Ancient Greece, Present-Day Iraq,
the Fruits of Empire, and a Really
Loud Movie

I saw the new movie 300 the other day, all about the Spartans and the battle of Thermopylae. Good stuff. Maybe not the most historically accurate movie, but it hits all the high points and gets the big names right. And if not 100 percent faithful to history, it is certainly faithful (almost slavishly so) to its source material, a graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller. I'm a big fan of Miller — have been since Daredevil #184.

The filmmakers behind 300 put some fantastic images up on the screen and kept things going at a nice pace. For some movies, that's all the reason you need to plonk down your nine bucks.

And that should be all there is to it. This isn't Paths of Glory or The Deer Hunter. It's an extremely superficial movie — and by that I don't mean that it's a dumb movie or one that lacks emotional punch; I just mean that everything is right there on the surface. There are no depths that need to be plumbed, no subtext to be teased out.

But it is a war movie, and we are a nation at war, so everyone with a minor in cultural studies is out blogging their heads off about what this film means. And because the subject is a battle between a western, European army and an eastern, Persian one, it plugs right into the “Clash of Civilizations” meme that's been going around like the flu. Then someone who's actually somebody in the Iranian government objects to the film, calling it part of a gigantic anti-Persian psy-ops campaign orchestrated by the U.S. government. Man, you can't buy that kind of publicity.

The movie did get me thinking, though — that is, after the overwhelming urge to kill people with a spear wore off. The film ends with the battle of Plataea, one of the last battles of the Persian Wars, in which the united Greek city-states kicked the Persians out for good. Oddly enough, as the Spartans went storming across the screen, all I could think about was the Athenians.

Because the end of the Persian Wars marked the beginning of the Athenian Empire. Not many people talk about Athens as an empire, but it was, and on an oddly modern model. The great naval battles of the Persian Wars, first at Artemisium and then at Salamis, had proven the preeminence of the Athenian navy. During the war, Athens united a number of lesser city-states into the Delian League to fend off the Persian onslaught. After the war these city-states became essentially vassals to Athens, exploited by a potent combination of economic and naval power. Athens, while not above sending in the troops, tried to do so sparingly, preferring to control its subject states by controlling the trade that was their lifeblood. In this the Athenians were operating much like 19th-century Britain or 20th-century America.

Now, when people talk about America as an empire these days, the comparison is almost always made to ancient Rome. And there are comparisons to be made. Bread and Circuses? Why yes, we have fast food and cable TV. Are we decadent and self-involved? I believe Paris Hilton was on Entertainment Tonight just the other day providing a glittering, vacuous illustration. Militaristic? Check. Xenophobic? Check. Easily the wealthiest, most powerful player on the scene? That's a very big check.

But the Roman Empire was based on military conquest, armed garrisons, and provincial governors. America hasn't felt the need for that since we decided we just had to have Hawaii. Since then, it's been the threat of American power, more than the use of it, that's been our primary empire-building tool. That's true even for the World Wars. Sure, we ramped up and put gigantic armies in the field. But once we had eliminated the perceived threat, once we had secured our rights and privileges — our “status” — away we went back home. And if we left a base or two behind us in, say, Germany, Japan, or Korea, that was only to keep an eye on things — not to run the show.

Which brings me to Iraq, where we are trying to run the show on the Roman model, rather than the Athenian, and in doing so have been playing to our weaknesses rather than our strengths.

It seems to me that the people in charge of America — a vague, shifting cabal of elected officials, military professionals, intellectuals, industrialists, and administrators — at some point bought into the America-as-Empire idea. Their thinking was something along the lines of, “Hey, we won the Cold War. We can do whatever the hell we want and who is going to stop us?”

The decision was made to finally face our imperial nature. This has always been difficult for a country founded by men who looked toward the better angels of classical democracy and then rebelled against a monarch. But perhaps it was time to stop deceiving ourselves. We chose the path of empire and then, after 9/11, the powers-that-be in America strode boldly down that path.

Only they picked the wrong kind of empire to be (if there is a “right” kind), and now thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians are paying the price in blood. And even if the killing and maiming stopped tomorrow, the cost — in money, in ruined lives, and to America's reputation — will continue to be paid for generations to come, at a final cost no one can calculate.

The funny thing (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) is that Athens forgot the kind of empire they were, too. They tried to be Rome — well, Sparta, anyway — and the result was the costliest, most devastating defeat in their history. And it came — as so many military disasters do, from the Germans at Stalingrad to Custer at Little Big Horn to the Spanish Armada — because they had convinced themselves that there was no way they could lose.

The Sicilian Expedition came during a lull in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta had finally had enough of Athens trying to lord it over the whole of Greece and went on the attack. Spartan armies devastated the Athenian countryside year after year. Rather than march out to face the Spartans in a land war they knew they couldn't win, the Athenians stayed behind the walls of their city and used their navy to send out expeditions in the Peloponnese to harm Sparta where they could. Both sides lost battles and won them. There was a plague in Athens because the people were cooped up for such a long time. In short: general misery with no conclusive results. A shaky peace was made, then fell apart.

Then some bright Athenians got the idea to invade a distant ally of Sparta, Sicily. The reason? Vast grain reserves — enough to feed armies of hoplites and cavalry. It was the petroleum of the day.

One of the men the Athenians proposed to lead the expedition, Nicias, voted against it. He knew his countrymen were overreaching. When the scheme was accepted anyway, he demanded 100 triremes and 5,000 hoplites, a number he thought to be so high that the Athenian assembly would balk. Instead, they agreed. Enthusiastically. To be fair, at least they didn't try to do it on the cheap.

