Culture and communication
Challenging the military myth: changing perceptions of ancient Sparta
Think of the Ancient Greek region of Sparta and what springs to mind? Military might, ruthless warriors and blood-thirsty battles – if the representations of it in TV and films are to be believed.
But researchers at the University of Nottingham have been working for almost two decades to prove that this is just a small piece of the story, and to challenge the distorted images of Sparta portrayed in contemporary politics and popular culture.
The University’s Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies (CSPS), founded in 2005, is the world’s only research centre focused on the study of Sparta and the Peloponnese. It aims to develop a more sophisticated picture of Spartan institutions and a more integrated understanding of the region’s history.
Work by its researchers – in particular its Director Dr Chrysanthi Gallou and colleagues Emeritus Professor Stephen Hodkinson and Dr Lynn Fotheringham – has changed perceptions of the region across the world.
Together they have challenged the widespread, often heroised image of ancient Sparta as an exceptional, militaristic, austere and quasi-totalitarian city-state, highlighting aspects of its history often left out of popular culture representations.
Their critical approach has transformed the way students learn about it in schools and higher education institutions across the UK and Australia, with their research being used within the world’s two major courses on Sparta – the Politics and Society of Sparta unit in the OCR Ancient History A-level in the UK and the Spartan Society unit in the Higher School Certificate in New South Wales, Australia.
"Their critical approach has transformed the way Sparta is taught in schools and higher education institutions across the UK and Australia."
One Australian teacher said: “Hodkinson’s research is valuable in enabling students to explore more deeply some of the long-standing generalisations and distortions (the so-called Spartan Mirage) that have characterised Spartan scholarship for so many years.”
Elsewhere, their work has reached thousands more through mass media, in particular popular literature and online debate. By engaging with creators to influence popular culture representations of Sparta, they have initiated a move away from the oversimplistic emphasis on the heroic Spartan military.
Professor Hodkinson, for example, was historical consultant for the graphic novel Three, which tells the story of three Helot slaves running from their masters. Its revisionist take on Sparta, acts as an alternative reference point to the stories told in typical TV and films, such as the 2006 film 300, which typically ignore the Spartan economy’s reliance on slaves.
But, perhaps most importantly, the centre’s work has also had a huge impact on the modern-day city of Sparti itself, helping it capitalise on its rich history.
Despite being the site of one of the most important city-states of Classical Greece, the region is not a popular tourist destination due to the lack of physical remains for visitors to engage with. The researchers’ work has helped counter this by identifying new aspects of Sparta’s ancient history to focus on in their public engagement.
The Mayor of Sparti Dr Petros Doukas said, “University of Nottingham research has influenced heritage protection and management policies in Sparti, providing the city council with critical insight into where scholarship on Ancient Sparta is going and how parties outside Sparta view our heritage, enabling us to focus on new aspects of Sparta’s ancient history in our public engagement.
“Crucially, this allows us to consider how policy can reflect the actions needed to align our approach within the changing research and global discourse landscape.”
"University of Nottingham research has influenced heritage policies in Sparti, providing the city council with critical insight into where scholarship on Ancient Sparta is going and how parties outside Sparta view our heritage."
For example, between May and November 2020, the joint organisation of the ‘Sparta Live!’ lecture series of 14 webinars, designed by Dr Gallou and co-presented with the Mayor of Sparti, with the participation of key historical fiction writers, graphic novelists, publishers and academics, empowered the Municipality of Sparti to participate in, manage and steer the public debate around its history and heritage.
The series culminated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Nottingham and the Municipality of Sparti, agreeing to strengthen research links and to promote the cultural heritage, history and archaeology of Sparta globally - the first of its kind between a foreign university and a Greek municipality.
Dr Gallou said: “This MoU helps ensure that research at the University of Nottingham makes a profound positive impact on the local community’s understanding of its history and on the city’s heritage management policies.”
The MoU has enabled the University to expand its activity in the city and region of Sparti and is the first step towards the creation of a History and Archaeology Community Centre in the city, which it is hoped will help to foster global interest in ancient Sparta and its legacy.
The planned community centre, which will be a joint effort between the university and the City of Sparti, will enable the centre’s scholars to pursue further research, and engage with local, national Greek and international audiences. Planned future research projects include digitising ancient Spartan artifacts which are currently scattered in museums worldwide, so that they can have a virtual presence in their original home.
Dr Gallou said, ‘Working with the city council is inspiring and rewarding because it allows me, as an academic, to give them a ‘useable’ past to allow to position themselves in relation to rife misappropriations of Sparta’s heritage and to build a sense of place and identity for the local community and the wider region.”
In March, CSPS and the Municipality of Sparti jointly organised the international symposium “Lessons for Modern Politics and International Relations: The Ancient Spartan Constitution” under the auspices of Lord Butler of Brockwell, in the House of Lords, London. The event brought together academics and public policy makers from the UK and Europe who explored how our understanding of the Spartan constitution can impact on the practice of modern politics, particularly relations with non-democracies / authoritarian regimes, as a key area of modern geopolitics.
For Professor Hodkinson, “Working on ancient Sparta is inspiring because it’s always a live topic in contemporary politics. I’ve just finished a study about Spartan symbols in the US Capitol insurrection on 6 January 6, 2021. And the Ukrainian media is currently comparing its beleaguered forces in Mariupol to the 300 Spartans who gave their lives at Thermopylae to delay the Persians’ invasion of Greece.”
Dr Chrysanthi Gallou, Associate Professor of Archaeology; Director of the Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies, Faculty of Arts
Professor Emeritus Stephen Hodkinson, Department of Classics and Archaeology, Faculty of Arts
Dr Lynn Fotheringham, Lecturer in Classics, Department of Classics and Archaeology, Faculty of Arts
Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies
Lynn Fotheringham, 2019, Doing Justice to the past through the representation of violence: Three and ancient Sparta, in I. Hague, I. Horton, & N. Mickwitz (wds.), Contexts of Violence in Comics. Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Stephen Hodkinson, 2003. Spartiates, helots and the direction of the agrarian economy, in N. Luraghi and S.E. Alcock, Helots and their Masters in Laconia and Messenia. Harvard.
Stephen Hodkinson, 2006. Was classical Sparta a military society?, in St. Hodkinson and A. Powell, Sparta and War. The Classical Press of Wales.
Chrysanthi Gallou, 2020. Death in Mycenaean Laconia. A Silent Place. Oxford.
Cavanagh, W.G., Gallou, C. & Georgiadis, M. (eds.), 2009. Sparta and Laconia from prehistory to premodern (BSA Studies 16). London.