Right. Long time, no blog. But this one is going to be a heartfelt post that may well put some noses out of joint. But it needs saying.
The Greek government is issuing memorial coins for the battle of Thermopylae, on the 2500th anniversary.* Just a glance at the choice of images got me thinking, and then a colleague’s post about it dragged me back to my blog.
Some aspects of these coins are striking – the choice of event, and the choice of imagery.
The battle of Thermopylae was a defeat which changed exactly nothing in its immediate aftermath (though not everybody grasps this). Potentially it delayed the Persian invasion by a few days. So why not commemorate the battle of Salamis a few weeks later, the naval victory of an alliance of Greek state against a superior naval invasion force, which arguably was the crucial turning point in the war? In fact, the invasion was finally forced to retreat after the battle of Plataea a year later.
A number of reasons for choosing Thermopylae all the same come to mind, and almost all of them make this an angry and anxious blog post. Before I launch into all that, it’s worth noting that Thermopylae grew in the collective memory very soon after these events, and not least because the Spartans invested in publicising the battle as a heroic sacrifice, and we have to assume that this version of events played a role in the political rhetoric in the decades that followed. This was also the time when Herodotus turned the event into a gripping story of Greek defiance against overwhelming odds which has had such staying power.
But the choice of Thermopylae is rather more troubling at this point in time:
- Nationalists so love snatching a glorious defeat from a victory. Nationalism doesn’t work without a sense of glorious victimhood, and no amount of winning can change that. This makes a legendary defeat with no discernible benefits to anybody a better choice than actual victories.
- There is a class aspect to this (as Christy Constantakopoulou has pointed out). Thermopylae is cast as the sacrifice of 300 noble aristocrats – nobody ever seems bothered with the 700 brave men of the city of Thespiae who stayed to die with them, let alone the helots – Spartan serfs – forced to come on campaign. The naval battle of Salamis was essentially won by the rowers, which means citizens who couldn’t afford armour. Even in antiquity, this made a difference to how these battles were remembered, but there is something not quite right today when we focus on the idle aristocrats who sent the smallest force they could get away with and then invested heavily in PR to turn a defeat into heroics.
- Last but not least, there is the troubling link between Thermopylae specifically and white supremacist ideology. Persian War memories have always lent themselves to notions of a few heroic superior Europeans saving civilisation from the dark hordes of the East. This narrative has grown over the millennia, although it just doesn’t stack up. But ever since the film 300 came out, at a time when US anxiety about the Muslim world was rising, and illegal wars depended on ‘East vs West rhetoric’, various troubling notions about White superiority and a certain manly heroism (combined with the homoerotic aesthetic of Nazi classicising ‘art’) have become even more closely linked with the memory of Thermopylae specifically.
What is shocking is that the choice of imagery on these coins seems to tap into exactly this recent tradition. If the Greek government assumes that this will sell more coins, it is almost certainly correct. There will be a big market for these, particularly the memorial €10 coin whose sole purpose is to be a collectors’ item.
Let’s just look at the iconography of that coin. On one side, we have a man with naked torso, helmet and shield. The inscription on the shield identifies him as Leonidas; the spears around him indicate a battle scene. Obviously, no Spartan would ever have gone to war without proper protective armour: this is the look of the movie 300 (or Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name). You might argue that it is based on the fifth-century statue of a man with helmet and shield from Sparta which is popularly known as ‘Leonidas’ (its posture makes clear that it was part of some kind of fight scene, and that it isn’t meant to be a portrait). But even if the basic features are similar, the special emphasis on the muscular torso points to a different reference point.
There doesn’t seem to be a high resolution image of the reverse of the coin, but suffice to say that it opposes Persians and Greeks, using very different images from different contexts. The Greeks, dynamic and aggressive, are taken from mythical fight scenes on vases (the detail is not clear enough to say more), while the Persians are based on images of nobles or ceremonial body guards at court – standing still in their full regalia, clearly not ready for a fight – and that’s exactly as we are meant to see them in that stereotypical split between vigorous, manly west versus effeminate, ineffective easterners.
Just looking at this, the one thing I am thinking is that this 2500-year anniversary of the Persian Wars comes at a really bad time all round. I assume that I am not done ranting about it.
UPDATE (15/02/20): Looks like the link to the film 300 is going to be quite explicit.
Gerald Butler who played Leonidas in the film will be at the anniversary celebrations.
*Technically next year, because there wasn’t a year zero, but frankly, there are more important things to worry about.
- Coin pictures from the Greek City Times article about the new coins
- ‘Leonidas’ hoplite statue from the Sparta Museum: photograph by G.E. Koronaios, at Wikimedia Commons
With thanks to Christy Constantakopoulou for alerting me to this. Her post got me to write this, but of course, the opinions and errors in this blog are all mine!