300, Awesome Ancient Women, and the Perils of Historical Fiction

Here’s what I just posted on Huffington Post… and then, here’s the problem with it.

Now if only there were about three hundred more 300‘s. Maybe not in blood and gore but movies with kick-ass women from ancient Persia and Greece. Artemisia Movie 300Then, more people would get what has so captivated me about Amytis, Cassandane, and Atossa. Um… who, you ask?

Counting back from the Persian king Xerxes of 300: Rise of Empire, Atossa was his mother and the wife of Darius (who bites it early in the movie). While pregnant with Xerxes, Queen Atossa pulled an Angelina Jolie. When Atossa detected tumors growing in her breast, she elected to have a mastectomy. Atossa is remembered as the first woman to have done so (2500 years ago), based on Herodotus (The Histories Book III, 133-134) and recalled again in the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

I suspect that Atossa watched her mother, Cassandane, die from the cancer. That was just after Atossa’s father, Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon and around the time that he released the Jews from their exile in Babylon, thus giving Hebrew texts the boost they needed to survive… to become the Bible.

I don’t think that things would have gone for Cyrus and the Jews in Babylon the way that they did apart from the influence of another woman — Amytis, Cyrus’ aunt and second wife, who was herself the widow of Nebuchadnezzar. She knew Babylon, and she knew Jews — intelligent, capable, and devoted to their God.Herodotus bust

In the movie based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes, Artemisia (played by Eva Green) steals the show. Again it is the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (her contemporary in the 5th century BC) who provides most of what we know about this formidable woman (in The Histories, Books VII and VIII). He tells that she was from his home town (Halicarnassus) and particularly admirable for her courage, intelligence, and spirit.

Artemisia alone among his commanders recommended that Xerxes not engage the Greek navy. She alone was right that it would go badly. Xerxes called her the best of his commanders but did not take her advice. Artemisia fought in the fateful sea battle and actually rammed an allied (Persian) vessel while maneuvering, an act that did not change Xerxes’ opinion of her. On the contrary, he said, “My men have become women and my women, men” (Herodotus, The Histories VIII, 88).

The notion that the Persians were anti-freedom, committed to making their empire a land of submissive slaveAchaemenidEmpireMaps is distinctly Greek. We Americans, inheritors of the Greek side of things, have taken it at face value. I have come to doubt that it’s as clear as all that. For one thing, Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian empire is called “messiah” in the Bible. Also consider: at the moment when Xerxes and Themistocles are duking it out in the straits between the mainland and Salamis (a la 300), another area of the Persian empire, Judah, is (freely and transparently) assembling a collection of texts, the biblical Pentateuch, with liberation at its core (think Moses and the exodus) and advocating the worship not of any earthly king but of an invisible God, creator of all.

It’s a fascinating and pulse-pounding time in human history, a time in which strong women as well as men were furiously defining the course of events for millennia to come. Artemisia and the queen of Sparta are just the tip of an enthralling iceberg. Keep the stories coming!

That’s how I concluded the post for Huffington. “Please don’t make a third movie” is how Alex von Tunzelmann concludes hers for The Guardian. And I understand why — for all the reasons that she cites,… some of which I do not mention in mine.

Still. One of the biggest sticking points with historical fiction (and 300: Rise of an Empire is historical fiction) is exactly how “true” does it have to be? My scholarly side says, “Absolutely! duh”; but my rebel story side says, “it depends.” I love that The Da Vinci Code got people interested in the Bible, in the peculiarities of religious practice, and in debating all sorts of things (just what role did Mary of Magdala play in Jesus’ and the developing church’s life, anyway?), never mind the fictions involved.

I find it hard to believe that the producers of 300 do not know that Darius was not killed by Themistocles, or how little we actually do know of Artemisia. They made up a lot (some of which ticks me off — the suggestion of Persian suicide bombers and the notion that Persians hated freedom [see above], e.g.). But if it’s a story that gets people thinking and talking, that doesn’t seem all bad. I’ve been working on a trilogy of historical fiction set just a little earlier than 300. It’s got Persian women of terrific importance at its heart and with drama enough in the historical record to get a yogi’s blood racing. But there is much we do not know, and places where the record disagrees with itself — hence the fiction. Yet few people know anything of this period in history. If 300 introduces such history even a little, then it’s easier to tell of other ancient and incredible women; of other epoch-making struggles; and other stories of people and times long past that inspire to courage, sacrifice, and hope.

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