Editor’s Note: This series first ran from August 25 through September 22, 2014. It’s part of a developing body of work in which Spencer Klavan makes classical history and myth come alive with vivid descriptions based on his own translations and comparisons to modern day culture and events.
If you’ve never seen Zack Snyder’s 300, do yourself a favor and drop everything to go pick it up right now. It’s the story of a tiny coalition of Spartan rebel fighters who make a heroic stand against the massive Persian hordes threatening to enslave them. With unflinching courage, the soldiers battle valiantly and die nobly for the freedom of Greece. The best part? It’s all true.
Well OK, some of it is. Snyder based the film on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. But the comic book is a stylized retelling of the battle of Thermopylae during the Persian War of the 400s BC, as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus. If 300 seems too epic to be real, it’s because Herodotus fudged a lot of details himself. But he got the outline right, and most of all he captured the feeling of one of the West’s most spectacular triumphs. Some of the most intense moments in 300 are lifted right out of Herodotus’ Histories. Here are the five most fist-pumping quotes from the movie, from awesome to awesomest, along with the true(ish) anecdotes from Herodotus that inspired them.
5. “SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?!”
Marching into battle, our Spartan heroes run across an army from another Greek district. The rival general turns up his nose at the size of Sparta’s ranks — they’re no match for an unstoppable Eastern empire. With a knowing look, the Spartan King Leonidas stares down the Arcadian fighters and asks them, “What is your profession?” One by one they answer: potter, sculptor, blacksmith. But when Leonidas turns around and bellows, “Spartans! What is your profession?!” his troops instantly respond with a resounding war cry. Leonidas grins. “You see old friend,” he growls, “I brought more soldiers than you did.”
I’ve been writing a lot recently about the headliners of the Iliad — star players like Achilles and Odysseus who are first off the bench and always get screen time. But I can’t let this series finish without giving a shout-out to the underdogs. These are the five top B-list team players who, in my opinion, just don’t get the street cred they deserve. This one goes out to the guys who work too hard for too little recognition: here are the most unsung heroes of Homer’s war poem, ranked from the most to the least underrated.
Handle: “The Machine”
Weapon of Choice: Spear
Why He’s So Underrated: Diomedes is a no-drama kind of guy. He has no dog in any of the petty fights that make up the poem’s main plot: he doesn’t care about Agamemnon’s cheating wife or Achilles’ wounded pride. He just keeps his head down and does his job. So while the divas are bickering, Diomedes quietly schools them all, racking up the most kills of anyone in the poem. The result is thirty-five dead Trojans — the second-place Greek finisher (Patroclus) doesn’t even come close to that. But no pats on the back for Diomedes — it’s all in a day’s work.
His Fifteen Minutes of Fame:
Book five is Diomedes’ virtuoso performance. After pages and pages of total obscurity, the gentle giant gets kicked in the pants by Athena, and suddenly he cowboys up big time. From out of nowhere, the nice guy nobody’s ever heard of becomes the unbeatable machine everyone’s talking about. Diomedes rips unforgivingly through ten Trojans in a row, and as an afterthought on the way casually wounds two gods — Love and War. After humiliating an entire army singlehandedly and drawing blood from two unthinkably powerful immortal beings, he jumps back into the action like nothing ever happened. Classic Diomedes.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been dusting off the one of the West’s oldest thrill rides: the Iliad. I’ve looked at the best, the worst, and the bloodiest parts of what it means to be a hero in the legendary war stories of Homer. This week, I’d like to put it all together and see if I can’t find some of Homer’s heroism wrapped into the ideas that made this country, our country, what it is. In short, I’d like to make the case for why democracy is the government of heroes.
The Greeks invented democracy, but their bible was a poem about kings. To read the Iliad, you’d think the common man shouldn’t be trusted to tie his own shoelaces, let alone make complex political decisions. Homer composed the poem in the 700s BC, and it’s about a war between bronze-age monarchies. In it, kings are the god-appointed rulers of men. Everyone else is born to obey. That’s what the Athenians were reading when, for the first time in Western history, they handed the government over to the people. So where on earth did they get that idea?
