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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.
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
. 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) . 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) .
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . Depending upon course
objectives and goals, the assignment might comprise the following topics and questions:
- Summary: Summarize the movie in 7-10 sentences.
- Setting: Describe how the setting of Sparta or Thermopylae
serves to establish the mood and tone of the film.
- 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.
- Conflict: Identify the film’s essential conflict.
- Identify the point of view from which the movie is told; also identify the
- List four of the film's themes.
- Give two examples of a character's use of metaphor or simile.
- List two instances of hyperbole.
- Explain how the word Thermopylae (hot gates) might serve as foreshadowing for the events to
come. Explain what it might symbolize.
- Discuss how this film is an epic.
- 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) . 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 . 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
[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,
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.
I wish to thank Tracy
Bilsing for critiquing a draft of this essay.
. See, for example, Peter
Sacks. Generation X Goes to College. Peru, IL: Open Court, 1996.
. Cora Daniels. Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of
the Shameless. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
. Terence Hawkes. Shakespeare in the Present. London: Routledge, 2002.
. For excellent sources
on Thermopylae and the Spartans, see Paul Cartledge’s Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the
Overview, 2006, and The Spartans: The
World of the Warrior-Heroes in Ancient Greece. New York: Vintage, 2004.
. 300. DVD. Burbank:
Warner Home Video, 2007.
. Instructors might ask their
departments or libraries to purchase the movie for students to check out, or
they may show select scenes in class.
. 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.
. Quotations taken from
Robert Fitzgerald, trans. The Iliad. New York: Anchor, 1989.
. Horace. Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica. Trans. H. Rushton