Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Spartans

The Spartans chronicles the rise and fall of one of the most extreme civilisations the world has ever witnessed – one founded on discipline, sacrifice and frugality, centred on the collective, whose goal was to create the perfect state and the perfect warrior.
Here you will find the edited transcripts of all three programmes in the series and a map of the ancient Greek world, plus information on how you can discover more about the Spartans and their extraordinary way of life.
A nation of fightersWhen we think of ancient Greece, we almost invariably think of Athens. This is where the blueprint for Western civilisation received its first draft. Philosophy and science, art and architecture, democracy itself – all these have their roots there. But there's more to the story of ancient Greece than Athens.
Unlike Athens, Sparta can't boast of its philosophers and politicians and artists. It became famous for two things: its frugality – which is where we get our word 'spartan' from – and its fighters. In everyday Sparta, these two were intimately linked.
The whole of Spartan society conformed to a strict code of extreme discipline and self-sacrifice. Their aim was to create the perfect state protected by the perfect. Although Spartan hard-line ideals don't have the charisma of Athenian culture, they have meant as much to Western civilisation as the ideals represented by the Parthenon. Down the centuries, the Spartans have inspired a diverse range of people. Anyone with a plan for a utopia has cherry-picked their ideas – Plato, Sir Thomas More, the French revolutionaries, American pioneers, Adolf Hitler, even the founders of the English public school system. They all turned directly to the Spartans for ideas and inspiration.
So the story of the Spartans is also, in a way, the story of ourselves. It's the story of how many of the values that we hold dear were first found in a warrior state on the mainland of Greece 2,500 years ago. Early historyThe Spartans' history is highly dramatic – and it has a setting to match: the Peloponnese, a huge peninsula crowned by rugged mountains and scored by deep gorges, which forms the southern-most part of the Greek mainland.
The ancient Greeks thought of it as an island – and seen from the northern side of the Gulf of Corinth, it does have a brooding, closed-in feel, cold-shouldering the outside world.
Long before the Spartans of our story arrived on the scene, this part of the world was making history. Many of the Greeks who fought in the Trojan War more than 3,000 years ago came from here. King Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, came from Mycenae, in the eastern Peloponnese. And to the south, in the city-state of Sparta in the region known as Lakonia, was the palace of Menelaus and his wife Helen – for Helen of Troy, whose beauty caused the Trojan War, had once been Helen of Sparta.
The heroes of the Trojan War, their lavish palaces and possessions, the beauty of Helen – all offered a standard against which the later Spartans would measure their own actions and aspirations.
At some point in about 1200 BC, all this disappeared.
No one knows for sure what happened – earthquakes, tidal waves, slave revolts have all been blamed. But all over the eastern Mediterranean, the world of Helen of Troy disappeared in a cataclysm of fire and destruction. A remnant clung on for a few hundred years, but finally the Dark Ages came to Greece and the thread of history snapped. The new SpartansAt some point in those centuries of darkness, new people came out of the north, seeking more hospitable lands. They were called the Dorians, and they brought with them a new Greek dialect, their sheep and goats and a few simple possessions. They settled all over the Peloponnese, and some found their way to Lakonia and the lands that had once belonged to King Menelaus.
It had been a journey worth making. The people who came to Lakonia must have thought they had found a Shangri-la. The plain of the Eurotas river was, north to south, 50 miles of precious, flat, fertile farmland. And the river ran through it all year round. In land-hungry Greece, where 70% of the land couldn't be farmed and what was left was squeezed between the mountains and the sea, that was a lot of elbow room.
To the west were the spectacular Taygetos mountains, rising to more than 8,000 feet (2,440 metres) in places. Patches of snow still lingered while down on the plain spring was turning into summer. The slopes once teemed with game – deer, hare and wild boar, rich pickings for the new arrivals.
But statistics don't convey the most striking quality of this place: the sense of security. Everywhere you look, you're bounded by hills. The feeling is one of enclosure – not claustrophobia, but safety. You feel that everything you could possibly want is here – if you can just lay claim to it and keep the rest of the world at bay.
And so the herdsmen traded in their sheep for olive trees, and settled down. A new Sparta came into being, and the new Spartans built a temple, the Menelaion, to honour the legendary king and his wayward wife.
In the period of renewal following the Dark Ages, new city-states like Sparta appeared all over Greece. They varied in size and power, but had one thing in common: they were all communities governed according to a set of mutually agreed laws and customs. The rules by which people agreed to live varied, but their aim was broadly the same: to create good order and justice and to protect against chaos and lawlessness. Few cluesIn Sparta today, archaeologists are still piecing together the story of the people who first came here some 3,000 years ago and created an ideal city – a utopia. It's not an easy task because they left relatively few clues behind.
Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans were famous for not building, not making things and, in particular, not writing about themselves. Nearly every account we have of the Spartan way of life was written by an outsider.
Some of these writers resented Sparta's power, some were in awe of its traditions and achievements, and some were given to exaggeration – and there was much about Sparta that lent itself to exaggeration. So of all the cities and civilisations in the ancient world, the Spartans remain the most intriguing and the most mysterious.
Take, for example, Sparta's kings. Since time immemorial, Sparta had been ruled by not one but two kings – two royal houses, two royal lines, twice the potential for the rows and wrangles to which all monarchies are prone. The Spartans explained this unique arrangement by claiming that their kings were direct descendants of the great-great grandsons of Heracles (Hercules), the strongman of Greek myth. According to the legend, it was this pair of twins who wrested control of the Peloponnese from the descendants of King Agamemnon.
The stories that people tell about themselves are always revealing. This tale of a land-grab by a pair of aggressive usurpers, themselves descended from the most macho man in mythology, sent out a worrying message to Sparta's neighbours.


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