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kottke.org posts about herodotus


posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2008

During the conference Xerxes sent a man of horseback to ascertain the strength of the Greek force and to observe what the troops were doing. He had heard before he left Thessaly that a small force was concentrated here, led by Lacedaemonians under Leonidas of the house of Heracles. The Persian rider approached the camp and took a thorough survey of all he could see — which was not, however, the whole Greek army; for the men on the further side of the wall which, after its reconstruction, was now guarded, were out of sight. He did, none the less, carefully observe the troops who were stationed on the outside of the wall. At that moment there happened to be the Spartans, and some of them were stripped for exercise, while others were combing their hair. The Persian spy watched them in astonishment; nevertheless he made sure of their numbers, and of everything else he needed to know, as accurately as he could, and then rode quietly off. No one attempted to catch him, or took the least notice of him.

Back in his own camp he told Xerxes what he had seen. Xerxes was bewildered; the truth; namely that the Spartans were preparing themselves to die and deal death with all their strength, was beyond his comprehension, and what they were doing seemed to him merely absurd. Accordingly he sent for Demaratus, the son of Ariston, who had come with the army, and questioned him about the spy’s report, in the hope of finding out what the behavior of the Spartans might mean. ‘Once before,’ Demartus said, ‘when we began our march against Greece, you heard me speak of these men. I told you then how I saw this enterprise would turn out, and you laughed at me. I strive for nothing, my lord, more earnestly than to observe the truth in your presence; so hear me once more. These men have some to fight us for possession of the pass, and for that struggle they are preparing. It is the custom of the Spartans to pay careful attention to their hair when they are about to risk their lives. But I assure you that if you can defeat these men and the rest of the Spartans who are still at home, there is no other people in the world who will dare to stand firm of lift a hand against you. You will now have to deal with the finest kingdom in Greece, and with the bravest men.

That’s from Book VII of Herodotus’ The Histories, translation by Aubrey de Selincourt. Why was none of this hair-combing business in the movie? That would have been great in slow motion.

Which reminds me. My other question about 300 is why the filmmakers, having wonderfully distilled and reduced the Hollywood action movie down to its fantastically violent essence, padded the remainder of the film with 45 minutes of the most boring slow-motion-filmed plot since Plutarch’s Watching Paint Dry? 300 would have benefitted greatly from a little worship at the altar of Jason Bourne: don’t stop the fucking action, ever.