Friday 26 July 2013

Introducing ... The Spartans by Bettany Hughes.

“Sparta and Athens became competing model of education, especially for those Enlightenment intellectuals who did not want to leave education under the control of the Catholic Church and other religious authorities. The contrast between the Athenian model and the Spartan model could not have been more clearly delineated. Athens, with its brilliant intellectual and cultural achievements, enjoyed a free market in education. Sparta, an intellectual and cultural wasteland, was dominated by a system of state education.”

Why we need to make history cool again
Bettany Hughes

Young people, apparently, have little interest in history. The number of those studying the subject for GCSE has dropped to fewer than one in three. Yet in August last year one could have stumbled across an unlikely set of videos on a YouTube site hosted by Queen Rania of Jordan - three gentle films that explored the shared medieval heritage of the east and west. We learned that Richard the Lionheart employed a Muslim doctor and that Henry VIII ate off Arabic dinner plates.

The response from bloggers was overwhelming. "These were things I simply did not know," from BigGirl, South Croydon; "Thank you for building bridges not boundaries," tapped Ahmed, Pakistan. Queen Rania has since been awarded YouTube's first ever Visionary award.

History was invented as a tool, an engineered road down which human society could advance. The original Greek definition of the word historia is a combination of "inquiry, analysis, observation and myth" (at a time when myth meant information, not just fairy-tales). The point of history was not an exhortation to live in the past, but to live with it, and to live better.

The massive grassroots success of movies such as Zack Snyder's Spartan gore-fest 300 demonstrates there is a vast appetite among 15-25 year olds to share in the experience of the long-dead. The film quoted Herodotus virtually verbatim, and has been watched by more than 150 million worldwide. Its success - aided by enthusiastic bloggers who promoted the film online and were later listed in the credits - has made educationalists think again. Maybe it is not just social history - the belt buckles and soup ladles - that connects us to the past, but a grander idea, an idea that shared memory is essential to being human.

At the end of the 20th century technology was all. History was a dirty word. But then the millennium came and went and the future did not hold all the answers. History instructs us in the cock-ups and triumphs of others. And new technology services that fundamental humanist benefit. Around 1,800 years ago, one man had the same idea. The Greek philosopher and medic Galen wrote that human civilisation develops best when techne (skill or craft) buttresses human enlightenment. The result: "Greater and better by far than our fathers it is our boast to be."

The technological revolution is itself a direct descendant of the Ancient Greeks' historia, and the web is populated by young people who want to dive into the past. We just have to jog their memories and remind them that a GCSE in history is one way to start.

The Spartans was a 3-part historical documentary series first broadcast on UK terrestrial Channel 4 in 2003, presented by Bettany Hughes. A book, The Spartans: An epic history by Paul Cartledge accompanied the series.

Part 1 deals with the arrival of the Dorian settlers into the Eurotas valley, with a discussion of the dark-age culture that lived there before, that ofMenelaus and his wife Helen (known to history as Helen of Troy). Once established, the Spartans expand westward into Messenia, enslaving the entire population, eventually becoming the dominant power in Laconia. During this time Lycurgus transforms the Spartan constitution into the militarised state we know of today. The training of Spartan youths is explained, from their enrollment in the Agoge system right through to their attainment of citizenship. The class structure of the Lacedaemonian state (Helots, Perioeci, and the soldier-citizens themselves) is also covered. The episode ends with the battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans, including their king, Leonidas, were killed in action defending Greece from aPersian invasion.

Part 2 opens with the retreat of the Persians, after Thermopylae and the battle of Salamis. Athens, which had been allied with Sparta against Persia, begins to experience an expanded economy (and democracy under the leadership of Pericles). His construction of the long walls - fortifications which connect Athens to Piraeus - is considered to be a hostile act by an increasingly paranoid Sparta, and is the basis for future discord between the two states. Meanwhile, Spartan marriage customs are discussed, and the differences in the role of women in Sparta and the rest of Greece is studied (Spartan women were relatively "free"). In 464 BC, a massive earthquake near Sparta causes massive disruption, allowing the Helots to revolt. A desperate Sparta asks Athens for help, only to change their minds once it is clear that Athens could side with the Helots. Sparta expels the Athenians and, eventually, war begins. The surprising surrender of a Spartan detachment on the isle of Sphacteria is a major blow to Sparta's reputation of invincibility.

Part 3 introduces Alcibiades, an Athenian statesman who defects to Sparta and becomes an adviser and strategist. In particular, he suggests that Sparta takes the war to Syracuse, in Sicily, during which Athens suffers a major blow (including the capture of their entire expeditionary force). The Spartan Lysander, chief of its naval forces, begins to rise in power, and he eventually defeats the Athenian navy (which enables him to blockade Athens) and finally ends the war by successfully invading and subjugating Athens. Agesilaus, who becomes one of the kings of Sparta, finally sees Sparta become the dominant power in Greece. But decadence and corruption follow, along with a drastic reduction in the number of Spartan citizens. In time, these events lead to an irreversible decline in Sparta's fortunes, leading to war with Thebes and, in 371 BC, the end of Spartan pre-eminence after the battle of Leuctra.

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