- Watch More
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did a rare thing earlier this month — so rare it’s hardly ever been done since the 1200s BC. In cracking down on Ravens running back Ray Rice for a savage act of domestic abuse, Goodell (begrudgingly, after getting backed against the wall by public outcry) plunked for morals over talent. That, as the ancient Greeks knew from reading the war stories of their cultural icon, Homer, is easier said than done.
It shouldn’t have been a hard choice. Rice seems to have been caught dead to rights on camera, beating his fiancée senseless in a public place. Even the snippet of the video that’s been publicly released by TMZ is difficult to watch: with the casual unconcern of a man used to being treated like a demigod, Rice drags the unconscious woman out of an elevator like a rag doll. He takes his time, as if daring anyone to stop him.
Worst of all, no one did stop him. Rice was right to assume that starting running backs with Super Bowl rings and solid rushing averages can do what they want and get away with it. Rice is a star; he sells seats. So for an offense that may put him behind bars, the league suspended that naughty, naughty boy for two whole games. It looked like Rice was in line to join the ever-growing complement of suspected criminals and potential felons to be slapped gently on the wrist before returning to their adoring fans and multi-million-dollar contracts. Ray Lewis, Leonard Little, Andre Smith — the list goes on.
Even in an epic poem, some scenes are more epic than others, and a few scenes just blow the top of your head clean off. The Iliad is packed with those scenes, and this week I’m bringing the five greatest hits to a theater near you. This is part two of my five-part series dusting off the awesome in the Iliad — last week I laid out the poem’s ten nastiest deaths. This week, I want to dig in a little more and think about one of the poem’s core ideas: heroism. What makes a hero? It’s a question we’re still asking, but Homer knew better than anyone what turns a man into a legend. So here they are: the Iliad’s five most intense scenes (each with my own translation, which you can read by clicking on the title), and some comments on the image they carve out of what it means to be awesome. Get out the popcorn.
When the gods go to war, you get your sorry self out of the way. Ares especially is the jacked-up juggernaut of them all, a bristling mountain of rusty bronze blades and throbbing muscles fueled by a raw thirst for carnage. But the Greek hero Diomedes charges full-tilt into Ares’ onslaught — an unheard-of and suicidally ballsy move. When the dust clears, Diomedes has done the unthinkable: he’s scored a hit and drawn divine blood. In the standoff that follows, Ares stares down the human who dared to stand up to him and retreats into the darkened sky.
If you just can’t keep up with kids and their slang these days, here’s a protip: when millennials say they’re “basically like eighty years old,” what they mean is, “please, please don’t make me drink until I vomit again.” (Also a protip is a piece of advice from an expert in the field. And a millennial is . . . you know what, never mind. One step at a time.)
For twenty-somethings, it’s sort of inversely cool to call yourself old. There are blogs, articles, and adorable BuzzFeed lists about being a grandparent trapped in a grandchild’s body. We’re all adorably grumpy, we stay in on Friday nights, and is it not just precious how we have our own recipe for stew?! The internet is crawling with perky little counter-cultural curmudgeons.
I’m one of them. I’m a cranky libertarian who goes to sleep at 10pm, except on weekends when I treat myself to a single glass of scotch and promptly fall asleep face-down in a bowl of roasted cashews. I don’t hook up, I go on dates — candlelit ones to restaurants with flowers. I wear ties.
Let’s get one thing clear: this is not your grandmammy’s Iliad. You’ve probably snored through a few excruciating lectures about “the subtle mastery of Homer’s poetic scansion.” Please. This is not some prissy love sonnet. This is a poem in which 12-foot-tall he-men use rusty bronze spears, devastating serrated blades, and boulders the size of tractors to rip each other to shreds over a stolen girlfriend in the most brutal and gratuitous cage match known to history. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reclaiming the Iliad in the name of awesome, with a series of posts designed to brush the dust off of Homer’s epic proto-action-movie. First up: the 10 most stomach-turning kills in the war between Troy and Greece, from least to most disgusting. All the translations are my own. All the bloodshed is Homer’s.
