Sexual Politics and Power in 300: Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire functions as both a prequel, sequel, and a sidequel to the original film 300, which followed the 300 Spartans who fought in the Battle of Thermopylae. 300: Rise of an Empire follows the Greek General Themistocles and the Persian Admiral Artemisia as they struggle for supremacy over the nations of the Greeks.

300: Rise of an Empire was directed by Noam Murro and written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, as well as being produced by  Snyder. The film was released on March 4th, 2014 and grossed $106.6 million in North America and $231 million internationally for a worldwide total of $337.6 million, against a budget of $110 million. The film received mixed critical responses with many calling it slightly disappointing, but they praised the action scenes and Eva Green. Despite earning less than its predecessor, the film was profitable and a sequel was commissioned before being canceled by Warner Bros.

The focus of the film is the transformation of Xerxes from a mere man into a “God-King” and the coming naval Battle of Salamis. Much of the film showcases the power of the Persian Admiral Artemisia, played to perfection by Eva Green: she is absolutely ruthless and is a woman who men bow to. She is fascinated by General Themistocles, who killed King Darius a decade before.

General Themistocles follows Artemisia as they walk on the deck of a ship with the ocean behind them in 300: Rise of an Empire

So let’s set the scene. General Themistocles arrives at the flagship of Admiral Artemisia to discuss terms. He is greeted by her and whisked down to her stateroom, where she shows him the maps and they discuss the battles of the past, including General Themistocles killing King Darius ten years before.

She tells him she needs a commander, and that he should join her, that he can have true freedom to do whatever he wants, and that they are both similar. The offer then turns as Artemisia comes on to him. This results in them engaging in a very rigorous love-making session, however, the sex is every bit as combative and strategic as the naval battles they have engaged in.

General Themistocles then turns down Artemisia, after which her demeanor changes, and after casting Themistocles to the floor, she places a sword on his neck and orders him cast from her quarters.

General Themistocles and Artemisia look at each other, with a wall that has ornate decorations in the background in 300: Rise of an Empire

Many saw this scene as nothing more than some added skin, however, when one digs down deeper one sees there is a lot more going on beneath the surface (no pun intended for this water-based film).

This scene showcases Artemisia as ever the cunning manipulator, who is probing Themistocles for weakness. She first tries military tactics, impressing upon him that she has endless ships and men to lose, whereas the Greeks do not. Yet this does not seem to phase him, she then asks him why he fights when he is being manipulated and used by the Greek Government, musing that maybe he has a family that he fights for. He then reveals he has no family or wife and his only love has been the Greek Fleet and his only passion readying it to face Artemisia.

She then says

Now, that brings me pleasure, the thought of you pining away for me, forsaking family and love… For the promise of a deeper ecstasy. The ecstasy of steel and flesh… Death and life. Of rage… And sweat of muscle. Of pure joy… And deepest sorrow. Die with me each night and be born again with me each morning… As you plant your sword into the hearts of our enemies. You fight for freedom. I offer freedom without consequence or responsibility.

Join me…

Artemisia then switches gears, from appealing to his military side to what she perceives as his suppressed need for connection. She begins to seduce him, offering him not only the ecstasy of steel but of flesh. If he joins her he can have it all, he can have a romantic connection, command of a Navy, and the freedom to do what he likes.

Artemisia is ever the strategist, pivoting from one position to the next in order to defeat her adversary, first attacking his military positions, saying “I only need to kill one Greek, you must kill a 1000 Persians.” When that does not work she then pivots to his loyalty and sense of being used by witless politicians to fight the battles they cannot. When she once again fails there, she uses her sexuality as a weapon, attacking his lack of connection and lack of love, presenting herself, not just as a lover but as an equal, who will not only give him sexual gratification but also the freedom to embrace his more violent nature and have no one lording over him.

General Themistocles and Artemisia look into each others eyes and grip each others throats in 300: Rise of an Empire

In the ancient world, sex was often less a projection of love and more of power, with kings taking dozens and sometimes hundreds of wives and concubines. This was to cement alliances both militarily and politically: Solomon King of Israel was said to have 1000 wives and concubines, which gave him political connections with nations such as Edom, Egypt, and Moab.

In a much more insidious and evil way, sex was also used on the battlefield and war, with armies committing rape on the woman of the nations they conquered. We see this in the history of Artemisia who it is revealed in the film was raped by the Greeks, which has given her a vast hatred for General Themistocles and his nation.

To Artemisia, sex is not something that is loving, but something that is a weapon to be used on others, she witnessed its perverted use on herself, and now uses her own sexuality to exert power over her enemies, and as a means to get what she wants from them.

We see the sex scene play out almost like a battle, with both Artemisia and Themistocles gripping each other by the throat, even as they change to various positions each is always vying for control and domination over the other. In the end, Artemisia seems to be seducing Themistocles, and she leans in to whisper “Join me” he then grabs her throat and replies “No”

The next scene is interesting, as we see for the first time Artemisia lose a semblance of control. Seeing she has failed she seems absolutely disgusted by the act of sex with Themistocles, and casts him to the floor, Themistocles seems taken aback by her change from a lover to a vicious adversary as she draws a sword and places it on his neck.

She resists killing him, and tells her guards to remove “this filth” from her room. This last portion of the scene seems to lift the veil a bit on Artemisia. Due to her own sexual abuse, she herself has a warped view of sexuality (which often happens with those who are victims of sexual abuse), seeing it as a weapon and tool: once she sees that the weapon of sex is not working on Themistocles, she loses control and hates the fact that she is engaging in such an intimate act with a man she views as the embodiment of her abuse. This causes her to want to kill him and cast him as far as possible from herself.

While many view the love scene from 300: Rise of an Empire as nothing more than a titillating moment to pad the runtime, in reality, it’s a window into our antagonist. We get to see not only how she strategizes, but how she thinks and a bit of her emotional makeup. Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad managed to show us another side to the battle for Greece: a psychological battle that showcased how sex was used as a weapon in those ancient times. Snyder is known for his multilayered symbolism, and this scene is specifically crafted to allow us to explore its characters’  ecstasy of steel and flesh.

Written by Byron Lafayette

Byron Lafayette is a film critic and journalist. He is the current Chairman of the Independent Film Critics of America, as well as the Editor and Lead Film Critic for Viralhare and a Staff Writer for Film Obsessive. He also contributes to What Culture and many other publications. He considers Batman V Superman the best superhero film ever made and hopes one day that the genius of Josh Lucas will be recognized.

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