May 6th, 2010

never there

The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

Last night we watched the Bettany Hughes programme about the Spartans - all 3 hours of it! We'd kinda saved it up for yesterday because J has today off (being his birthday) so there was no need for an early night. To be honest we might've done better splitting it into two parts coz 3 hours was a lot to take in and keep straight in my head - originally the programme had been a series (as I think all of these have been) so it wasn't even really intended for one sitting. Still, it worked pretty well in one chunk and I think I have general idea in my head now, definitely one that'll be worth re-watching sometime though.

The programme(s) were originally broadcast in 2002, as she said in her intro this was just before the Spartans came back into popular culture in a big way. The graphic novel series, 300, was done in 1998 but the film based on it was released in 2007. And the God of War games started out in 2005. So not quite at the right point to ride the wave of interest, and possibly this showing is a little after although maybe not as God of War 3 is recent.

The first thing that struck me coz it was something I didn't know was that the Spartans of Helen of Sparta (later Helen of Troy) weren't the same people as the later Spartans - I knew there was the Greek dark age after about 1100BC when pretty much all of the Greek civilisations collapsed. And then I knew that the "classical" Greeks came after that - Athens, Sparta, Homer, Socrates, all the stuff that one thinks of when one thinks "ancient Greece". But I hadn't realised there'd been the movements of peoples that there clearly were.

Spartan society was strange - not just by ancient Greek standards, but by ours too. They started out by conquering one of the nearby Greek provinces (Messenia) and enslaving all its people - turning them into helots. Slavery was common in Greece, but slaves were supposed to be foreigners, not fellow Greeks. So this marked out Sparta as different from an early stage - and would come back to bite them later, too. Partly because of this wholesale enslavement of another cohort of Greeks, Spartan society was organised very differently to other Greek city states. They focused their whole culture on becoming the perfect fighting force. In those days fighting was done with 8 foot spears and shields - a phalanx of hoplites from each side would meet in a sort of armed rugby scrum. So physical and mental toughness were the important qualities for soldiers, and the Spartans went to extremes to get there. All boys were brought up (from age 7) communally in a brutal regime designed to suit them for battle, and to bond them with their fellow fighters. Partly this bonding was done by surviving the training together, partly by institutionalised compulsory homosexuality. Part of the training (from age 12) was working closely with an older boy who was expected to have sex with you as well as train you, mentor you, and bring you up.

Women were given more freedom in Spartan society than in other Greek cities - partly because they had to run a lot of things themselves whilst all the men were off living in their communal warrior messes, partly because they were also expected to take part in physical training (because strong women = strong, healthy babies). Elsewhere in Greece (like Athens) women were supposed to be not seen and not heard, and even mentioning women in public was a social faux pas. But in Sparta they were not only visible, didn't just take part in training and competitions, but were also vocal - with acerbic remarks like "come home with your shield or on it" or (to her son complaining his sword is too short) "take a step forward, it will be long enough". A culture obsessed with dying in battle and dying well in battle, even down to the women who would not be involved. There were also proportionally more women in Sparta - infanticide was common throughout Greece, and in most places it was surplus girls that were exposed on hillsides. But in Sparta it was defective (by Spartan standards) boys that were hurled into a ravine (to make damn sure they died, none of this "maybe a shepherd will take in the baby" sentimental rubbish for Spartans ;) ). And defectiveness wasn't decided by the parents, but by the council - again no chance for sentiment. Only the royal families were exempt (2 kings ruled at a time, one from each family).

Another odd-by-ancient-Greek-standards part of Spartan society was their emphasis on equality - they were a monarchy, but all other Spartan men were theoretically equal. Ostentation was frowned upon, you should dress, eat, drink and act the same as other Spartans. And most of the men's lives were spent in the communal messes or at war, so there was no opportunity for living in luxury even if you could afford it. Not, I have to say, an equality I'd like to live with personally. And whilst if you had to pick anywhere in ancient Greece to live Sparta would be best from the point of view of being a woman, it was a pretty brutal, nasty place even so.

(As a digression - all the way through the discussion of the Spartan society I was reminded of the Draka books by S.M.Stirling (which I've mentioned before and do highly recommend if you like alt-history and milSF, as very good what-if-the-world-were-worse books). I had been aware that the Spartans were one of the influences for the Draka society (both at the meta level and in-story), but watching this programme really brought that home to me. Particularly, actually, the place of women in society - having more freedom, being expected to bear strong healthy citizen sons, etc.)

She couldn't tell us the story of Sparta without also telling us some stuff about Athens. At first they were allied, despite the very different focus of their societies/cultures. The Persian Empire was the driving force behind the alliance - they were attempting to invade and conquer Greece, and Athens (with its mastery of the seas) and Sparta (the ultimate hoplite warriors) stood against them and drove them back. This is the occasion of the battle at Thermoplyae that is the subject of 300 - the stand to the death of 300 Spartan warriors against the Persian empire. In some ways this seems to have been the highpoint of Spartan culture, future generations never quite lived up to this shining example of ultimate manhood (in a Spartan's eyes).

But the alliance didn't last. The Spartans having enslaved Greeks not only lead to a revolt within Sparta, but paranoia on the Spartans' part about who the Athenians would side with, leading to insulting the Athenians. Eventually the two city-states went to war against each other - and the Spartans' cultural obsession with being the perfect hoplite force would come back to cause them problems. The Athenians didn't engage them on those terms - they harried them with arrows, fought them on the seas where Athens had the advantage. And thus it went poorly for the Spartans at first. And Spartan troops even surrendered - unthinkable by their grandfathers' generation who had died at Thermopylae. In the end, the Spartans won that conflict, and became the leading culture in Greece. But they were really already in decline - numbers of actual Spartan citizens were dropping, down from 10,000 men to a thousand or so. And after a conflict with Thebes (not the Egyptian one, the Greek one) where half their men were killed it was curtains for the Spartan culture as a dominant force in Greece.

A very interesting programme, and good to watch as well as informative. A pretty good mix of the actual archaeology of the subject as well as reconstruction scenes and shots of the scenery (and Bettany Hughes standing looking pretty in the scenery, which she does well ;) ).