Athens and Sicily don't seem that far away from each other to the modern American perspective, but in the fifth century B.C., it was at least as great a projection of power as getting American forces to the Persian Gulf today. The Athenians landed and did terrify some Sicilians into accepting them as their new rulers. But the people of Syracuse, the largest and most important city on the island at the time, decided to fight.

The Syracusans got clobbered in their first fight with the Athenians. Remember, Athens had been fighting Sparta for quite a few years by this point, so they knew what they were doing. But because the Athenians didn't have any cavalry with them (horses didn't travel so well by trireme), they couldn't exploit their victory. They went back to camp for the winter and sent word back to Athens: send more money, more guys, and a bunch of horses.

By spring all those things had shown up — but so had the Spartans. They sent ships, soldiers, and most importantly a certain general Gylippus, who soon began drilling and training the Syracusans. And if you've seen 300, you know no one trains as hard as Spartans do.

There were naval battles around the island between Athenian- and Spartan-aligned navies. There was a siege of Syracuse with walls and counter-walls being built, and any number of land battles. Unfortunately for the Athenians, they had camped near a marsh, and both the original expedition and the reinforcements were soon feeling sickly. It was a figurative as well as literal quagmire. While the expedition hadn't had any major losses, they hadn't been able to secure the island, either. Meanwhile, Spartan forces were threatening Athens on the mainland. Nicias — who was himself sick and exhausted by this point — decided it was time to go home.

Just then there was a lunar eclipse. Nicias, a particularly religious man, asked the priests what he should do. The priests told him to wait another 27 days before sailing. It was just the break the Syracusans — now feeling a bit more confident after seeing just how invincible the Athenians weren't — were waiting for. They attacked with all the ships they could find. Many of the Athenian vessels were driven to the shore, where Gylippus and his hand-picked men were waiting. They killed as many sailors and took as many boats as they could. It was just enough to tip the scales. The Spartan/Syracusan navy was able to blockade the harbor where the Athenians were moored.

The Athenians tried to break out, but the attempt was a confused mess. The ships were fighting close together, which meant the Syracusans were able to ram the Athenian ships head-on — the battle technique they preferred — but the Athenians couldn't use their own favorite tactic, the broadside ram. They were driven back to the shore after losing more than half their ships. Back on land, the Spartan-led troops were waiting.

The next morning the Athenians — still about 40,000 men including sailors, soldiers, and camp followers — left their dead and wounded and retreated inland, their flanks and stragglers harassed by archers, javelin-throwers, and cavalry. That night, in the darkness and confusion, the army split in two and the smaller half was rounded up and forced to surrender.

The rest of the men, still under Nicias’ command, pressed on to the Assinarus River. By the time they reached it, most had been marching or fighting for almost three days without rest or water. Many were trampled to death by their fellow Athenians in the rush to drink. A Syracusan army was waiting for them on the far side of the river. The fight that followed was a massacre.

Only 7,000 Athenians survived the battle. Nicias was executed — against Gylippus' express orders, but by then the Syracusans had their blood up. The prisoners were thrown in a rock quarry and those that didn't die of their wounds or starve to death were eventually sold into slavery.

When news of the defeat got around, it cost Athens much of her empire. With the threat of retaliation gone, most of the client states opted out of the Delian League. All the tribute that had been keeping the engine of the Athenian Empire humming along just evaporated.

And back in Athens, it cost them their democracy. The assembly was dissolved and Athens became an oligarchy. They hung in there with the war for a lot longer than anyone expected, but in the end Athens was forced to submit. Sparta occupied the city in 404 B.C.

What is to be learned from all of this?

Lesson number one: Don't fuck with the ancient Spartans. But if you've seen 300 you know that already, and besides, the franchise pretty much petered out around the third century.

Lesson number two: Don't let your reach exceed your grasp. No matter how big for your britches you may be feeling, keep a sane, sober idea of what you're actually able to accomplish before making any really major plays.

Lesson number three: Speak softly and carry a big stick. Oftentimes the threat of force has more influence than any amount of force you could actually bring to bear.

Lesson number four: Pick on someone your own size. This isn't just good manners — it's good sense. If you get in a fight with someone smaller and weaker than you and you win, at best some people shrug, at worst a few people frown. But if you lose, everybody laughs. There's no winning that fight.

Lesson number five: Get while the gettin’ is good. Or even if the gettin’ is not so good. If disaster is looming on the horizon, don't look for excuses to dick around.

Lesson number six: Democracies demand good leadership or they cease to be democracies. You can be a really crappy dictatorship and hobble along indefinitely, but manage a democracy badly enough for long enough and it will turn into something else.

There are other lessons to be taken from all this, I suppose, and other parallels to be drawn to our own present situation. History, after all, is philosophy taught by example. That last line is actually a quote from a guy named Thucydides, who was a general in the Peloponnesian War on the Athenian side. Well, he was until he lost an important city to a Spartan general named Brasidas and got fired. He spent his retirement writing a history of the conflict — one of the first and best histories ever set down, by the way.

Thucydides most famous quote is this: “The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” This is not Machiavelli-style realpolitik. He puts it in the mouth of an Athenian representative who is threatening the ruler of a smaller, weaker city state. He puts it there to show how, in the course of going to war, Athens — a city famous for reason and justice — has lost all moral compass. Because that's what war does to a country.

Which is something to think about.

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