Hollywood and Sparta; Masculinity and Sexuality. (Thoughts on the Ancient Greeks, Part 2 of 3)

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Judge me if you wish, but I love using Hollywood films to teach history courses.  You want to know why I love it? Two reasons.  First,  movies provide students with an opportunity to empathize with figures of the past.  Lecture and textbooks rarely are able to bring raw human emotion into the classroom.  Films can do that. Second, movies often get history completely wrong….Wait, what?  How is this good, you might ask?  I find that analyzing the inaccuracies of historical films clarify historical reality since this reality is often more shocking and memorable once we compare it with Hollywood falsehoods.

“This IS SPARTA” from movie and graphic novel

Films dealing with the Ancient Greeks are particularly good for this, since the filmmakers often misrepresent Hellenic culture so blatantly. Two such films  are the 2007 flick ‘300’, based on the Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, recreating with much artistic liberty the Spartans’ sacrifice at the Battle of Thermopylae, and 2004’s “Troy”, which is loosely based upon the seminal work of Western literature, Homer’s “The Iliad”.   Neither of these movies would be considered ‘great’ films.  They are not award winning; critics generally panned them; and, quite honestly, they are a bit tedious.  But, I love to use clips from these movies because of how they represent, and misrepresent, a central tenet of Ancient Greek civilization:  Masculinity and sexuality. 

When it comes to masculinity, “300” has the most disturbing inaccuracy.  One of the most memorable scenes of the 2007 film comes when a Persian messenger arrives at Sparta to threaten the Spartan king Leonidas (actually, there were two kings in Sparta), requesting submission to the invading Persian king, Xerxes.  Leonidas turns the messenger down, explaining why he can’t submit.  Leonidas needs to worry about the Spartan reputation.  He is especially concerned about this reputation since the Athenians have already rejected the Persian offer, and Sparta can’t be shown up by Athens.  Leonidas makes this clear to the Persian messenger by deriding the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’.   After poking fun at the weakness and perversity of Athens, Leonidas then provided a lesson for the Persian in noble Spartan toughness by yelling “THIS IS SPARTA” while kicking the man  down a bottomless pit. 

You can hear the disdain in Leonidas’ voice when he talks about those Athenians; those boy-lovers.  For a modern audience though, there is never any further dialogue to provide an explanation as to what the Spartan king means by this insult. Do the movie-makers believe their audience understands this reference? Or, were they simply using the words of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, since that line originates with it?  Perhaps the movie-makers and Miller think it is obvious; loving boys, and the evident Athenian propensity for it, clearly separates Athenians from the uber-masculine, uber-militant Spartans.  It is implied for the movie-goer that ‘boy loving’ is something strong, laconic, Spartan warriors just don’t do.  Leonidas loves his wife; end of story. WRONG!  As Professor Paul Cartledge has written, the Spartans were a bit notorious among fellow Greeks for loving boys. Reality is that ‘boy love’ was common within all the Greek world, and Sparta was no different.

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Let’s break away for just a minute  for some clarification.  The love of ‘boys’ sounds extremely disturbing to our 21st century ears. ‘Boys’ usually mean children to modern English speakers. But, we need to understand that ‘boys’ in the Ancient Greek context would be understood as young men.  Were they all consensual adults?  No, they were not, though no concept of ‘legal age’ existed for either men or women during this time period.  Furthermore, ‘love’ in the Greek context does not necessarily mean physical acts of love (though that was a possibility).  Loving a young man could mean wanting to be near him; teach him; protect him.  For the Greeks, love of young men was natural, and noble since the highest level of beauty was found in the physical body of a young, athletic male.   This was the Greek world; the Spartans were as much a part of it as the Athenians.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “300” is not the only film to misrepresent Greek culture when it comes to “Greek Love.” In the 2004 film “Troy”, the relationship between Achilles BradTroya_N(Brad Pitt), and his young ‘nephew’ Patroclus is central to the story.  As Achilles refuses to fight the Trojans because of his petulant anger at King Agamemnon, impatient Patroclus rushes into the battle wearing Achilles’ armor.  Patroclus dies at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector, and the killing of his ‘relative’ finally gets Achilles’ blood boiling.  Achilles desire for revenge, and his inevitable defeat of Hector is one of the central moments in Western literature.  Yet, the filmmakers of “Troy” completely misrepresent Homer’s vision. In the original epic, Patroclus and Achilles were not nephew and uncle. They were men who loved each other.   Perhaps not physically (or perhaps so), but they are as close as two men can be. The loss of his male love is what drives Achilles’ blood-lust. Family relations has nothing to do with it.

Our modern interpretations and misrepresentations of the past tell us a great deal about our own culture, but an analysis of why these films differ from Ancient Greek reality would be a whole other post.  However, when discussing this glossing over of ‘Greek Love’ in class the other week, one of my students made an astute comment.  She pointed out that the audience lining up to see ‘300’ and ‘Troy’ are usually composed of young men, and they may not feel comfortable with heroes being in love with other heroes.  I think she is dead-on, and her statement proves that young male masculinity in our society is similar, and at the same time, dissimilar to masculinity in Ancient Greece.  Much like the Ancients, youthful masculinity today is based upon aggression, and these films speak to that.  No need to change Sparta’s love of violence; Leonida’s love of victory; Achilles’ love of glory. But, unlike Ancient Greece, modern masculinity is based upon stoicism towards other males. Dudes don’t embrace each other, much less express the love they feel for each other in words.  It is no wonder movie-makers would be concerned that Achilles’ real relationship with Patraclus would be discomfiting for many  21st century young movie-going males. Heck, many of these ‘brahs’  won’t even sit next to each other in a crowded theater, leaving one seat in-between each wannabe Leonidas.

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Comments
  1. Wow this is so interesting. Its sad that men cant connect emotionally anymore and that society makes them feel its not manly to express themselves. This is a growing problem in relationships as well as people are not connecting on the same level that is healthy. Look forward to reading more.

  2. TravelShep says:

    Well written, thank you. I notice that your article is written from and for a USA perspective while the previous comment generalises that to “society”. There are many cultures around the world where men and young men especially can openly display affection for their friends. Sadly though the Americanization of these cultures through the mass media is changing this.
    Cheers,

    • MSJ says:

      Thanks for the nice feedback everyone. TravelShep, you are quite right that I am writing from an American perspective. Perhaps I should have made that more clear. What is considered masculine, or manly, is most definitely different in different parts of the world.

  3. abvblogger says:

    Wow. I had no idea about the truth behind the Achilles – Patroclus relationship. It did seem a little forced during the movie…

    • MSJ says:

      Thanks for the nice feedback everyone. TravelShep, you are quite right that I am writing from an American perspective. Perhaps I should have made that more clear. What is considered masculine, or manly, is most definitely different in different parts of the world.

  4. […] teaches history, I am always looking for realism when it comes to film/television drama.  I have written about this on the Turtle before, so I won’t go into it too much, but suffice to say, the thing that concerns me about […]

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