Historian Helena P. Schrader discusses ancient Spartan society and culture, seeking to rectify a number of common misconceptions. She also provides excerpts from her biographical novels about Leonidas and reviews of books on ancient Sparta. For more, visit her website at: http://spartareconsidered.com
Ren A. Hakim’s work Xerxesis a film script which describes Xerxes’ reign, and particularly his campaigns against the Greeks, predominantly from the Persian perspective. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert on Persian history), the book is on the whole accurate, with many scenes and quotes taken directly from Herodotus. It certain bears no comparison – in the positive sense – with the script of “300” with its comic-book and supernatural elements.
The most remarkable aspect of the work, however, is that Hakim effectively makes Xerxes a multi-dimensional human being. At last, Xerxes is not an abnormal monster or flat caricature of a despot. Hakim’s Xerxes is human and he is understandable. I was particularly impressed by Hakim’s ability to pull me onto Xerxes side during the Battle of Salamis. During this episode I found myself fully identifying with Xerxes rather than the Greeks.
Other aspects of Xerxes’ character were less convincing. Xerxes’ relationships with women were on the whole mishandled. On the one hand, we have an honorable man with what we are told is an undying love for the woman married to his best friend. We also see a husband, who is patient and forgiving to a selfish and insolent wife. Then more than half-way through the script we discover that he also has a large harem. While not inherently inconsistent, I found it irritating that for half the book (script) Xerxes was portrayed as a virtuous, monogamous man faithful to his wife and scrupulously respectful of his best-friend’s wife, and then suddenly he turns into an oriental despot sleeping with multiple women – and not, as we are explicitly told, because he has changed but merely because the author failed to reveal this side of him earlier in the manuscript. I personally found the relationship between Xerxes and his adored, but untouchable, Suraz trite in the early part of the novel, and his relationship with his wife implausible, mostly because his wife is a caricature, without positive attributes that would explain Xerxes’ loyalty to her. Xerxes reaction to Suraz’s daughter, later in the script, was in contrast highly believable.
Politically, I find it hard to believe that there would have been so many revolts against Persian rule (Babylon, Egypt, Ionia – all more than once), if Darius and Xerxes had been as benevolent and just as Hakim portrays them. Yet the hyperbole is justified, I think, by the fact that most accounts err in the opposite direction. Hakim is probably right that most accusations of personal atrocities and vindictiveness are fabrications by Persia’s enemies, particularly the Greeks.
Hakim is, furthermore, clearly drawing a parallel between the Persian invasion of Greece in retaliation for the sack of Sardis and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. To make this point, the Persian kings are shown to see themselves as the enlightened rulers of a just world fighting against barbaric elements that wreck murder and destruction on innocent people. The thesis is completely legitimate; no doubt the Persian kings did see themselves as the “civilizing” power of their own age, and Americans need to be aware that we are seen as an “evil empire” in much of the world today -- no matter how we see ourselves. In this respect, Hakim’s Xerxes makes a valuable contribution. I hope that Hollywood will not do too much damage to her ambitious undertaking.
As for the minor historical errors, readers of this blog need to be prepared for the complete eradication of the Eurypontids, who are replaced by Leonidas’ brother Cleombrotus. Less inaccurate than implausible is a personal duel between Leonidas and Xerxes which Xerxes wins. (Why he then has Leonidas’ head cut off and displayed is not explained.) Last but not least, the Spartans are given no credit for either enduring Persian fire stoically or, indeed, having any significant role in the Battle of Plataea. Otherwise, most depictions of Spartans – from Demaratus craving revenge to Pausanias’ greed – are within the realm of serious, historical fiction.