Comments on Sparta

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss discuss Sparta, the militaristic Ancient Greek city-state, and the political ideas it spawned.

Programme information and audio

Comments for this programme are now closed.


  • Howard Johnston - Sparta

    There quite simply is not enough space here to do credit to a discussion upon Sparta. I missed the original broadcast but listened to it recently courtesy of RealPlayer. As is often the case with these things (like the Channel 4 series with Bettany Hughes) you only get the tip of the iceberg with all the cliches and most colourful aspects being discussed (albiet only briefly). Having said that, any programme devoted to a discussion upon Sparta is worthwhile and MB and the BBC should be aplauded for doing so. Having read many comments below I can only really add that when studying Sparta (as I have for 30+ years) you have to consider which century and what was happening in the larger Hellenic world around Lakedaimon. Sparta did not remain entirely static. Some aspects of its constitution remained in place well into Roman times. But there was also considerable change between 371BC and 192BC. It was a free city under Rome (with whom it shared many features) and oft visited by important Roman dignatories (including emperors). In fact some Romans belived they were descended from the Spartans. Two points I would like to make, however, are: despite the dreadful nature of helotage - the Spartans were not nazis. Slavery of equal ferocity was practiced in other parts of Greece and there are reasons for believing the Helots may have led better lives than some slaves elsewhere. They were collectively owned by the state. They were allowed homes and families and occasionally were manumitted into kind of citizens (although without full Spartiate prvileges). No mention was made in the programme if the Perioikoi who were Lakonian free dwellers around Sparta (but non-Spartans) and who involved themselves in much business, trade and manufacture for the Spartan state. The Spartans (at least in hellenistic times) believed themselves kin of the Jews and had links with those people of the holy land. The nazis conveniently ignored that aspect of Spartan culture when they appropriated certain Spartan cliched militaristic ideals for their own mythos. There really is so much to the subject that everything here on this site probably only represents 5% of what can be discussed about Sparta. And then there is the other point about the Spartan 'mirage', which analyses just how much of this preceived projection was merely propaganda that the Spartans wanted the other Greeks to believe. They kept precious few records themselves and all our recorded evidence from ancient times (besides some indigenous archaic poetry) comes down to us from non-Spartans like Xenophon. Sparta remains a very deeply rooted mystery in many ways. A Gordion knot that is very difficult to unpick - but all is not always as it first may seem with the Spartans.

  • Sparta

    I've listened to a number of programmes and this one on Sparta was one of the best. Very informative, telling me things I didn't know already and very lively and engaging participants. Keep it up Melvyn and crew

  • Laconic-Sparta, reply to Themistocles

    By 'Greek' I meant the parts of Greece where Homer was taught which represent the point of view of a civilized aristocracy.Primitive religion was tribal.Fertility rites like the Eleusian Mysteries were agricultural. Religion was less about the gods than words like Destiny,Fate and Necessity. Greek science and philosophy and mathematics began in the 6th century. Greece was divided into a large no. of independent city-states. Only a minority of cities contributed to the total Hellenic achievement. Sparta was important in a military sense but not culturally.Hermes and Pan were worshipped.The mysticism which influenced the philosophers was either Dionysus(instinctive,physical) or Baccus or Orpheus(the spiritualized form).The Athenian state of Attica gave rise to great statesmen(Solon,Pericles),great dramatists(Sophocles,Euripides etc.),greathistorians(Thucydides),orators(Demosthenes),architects,sculptors,philosophers(Socrates,Plato),theywitnessed the foundation of democracy.During this period she beat off Persia with a 1000 Plateans at Marathon;did more than the rest of Greece to win the critical victory of Salamis;and built up the only truly Greek empire that ever existed.This quality and range betokened a people rich in natural genius and individuality.There was participation in government by all citizens in the development of the polis.Yes, I grant that Spartans were Greek,but when I use the word'Greek' I am denoting above all the Athenian Greeks rather than the Spartan Greeks, the beautiful flowering of political debate and reason as opposed to the closed fist of a closed mind.I doacknowledge the various political formsthat occurred in the city-states.

  • THEMISTOCLES-SPARTA, reply to Laconic

    LaconicI totally agree with the spirit of your letter. My only objection was your contrast of Spartans to Greeks. Spartans were totally Greeks. The confusion often arises because of the mistaken identification of the Greek polis with democracy. Then reason that this period is so interesting is because the so called city states transformed themselves politically several times providing a menu of politics ranging from Aristocracy (by birth) at the beginning, to kings to oligarchy (by wealth) to tyranny to democracy and to 'extreme democracy'. This is an incredible break with the general history of the era which is predominantly monarchic. Sparta was a mix, a bit aristocracy a bit kings and a bit dysfunctional democracy. In this era one can find the roots of all modern politics from fascism to communism to democratic and revolutionary movements. Sparta represents the most conservative Greek tradition. Most philosophers despised them, with one notable exception. Plato.

