Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  1

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Teaching Homer's Iliad through the Movie 300

 

Kimberly K. Bell, Sam Houston State University, TX

 

Bell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English whose research interests include classical and medieval literature and culture.

 

Abstract

This essay takes a presentist approach to teaching Homer's Iliad in the college sophomore literature survey course by viewing it through the lens of the twenty-first-century movie 300. Such an exercise bridges the gap between ancient Greek and modern American cultures, while it establishes the interpretive framework for the course: students practice essential reading, writing, and analytical skills, learn fundamental literary terms and topics, and come to understand their own culture better by analyzing one from the past.

 

Introduction: Popular Culture and the Classics

Students’ general ignorance of (and disinterest in) Greek mythology, history, and culture poses a serious challenge to teaching Homer's Iliad in the sophomore literature survey course. What teens and young adults do know comes from the popular Gods of War videogames and sword-and-sandal movies such as Gladiator, Troy, and Alexander rather than the works of Hesiod, Aeschylus, or Thucydides. Part of the problem with getting students interested in literature, as social critics have noted, is that popular American culture marginalizes—even devalues—education in general and reading books in particular [1]. Cora Daniels proposes that this denigration of reading stems from an increasingly “ghetto” American mindset that “embraces the worst" of our culture and "is the embodiment of [dangerously low] expectations” placed on children (6) [2]. Whether or not these low standards result from a declining "ghettonation" (1), the fact remains that most young people simply do not read; for them, it is an activity relegated to the classroom, and they tend to be negative, even hostile, toward literature. As a result, instructors often struggle with convincing students to open their books, let alone engage the material within them. This is especially true of Homer's Iliad. As a long narrative poem conveying the ideals of a long-past culture expressed in dense, figurative language, the epic is not accessible to students the way that novels and lyric poems are. One way to overcome these pedagogical challenges and bridge the gap separating the Iliad from present college students is to use popular culture, specifically the movie 300, as a vehicle into the world of Homer.

 

Such a present-oriented approach to understanding older texts was first employed by Shakespeare scholar Terence Hawkes, who uses the term presentism to describe a critical strategy that “scrupulously seeks out salient aspects of the present as a crucial trigger for its investigations” into past literary texts (22) [3]. Therefore, the "centre of gravity" for a presentist "engagement with the text…is accordingly 'now,' rather than 'then'" (22). In a world where Paris Hilton receives more news coverage than the mass genocide in Darfur, where people can recite the names of every American Idol semi-finalist but do not know who the US Secretary of State is, popular American culture is truly the "dimension…of the modern world" that "most ringingly chime[s]" for our students (22). One of the biggest pop-cultural phenomena of 2007 was the movie 300, a film that grossed over $70 million its opening weekend in America. Part of its success lay in its blending of contemporary western cultural and political ideologies into an ancient tale of Spartan heroism. This combination has resulted in a movie that speaks to the audience about the past through the present. Such an approach to ancient history can also succeed in the analysis of ancient literary texts, particularly when a familiar film like 300 is set alongside a text like the Iliad. The "reversal" of the "conceptual hierarchy" of present and past (4), whereby Homer's Iliad is viewed through the lens of 300, builds upon students' knowledge base, thereby making the epic more engaging and understandable. It can also lay the foundation for the course by introducing literary concepts, terminology, and themes, as well as honing essential reading and analytical skills that will be developed throughout the semester. Such a methodology can easily be modified to suit other college or high school literature classes.

