Book Review: 300, The Empire, by Theo Papas

In 300. The Empire, Theo Papas tells the story of how the Greeks of the 5th century B.C. united to fight off the encroachment of the massive and powerful Persian Empire, ruled by King Xerxes. King Xerxes’ father, Darius I, was defeated at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. by the Athenians under General Miltiades. He made his son Xerxes swear on his deathbed that he would avenge the loss and burn Athens to the ground. In 480 B.C. Xerxes invaded Greece with armed forces numbering in the millions according to Herodotus. (This figure is probably exaggerated, but it is clear that the Persian forces far outnumbered the Greek.)
There are two Greek heroes in this story, one is King Leonidas of Sparta, and the other is Themistocles of Athens. Leonidas, the Agiad King of Sparta, and his bodyguard of 300 men, attempted to delay the Persian invasion by holding the narrow pass at Thermopylae. This battle has gone down in history as a shining example of bravery and valor. Leonidas and his allies got the better of the Persians until they were betrayed by a local who informed Xerxes of a narrow goat path over the mountains in exchange for a substantial purse of gold. Leonidas, upon learning that his cause was lost, sent his allies away and he and what was left of his three hundred strong Spartan bodyguard obeyed Spartan law by making a last bold but futile stand against the Persians. They were killed to a man.
The other hero was Themistocles of Athens. Themistocles was the son of an Athenian merchant and his Helicarnassian wife. He was not a member of the aristocratic class and was a strong advocate of democracy in Athens. His mother, according to this book, was the sister of the King of Helicarnassas and his cousin was Artemisia, who would inherit the throne when her father died. Artemisia was a loyal subject of King Xerxes and commanded five ships in the invasion. Papas presents the relationship between the cousins, Themistocles and Artemisia as a torrid love affair. She attempts to persuade Themistocles to betray his cause.
Themistocles becomes a powerful figure in the newly formed Athenian democracy. As a merchant he is privy to information about the impending Persian invasion and he goes on a fact-finding journey accompanied only by a Persian speaking slave. When he returns to Athens he urges the city to build up their fleet so that they can impede the Persian fleet. Without freedom of movement, the Persian fleet cannot supply Xerxes’ massive land forces.
After the Greek forces at Thermopylae are destroyed, Xerxes marches on to Athens. The populace of the city flee and Xerxes burns the city to the ground. Themistocles, however, controls the narrow strait of Salamis, and lures the Persians into a fatal sea battle. Artemisia tries in vain to persuade Xerxes not to engage the Greek fleet there. During the battle she displays such courage that the King is heard to say “My men fight like women and my women fight like men.”
Papas does a masterful job in describing both the battle of Thermopylae and the battle of Salamis. Over all, 300, The Empire is engaging and exciting. In describing Spartan society, however I think that the author oversimplifies and exaggerates its features. Laconia was a more complex society than he depicts with a free merchant class of non-Spartan citizens, the perioikoi, and, even among the Spartans themselves, an uneven distribution of wealth. The use of iron bars as currency is largely a myth. Even Papas himself says that the Spartans in Leonidas’ body guard brought along a coin to pay Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. (I doubt that even the boldest Spartan would have attempted to pay Charon with an iron bar!) It is also doubtful that the extreme brutality depicted at the adolescent wrestling match would have been tolerated. The Spartans couldn’t afford to lose potential fighting men so unnecessarily. For a more nuanced account of Spartan society I recommend the Leonidas trilogy by Helena Shrader. The author could also use a biology course. A woman who is barren and childless would not qualify to be a nursemaid to a royal infant. She wouldn’t be able to produce milk.

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