Two military threats loomed over the brief flourishing of Athens in the time before Pericles. One was the expansionist ambitions of Persia, intent on subjugating Greece to the Asian empire. The other was the fighting among the Greek city states, contributing to a perpetual state of vulnerability.
The first of the Persian Wars came with an attack on southern Greece in 490 BCE, led by King Darius. It was a bloody affair, fought at Marathon, but the Greeks ultimately prevailed. This war gave the world the enduring legend of Pheidippides (say Fie-dip-id-ees) , who ran twenty-five miles to deliver news of the victory to Athens. Ever after, a long distance run would be called a marathon, because no one wanted to call it a Pheidippides.
There is a movie called The Giant of Marathon (1959), which stars classic he-man Steve Reeves as Pheidippides. It had entertainment value in its day, but it so thoroughly scrambles the legend that it cannot be recommended by this website.
Ten years later, in 480 BCE, the Persians returned under the command of Xerxes (say Zerk-zees), son of Darius, in a renewed attempt to conquer Greece. It was in this Battle of Thermopylae (say Ther-mop-olay) that the famed 300 Spartans created their own legend. In 1962, there was a Hollywood movie called The 300 Spartans. It failed to make an impact and it can be difficult to find.
In the year 2007, Hollywood redressed the matter of impact and released the blockbuster film, 300. It is a highly stylized new millennium film drawing its inspiration from a graphic novel of the same name. It is, in most respects, less historical than the 1962 film, but like so many films of this time, it embodies the spirit of the Spartan warrior culture. In this version, Xerxes, King of the Persians, is tricked up with facial rings and chains like a dancer in a Vegas punk rock show.
The historical Xerxes can be found in the biblical story of Esther under the name Ahasuerus. See the Esther movies in Israel: Old Testament.
A sequel to 300 appeared in 2014, called 300: Rise of an Empire. This film extended the reach of the franchise to battles that followed Thermopylae, finally ridding Greece of the Persian threat and boosting the confidence of Athens. Pericles was 15 years old when Xerxes took Thermopylae.
I am printing my full review of 300 (2007) as a document of deep-seated nostalgia for warrior culture that has survived into our own times.
If the movie technologies of the turning of the present millennium existed as much as 2500 years earlier, this is the kind of movie the Spartan film industry might have made to celebrate its heroes. It subscribes wholly to the masculine side of the paradigm and expresses its disdain for the Athenians, as “philosophers and boy lovers.” Even so, the iconic battle looming over the outset of this epic is rationalized as the defense of reason and justice against the Persian hordes led by Xerxes. It is the paradox of the West that great ideas of dawning human intellect must be defended with brute force. There is a good deal of portentous narration and a lot of the now obligatory mystical singing derived from The Gladiator and Cirque du Soleil. The trademark Ridley Scott silver mask even turns up here.
A long overture accounts for the childhood of Leonidas and his preparation for kingship and war. The adult Leonidas assumes his crown and accepts his fate by assembling a mere 300 Spartan warriors to march against the vast army of Xerxes. He sees his small but thoroughly professional force as superior to any army on earth. Bidding farewell to his strong wife and young son, he leads his men toward the eastern sea. Soon enough the battle is engaged. The carnage is Homeric in proportion, a symphony of sword thrusts and fierce oaths. The Spartans are relentless, driving the Persians into the sea. They use their shields to great effect when Persian reinforcements send a hail of arrows that darkens the sky.
At home in Sparta, there are the usual palace intrigues in progress. Meanwhile, Leonidas has a face-to-face encounter with a statuesque Xerxes who is presented in a way not calculated to curry favor in Iran. They cannot agree and an even greater battle looms for the next day. In an unfortunate concession to contemporary language, one of the soldiers says, “Unless I miss my guess, we’re in for one wild night.” That night the men begin to feel they will prevail against “Asia’s endless hordes.” The next day the Persians unleash a giant rhinoceros against the Spartans, but Leonidas kills it with a spear to the eye. Huge battle elephants follow. All this is punctuated with chopping swords, spurts of blood, severed limbs, and bellowing warriors. There are as well some very dramatic decapitations.
Xerxes retreats to his tent, a pit of debauchery, and speaks with a humpbacked traitor in a Darth Vader voice. The traitor leads the Persians to a secret pass where the Spartans can be trapped. Leonidas rallies his men to stand in the face of death and know that they have brought a new age into being. Sensing the end is near, he sends a messenger on the run to give a report of the brave resistance of the Spartans. The Queen, in Sparta, appears before the council to plead for reinforcements to be sent in support of her husband. Her eloquence is undermined by the treachery of a politician who has already forced himself on her. She seizes a sword and kills him in the council chamber. One last time, the Persians prevail on Leonidas to surrender and kneel to Xerxes. Remembering for a moment the embrace of his queen, he leads a last attack against his enemy. Vastly outnumbered, the Spartans die together on this spot. The Queen is left to grieve in a field of golden grain with her son (to the Ridley Scott/Soleil singing). The messenger delivers an elegy in the council, pleading only that the heroes of Sparta be remembered for their valor and sacrifice for Greece. In their name, men will fight another day for victory over perceived barbarism.
Energized by its ultimate triumph over Persia, Athens rose to new heights. It would be difficult to overstate the long-term impact of this upwelling of creative energies, and it is therefore difficult to understand why almost none of it has been reflected on the Hollywood screen. A quick scan of my archive on Greek movies will show that I have had little luck in finding films that put faces on the history of Greece. My best guess is that this has something to do with the thorough appropriation of Greek culture by the conquering Romans after the year 168 BCE.
Barefoot in Athens (1966)
This is a made-for-TV movie based on the 1951 play by Maxwell Anderson. It is the drama of the last days of Socrates (Peter Ustinov) and his self-sacrifice to the ideal of democracy in 399 BCE. The philosopher is played as something of a bumbler. The movie has the look and sound of a stage play and there is no location shooting. Peter Ustinov plays Socrates and Geraldine Page plays Xantippe (say Zan-tippy); Anthony Quayle is King Pausanias of Sparta. Christopher Walken and Eric Berry also appear. I could find no trailer, but there is a clip available on YouTube.
After this, the trail of Hollywood history grows cold. We never meet Plato who first wrote down the story of Socrates, and we meet Aristotle only as the hired tutor for young Alexander the Great.