 

Present and Past: Hollywood Reinvents Herodotos

Based on Frank Miller's graphic novel series, Zach Snyder's movie 300 is an imaginative adaptation of Herodotos' account of the battle between the Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BCE. While the movie takes liberties with the facts, it follows the general outline of the historic event: a small contingent of Greek forces marches to Thermopylae under Spartan King Leonidas to hold off invading Persians until the Greek army can arrive. On the third day of battle, the advance guard is betrayed, and Leonidas, knowing they will not survive, sends the rest of the Greeks home, choosing honor and glory (and death) for the Spartans over retreat [4]. In 300, this historic moment is presented through the framing fiction of a story-teller, the Spartan poet-soldier Dilios, a man "with a talent like no other" whom Leonidas sends home before the last stand to "make every Greek know what happened" at Thermopylae [5]. The film opens with Dilios recounting (what is now) this past tale of glory to a group of soldiers preparing for another battle. As a result of this narrative filtering, the movie makes clear that it is not offering a "better" or "truer" account than its ultimate source the way that the movies Troy and King Arthur do; rather, it presents a poet's colorful recreation of the battle. Dilios starts his tale of the 300 with a glimpse into Spartan Greece. Following a description of a young Leonidas' rite of passage, emblematic of the training of all Spartan boys, Dilios describes the events immediately preceding the battle: an emissary visits King Leonidas and Queen Gorgo, informing them that the Persians will invade Sparta if it does not submit to Persian rule. Leonidas delivers a speech on Greek ideals of freedom, kills the messengers, and, going against the corrupt Ephors and city council, leads 300 hand-picked soldiers to Thermopylae to fight. En route, other Greek soldiers join their ranks. The rest of the movie centers on the battle, with occasional scene shifts to Sparta, where Queen Gorgo makes an alliance with the duplicitous councilman Theron after he promises to convince the council to send reinforcement troops. Theron deceives Gorgo, and although she exposes him as a traitorous pro-Persian, Gorgo is too late to save Leonidas, who, at Thermopylae, is brought down by a storm of Persian arrows. The film ends back in the frame narrative, with Dilios leading a vast Greek army into the historic final battle against the Persians at Plataea. As this overview shows, the film embellishes upon Herodotos’ account, fleshing out characters, introducing a back story, and adding an overtly fictional dimension. Moreover, it posits itself not as a period film, but as a thoroughly modern, pop cultural version of the past. With its computer-graphic images and blue-screen backdrops (used to enhance the ominous landscape, liven up the battles, and introduce grotesquely supernatural creatures), its hard rock soundtrack, and its political and social grounding in modern rather than ancient philosophies, the movie updates an ancient tale of heroism to cater to twenty-first-century aesthetic and political tastes. As the movie itself is self-consciously fictional, even literary, it serves as an appropriate vehicle for exploring narrative technique, themes, characters, and ideas found in the Iliad.

 

Students, Prepare for (Literary) Glory!

For students to understand what the Iliad conveys to the here and now and thus connect with literature, they must also learn what it says about the culture in which Homer produced it. To achieve this dual purpose, an instructor might begin the semester with a lecture or presentation on the historical and mythological background to the Iliad. Such a historio-cultural approach gives students the information needed to comprehend the Iliad on its own terms. At the same time, the instructor can establish a familiar point of reference in which to situate the Iliad by having students critique 300, a text that more readily speaks of the present. In this homework assignment, students would watch 300 and answer (collaboratively or individually) questions geared toward topics that would be explored the rest of the semester [6]. Since this would be students’ first project, the instructor could provide definitions for literary terms connected to both the reading of the Iliad and the experience of the movie. This assignment can also be used to contextualize Homer's other epic, the Odyssey, or it can be assigned along with Herodotos’ historical account [7]. Depending upon course objectives and goals, the assignment might comprise the following topics and questions:

  1. Summary: Summarize the movie in 7-10 sentences.
  2. Setting: Describe how the setting of Sparta or Thermopylae serves to establish the mood and tone of the film.
  3. Characterization: Select two characters who interest you (whether in a positive or negative way), and for each write a brief description. In 7-8 sentences, explain why and how she/he intrigues you.
  4. Conflict: Identify the film’s essential conflict.
  5. Literary Terms:
    1. Identify the point of view from which the movie is told; also identify the immediate audience.
    2. List four of the film's themes.
    3. Give two examples of a character's use of metaphor or simile.
    4. List two instances of hyperbole.
    5. Explain how the word Thermopylae (hot gates) might serve as foreshadowing for the events to come. Explain what it might symbolize.
    6. Discuss how this film is an epic.
  6. Analysis: In 8-10 sentences, explain what you find most engaging or effective about the film and why. In 8-10 sentences, explain what you find least effective and why.

