able to kill multiple Persians at one go.

Criticism of Miller

One of the major criticisms of Miller’s work is the exotisation of the east. Xerxes is resplendent in gold and luxuriates in his own effeminacy. The Persians are presented as the imperial overlords, masters of 100 nations, of ‘Asia’s endless hoards’ against Sparta and the Greeks, ‘free men of the world’. The Persians are also people of colour. 

Like Milton with his Satan however, Miller gives Xerxes the best frames. The intelligent and gorgeous Persian, outclasses the tense sociopathic Leonidas.

The book has been criticised for its understanding of homosexuality and same sex relationships in Sparta. Alan Moore in particular has commented on this. There is in fact an undercurrent, a frisson, between all the soldiers with their perfectly oiled bodies.

In 300, the army are shown disciplining themselves in almost sado-masochistic acts of punishment. Indeed, Spartan society had a particular ritual in which young men were whipped in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. By the Roman period, this had become a spectator sport.

The book is ableist. This reflects Spartan society but Miller adds his own level of bias. Although the Spartans faced overwhelming odds and were likely to lose the battle, it was claimed in antiquity that they were betrayed. Herodotus reported that a certain Ephilates betrayed the Greeks:

[Xerxes] was at a loss as to how to deal with the present difficulty. Epialtes son of Eurydemus, a Malian, thinking he would get a great reward from the king, came to speak with him and told him of the path leading over the mountain to Thermopylae. In so doing he caused the destruction of the Hellenes remaining there. 

Herodotus 7.21

The Epialtes of 300 is a disabled man. His parents fled Sparta with their baby, when they saw that he was disabled. Spartan society examined babies and exposed those which they considered unfit for their armies or child breeding. Epialtes is driven to his betrayal out of bitterness. He only wants to serve alongside the other Greek soldiers to prove his parents right and gain glory. Leonidas gently but firmly turns him down and in his anger he switches to the Persians.

We are meant to see the Spartans as real men- straight, sober and strong – this reeks of facism and makes the book, for all its strengths, unpalatable. 

Three

A more interesting graphic novel is Three by Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles. It is set a century after the events in 300, but clearly responded to the themes in that book.

The story is simple. A Spartan leader has been tasked with tracking some slaves who have murdered another Spartan. This sets in train a chase story which culminates in a bloody confrontation. Although this plot is quite simple, it allows the authors space to develop characters and explore the history and politics of the period in a way that doesn’t feel heavy handed

Three foregrounds the complexities and ambiguities of Spartan society. Sparta was a slave state. The training of its elite warriors based on the murder and torture of Helots, the underclass of serfs. Helots outnumbered Spartans and violence was used as a control mechanism.

If the iconic scene from 300 (at least the movie) is Leonidas throwing the Persian ambassadors into the well and shouting ‘This is Sparta!”, then in Three it is the murder of a Helot, with the words Sparta at the top.

The politics of Three is more ambiguous. The state of Sparta is now a declining regional power, within the wider Mediterranean world. One of the kings of Sparta is fighting in Egypt as a mercenary. There is a sense that the old ways of Sparta are changing. The myths which Miller took on face value are even then seen as myths. 

Two men debate a story about Lycurgus, the mythic law giver of the Spartans. He is said to have trained two dogs: one to hunt and one as a pet. The story is held to show the importance of training and education, but the two men disagree on the details. Are the dogs from the same litter or were they different breeds altogether? Does the story mean that nature and nurture combined are the key to success or that nurture alone. As a slave society, there is an inherent paradox in the state’s ideology, if they claim it is nurture alone that defines a man’s capability of holding his own inherited position in society. 

As the Spartan contingent marches to battle, if we can call it that, the commander gives a speech. Rather than pithy words, he says openly “Today we march for Justice, we march for order. The lowly cannot think themselves able to strike against their betters. We strike for Sparta”. Whose justice is quite clear: Sparta’s justice.

The three helots include a woman. Spartan women enjoyed better rights than Athenian women. They could choose their husbands and were able to inherit property. They were also notorious in ancient Greece for their strength of character. Plutarch writes that Spartan mothers would say to their sons “Come back with your shield – or on it”.

Summary

The multi-layered book Three is a much better book than 300, although the artwork of 300 is arguably  more atmospheric. Both books are great to read in conversation with each other, but if you only have time to read one make it Three.

Also of interest is Thirty by Matteo Zaccarini which is in development supported by an ICS Public Engagement grant.

All images used as fair use as part of a review.