The new film 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to 2006 hit 300, promises to be another riveting and awe inspiring adventure.
The original is of course a fantastic story of awesomeness. What made it so awesome? Was it the mind-rending special effects, the gorgeous and perfect bodies flashed about, or epic battles staged in the most fantastic of ways?
The answers are yes, yes, and emphatic yes! But when we think about it, we of course immediately realize that the worth of the film is far deeper than pretty images and awesome fights.
The brave Leonidas acts as unbending bulwark defending freedom and democracy from chaos and tyranny. Of course, massive historical inaccuracies aside, this steadfast dedication to freedom inspires us, but again, the deepest interest of this film—and likely its sequel as well—is not even that dedication to freedom.
The depth of both films, which depict the Greek victories against the second Persian invasion of Greece, never show us the most amazing thing about those wars. They are hinted at, and we are teased by them.
Heck, even the title Rise of an Empire is a pretty unsubtle hint… What happens to the Greeks after they win? And the answer to this question has profound implications for us today as a society, and even in our daily lives.
Think about it. Imagine that you are a Greek. Your loosely tied citizenry, which usually spends its time trying to kill each other off, has just fought off what is, to your knowledge, the world’s most powerful, most massive, and most technologically advanced army.
You know that your own military is pretty awesome. You developed the phalanx after all—the idea that each man’s shield would protect the man to his left, but even so, your military was really made up of people who kept their weapons at home and grabbed them when called to arms. In other words, you really had no standing military, you were not a country of professional soldiers. So how the heck did you defeat an army that some report was 10 times bigger than yours?
You know it wasn’t your gods. They are pretty awesome. But they also choose sides willy-nilly. They can’t be trusted, and they have some pretty deep-seated failings. And you know it isn’t your country’s weather.
In comparison with everyone around you the land of Greece has little gold, silver, or precious gems, so how did you win? Superior tactics? Even the hero of the newest film, Themistokles, was prepared for a loss, he leaked bad information to the Persians, know it might help him win, but if they lost he could claim to be a traitor and seek Persian asylum.
Really, there was only one possibility left… you won because you are awesome!
The Greeks really came to believe that their incredibly impossible defeat of the Persian army (twice) must be the result of the fact that there was something awesome about them. The result of this belief became the Greek Golden Age.
The Greeks came to believe in the ability of humans to do amazing things, together, without divine help and proceeded over a period of about 200 years to develop democracy, literary theory, drama and comedy, art theory, and a litany of philosophical achievements too long to mention—not to mention the birth of physics with the idea of the atom. It may well be the most productive period of art, philosophy, and literature in western history.
And that humanism, the belief in human awesomeness, unlike the humanism of the Nazi’s wasn’t really a belief in “we are better than” so much as a “we are capable of” and because they believed they were capable of amazing things, they did them.
The Greeks believed they had an obligation to themselves and their community to do it. So what is the lesson? Two things:
1. When humans decide to do amazing things, that's when they can do it. It is the belief that we can be amazing, that makes it possible for us to actually be amazing. That's what the Greeks had, belief in themselves and in humanity!
2. As soon as the Greeks started fighting amongst themselves again, the Golden Age collapsed, Phillip of Macedonia took over, and then the Romans conquered them and all of that art, knowledge, and beauty became something the Romans admired but didn’t respect.
And so, still today, because the Greeks couldn’t keep their act together, we still believe it is more important to make roads than art. Keep that in mind when you watch 300: Rise of an Empire!
Nicolas Michaud is an author and editor of numerous pop culture and philosophy books.