They hurled babies into ravines and culled their workforce yearly. Historian Paul Cartledge thinks we could learn a thing or two from those Spartans. Jennifer Wallace reports.
A small closely knit band of fighting men is sent on a dangerous mission. Its members know they are going to die but they believe this is a cause worth dying for. They are indeed killed but in the process cause the deaths of thousands of their enemies. Sound horribly familiar?
Well, think again because this isn't New York 9/11, but the battle of Thermopylae, August 480BC. Some 300 Spartan elite soldiers, led by their king, Leonidas, stall the massive invading Persian army for three days at a narrow pass in the mountains of northern Greece and inflict huge casualties before they are overcome and killed. They instantly become a national legend, their dying phrase, "Go tell the Spartans", a byword for bravery.
They were, in effect, a "suicide squad", according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek history at Cambridge. A man was picked for the mission only if he had a son who could in time replace him in the army. He also probably needed to prove that his wife would make a loyal, obedient widow. The night before the battle, the Spartans were reported to be combing their long hair, a conventional pre-funeral ritual.
Parallels with the Islamic emphasis on martyrdom will inevitably be drawn, but theirs was a patriotic rather than a religious cause. It will, however, come as no surprise that this autumn sees a flurry of interest in the ancient Spartans. A three-part series, The Spartans , begins on Channel 4 on Sunday, for which Cartledge is consultant; his book, The Spartans: An Epic History , was published last week; and a blockbuster film about Thermopylae, based on Steven Pressfield's novel The Gates of Fire and starring Bruce Willis, is in production. "I don't think that September 11 has caused the renewal in interest - that was already there - but it adds an extra urgency," Cartledge says.
One of the reasons for the recent change in Sparta's fortunes in popular and academic culture is the end of the cold war. Cartledge, who is the world's leading expert on Sparta and began studying the city-state in 1969 when it was still deeply unfashionable, explains: "People have been put off Sparta because they think that its totalitarian model is associated with 20th-century dictators such as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. But the negativity that surrounded Sparta in a cold-war age has disappeared and therefore you can look at it in a different way."
It was a most peculiar society, he says, radically different in lots of ways from anything before or since. It was ruled by two hereditary kings, who governed alongside a senate of men aged over 60 and a board of five "ephors" or overseers. A military ethic dominated the organisation of Sparta. Men lived in barracks until the age of 30 and could visit their wives only at night under cover of darkness. To ensure that the next generation of strong, healthy warriors was guaranteed, the greatest possible gene pool was created. Husbands and wives were swapped perfectly legally.
Life for Sparta's children was intentionally tough so that they would grow up to be good fighters. If there was any sign of weakness in a newborn baby, he or she was hurled down a nearby ravine. Children had to undergo compulsory state education from the age of seven - boys being encouraged to steal, and to die rather than confess their theft. Death, in fact, was not something to be feared, and to inculcate an easy acceptance of death, the Spartans buried their dead not in special cemeteries outside their city walls but in among their houses.
The elite military society was supported by a large population of slaves, known as helots . These were local Greeks whom the Spartans forced to work and farm for them. Every year, the ephors publicly declared war on the helots. This allowed them to kill them with impunity at the first sign of rebellion. Culls happened so regularly that they even instituted an official death squad, known as the Crypteia .
It is this system of helots that is mainly responsible for Sparta's bad press and that first drew Cartledge to the subject. Politically radicalised by events such as the student uprising of 1968 and the Vietnam war, he was interested generally in the history of social exploitation. "Here was a whole society premised on slavery, on an underclass of helots," he says. "Sparta was an example of how one shouldn't be."
But now he feels that we should not be so judgemental. Sparta has suffered for too long in comparison with the more favoured Athens - the liberal democracy, the cultural and intellectual centre, the site of great architecture. "We shouldn't be too intolerant or quick to pass judgement on any society's values," Cartledge says. "We should try to understand rather than condemn."
The Greek historian Herodotus was fascinated by the oddities of other cultures and, following in his footsteps with books such as The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others , Cartledge feels that the ancient Greeks usefully challenge us as much by their difference from us as their similarity. "I find it hard to judge one society's value system against another," he says.
But when pressed, Cartledge admits a certain admiration for Leonidas and the other fighters at Thermopylae. Without their sacrifice, Greece might have been successfully invaded and sucked into the Persian empire. History, in other words, might have been very different.
"Had the Greek world not been free from outside control, I don't believe it would have developed in the plural, exciting, imaginative way that it did," Cartledge says.
We tend to think of Athens as the sole source of the intellectual and cultural legacy of the Greeks, which the liberal democratic West has inherited, he says. But without the Spartan bravery at Thermopylae, there might have been no intellectual and cultural legacy to inherit. Cartledge is quite clear. "The Spartans are part of the story of western culture."
The Spartans: An Epic History is published by Channel 4 Books, £18.99. The Spartans starts on Channel 4, November 17, 9pm.