This article was first published in the May 2007 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
The recent surprise success of the movie 300 and the amount of controversy it engendered once again reminds us of the power of movie-making and history and its impact on modern conceptions of national, ethnic and religious identity. Anyone who has seen the film can attest to its dramatic cinematography and stirring battle scenes. They can also attest to some of the outright fantastic portrayals of both human and beast, particularly on the Persian side during the famous Battle of Thermopylae, a tale made immortal by the Greek historian Herodotus (The Histories).
How accurate is Hollywood's retelling of one of the most famous battles of antiquity? Were the Persians, particularly King Xerxes, fairly represented and what sources are available to get closer to the truth? A proper investigation necessarily begins with sources. In this case there are several, including Herodotus, the Old Testament, and the epigraphic and archaeological discoveries brought to light by excavations in modern Iran.
It should be immediately noted that the movie is based largely on a comic version of the battle as recounted by Herodotus. Taken from Frank Miller's (Sin City) fictionalized tale, it is replete with computer-generated imagery and scenes reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and other such fantasy films. The dominant theme is one of free men (the Greeks) fighting overwhelming odds against a vastly more numerous foe commanded by a tyrant (the Persians under Xerxes I).
For all the criticism of aspects of the film, from the lack of body armor worn by the Spartans to the freakish depictions of Persian soldiery and animals led by an androgynous King Xerxes, the story accurately portrays the historical framework of the battle as it took place in 480 BC. According to Herodotus, who authored the only surviving account of the clash, when the emissaries of the Persian monarch came demanding earth and water, the Spartans did indeed throw them into a well, but the victims were earlier representatives sent by Darius rather than Xerxes (Herodotus VII: 133).
The Greeks' ingenious strategy was to funnel the oversized Persian forces into the narrow seaside pass at Thermopylae, which was only 50 feet wide, according to Herodotus (VII: 176), and thereby nullify the Persian numerical advantage. They were led by the Spartan king Leonidas, who in fact marched with 300 of his own hand-selected elite infantry at the head of a combined Greek force during the Spartan festival of Carneia (VII: 205-6). Successive attacks on the Greek position, first by Medes and Cissians, followed by the King's Immortals, were successfully repelled by the Spartans, with the former suffering innumerable losses, much to the alarm of Xerxes himself (VII: 211-12).
After two days of futile assaults, Xerxes found himself at a loss as to how to dislodge the Greeks. It was at that point that the Greek turncoat Ephialtes approached the Persian camp and betrayed knowledge of the mountain track that enabled the Persians to undertake a flanking maneuver to entrap the Greeks (VII: 213). Leonidas forbade he and his Spartans from vacating the field while evacuating others, (VII: 220) and were finally overwhelmed with "missile weapons" (VII: 225). Evidence of Xerxes' exasperation with the stubborn Spartan defense was revealed by his order to cut off the head of Leonidas and fix it on a stake, something omitted in the film (VII: 238).1
In sum, though the makers of 300 were faithful to the general outline of the battle, their depictions of the Persian forces and Xerxes were gratuitous and misleading.2 It should occasion no surprise that a war story told from the Greek perspective would be slanted and somewhat propagandistic. The fact that no known version of the battles in Greece was recorded by the Persians is also not surprising, given that they were military disasters. So we must go elsewhere to recover a more complete and balanced portrayal of the Achaemenid Persians.
The Old Testament paints the Persians in a more positive light. Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC), founder of the Persian Empire, was viewed as an exceptionally enlightened ruler. The Cyrus Cylinder documents his policy of religious tolerance and liberation, which accords well with his proclamation recorded in 2 Chronicles 36:22-Ezra 1:8. In it he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the "House of the Lord." Furthermore, he removed from the temple of Babylon the gold and silver articles of the Jewish temple taken by Nebuchadnezzar and returned them to Israel. Of these momentous events Isaiah prophesied:
The Lord says... is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid"' (Isa 44:28).
Isaiah goes so far as to refer to the Persian king as a messiah, who the Lord will use "to subdue nations and to strip kings of their armor" (Isa 45:1).
Cyrus died on a military campaign and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses, who ruled for only eight years and about whom the Bible is silent. Cambyses died without an heir and was succeeded by Darius I, who may have been a usurper (Yamauchi 1996: 143-45). Darius, or Darius the Great, ruled the empire from 521-486 BC and relocated his capital to Susa, where he undertook building on a monumental scale. The city covered 300 acres and featured a royal quarter that contained a propyleum (pavilion), a gatehouse, a massive palace, and an apadana, or audience hall (Perrot and Ladiray 1996: 243-51).
