ByZavi Justice, writer at
I critique films based on the social, cultural, historical, and political influences that made them unique.
Zavi Justice

On March 7th of this year, the new film “300: Rise of an Empire” is due to premier. A few trailers have been released, a slew of photographs strewn about on Google, and producers are expecting a large influx of profit and success from their new work of art. They’ve discussed the nature of the film in their commentary (posted below), which is set in 480 BC during the expansion of the Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire in historical context), in relation to its predecessor “300”. But something is different about this particular war oriented movie. It has a FEMALE military leader, the great conqueror Artemisia of Caria.

The Background:

Before we get to the female lead, let me set the stage with the historical background. The film incorporates events that occurred before, during, and after those that took place when Leonidas and his small army confronted Xerxes at the Hot Gates (Thermopylae). During this era, Persia was encroaching upon Greece as well as other lands, annexing conquered land in Europe, Asia, and Africa (and in case you didn’t guess earlier, “Rise of an Empire” means rise of the Persian Empire). But as with every expanding empire throughout history, these actions didn’t proceed without problems. The developing political antagonism in Greece posed a dilemma for this expansion, which necessitated Persia’s confrontation with the Greeks in order to quash the resistance to the empire’s aspirations. The goal was to inspire other regions aside from Greece to resist Persian imperialism, which historically speaking, was not without its violent outcomes. However, these examples were successful and orchestrated fight backs put an end to Persian growth in the European territory (Spoiler alert? Nah bro. It’s ancient history).

But let’s focus on the time frame at hand. While Leonidas and the 300 battled Persian soldiers at Thermopylae, the schism between the Greeks and the Persians was coming to a head at Artemisium. And enter the film “300: Rise of an Empire”!

The Plot:

The Battle of Artemisium and the Battle of Salamis are what the story line focuses on, which took place 480-479 BC. Xerxes enlists the aid of Artemisia, Queen of Caria, as the admiral of his navy. He has an Athenian contender, Themistocles, who leads the alliance of Greek city-states against Persia. As for the intricate details of the historical background of these battles, I’ll leave that to you to research after you watch the film (because we all know what happens when we read beforehand and then watch movies based on the literature).

What’s so special about Artemisia?

Let me give you a quick overview of Artemisia’s historical role in the Persian fleet. Prior to forging an alliance with Xerxes, Artemisia was becoming a notable among the Greeks for her cunning tactics. For example, rather than use brute force and large numbers, Artemisia took the city of Latmus without much of a struggle. Her participation in the second invasion of Greece added fuel to the fire. The Greeks were angry that a woman dare attack the Athenians with such fervor, and put a reward of 10,000 Drachmas out for the man who would capture her. As for the portrayal of Artemisia being a war-mongering villain bent on naval warfare, that is kind of questionable. She was the only one out of all of Xerxes’ advisers that opposed a naval assault on the Greeks in favor of an attack on land. She favored a war of attrition, which may have been a turning point in history had Xerxes actually listened to her. But that’s that, I suppose.

Will Hollywood Torpedo This Role?

As was suggested by the title of this article, my main focus is to grapple with Hollywood’s track record in its portrayal of female characters (because let’s face it, Hollywood has no respect for minority and female leads; they white wash everything) and how this may demean Artemisia’s legacy as the only female Admiral in the Persian Navy. I’ll be honest. I’m very afraid to see what will become of this character in the film. Too often have I seen so-called “strong female leads” being reduced to supportive roles and sex toys of the white male archetype or have their power evaporate instantly when they contend with male opponents (I’m looking at you, writers of American Horror Story!).

These fears were reinforced when I watched the trailer for the film, which appeared to have Artemisia making out with Xerxes prior to him becoming God-King and what looked like the beginnings of a sex scene with Athenian admiral, Themistocles. Not only is this historically inaccurate, Artemisia hated Greeks with every fiber of her being. She regarded them in the same manner that Joe McCarthy regarded Communists in the 1950s! And as far as Xerxes goes, I have yet to read anything suggesting that they had this kind of sexual relationship. But leave it to Hollywood to turn a female admiral into the sex toy of the power-hungry God-King and Artemisia’s hated rival.

Artemisia and Themistocles
Artemisia and Themistocles
Xerxes before becoming God-King
Xerxes before becoming God-King

But It’s Just A Movie, Right?

I don’t take comfort in this phrase. I feel that it is dismissive of the real issues at hand here. We need to understand that even historical fiction has the ability to influence ideas and points of view.

I understand that everything gets torn to shreds when Hollywood gets a hold of it, and maybe I love historical accuracy too much to let its integrity die without voicing my opinion. I’ll admit that I’m definitely the sort of person that gets angry at films that have any sort of sound in an outer space setting, but this is more important than just flying off the handle over small details that support the plot. Let me ask, how often does Hollywood get the chance to tell the story of a REAL female admiral (not just a warrior, but ADMIRAL) that lived in an era when female leadership was unheard of? And how do they pay respects to such an anomaly? They make her the sex toy? I don't expect movies to get it right, but there's a line you don't cross and adulterating a legitimate female admiral's legacy is one of them. Especially since they were few and far between in that time frame.

But I suppose this is to be expected from the writers and producers of the 300 films. Queen Gorgo was reduced to the same level right after being portrayed as a strong woman. Suddenly she had to succumb to the power of a man to get anything accomplished in the senate, showing that she really had no power after all despite being a queen. Do you see the pattern?

Yes. It is only a movie. But it is a movie that has the potential of reinforcing the view that no matter how high up in the ranks you are, if you’re a woman you still have no real power. I am hoping for the best, but definitely bracing for the worst.


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