“The 300” is an epic movie that is based on real events. The story centers of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC during the Second Greco-Persian War. The battle is described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.
Although a bit over the top the film delivers a few important messages. One is that war is the ultimate exchange of cultures. It is the extreme sharing of ideas, beliefs and ultimately men at war.
Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler), standing on a mountain of dead Persians, replies laconically to the Persian king Darius, “We’ve been sharing our culture with you all morning.”
In that movie and in history the Greeks represent the rational Western democracy fighting a desperate battle against the tyranny of eastern (read: Oriental) fundamentalism.
To the diehard fanatics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) this fight is the other way around. Arab Islamic culture is steeped in oral history and tradition, today’s battle for the Middle East is simply another round in a long war. How did we get here?
Greece was the birthplace of western civilization. For a 1,000 years, this strong and charismatic people devised the most advanced technological feats the world had ever seen to that point.
A new generation of thinkers appears. Much of Western philosophy finds its basis in the thoughts and teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. A new understanding emerges and a way to look at the world is formed.
Great feats of technology were created. How these people moved truly gigantic stones and created great works of marble is an ancient miracle.
Technological wonders were fueled by leaders who united a people and launched them to point of the empire.
This brilliant burst of culture and creativity would fall victim to savage battles that would pit brother against brother. It would be a duel to the death that would lead to the end of a golden age.
The Greek City-States
In Greece a number villages started to band together. It was done in part for protection and in part for more organized trade. Once a group of villages came together they formed a city-state.
There were hundreds of city-states in ancient Greece. Some were large and some were small. Each had its own army in the form of a local militia. Some were large enough to have a navy.
Each had its own traditions. All of them were linked by language and culture. Not too different than the way the British and Americans see one another today. To quote Winston Churchill, “Two people separated by a common language.” There were more similarities than differences.
The citizens of the area identified with their city-states. They would say there were from their geographical city-state. All though they all spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods.
The largest and most powerful of the city-states was Athens.
They banded together to fight when threatened by an outside force. Later they would band together to fight each other.
The Persian Empire
Started by Cyrus the Great in 559 BC the Persian Empire rose of out of the grasslands of what is modern Iran. Persia was the superpower of its day. Enormously wealthy and self-confident it dominated the world.
It spread from Pakistan in the east, west to through Central Asia, to Macedonia in the north to Egypt in the south. It was home to 20 million people out of a time when the world population was estimated at 100 million. Persia was the most multi-ethnic and multi-cultured empire the world had ever seen.
The Greeks thought the Persians were barbarians. In reality, the Persians were quite advanced and civilized. They built roads, brought peace to far-flung parts of their empire ensuring fair trade. They introduced the first coinage system to the world.
Persian aristocracy lived by knightly virtues of chivalry and courage. Where they differed from the Greeks was that they were ruled by an autocracy. The Persians called their king, “One King” or “Great King.” He and he alone governed all of the provinces of this vast empire.
The Greek city-states had a touchy relationship with each other. Like arguing brothers, they often fought over the smallest details. But when threatened, they came together. Brother, can fight brother, but no outsider fights a brother alone.
They shared a strong kinship of a strong democratic spirit. These ideals permitted open debate and favored representative government based on majority rule. They saw the greatest threat to this way of life as being ruled by one king. It was an idea of freedom they were willing to die for.
The Stage is Set
The differences of view of philosophy and political viewpoint set the two cultures on a collision course. As the Persian Empire continued to expand it started to look towards the Greek city-states.
The wars would last over 50 years.