March 28, 2007
If you think stand up comedy is in a rut, you should try Gholamhossein Elham, an Iranian government spokesman. Old Gholam had me in stitches when he stood up and screamed foul over the blockbuster 300 a couple of weeks ago. He called 300 an insult because it portrays the Persians as slobs back in 480 B.C.
Well, I got news for Gholam. They were terrific slobs back then, and many of them continue to be slobs today. They wear tablecloths on their heads, sit on the floor to eat, and eat funny-smelling food with their hands. They also scream a lot, beat themselves to a pulp with chains, and think Uncle Sam is the great Satan. Persians, as they used to be called before the Shah decided to call them Iranians—it means Aryan, but if the Iranians are Aryans I’m Monica Lewinsky—are not very popular with the neocons, which makes them very popular with me. Sure they’re slobs, but so are many people in Hollywood and Noo Yawk.
Back in the old country we’ve been making jokes about the Persians since 480 B.C. But we also like them because they made heroes out of us Greeks. We only lost once to them, in Thermopylae in 480 B.C., but they were 400,000 of them and 300 of us. A fool like Victor Davis Hanson calls that a defeat, but a far greater historian, Taki, calls it a resounding victory. Mind you, we never lost to them before or after. In 490 B.C., general Miltiades wiped the floor with them in the battle of Marathon. Ten thousand Athenians routed 100,000 in close corps-a-corps fighting. Miltiades then ordered a fat hoplite who had not mixed it up and was fresh to run like hell back to Athens and tell the locals not to burn down the city as was the plan in case of a barbarian victory.
The fat hoplite ran the 42 kilometers 385 yards (or 26 miles), and dropped dead as he entered the city walls and pronounced “Enikikamen”: “We won.” Legend, however, gave the credit to Pheidippides, a renowned runner, but Pheidippides was a general and generals are not messenger boys. In any case, he was on his way to Sparta, a good three days away, to enlist Spartan help. The Spartans sat on the fence, so to speak. But back to the blockbuster 300 and Gholam the angry.
The historian Herodotus recorded Xerxes’s army as one million strong, but it now seems to be an over inflated number. Old Herodotus may have gotten carried away. The number of barbarians was closer to 400,000, or more than 1000 to I against. The Spartans were not neocons, however. They relished a fight, as long as they were the ones doing the fighting. A jerk by the name of Donald Kagan wrote a book about the Peloponnesian War and called Sparta a “fascist place.” Thank God it was, otherwise it would not have survived as long as it did. My mother was a Spartan, as were both her parents, and our ancestral home is now the Spartan museum. When the Italians invaded Greece in 1940, my mother had five brothers and a husband fighting in the front . For some strange reason I suspect no Kagans ever did any fighting, but then I could be wrong.
Sure, helots worked the fields and performed all manual tasks. So do Hispanics today in America. Male Spartans were forbidden any profession, trade or business except the business of war. Had the barbarian hordes overrun the Spartans quickly, Western civilisation would have never taken place. Today we’d be wearing tablecloths on our heads and have even worse table manners than we do. Spartans threw sickly babies down Mount Taygetus, figuring they’d never make good soldiers—a cruel thing to do but it ensured a tough army. (A theory has it the sickly ones thrown down the ravine were the first neocons, but I believe it’s a theory like any other).
When the Spartans left their home to go up north and intercept the Persian hordes, most Greeks accepted they would fight bravely then retreat in good order, surviving to fight another day. Not the Spartans. They actually fought to win, and could have pulled it off in the narrows of Thermopylae if it weren’t for a traitor, Ephialtes, (the very first chickenhawk) who showed the barbarians another path which enabled them to come around and encircle the Greeks. “The Spartans, reckless with their own safety and desperate, since they knew their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians,” writes Herodotus.
A simple inscription marks their sacrifice. “Passerby, tell the Greeks that we have done our duty.” Athens was the cradle of democracy and birthplace of western thought, but it was Sparta, 100 miles to the southwest, which made it possible. Their heavily armed foot soldiers used eight deep shield walls moving in perfect step, like Panzer tanks, to bulldoze the enemy off the field of battle. In the battle of Plataea, where they threw the Persians out of Greece forever, these Spartan formations broke through the enemy stockade and massacred everyone in sight. Never again would a Persian army invade the Greek mainland. Alexander the Great took care of them later in their home field. Gholam, you’re lucky to be living in the present.