BORN TO BE WARRIORS; They Were the World's Most Formidable Fighters. but as a New TV Series Makes Clear, Sparta's Militaryregime Wasmarkedby Promiscuous Women and Homosexuality

By Grove, Trevor | Daily Mail (London), November 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

BORN TO BE WARRIORS; They Were the World's Most Formidable Fighters. but as a New TV Series Makes Clear, Sparta's Militaryregime Wasmarkedby Promiscuous Women and Homosexuality


Grove, Trevor, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: TREVOR GROVE

QUIETLY and methodically, the men prepared for battle.

They knew how it would end - in death. But they were not afraid. They were Spartans, after all. From earliest boyhood, their lives had been dedicated to this moment.

They were the products of one of the strangest social systems the world has ever known. It was a society whose sole purpose was waging war, yet where homosexuality was the norm; whose women were the most scandalously liberated in the whole of Greece and

by Trevor Grove whose prevailing purpose was to create a nation of warriors who had only one overriding goal: to find glory on the battlefield, or die.

Such was the ambition of the 300 Spartan warriors gathered in the darkness at Thermopylae that early morning in 480BC.

Dawn was not far off. Calmly, they stripped naked and performed the traditional exercises to hone their limbs for action. They oiled their bodies. Lovingly, they combed each other's long, dark hair. Then each man wrote his name on a chip of wood and tied it to his arm.

Thus would his corpse be identified when he had met the fate that now certainly awaited him in what was to prove one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the ancient world.

From a distance, as the sky lightened, King Xerxes watched the antics of this tiny band and thought they looked as if they were getting ready for a dance.

Well might he scoff. The Persian army which he led was the mightiest the ancient world had ever seen, some 300,000 soldiers strong. For three days a mixed Greek force, spearheaded by King Leonidas and his Spartans, had held up the invaders at Thermopylae, a narrow pass between high cliffs and the sea, known as the Gates of Fire.

But now, Leonidas learnt, a traitor, Ephialtes, had shown Xerxes a secret path through the mountains which would allow the Greeks to be attacked from the rear.

Leonidas knew he was beaten.

The best he could hope for was to delay the enemy by a few more hours so as to give the rest of the Greek world a chance to organise its defences.

He dismissed his army and kept only the 300 Spartans at his side, together with some units from Thebes and Thespis.

The Spartans were handpicked, seasoned soldiers whom he knew he could rely on to fight to the very end.

THEY were men steeped in one of the fiercest military codes in history, a code which required them not only to obey orders unflinchingly but, as the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote, to seek out the 'beautiful death' and embrace it like a lover.

Two thousand five hundred years later, such lines still fire the imagination. They make one long to know more about those distant, haughty people whose name ever since has been a synonym for military prowess and personal austerity.

But unlike the people of Athens, Sparta had almost no literary tradition.

Nor did its citizens take much interest in sculpture or the decorative arts.

According to the Spartans' narrow mindset, culture led to the kind of decadence they so despised in the Athenians.

So the record of the unique society which flourished in southern Greece for the best part of two centuries is scant. All the more welcome, then, is the current three-part Channel 4 series, The Spartans, presented by classical historian Bettany Hughes.

Criss-crossing the olive-clad Peloponnesian hills by horse and car, Ms Hughes makes a persuasive attempt at putting together a portrait of the Spartans from ruined temples, fragments of pottery, snatches of history and verse.

The picture that emerges is strange and chilling in the extreme.

However admirable in many ways, the Spartans were not a loveable people.

What drove their society to evolve in the peculiar way it did was fear - partly the fear of losing their fertile lands to rival city-states like Athens - but above all fear of revolt by the huge population of slaves, called helots, on whom the Spartans depended for their food and labour. …

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