  • Ian Buist: The Spartans

    The programme, good though it was, missed several important points.First, Herodotus makes plain that it was the Spartans, not initially the Athenians, who led the fight against the Persians. When the former lost interest the naval forces of Athens were able to secure the island cities, then forming the Delian League, which was finally transformed into their empire.Second, it was this Athenian superiority at sea which the Spartans had to overcome - even after the horrific Athenian losses at Syracuse - before they could finally win the Peloponesian War. When the Athenians took advantage of their naval power to occupy Pylos and beat the Spartans on Sphacteria, this became a point of refugee for Messenians running away from their masters - a very dangerous threat to the whole Spartiate State.Third, it would be quite wrong to think of Alcman as a "military poet", despite his poem in praise of the dancing girls. My favourite bit of Greek poetry is his wonderful description of all nature falling asleep - from the jagged mountain tops and ravines to the "monsters in the depths of the dark blue sea". It's such a vivid description of the Mediterranean night falling, all done in four or five lines. Perhaps next to that is his cry of exhaustion at trying to follow the dance, when he wishes he were "the sea-blue bird of spring" skimming over the ocean waves.Finally, the Spartans only lost at Thermopylae because opponent local Greeks serving with the Persians guided the latter over the mountains by local paths, and so cut off their retreat.

  • I O Time - Sparta

    Sparta, the horrible proto-nazi state, & how similar to medieval Japan. Japanese warlords kept their peasants subjugated with violence & torture. They were constantly spied on, & the lord s/times had extensive dossiers on every potential rebel. In times of failed harvests, peasant families starved in order to deliver their rice quotas to the overlord. Samurai were ruthless 'enforcers' under a glamorising veil of chivalry. Very Round Table-ish, capo King Arthur in charge. Bamberpanda

  • Laconic-SPARTA

    Sparta was, in the form it became known, a military state,based on a ruthless suppression of 80% of the population,the helots,who were serfs, conquered at the time of the Dorian invasion from the north.They were enslaved to work the land for their masters,so the Spartans were freed up to train for military service.In the 7th century its constitution crystallised into the National Socialist model,everything sacrificed to success in war.The mythical Lycurgus('wolf-repeller')was the framer of its legislation.In speaking of 'democratic elements' in the Spartan constitution, one must remember that the citizens as a whole were a ruling class fiercely tyrannizing over the helots,and allowing no power to the perioeci. It was during the 8th century theSpartans conquered neighbouring Messenia and reduced its inhabitants to the condition of helots.As with the Nazis there is a policy of lebenstraum. Spartan citizens were trained for war from birth and it was based onsurvival of the fittest,sickly children being disposed of.Spartan simplicity decreed money was iron bars.Women were not allowed to show any emotion not profitable to the state.It was admired by other Greeks as an ideal state, severe in the virtues of self discipline, simplicity,stability,law and order.For centuries it was successful in its main purpose as a race of invincible warriors.Its ethos was based on fear.Unlike the Greeks,the Spartans didn't contribute to the civilization of the world.Thermopylae, though a defeat, is the best example of their valour.Every single Spartan was killed at his post.In the memorial the virtue of obedience to orders is emphasised.The Spartans retained their supremacy until 371 B.C.,when defeated by the Thebans.Their main role has been seen as opposition to the Athenians from 470B.C. as their polar opposites.To cut a long preamble short Sparta, was richer in legends than facts: it was a static,rigid, unchanging culture,barren in things of the mind, xenophobic and parochial. Sparta dwindled and fell not from lack of energy,but from lack of citizens and ideas.Spartans held apart from the conquered population,all their elitist energies were based on suppression of revolt,to preserve their own close-knit communal ethos. They act always as a threatened minority in their own land,holding down a majority of dangerous serfs,any being killed if they threatened in annual purges.Trade was discouraged, strangers were expelled,foreign ideas were kept out. Athens had a currency accepted as far away as Gaul.It also had remarkable sculpture,philosophy,architecture and ideas about democracy that it bequeathed to the world. Sparta's political constitution was laughable: the Assembly could not debate and expressed its decisions by shouting not by voting.It abolished nothing old(e.g. kings) and developed nothing new . The narrow negativity of their life was self-enforced by their will to live on the labour of the helots: morally,intellectually and economically ruinous.That they had pride and courage and a respect for the elderly,they were most admired by the Greeks due to their imposition on their life of a form or pattern, sacrificing so much for it in the creation of the ideal citizen through her concept of'eumonia'.This narrowerconcept of 'virtue'(cf.Athenian) was what made,the creation of 'heroic' men. Plutarch looked back nostalgically to Sparta and Plato incorporated it in his vision of Utopia.

