One of the very strangest things about the representation of Sparta in 300 is the treatment of the Ephors. If you’ve seen the film then you’ll know that they are portrayed as twisted and mis-shapen mystics, a kind of ancient race living high on a mountaintop above the Spartan city who spend their time molesting drugged-up, lithe, young women and betraying the Spartans to the Persians.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this (no, not the lithe young girls) and the more I think about it, the more it concerns me.
One of the things that people think they know about Sparta, but which is wrong, is that Sparta was a wicked military dictatorship ruled by kings. It’s an image that contrasts nicely with the “noble” Athenians who live in their proto-democracy, writing plays and founding Western civilization.
But it’s cobblers.
It’s true Sparta was unusual amongst the Greek states in that it did have kings but they did not conform to the image that word creates in the modern mind. They were not imbued with the divine rights claimed by the rulers of Europe between the dark ages and the democratic period.
Sparta had two kings who ruled simultaneously from two distinct royal lineages. Now this on its own might be an interesting experiment in the separation of powers, but the bits of what we know about the Spartan constitution also suggest a more significant division between the power of the kings (who, at least in theory, only ruled directly when the nation was at war and they lead the army in the field) and the Spartan people.
The fragment we have of the Spartan constitution is called the “great rhetra” and it sets out two distinct branches of government. On one side is what we might today think of as the executive, with the kings and a council of elders. On the other side are the institutions of “democracy” (I’m using that word very cautiously) with the Ephors – five magistrates elected each year (no man could stand twice) from a regularly meeting assembly, a body of all Spartan citizens. There are many, many theories about exactly how power balanced out in this system, but we do know that in the era of 300 the assembly and the Ephors were no mere sops – they had the power to punish kings and they weren’t afraid to use it.
In 491BC Demaratus was deposed and driven from Sparta and when Leonidas was doing his thing at the “hot gates” (480) Demaratus was standing beside the Persian king Xerxes. Demaratus’s co-king – Cleomenees I – fared even less well. When his role in tricking the Spartans into the wrongful exile of Demaratus was discovered he was chained in stocks, humiliated and probably murdered (490) – to be succeeded by the famed Leonidas, his half brother. Leotcyhidas, the king who Cleomenes placed on the throne in place of his rival Demaratus, was eventually also exiled (for corruption) and his house burned to the ground.
Things settled down after that for one line of Spartan royalty – Archidamus, Agis II and Agesilaus II in the Eurypontid side all saw out their reigns to their respective deaths (though not without considerable controversy in Agesilaus’s case). On the Agaiad line, however, things remained choppy. Pausanias, regent for the boy king Pleistarchus, was imprisoned by the Ephors and then, on trying to escape, was walled up inside a temple and starved to death. Pleistarchus’ successor Pleistonax was exiled for twenty years for corruption and his successor, a different Pausanias, was stoned to death in 395BC by the Spartans for failiure to follow an order to join forces with charismatic Spartan general Lysander.
In 130 years (between the first Persian invasion in 499BC to the collapse of Spartan dominance after the battle of Leuctra in 371) of the thirteen kings who reigned in Sparta, five (and one regent) were exiled or executed by the Ephors..
The common image of the Spartan citizen as an obedient soldiers trained from birth to obey orders, keep their mouth shut and respect their betters is not born out by the evidence of how they treated their kings.
So what is 300’s agenda. Is it just coincidence that the simplification of Sparta’s complex constitution and politics leaves us with a powerful, charismatic leader leading a white army of brave, beautiful, supermen into battle against a craven foreign foe?
If I were prone to promulgating conspiracy theories, I’d wonder whether the absence in 300 of the second king, the turning of the chief democratic officers of the state into monsters and the presentation of the only politician given any screen time as a treacherous bastard – represented some sort of attempt to gloss over or misrepreent the “democratic” element of Spartan society. Certainly Sparta has been wrongly used as a symbol of “strong leadership over a pure and strong people” by everyone from the founders of England’s great public schools to the Nazis.
Both 300 and the forces of conservatism (in the widest sense) entirely misconstrue the importance of Thermopylae and the lessons to be learned from the Greek city states of the fifth century.
If the Spartans are only soldiers, bred and educated only for war and admirable only for their superiority of arms – for possessing the ability to do improbable kung fu with an eight foot spear – then we might as well bow down to one mighty king (as, indeed, the Spartans in 300 do) – and thank our stars that we’re lucky that at least our king is modest, brave, handsome and white.
But the thing that set Sparta and the other Greek states apart from the Persians in the fifth century BC is not that the Greeks had better, braver kings or tougher soldiers. The reason for the continued importance of the many Greek cities experiments with politics is that they are the first documented attempt we have to organise societies under the rule of law. Laws from which no one is exempt – not a king, a rich man or a commoner.
That principle – the rule of law – is what allows individual liberty to coexist with collective endeavour in democratic states across the globe. It is, it seems to me, the non-negotiable pre-requisite for a decent society. It is also, I think, something that the individual Spartan citizen soldiers fighting “in the shade” (individuals locked, shoulder to shoulder, in a phalanx – perhaps the most fundamentally cooperative battle formation in history) would have understood as the thing that set them apart from the slaves and subjects opposite.
It is not as easy to make as glamorous as an battle scene, but 300 would have been a better film if it had been able to sensibly articulate the real issues at stake in this great clash of civilisations. As it is, 300 at best perpetuates a misconception and, at worst twists history for a rather sinister puropose.