New book to examine the enduring influence of ancient Sparta

New book to examine the enduring influence of ancient Sparta
09 Mar 2012 00:40:00.000
PA 78/12

From the French Revolution and Nazi Germany, through the Cold War USA, and onwards to 21st century cinema screens and YouTube, ancient Sparta continues to resonate through Western thought, more than 2,000 years after the peak of its power.

Now, a new book — the result of a major University of Nottingham research project led by a world-leading expert on Sparta — examines the impact of this classical civilisation in modern times and our prolonged fascination with the politics, society and customs of its people.

Sparta in Modern Thought: Politics, History and Culture is the first book for more than 40 years to examine the significant modern influence of this ancient Greek city-state.
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The book is the latest publication by the University’s research project, Sparta in Comparative Perspective, Ancient to Modern, directed by Professor Stephen Hodkinson, from the Department of Classics in the School of Humanities, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Radical thinkers

Professor Hodkinson, who co-edited the book with the project’s research fellow, Dr Ian Macgregor Morris, said: “Images of ancient Sparta have had a major impact on Western thought. From the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Sparta was invoked by radical thinkers as a model for the creation of an ideal republic.”

“Since the 19th century, Sparta has typically been viewed as the opposite of advanced liberal and industrial democracies: a forerunner of 20th century totalitarian and militaristic regimes such as the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.”

“But positive views of the Spartans continue to flourish in contemporary democratic media and culture, especially in popular fiction and film.”

In the book, 11 leading international experts take readers across 10 centuries from the 12th century Renaissance through to early 21st century popular culture. Exploiting hitherto untapped sources, from medieval political tracts to declassified CIA documents and YouTube video clips, they reveal many previously unknown aspects of Sparta’s impact, shedding new light on the depth and importance of her role in Western politics, history and culture.

Positive portrayals

Several of the book’s chapters are written by University of Nottingham staff, as part of their research collaboration in the University’s Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies.

• Professor Hodkinson’s chapter exposes how American foreign policy and intelligence analysts used Sparta as a model for interpreting the Soviet Union, especially in support of President Ronald Reagan’s hard-line policies towards the USSR in the early 1980s.
• Dr Lynn Fotheringham, Lecturer in Classics, investigates the positive portrayal of Sparta in 1990s American popular fiction, such as Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, discussing how they deal with problematic elements of Spartan culture such as infant exposure.
• Dr Kostas Vlassopoulos, Associate Professor in Greek History, examines how early modern thinkers, such as Machiavelli and Montesquieu, compared Sparta politically with Rome and how her image changed from aristocratic republic to egalitarian democracy in the increasingly radical intellectual atmosphere of the 18th century.

Other important topics covered include:

• A major re-evaluation, by the book’s co-editor Ian Macgregor Morris, of the neglected contributions of medieval writers, whose portrayals of Sparta’s lawgiver Lycurgus provided the foundation for Renaissance conceptions of her socio-political order.
• Sparta’s significant role in the development of French radical political thought from the Enlightenment through the French Revolution to early Socialist thinking.
• Germany’s growing self-identification with Sparta between 1800 and 1945, culminating in her use by Nazi leaders and ideologues as an Aryan prototype for the racial policies of the Third Reich and the training of future leaders in the Adolf Hitler Schools.
• The impact of new digital technologies and participatory mass culture in the shape of fan-made YouTube video clips parodying the presentation of Sparta in Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300.

Spartan citizen

The book represents the latest publication success of the Sparta in Comparative Perspective project team, whose work has received international academic acclaim. According to Professor Mogens Herman Hansen of the University of Copenhagen: “The University of Nottingham has become the world centre of Spartan studies and the achievements of Hodkinson and his team have changed our understanding of Sparta for good.”

Professor Hodkinson has spent more than 30 years of his academic career studying the social, economic, political and military organisation of ancient Greece, with a special focus on Sparta, and is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on the subject.

He is Director of the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies. His research contributions to Spartan history were recognised in 2010, when he was made an Honorary Citizen of the modern city of Sparti in the municipality of Lakonia in Greece. According to the award citation, “his scholarly research has made the history of ancient Sparta and Lakonia known throughout the world.”

Sparta in Modern Thought: Politics, History and Culture, edited by Stephen Hodkinson and Ian Macgregor Morris, is published by The Classical Press of Wales.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has 40,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘the world’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking 2011.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research into global food security.

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