 

Students would then engage in a discussion of their 300 assignment, paying particular attention to themes, character development, genre, and narrative technique. Since movies are part of their cultural experience, students are accustomed to articulating their likes and dislikes of them. Besides teaching them some key literary terms and honing their writing skills, this exercise also asks that they actively interpret a familiar type of text. Importantly, this fosters a sense of confidence in their abilities as critical thinkers. Students already know how to read a movie; what this assignment shows them is that it is akin to analyzing an epic.

 

Ties that Bind: Linking 300 to the Iliad

Class can then turn to an interrogation of the Iliad in the context of student responses to 300. For example, students can compare each text's narrative technique. 300 uses the first-person point-of-view narrator, a storyteller who provides an eye-witness account of the battle at Thermopylae and thereby lends to it a sense of veracity. But his point-of-view is necessarily limited; he can only know what he sees and hears. In contrast, Homer's third-person storyteller is omniscient, so he can report not only what his characters say and do but what they think as well, which allows him to construct much more complex characters than what Dilios can offer. Homer's narrative, too, possesses its own authority, but not in the same way as Dilios'. While Homer's persona, temporally removed from his tale, cannot bear witness to the (fictional) action at Troy, his account of the last days of Troy comes from the supreme authority of the gods themselves, for he is divinely inspired by Calliope, the "immortal one" (1.1) [8]. At the same time, both narrators rely upon the power of invention, first expressed by Horace, that the superior poet instructs and entertains his audience [9]. Delios' purpose is to inspire his listening audience, the soldiers at Plataea, to battle; he therefore instructs them on the qualities that a good warrior possesses in an entertaining way. As the consummate poet, Homer, too, has a similar purpose of instruction through delight: his epics were originally sung to a listening audience, and like Dilios, he retained his listeners’ attention by delivering a good story. Although he is not necessarily preparing warriors for battle with the Iliad, Homer's persona nonetheless educates his audience on important political and social issues, such as the concept of legal arbitration [poine] as depicted on Akhilleus’ shield and the dynamics of traditional concepts of honor.

 

Arguably the most salient feature that 300 and the Iliad share is the theme of honor, particularly as it relates to glory and how it shapes the hero into the embodiment of his culture's ideals (the primary convention of epic). Leonidas must choose between a life of slavery for himself and his people (as many other Greek city-states did) and the hope for freedom bought with blood. He and his 300 march to Thermopylae “for honor’s sake, for duty’s sake, for glory’s sake” (scene 10), preferring eternal fame that will inevitably follow their attempt to preserve their way of life over submission to Persian rule. In his pursuit of a "beautiful death" (scene 11), Leonidas is very much like Akhilleus, who chooses to follow the path to fame (his “perfect glory” [18.140]) by dying in battle rather than returning home to Phthia and living in comfortable obscurity (18.102-47). However, students will find that Leonidas’ motivations differ from Akhilleus' in critical ways. The subject of the Iliad is, as Homer's narrator proclaims, "Akhilleus' anger [menis], doomed and ruinous" (1.2), brought on by the hero's loss of honor. After Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, is forced to return his war prize, Khryseis, to the Trojans, he takes Akhilleus' prize, the princess Briseis, telling the assembly that he "cannot be left without [his] portion…of all the Argives. It is not fitting so" (1.140-1). In anger, Akhilleus withdraws from the war, allowing the Trojans to inflict inestimable damage on the Greek army. The conflict between Agamemnon and Akhilleus—the catalyst for the epic's theme—is based on the ancient Greek code of honor, whereby a man's kleos [glory; fame] is measured not only by his arete [virtue] and time [honor] on the battlefield, but by the geras [rewards] he receives, including armor, weapons, and women. By taking Briseis, Agamemnon preserves his honor as commander, but he does it at the expense of Akhilleus' kleos. Although Agamemnon later returns Briseis and issues a public apology, Akhilleus stubbornly refuses to make amends, and as a result, his close friend Patroklos is killed by Hektor (with Apollo's aid). Only then does Akhilleus regain his honor on the battlefield by turning his wrath onto Hektor, and though he knows he will die soon after, he avenges Patroklos and kills the Trojan hero, ensuring his immortal fame. Akhilleus fights for personal glory and thus defines himself by his actions and accumulated wealth.

