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  • What do we mean when we say Spartan?

  • As an adjective, Spartan means austere, tough, without luxury.

  • This comes straight from the ancient stereotype of the Spartans,

  • the inhabitants of Sparta in southern Greece.

  • The Spartans were the ultimate warriors, raised from childhood

  • to endure terrible suffering and hardship.

  • The Spartan character is summed up perfectly

  • by the ancient accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae.

  • In 480 B.C., the Persians invaded Greece

  • and the Spartan King Leonidas, with 300 Spartans,

  • held the pass against them and died in the attempt.

  • They didn't succeed in stopping the Persian advance,

  • merely slowing it down,

  • buying precious time for their fellow Greeks

  • and giving their lives in the process.

  • The battle exemplifies so much of what we admire about the Spartans.

  • Their loyalty to a cause bigger than themselves.

  • Their devotion to liberty and the preservation of their homeland.

  • In the course of their fighting they managed a kind of grim humour,

  • which is familiar to us today from all sorts of action heroes whose

  • pithy one liners are uttered at the moment of ultimate peril.

  • For example, when the Persians demanded that the Spartans

  • lay down their arms, Leonidas famously replied...

  • Likewise, when a hail of lethal Persian arrows blocked the sun,

  • Leonidas quipped to his companions...

  • We can also admire the Spartans' association with great physical

  • fitness and toughness and endurance.

  • In the present day they have given their name to a particularly extreme

  • kind of obstacle race, which challenges people to achieve

  • their own athletic and physical best in the face of enormous hardship.

  • What is more, Spartan women were just as tough and as strong as the men.

  • We're told by the ancient sources that they exercised,

  • they received an education,

  • and they were able to own property in their own right.

  • All things denied to the women of other parts of Greece.

  • However, I think there are some ways in which we need to hesitate

  • before accepting the Spartans as the perfect icon

  • of our modern values today.

  • First, they can become figureheads of the xenophobe.

  • The Battle of Thermopylae can start to stand for holding out against

  • the encroachment of an alien invader.

  • The most pernicious example of the Spartans usage of this kind

  • is in 1930s Germany, when they came to stand for the ancestry of the

  • Aryan master race and essentially legitimated anti-Semitism

  • and other extreme forms of xenophobia.

  • Another question is whether we today really want to claim the Spartan

  • paradigm of masculinity.

  • Emotion was anathema.

  • The individual was nothing.

  • The state was everything.

  • As we realise more and more the need to encourage people to express rather

  • than deny their emotions and to show the distress they might be feeling,

  • maybe the Spartan ideal of masculinity is not the one

  • we actually want to claim for the present day.

  • It's no coincidence that the Spartans inspired the British public school

  • system of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

  • A system in which ideals of discipline, endurance and austerity

  • were paramount.

  • Even the toughness of Spartan women is suspect.

  • The ancient sources tell us that they trained their bodies to produce

  • strong sons, so even the athleticism for which they were famous

  • serves ultimately the Spartan war machine.

  • And the grim joy with which they saw their sons go to their deaths

  • in battle is unpalatable today.

  • Spartan women are said, by the author Plutarch, to have told their

  • menfolk going off to war...

  • On one's shield of course meant dead.

  • Evoking Sparta is often a way of trying to recover values which

  • are thought to be lost or receding.

  • Old fashioned values of resilience and self-denial,

  • which some in modern society feel that we have squandered.

  • In fact, however, historians of ancient Sparta have long challenged

  • the historical truthfulness of the ancient stereotype of the Spartans.

  • For decades now, they have been trying to put forward an alternative

  • Sparta with a richer, more complex culture.

  • Art, music and a much more complex range of values

  • than have traditionally been attributed to them.

  • There is no sign however of this happening.

  • We are too addicted to the Spartan stereotype, however inaccurate,

  • to give it up in favour of a more complex and nuanced reality.

  • Thanks for watching.

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What do we mean when we say Spartan?

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The truth about the Spartans | BBC Ideas

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    Summer posted on 2020/07/30
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