Does Bush Resemble Leonidas or Xerxes?


March 14, 2007 — -- The leader of the most powerful empire in the world invades a small country to avenge his father's failure to do so years ago. His army is relentlessly attacked by a proud group of insurgents who denounce the empire's decadence.

The leader of a brave fighting force vows to defend freedom at all costs against an enemy from the Middle East. To rally his troops, he makes a speech, declaring, "The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant."

Is one of them President Bush?

That's the question on the minds of some political observers who've seen "300," the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Although the movie tells the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which Spartan leader Leonidas and his band of 300 soldiers fought to the death against Persian king Xerxes, many see analogies to the war in Iraq and American policy in the Middle East.

Since before the movie's release, ideological warriors on the left and right and even the president of Iran have been dueling over the movie's significance and its success -- is it just a reflection of a yearning for heroes by Americans dismayed over the grim news coming out of Iraq?

"It's open to different interpretations," said Kerill O'Neill, a classics professor at Colby College. "The rhetoric of the Spartans about defending freedom is comparable to that said by the administration and the treacherous politicians who seem to be selling out to the enemy could be seen as Democrats who are soft on terror. The distinction I would make is that in the current war, Islamic fundamentalists see themselves as defending against Western decadence whereas here the decadence comes from the East and the Spartans are pure and espouse simple family values."

Some conservative commentators see Bush as Leonidas, defending America's freedom from the threat of Islamofascists and Iranian leaders. And some liberals agree, arguing that the Spartan's stubborn refusal to negotiate and his use of extreme measures parallels Bush's defiance of the international community and use of torture to fight the war on terror.

Others see the president in the mold of Xerxes, an all-powerful leader who is determined to avenge his father and wipe out a small band of warriors. One commentator on the liberal blog Alternet wrote on the Persian king's motives: "Because he thought he was a god and therefore was taking what was rightfully his -- everything in the world. Who does that sound like? Think oil."

And the Spartans? They "were more like any handful of 'enemy combatants' whom refuse to give in 'till the death," the commentator wrote. "Suicidal you might say," wrote another commentator.

The movie's portrayal of the Persian forces has helped fuel some of these arguments. Xerxes is portrayed as a towering giant covered in facial piercings and makeup. And the rest of the Persians? They're lesbians, disfigured people, disfigured lesbians, gay men, elephants and rhinos, according to Dana Stevens, whose review in Slate quickly made the rounds of the blogosphere.

Stevens condemned the movie, comparing it with Nazi-era propaganda films and calling it "a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."

Even Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government was offended. "Such a fabrication of culture and insult to people is not acceptable by any nation or government and we consider this attitude as hostile," said Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham during his weekly press briefing in Tehran earlier this week.

So, is that what the filmmakers intended -- to make a parable about current events? After all, Frank Miller, whose graphic novel inspired the movie, has been outspoken about his belief that we're in the middle of a clash of civilizations. "It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western world is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants," he said during an interview with National Public Radio in January.

Director Zack Snyder, whose oeuvre includes "Dawn of the Dead," claims that politics was the farthest thing from his mind, although he welcomes the analysis. When a reporter asked him about whether Leonidas was an insurgent or Bush, Snyder replied, "Look, if the movie can make that debate real, make people talk about it, great. That's more than I could ever hope."

Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar at the Hoover Institute who advised the filmmaker, says that the issue never came up when Snyder came out to visit him on his farm to show him a rough cut last fall. "Not a single occasion did they ever mention their politics and to this day I don't know what their politics were," he told

Hanson dismisses either analogy as applying to Bush. "Whatever take you have on it, there are too many incongruities to make either one believable -- America is the bigger power, like Persia, but it's also a Western power, like Greece."

Classics scholars say that the story is a classic myth open to interpretation, but they agree that it's too difficult to draw clear parallels to current events.

David George, a professor at St. Anselm's College, recognizes that the battle is "a signature event in the West's consciousness of itself," one that was cast by the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines as civilization's triumph over the barbarians. "While the names change and the religions change and the cultures change, there is this notion of Asia as the Eastern threat."

But George contends that casting Bush as Leonidas is quite ironic since Persia was arguably the more civilized society. "It was the Persians who returned the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Zoroastrianism [the Persian religion] is a very open and inclusive religion," he said. "In comparison, the Greeks were incredibly parochial. Sparta was a fascist state."

Those ironies were clear to O'Neill, who's worked at an archaeological site in Greece near Thermophylae. But he also understands how easy it is to draw comparisons to modern politics. "The threat coming from the East, the proto-jihadists coming from the Middle East, you could make a case for that," he said.

When he saw the film recently, O'Neill joked with a friend, "Does the bad guy in the background who's trying to profit off the war represent Cheney?"

Then again, most scholars agree that the movie's $74 million box office gross over the weekend had less to do with politics and more to do with audiences' appetite for blood and guts, lots of fighting and more eye candy than a soft porn movie.

When George discussed the film with his students, he said, "Men looked at it and said they saw [naked breasts] and violence, and girls saw pecs and violence. Love and death."

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