 

His idea of honor stands in sharp contrast to Leonidas', who fights out of duty to his family and city-state. In this way, Leonidas is remarkably similar to Hektor, greatest of Trojan heroes, who fights to preserve his family and nation. Hektor too knows he must die for his beliefs, but he is content that some personal glory will come of it: in his final formal speech to Akhilleus, he says "I would not […] die ingloriously, but in some action / memorable to men in days to come" (22.360-3). Leonidas, much more to the point, expresses the same sentiment on learning of the inevitable death of the Spartans: “Spartans!” he shouts, running into battle, “prepare for glory!” (scene 24). By comparing Homer’s ideas of glory and self-identity through the character of 300's Leonidas, students can relate to these seemingly archaic ideals. As class discussions branch out to other topics more specific to the Iliad, 300 can continue to serve as a familiar point of reference, whether the topics are on roles of women (the political power of Queen Gorgo as contrasted with the essential powerlessness of Andromakhe and Hekabe), genre (popular versus literary definitions of epic), causes and effects of war, or theme (loyalty, duty, honor, love, self-identity).

 

Conclusion: Moving Beyond 300

This presentist approach to teaching the Iliad establishes a base upon which the entire class can be built. By using a familiar pop-cultural movie as a starting point for reading Homer's Iliad, students learn interpretive skills through close textual analysis of two literary forms, acquire literary terminology, and begin to perceive the close connections between present and past cultures. By working with a cinematic text students know and understand, instructors can ease them into more sophisticated interpretive activities with more complex literary texts. This pedagogical strategy can, of course, be modified for other literature classes. In the sophomore survey, O Brother Where Art Thou can be compared with the Odyssey. In the early British literature survey, The 13th Warrior or one of the Beowulf movies can be analyzed alongside the Anglo-Saxon epic, or the film Titus can be compared with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Teaching the Iliad through 300 generates an ongoing dialectic between the present and past that emphasizes how understanding the present—in this case a cinematic re-envisioning of the past—helps students comprehend past literary texts (and themselves) better.

 

Notes:

I wish to thank Tracy Bilsing for critiquing a draft of this essay.

[1]. See, for example, Peter Sacks. Generation X Goes to College. Peru, IL: Open Court, 1996.

[2]. Cora Daniels. Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

[3]. Terence Hawkes. Shakespeare in the Present. London: Routledge, 2002.

[4]. For excellent sources on Thermopylae and the Spartans, see Paul Cartledge’s Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World. New York: Overview, 2006, and The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes in Ancient Greece. New York: Vintage, 2004.

[5]. 300. DVD. Burbank: Warner Home Video, 2007.

[6]. Instructors might ask their departments or libraries to purchase the movie for students to check out, or they may show select scenes in class.

[7]. A translation of Herodotos' account (online at http://occawlonline.pearsoned .com/bookbind/pubbooks/brummettconcise/chapter3/medialib/primarysources3_2.html) can be posted to Blackboard or distributed in class.

[8]. Quotations taken from Robert Fitzgerald, trans. The Iliad. New York: Anchor, 1989.

[9]. Horace. Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica. Trans. H. Rushton Fairclough. New York: Putnam, 1926.