Victor Davis Hanson

Similarly, Athenian tragedies that depicted stories of war employed contrivances every bit as imaginative as those in "300." Actors wore masks. Men played women's roles. They chanted in set meters, broken up by choral hymns. The audience understood that dramatists reworked common myths to meet current tastes and offer commentary on the human experience.

Some reviewers think the film is gratuitously violent. But Thermopylae was no picnic. Almost all the Spartans and Thespians were killed, along with hundreds from other Greek contingents. Some of the film's most graphic killing - such as Persians being pushed over the cliff into the sea - derives from the text of Herodotus. And the filmmakers omitted the mutilation of King Leonidas, whose head Xerxes ordered impaled on a stake.

Finally, some have suggested that "300" is juvenile in its black-and-white depiction - and glorification - of free Greeks versus imperious Persians. The film has actually been banned in Iran as hurtful American propaganda, as the theocracy suddenly is reclaiming its "infidel" ancient past.

But that good/bad contrast comes not from the director or Frank Miller, but is based on accounts from the Greeks themselves, who saw their own society as antithetical to the monarchy of imperial Persia.

True, 2,500 years ago, almost every society in the ancient Mediterranean world had slaves. And all relegated women to a relatively inferior position. Sparta turned the entire region of Messenia into a dependent serf state.

But in the Greek polis alone, there were elected governments, ranging from the constitutional oligarchy at Sparta to much broader-based voting in states like Athens and Thespiae.

Most importantly, only in Greece was there a constant tradition of unfettered expression and self-criticism. Aristophanes, Sophocles and Plato questioned the subordinate position of women. Alcidamas lamented the notion of slavery.

Such openness was found nowhere else in the ancient Mediterranean world. That freedom of expression explains why we rightly consider the ancient Greeks as the founders of our present Western civilization - and, as millions of moviegoers seem to sense, far more like us than the enemy who ultimately failed to conquer them.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.