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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Coming of Age in Sparta

How do we learn about our own past? If we are interested enough, we can read books, or attend lectures and study courses, or – as I have just done – watch documentaries. This particular documentary was long – an hour and a half of detailed information about society in ancient Sparta by the History Channel. The program explained the way in which this society was structured around the arduous military training known as the agoge which each Spartan male must undergo to become the ultimate product of this Ancient Greek city-state: the peerless invincible warrior.

Having sat through the whole documentary, had I not known better I would have considered that I had received a fair grounding in the things of central importance to this ancient society of two and a half millennia ago. As it was, I sat bewildered and bemused, wondering how it was possible that a documentary which purported to be an examination of Spartan society could manage to go the whole ninety minutes without once mentioning what I already knew to be the central tenet of that society: that homosexuality was not merely encouraged – it was mandatory.

And the warrior training was not some month-long boot camp. At the tender age of seven a boy was taken away from his family home and sent to the [1]agoge, where he remained until he was thirty. In that time he was required to have a full relationship with his older mentor. The conditioning was so complete that although he was allowed back home for his wedding night, his Spartan [2]bride (presumably to ease the trauma of this first intimate encounter with female flesh) dressed as a man, and the encounter took place in a darkened room. The couple would thereafter see each other once every few months: Sparta must endure, after all, and new warriors needed to be begotten.

If you have seen the film 300 about the [3]battle of Thermopylae, in which a token force of three hundred Spartans stand against an overwhelming invading force of several hundred thousand Persians, you might now see all those rippling six-pack abs dripping with testosterone so prominently on display in the film in a slightly new light. Although an early sequence depicted the agoge, the film did not once mention this central aspect of Spartan society either. To be supplied with all the nitty-gritty details of how Spartan society really functioned, you will need to watch another documentary by the historian Bettany Hughes, aired by Britain’s Channel 4, and even longer than the History Channel’s offering.

What are we to conclude from this discreet manipulating of history? I find myself hesitating to do so, but it’s hard to ignore the simple fact that both 300 and the History Channel are American produced and financed, while Bettany Hughes’ scholarly and engaging account is as British as they come. Do American studio bosses with an eye on possible adverse financial consequences nervously shy away from including such material, however historically factual? Apparently so.

This conscious selecting of facts, of deliberately omitting material which you find either distasteful or discomforting, or weakening to a case which you wish to make, is known as ‘cherry picking’. It happens, not just in the occasional [4]documentary, but in many spheres of human activity. It certainly happens in [5]religious belief, and even at times in the [6]sciences. That all those strapping heroes who withstood the [7]Persian onslaught at Thermopylae turn out to be gay is apparently not a detail that the studio bosses in Hollywood (and at the History Channel) were prepared to digest, and history was cherry picked. Indeed, 300 appears to go out of its way to reassure us that those tough-guy Spartans were as straight as the long spears which were their principal weapons of choice.

But however strange Spartan society might seem to our own standards and values, surely it hardly matters. We might examine the methods Spartans employed to produce their much-feared warrior class, and we might find them distasteful and even shocking. But paradoxically they seem to have worked, for Spartans were indeed the most feared and formidable warriors in all of Ancient Greece – and even now we all of us owe them a profound debt for being so. It is sobering indeed to reflect that, had Persia defeated Greece at that time – and that so very nearly [8]happened – the fragile new social idea which the Greeks were then experimenting with would have been snuffed out. They called it ‘democracy’.

On a small hillock at Thermopylae where the last Spartans fell is a memorial stone. The present stone replaces the one in antiquity found at the same spot, and repeats the preserved words of the original – one of the most famous epigraphs ever written:

Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.”

The poignancy of the wording is in the implication that the Spartans must rely on a stranger to bring news of the outcome of the conflict to their homes, for none are left alive to bear the news themselves. And the ‘laws’ are the Spartans’ warrior code: to offer their lives, if that is what is required of them.

[1] The training process of turning a boy into a Spartan warrior was so ruthlessly brutal that young lives could be – and were – lost before their training was concluded.

[2] Intriguingly, Spartan women enjoyed a degree of power and autonomy unknown in the other city-states of Ancient Greece. In contrast, Athenian women enjoyed (or endured) a gender-restricted status akin to women in today’s strictly Islamic states. This also accounts for why Hollywood depictions of Helen of Troy as a wafting young thing fall so short of the mark. Helen was in reality a feisty queen of Sparta.

[3] To the film’s credit, and in spite of the inclusion of some flamboyant fantasy elements, much of what was depicted on the screen was historically accurate, even to some of the actual dialogue which history has recorded and preserved. This includes the celebrated exchange between the Persian and Spartan emissaries: Persian: “Our arrows will blacken the sun...”  Spartan: “Then we will fight in the shade!” Stirring stuff indeed.

[4] Not just the History Channel documentary mentioned here has been cherry picked. A few years ago there were cries of outrage here in the Netherlands when it was discovered that the Dutch Christian Evangelical network was airing David Attenborough’s commendable Life of Mammals series with all specific references to evolution discreetly edited out.

[5] Please see the opening paragraph of my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land for specific examples of this.

[6] When this is discovered in science – perhaps a scientist has loaded lab results to favour a specific outcome – such adverse publicity can destroy a scientist’s credibility and curtail a career without the need for further punitive action.

[7] A Tale of Two Cities: The eventual Greek victory was as much due to the brilliant strategy of Themistocles’ command of the Greek naval forces against those of the Persian fleet at the Straits of Salamis as to the heroic sacrifice of the Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae under the command of Leonidas. And although the invading Persians razed the Athenian Acropolis to the ground, it was rebuilt a generation later by the will of the politically adroit Pericles. Guarded by stone gryphons (below), the ruins of Persepolis, the once-glorious capital of the Persian Empire, are now a World Heritage Site. 

When in his turn Alexander the Great reached Persepolis on his eastward trail of conquest, he exacted retribution for the destruction of the Acropolis: his troops reduced the mighty Persian capital to smoldering ruins, and cultural treasures and manuscripts of incalculable price were lost to the flames. Persia apparently possessed no Pericles, and, unlike the Acropolis, Persepolis is a ruin still. Some seven centuries later the Parthenon (below) on the Acropolis was again sacked, this time by Christians eager to destroy this most important shrine to the goddess Athena. The Parthenon, even as a ruin, is still regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of architecture ever built, and probably has influenced Western architecture more than any other single building. Take a walk around such cities as London and Washington D.C. if you want to see how far the influence of this pagan temple has reached.

[8] If you would like to read an exceptional you-are-there account of the Battle of Thermopylae, with both its build-up and aftermath, I can recommend no better title than Tom Holland’s vivid Persian Fire. This title also recounts the fragile birth of Western democracy in Athens and the vanquishing of the Persian Empire, the most powerful force in the world at that time. Typically for this author, this title offers sobering reminders that even the mightiest of world powers eventually fade from the stage of history, and the survival of our most treasured social institutions at times turns on mere chance.

The History Channel documentary is: This is Sparta!

Bettany Hughes’ documentary is: The Spartans.

Images for this post are from 300, directed by Zack Snyder from the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Released by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures. Maps by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

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