  • Dave, Stoke on Trent

    Twice recently I have been forced to switch off 'In Our Time' because one of the guests spoke about past events in the present tense. Dear BBC, please ask your guests to avoid this irritating and cringemaking habit.

  • Paulpic a Helot of trouble

    Since Sparta we've moved from the old rule to the gold rule. But it still seems the undeserving live in fear that their underlings will level the playing field.

  • The Spartans - Duncan Nimmo

    Melvyn's guests suggested that the 19th century broadly liked the Athenians and disliked the Spartans. What then should we make of Degas' well-known painting of about 1860, now in the National Gallery, "Young Spartans Exercising"? (A quick Google search brings up an image and numeerous discussions).


    Some important points missed by the panel: 1.As the militarisation of Sparta gained pace, all art disappeared. In the 8th and 7th century there were examples of art in pottery as well as poets. Alcman and Tyrtaeus are 7th century poets. Art and poetry became a disappearing act in the following centuries. Sparta was the antithesis of Athens. In Athens the process of democratisation proceed hand in hand with the birth of philosophy, the birth of historiography (Herodotus, Thucydides), and the birth of drama. This was not a coincidence; this was the function of democracy. In Sparta, the opposite happened. No philosophy, no historiography no drama indeed the tendency was for no art. The panel forgot to ask why do we know of Spartans from Athenian sources(Thucydides)? Because historiography (rather than mere annals) was a democratic phenomenon. Have you ever heard of history written by the defeated and not by the victors? That was the case of the Peloponnesian war.2. Spartans were trained constantly in military skill. May I ask what for? The Spartans did not like wars in general. They could never put themselves fighting in distant lands like Alexander. Their preoccupation was to secure their surroundings, not to invade Asia. They were very reluctant to help Athens (e.g. Marathon) not only out of dislike, but also because they did not want to leave their city in numbers. The greatest application of their military skill was not on the expansion of their rule (as would happen with the Persians or Alexander) but on the oppression of the Helots (fellow Greek Dorians) who through their labour kept the Spartans work-free and dedicated to their military games. The fear of Helot revolt kept the Spartans at bay, and although the Helots were their slaves, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the Spartans too were the slaves of their fear of Helots. Don't forget that the only professional Greek army, took a quarter of a century to defeat the Athenian democrats. 3.The Demos of Sparta (the assembly of the hoplites) was a joke. They were gathering usually to vote on war, in full uniform and were voting by the sound of the shields. The side that could make the loudest noise was victorious. There is not a single recorded instant of a member of demos talking questioning or arguing. They were just there in numbers. The respect for law was not a Spartan phenomenon. The same could be seen in the Athenian city, but while in the latter the respect for law could be sourced to the Athenian citizens voting for it, in Sparta it was just blind obedience and tradition. Yet it is important to realise that even in Sparta the hoplites had a voice. Why? Because, like in all Greek cities, it was the hoplites that fought the wars. There was not a Monarch of the Persian kind (with his own army). The citizens were the soldiers, hence the aristocracy had to make concessions. 4. The Spartans were part of the Greek Dorian Tribe that invaded and destroyed totally the Greek Mycenaen civilisation (a monarchy). The destruction was so complete that a Greek Diaspora was formed away from the old centres. They were free from the old monarchic ties, poor (they could not afford slaves to start with), and they looked for agricultural land to survive. Where they settled they distributed the land randomly (on a lottery basis), creating an anachronism of small family farms, that was the material basis (together with the discovery of the alphabet) of what was to follow (leading to democracy). Even later, when the family farmers used slaves, they never stopped working, the slaves were their helpers. The Spartans on the other hand enslaved a whole people to stop working. They ended up existing in order to exist. Life is more than that.

  • Sean McHugh Thermopylae

    May I suggest that people consider the likelihood that the Three Hundred at Thermopylae were NOT on a kamikazi battle to the death. Such a strategy would have been thought of as against eunomia, against good order. Why were the Spartans there?There can be no doubt that had Xerxes been killed the Persian Army would have retreated back to Persia. We should remember that Spartan military training was in commando-style raids as well as in battlefield manoeuvres. The Spartans did carry out a raid on the Persian camp but were thwarted when they were in sight of Xerxes' tent by Medising Greeks fighting for the Persians.That raid is in the sources. It should be placed against this myth of suicidal bravery as being a Spartan ideal.

  • Re: In Our Time - 'Sparta': 19th November 2009.

    An excellent and fascinating program!


  1. Download every edition Download the podcast As well as the regular weekly podcast, you can now download past editions of the series via the new genre archives.


Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg's personal insight into the latest programme.

Read the newsletter

Melvyn Bragg

Read a profile of In Our Time's presenter

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.