Table of contents

300: Rise of an Empire 1

Some notes on empire

The other story was the story of the Spartans, now it’s the Athenians who take center stage. They are a younger race, far more civilized & less warlike. Behold the rise of democracy in the mind of the greatest statesman. Themistokles was the man who conceived of the navy & the commercial empire it would protect & create. This led to citizenship for the sailors, even more radical than the citizenship awarded the infantry who replaced the heroes.

This is the birth of civilization, the peculiar mix of refinement of the arts & sciences & political freedom. Behold Athens, burnt & rebuilt in victory, with a new port & the walls that protected it, the source of the great Athenian prosperity, strangely importing & exporting revolution at once. Strangest of all things is Themistokles’ offer of freedom, which is nothing very impressive, clearly no reason to die, though perhaps some kind of reason for killing one’s enemies.

Maybe the best way to understand freedom is to think of it as essentially revolutionary. Themistokles is not a lover of laws, nor any kind of man renowned for justice & piety. His greatness encloses within it democracy: A new empire, an empire of freedom. Reckless Themistokles kills Darius, the great Persian king whose splendid armies terrified all other Greeks, when alone the Athenian men fought.

This story interprets Herodotus, who tells us that Xerxes surely knew he was mortal, crying as he saw his great army, because in an hundred years they would all be dead. But he also thought himself a god, we are told, so that he whipped the sea, also a goddess, when she destroyed his ships. Themistokles is the opposite: He built something that did not die & did not presume to punish the sea, but obeyed it.

The story of empire is the story of Xerxes, who must connect loss, vengeance, & evil. His failure to save his father’s life leads him to an impious desire to outdo his father by becoming immortal. Xerxes becomes a statue, let’s say. All his advisers are slaughtered. A god has no helpers. But the power of this god is war. Xerxes is a god of the Persian, whose armies conquer, but he is universal, bent on world conquest. This is hubris, the opposite of moderation, which is not limited by the times or science. Empire implies, earth is home.

The limit he faces is Themistokles, who also dreams of war-born empire. The distinction between a woman-general & a man-god, in one way, is female duplicity; in the other, unprincipled, mad need to kill. Xerxes is inactive, thinking he has conquered. The end of the world is the end of politics.

The sequel to the only really successful film about the Ancient Greeks.