1. Twelve Sleeping Trojans: Gutted by Night
The fact that this is the least gory item on this list should tell you something about the upcoming mayhem. When the Greeks lose their star fighter, Achilles, they’re playing at a serious handicap. In desperation, they send two undercover operatives, Diomedes and Odysseus, to slaughter the Trojans in their sleep. It’s a low blow, but it gets the job done: while the Trojans are cuddled up all snug, the two Greeks eviscerate twelve of them, spilling their guts on the ground. “Unholy shrieking rose from them as they died,” Homer says, “and the ground ran red with their blood.”
It’s official: Parks and Recreation’s love affair with big government has ruined the show. Over its six seasons (which I admit I binge-watched like a strung-out coke fiend), Parks and Rec has devolved from incisive comedy into aggressively unfunny propaganda.
When we first met her, the show’s central character, Leslie Knope, was a masterpiece of observational humor, a lonely career bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur and a fetish for protocol. She was over-the-top, but at the same time anyone who had ever navigated the infuriating upper echelons of the DMV or city hall had met someone exactly like her — chipper, litigious, and maddeningly disconnected from reality.
The fun they made of her was genius. The pilot’s opening scenes showed her shoving a sleeping drunk out of a playground slide while declaring, “It’s a great time to be a woman in politics.” Her bright-eyed interviews were expertly undermined by intercut depictions of the meaningless drudge work that defines a job in small-town government. Poehler’s humorless smile, her expressions of officious solemnity, were masterfully executed — mockumentary at its finest.
Then slowly, slowly, the creative team let their inchoate political theories eclipse their comedic sense of truth. The creators had started out with fly-on-the wall research at real-life city council meetings, insightfully mocking the morass of self-importance and illogic that results when people get together to plan other people’s lives for them. But as that experience faded from memory, the writers replaced it with a dogmatic fantasy world based on the unexamined conviction that everyone needs a hyper-attentive government mommy. That’s when Leslie Knope became a hero, and Parks and Rec became about as entertaining as a health code referendum.
These days, everyone’s remembering the riveting beauty and power of Lauren Bacall, who created some of Hollywood’s most ruthlessly desirable women (remember Young Man with a Horn?) In my list last week, I commemorated Rome’s studliest heroes — a who’s who of men of valor from the ancient world. But now it’s ladies’ night: the women of Greek and Roman myth and history knew better than anyone how to seduce, deceive, and sometimes outright slaughter their way to unassailable wealth and power. To pay tribute to some of Bacall’s more insidious roles, here are 10 of classical history’s deadliest femmes fatales, listed — in descending order this time — along with the emasculated puddles of broken manhood they left behind.
Before Ancient Rome was a titanic empire, it was a collection of huts, a tribe of outlaws, and a few unshakable ideals — courage, virtue, and duty. The defense of those ideals inspired some of the greatest war stories and acts of heroism ever written down. Here are the 10 most badass heroes, ranked in ascending order, from Rome’s legendary history and historical legends.
The legendary founder who gave his name to Rome also carved out the city’s place in blisteringly hostile territory. Etruscans to the North, Samnites to the East, and Latins to the South: Italy was no safe place for a little village made of mud and bricks to stake its claim. Romulus led his ragtag team of rejects and outlaws against the peninsula’s fiercest tribal armies, saving Rome from being annexed or enslaved. But he had an erratic, unheroic temper that kept him from making it higher on this list — legend has it he murdered his brother in a violent rage.
(Livy 1; Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 1-2)
Homer’s epic poem about homecoming and adventure, The Odyssey, is one of the great action stories of all time. For the ancient Greeks it had the same white-knuckle thrills and intensity as Die Hard. It’s also a pillar of the Western canon, and its influence is so pervasive that it gets copied and replicated in every corner of pop culture almost without our noticing.
As the great EveryMan (EverySponge?) of our time, SpongeBob was destined to reinvent Odysseus’ archetypal hero quest for a new generation. On his journey to rescue Bikini Bottom from the evil Plankton, Spongebob battles a giant “cyclops” (a deep-sea diver), makes a royal mess out of a magic bag of wind, and negotiates a nasty vendetta from the sea-god, Neptune. That’s all lifted right out of books 9, 10, and 11 of the Odyssey. Legend has it Homer strongly considered opening with, “Tell me, muse, / Who is the man who lives in a pineapple / Under the sea?”