The most impressive of these structures was the palace, built in a Mesopotamian style. The palace covered an area of 38,000 sq m, with three large open courtyards surrounded by dozens of storerooms and royal apartments. Decorated bricks were found bearing colored representations of guards, winged bulls, sphinxes, and griffins. The name of Darius was inscribed on clay and stone tablets and glazed bricks from the ruins of this structure (Muscarella 1992: 216-17).
The palace was the scene of the Book of Esther during the reign of Darius' son Xerxes I, known in the Bible as Ahasuerus3 (Est 1:1), held by many to be a historical novel (Moore 1975: 79). Archaeological discoveries have not provided proof for the story of Esther, but have shown that many of its details are quite plausible, including Xerxes volatile temper, his extravagant promises and gifts, the Persian names listed (Millard 1977), and the personal name Mordechai, which appears in a number of 5th century Aramaic texts, one of which belonged to a government official (Moore 1975: 74).
Details of the palace decorations described in Esther may well reflect large-scale portable art used in native Persian and Median tents or semi-permanent houses:
The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. (Est 1:6)
Elamite texts of this period demonstrate that the city was a center of textile production as well as a transit point for textiles sent from other Median cities. The local products might reflect the nomadic origins of Persian culture (Farkas 1980: 20-21). These hangings were displayed in the "enclosed garden of the king's palace," which clearly refers to the open courtyards excavated at Darius' palace at Susa described above.
In sum, the excavator of Susa was prompted to remark:
One today rereads with a renewed interest the Book of Esther, whose detailed description of the interior disposition of the palace of Xerxes is now in excellent accord with archaeological reality (Perrot 1974: 20).
If Esther's portrait of Xerxes is of a somewhat volatile potentate, he is also portrayed as just and merciful, something omitted from Hollywood's version. In fact, rather than the caricature of hordes of barbarians described by Herodotus, the Bible gives us a more nuanced picture, perhaps since the Hebrews in exile lived amongst the Persian people and were well acquainted with its culture.
When the exiles encountered opposition to reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem from the transplanted inhabitants of the land, they appealed to Darius to search the archives for Cyrus' decree permitting the Jews to commence rebuilding. The scroll was found in Ecbatana, and Darius commanded the Israelites to resume their project unhindered (Ezra 5:17-6:18).
Xerxes' son Artaxerxes I (464-424 BC) also played a prominent role in the reconstruction of the Jewish nation. He sent Ezra the priest to Jerusalem with silver and gold and accompanied by Jewish religious officials in order to reinstitute the temple, to administer a judicial system, and to instruct the people in the worship of God (Ezra 7). Thirteen years later Nehemiah, cupbearer to the king himself, requested and was granted leave to attend to the repair of the city walls and was appointed governor of Judah (Ne 1-2; 5:14f). The walls were eventually restored and were dedicated at a reading of the Law of Moses by Ezra to the assembled people (Ne 8).
This brief survey of Achaemenid Persian history from the perspective of Herodotus, the Old Testament, and archaeological discoveries paints a more complete and balanced view of the Persian Empire than was shown in the film 300. From the Greek vantage point, they were a savage horde beyond number who came as a conqueror to devour tiny Greece. But a more thorough analysis shows their rulers to be quite enlightened and tolerant, at least as rulers of ancient empires are judged. Indeed, the Lord used Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes to restore his people to the land from which they had been expelled due to their unfaithful ways. This is how the Persians will be remembered in Scripture.
1. A notable aspect of the death of Leonidas in the film is his depiction as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself for Greece and with arms outspread in death as if on a cross.
2. Xerxes portrayal as a loathsome and decadent giant owes more to Frank Miller than to Herodotus.
3. Ahasuerus is the linguistic Hebrew equivalent to Khshayarsha, the name of Xerxes in Old Persian (Moore 1975: 70).
Farkas, A. Is There Anything Persian in Persian Art? Pp. 15-21 in Ancient Persia: The Art of an Empire. Ed. D. Schmandt-Besserat. Malibu. Undena, 1980.
Millard, A. The Persian Names in Esther and the Reliability of the Hebrew Text. Journal of Biblical Literature 96/4: 481-88, 1977.
Moore, C. A. Archaeology and the Book of Esther. Biblical Archaeologist 38/3-4: 62-79, 1975.
Muscarella, O.W. Achaemenid Art and Architecture at Susa. Pp. 215-19 in The Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures In The Louvre. Ed. P.O. Harper et al. New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.
NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Perrot, J. Historique des recherchés. Cahiers de la Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Iran 4: 18-19, 1974
Perrot, J. and Ladiray, D. The Palace of Susa. Pp. 236-54 in Royal Cities of Biblical World. Ed. J.G. Westenholz. Jerusalem. Bible Lands Museum, 1966.
Radice, B., ed. Herodotus: The Histories. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Yamauchi, E. Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.