This week, New Hampshire’s Republican senatorial nominee Don Bolduc won his primary, then made a memorable victory speech. Post-primary spin notwithstanding, Bolduc is a MAGA-friendly, far-right politician, who campaigned on eliminating the FBI and the Department of Education. As a military man, he’s the genuine article—a retired army brigadier general holding two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars (two with “V’s” for combat valor—they don’t just hand those out). So it wasn’t surprising he struck a warrior’s tone in his speech, appearing with a shield stuck full of arrows.
But the content of his brief speech, and the nature of that shield, indicate that while Bolduc is undeniably a warrior, he is no historian.
Both speech and shield invoke a historical event that was no victory, even one as narrowly won as Bolduc’s (the candidate clinched the nomination by just 1,500 votes). The nominee was referencing, as many on the right like to do, the Battle of Thermopylae, in 480 B.C.—a futile defense that utterly failed in its objective of delaying the invading Persian army from conquering Greece. The defending Greek forces, led by the Spartan king Leonidas and his bodyguard of 300 Spartan nobles (plus another 700 lower-ranked Spartan warriors, and other enslaved fighters, all of whom tend to go unmentioned), were all annihilated to a man. Leonidas’s head was cut off, stuck on a pole, and paraded before the cheering Persian troops.
Leonidas, to put it plainly, lost. So he’s not really not the man—nor Thermopylae the battle—that you’d want to invoke on your victory night. Yet here was Bolduc, like many other right-wing politicians, just going for it.
The shield Bolduc carries appears to be a toy model of the stylized round aspis (the Ancient Greek shield used at Thermopylae) from the 2006 Zack Snyder film 300, itself a wildly inaccurate, troublingly bigoted film about Leonidas’s failure to hold off the Persians, which spins the crushing defeat to look like a heroic victory.
The shield bears the Greek lambda (“Λ,” which roughly gives us the “L” sound), purportedly for “Lakedaimon,” the place in southeastern Greece from which Spartans hailed. (In a twist, Laconia, another ancient word for Sparta’s home region, is Bolduc’s New Hampshire hometown.)
Snyder included Spartan shields bearing the lambda in 300, faithfully following the 1998 Frank Miller graphic novel. Miller, likewise no historian, had fallen prey to the popular notion that Greeks painted their shields with the first letter of their city-states (alpha, “Α,” for Athens, for example). While this was sometimes true, it wasn’t consistently so. Greek heavy infantry supplied their own shields, and decorated them as they liked. And we have only one piece of evidence that the Spartans ever practiced this lettering custom (a throwaway fragment from the Athenian comedian Eupolis). We have much more evidence that the Spartans decorated their shields with geometric patterns, grinning gorgons, and parading animals. We know this because we have recovered miniature shields that were left as votive offerings. They’re currently on display in the Archaeological Museum of Sparta if anyone wanted to bother looking. Just as important, this custom of painting letters on shields seems to have post-dated the Battle of Thermopylae by roughly half a century. We have no reason to believe any Greek (Spartan or otherwise) painted letters on their shields in 480 B.C.
All of these other matters of historical accuracy aside, Bolduc was holding his toy shield upside down, its signature lambda inverted.
Adding to the drama, Bolduc’s plastic shield was embedded with arrows, clearly intended to indicate the execution of an effective defense. But at Thermopylae, the Persian arrows shredded the Greek shields and killed the men behind them. Herodotus, the “Father of History” (per the Roman senator Cicero) and our main source for the battle, is clear—the last Greeks fell defending themselves with daggers, if they still had them, or otherwise with their hands and teeth. The fierce fighting had destroyed all their weapons and armor. If there was anything left of the Greeks’ shields, Herodotus doesn’t mention them. Indeed, he notes that earlier in the battle, the Spartan Dienekes had scoffed at another Greek’s terrified comment that the Persian arrows were so numerous they would blot out the sun. “Good,” Dienekes had replied, in one of the almost certainly apocryphal quips that have made the Spartans so famous. “We will fight in the shade!” A badass quote, but it papers over the reality: Dienekes surely knew that the Greeks, hopelessly outnumbered by expert archers, were about to be turned into human pincushions.
Bolduc’s shield, in other words, represents a device that, at the end of the Battle of Thermopylae, would have brought the last surviving Greeks a few agonized seconds before they were finally cut to pieces.
“We have taken their arrows,” Bolduc boasts, indicating that he’s warded off the attacks of his political opponents. And the Greeks that shield symbolizes indeed took the Persian arrows—they took them in their eyes and throats, they took them in arms that were nailed to the stubs of their shields by the killing shafts. They took them in feet that were pinned to the blood-stained surface of the lonely Kolonos hill on the Thermopylae battlefield that would be their final resting place. “We have successfully protected ourselves,” Bolduc goes on. If so, he did a lot better than the Greeks whose symbol he is trying to invoke.
The speech then takes an even more mystifying turn: “And now we’re going to rally around the circle,” Bolduc continues, caressing the aspis’s edge, “Unity, freedom, liberty.”
If there are three words less appropriate to be associated with the aspis, I can’t think of them. The only people the fractious Greeks in the 5th century B.C. hated more than the Persians were each other. The history of Ancient Greece is a history of civil war. The war against the Persians had not even been over for a single year before the same Spartans who failed to hold Thermopylae were campaigning against … other Greeks (the Aleudae Clan of the Thessalians, who had supported the Persian invasion). There are words for the aspis, but “unity” isn’t one of them.
Neither is “freedom” or “liberty,” words that didn’t apply to the many thousands of slaves kept by nearly every Greek city-state, and most famously by the Spartans, whose commitment to slavery was so complete they enshrined it as a caste system—the helots, an entire people kept in centuries of bondage until they finally won their freedom by force of arms as Sparta’s power collapsed in the 4th century B.C.
Bolduc joins a parade of right-wing politicians who have invoked Thermopylae on the campaign trail. I’ve written previously for Slate about some of them, but the examples are as global as they are prolific: from the UK’s Tory “Spartans” (hardline Brexiters), to “300 Brazil” (a far right Brazilian group named for Leonidas’s 300 and supporting President Jair Bolsonaro), to Greece’s current Health Minister Anathasios Plevris, an outspoken anti-immigrant voice who was previously linked to the right-wing “Patriotic Association of Thermopylae.”
The myth of Thermopylae, quite distinct from the reality, is tailor-made for right-wing agendas. It is the story of a tiny, beleaguered force of nativists defending their (white, European, if you follow the visuals in both the comic and film 300) homeland against an invading horde of dark-skinned foreigners. While defeated, the myth goes, this tiny force put up such a glorious fight that they galvanized the rest of Greece to at last “man up” and emulate their example, and demoralized the Persians so badly they were defeated the following year. That this myth is utterly false, that Thermopylae was a disastrous defeat for Greece that had nothing to do with Persia’s ultimate failure to win their broader objectives, is roundly ignored, despite a growing body of literature directed at puncturing this myth. They like their story more than the truth.
Politics aside, the insistence on cleaving to the myth rankles. Politics may be all about spin, but history at its heart is all about getting as close as we can to the truth, and the truth is that the Battle of Thermopylae was a major military disaster. If politicians are seeking last stands that actually achieved their stated aims and covered the defenders in glory, they will need to keep looking.