Friday, 9 January 2009

Come back with your shield, or on it.

Greece, 480BC. The Pass of Thermopylae. 300 Spartans. Led by King Leonidas, they stare death in the face. Death in the form of Persia's God-King Xerxes.

So here I am talking about the Battle of Thermopylae. For any of you who don't know off the top of your head, that's the one where 300 Spartans held their own against millions (apparently) of Persians (at the Pass of Thermopylae). Most people know about it from Frank Miller's 300.

But I already knew about it. It fascinated me since I asked my Ancient History teacher who the toughest warriors were - ever. Without hesitation, he replied "the Spartans." We asked why and he explained. It took him a whole lesson (when we should have been revising) but he jumped up and told in amazing wisdom the whole story. And we sat captivated. The politics, the motives, the bravery, the defiance, the honour, the whole Spartan way of life - all of it has thrilled me ever since.

So you can imagine my annoyance when 300 came along. It's not that the film is bad. Yes it takes a few liberties, but on the whole, it's pretty accurate. No, it's that they got there first! Damn them!

So it's impossible for me to write a film about how King Leonidas and his 300 defied the government, marched across Greece and held their ground against all odds for 6 days, all so that the rest of Greece could launch a counter attack. The Spartans knew they were going to die. They fought with their hands and teeth before being overwhelmed.

I mentioned earlier that it's the whole Spartan way of life that interests me. Take a look at 300 and at the beginning they explain some of it. You may think that they're being dramatic. "They didn't really throw babies into a pit if they sneezed," you may laugh. But they did. Age 7 and they went through the Agoge, where they really learnt to fight. It's all in the film and most of it is true.

The line "Come back with your shield or on it" was the Spartan motto, meaning - either come back victorious, or dead. Die in battle. Never surrender.

The reason the Spartans lasted for so long is simple. The Pass of Thermopylae was narrow. Wide enough to fit maybe 50 men let's say. So the Spartans wait there. Their history and training make them stronger individual warriors than the Persians. Put one Spartan against one Persian (or two for that matter) and the Spartan would walk away.

So the Spartans wait there. The Persians filter in. They bottle-neck. They can only fit 50 men in the pass. So those 50 men fight the 50 Spartans at the front line. As I've said, the Spartans are superior, so they cut the Persians down. Another 50 charge in. But it's still 50 vs 50. And the Spartans are better.

With all the men in the world, King Xerxes could only fit 50 of his men into the pass at any one time. The only thing that made the Spartans fall was fatigue. A few were killed in the battle and as they grew tired, they lost energy.

Remember that, people - if you have superior warriors but they have superior numbers; bottle-neck. It's a sound plan.

Quite a story eh? Don't believe me? Madness you say? Madness? No. THIS...IS...SPARTA!!!!!!

Sorry, it had to be done. Please forgive me.

So as I write this, I start thinking about another Spartan film I could write. Maybe one about the Agoge? I know a fair bit about it, so why not use it? But are people interested in what a seven-year-old boy goes through in ancient Sparta? I know I am. Anyone else interested in ancient history would be, but is the audience?
I could maybe tell the story of a Spartan from his childhood, through the Agoge, to joining the army, to earning a place a King Leonidas' side and setting off to Thermopylae.

Interesting. Could be an audience for it, but there might not. What do you think? A shiny idea, so a classics-geek pipe dream?

To leave you with the classic Spartan line, I say -

"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."


Michelle Goode said...

I think it could work, but you need some sort of plot other than the biographical angle. You need to add interest...conflict, even.

Take the Spartans and their way of life, morals and so forth and add something to it that will turn it on its head.

I've seen 300 but I'm no history buff, so my suggestions may seem crazy and laughable... But, what say you follow the life of that boy and then find out what happens when he falls in love with a girl from the very people he is being brought up to hate? Maybe that's a bit too romantic/Romeo and Juliet for your liking, but it's the sort of twist that would be interesting to explore.

What if the boy went missing, injured himself somehow and found himself being taken in by the Persians? With memory loss he could be drawn into their way of life and then, when the battles commence, he begins to remember things... Having made a family with the Persians yet still connected to the Spartans (strong bond with mother?) he has to decide how to act.

OK, so you might scoff at all that! But it's just me typing up what comes to my mind in response to your writing dilema... So...Yep...Have fun with it! :)

Neil said...

Whoo, thanks Michelle. I can always count on you to get the creativity flowing. Thanks for that. To be honest, I hadn't thought about any story or conflict etc, but that's all really good to think about.

I'm thinking a bout a boy who doesn't want to fight, but then that wouldn't happen. Hmm...needs to be original......a guy who falls in love won't want to die, it's that simple. So he won't really want to go to Termopylae. Would be interesting inner conflict on its own - wanting to stay with the girl vs falling with honour for his people. That's a huge drive even now (especially in Ancient Sparta). I mean we still talk about these guys and they died thousands of years ago.

Thanks for getting me thinking. Oh and don't put yourself down - anyone who scoffs at those ideas is probably very short-minded :)

Michelle Goode said...

I just meant that those ideas might not even conform to the way of life back then - i.e me, having no idea about the historical details, might be getting it VERY wrong.

But I'm glad it got you thinking; that was the aim! :)