Upon reading David Halperin’s Is There A History of Sexuality? I immediately connected it to the 2006 film 300, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Gerard Butler, which is based on the 1998 graphic novel of the same name. The film focuses on the historic Battle of Thermopylae in which a small contingent of Spartan warriors took on a vast Persian army. The film and novel are clear fictionalizations of these events, but are interesting to look at for their representations and misrepresentations of a central tenant of ancient Greek civilization: masculinity and sexuality.
The film is ripe with eroticism and hyper-masculinity as the warriors themselves are near naked, incredibly buff and constantly cast in a romantic light. Spartan culture was indeed focused on the ideal male form, to the point of instituting a ritual in which weakness is discarded even as early as birth. Shaved Spartan boys are then thrust into a world of violence enduring what they called the agōgē in which they are taken from their mother’s and raised by men.
What the film completely ignores is the pedagogic relationship boys were required to develop with an adult male Spartan who would be their tutor. There is some hint of this between the soldier Stelios and his younger friend Astinos but what homoerotic behavior might be inferred from this is overruled by the quote early on in the film where the main character King Leonidas refers to Athenians as “boy-lovers” with a tone of disdain. The Persians, meanwhile, are portrayed as much more sexually open, having orgies and presenting themselves effeminately with makeup, piercings and perfumes. They are also portrayed as the villain however, and their legion of inhuman monsters fighting for their lustful androgynous masters makes the film seem even more homophobic.
The monstrous Persian representation, as well as Leonidas’s remark against homosexuality (or potentially pedagogy), is in stark contrast to the rest of the films conception. In addition to worshipping the male form, the film is overflowing with imagery of penetration. This is mostly in the form of spears and swords bursting through Spartan enemies and spraying blood everywhere. Indeed the fighting is glorified at an erotic level, frequently being slowed down to highlight the Spartan prowess at an almost pornographic level. These visualizations fit better with Halperin’s exploration of Greek culture and its focus on male dominance and insertion. The films few sex scenes also revolve around penetration, represented in one scene by the involuntary gasps of air Leonidas’s Queen must release with each thrust of his spear. In another scene the Queen gives her body to a politician to help win support for her husband’s war, and the climax of the film culminates in her penetrating him back with a sword in the gut.
This brings us to the role of women in Sparta, which was unique even amongst the Greeks of this time period. When a Persian messenger challenges the Queen for speaking out of turn, asking, “what makes this woman think she can speak among men?” she retorts “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Even having more rights than most women of their time is somehow still summed up by male dominance, in this case Spartan ego. Still the Queen plays an important role in the plot of the movie and in the war effort, speaking at the Senate to rally support for her husband. Despite this the film emphasizes that love is a weakness in the eyes of the military. This could have to due with the male superiority in Greek culture, as women were seen as inferiors and objects of desire alongside boys. Real Spartan men were not permitted to live with their wives and could only visit them secretly in the night, though leaving the barracks at all was discouraged.
To me, Halperin’s purpose was to display that while today’s society views sexuality as a binary that has existed since the days of Adam and Eve, it in fact has a much more vibrant history. Indeed it seems Greek and Spartan sexual cultures were so different from our own that we cannot completely understand what it was to live within them, let alone expect a movie audience to grasp the cultural differences as historical realities.