The following review was posted on May 27, 2004 on Kevin Hendryx's site 'Sparta Pages'.
THE SPARTANS (color, approx. 3 hours)
Produced by Lion Television Productions for Channel Four Television Corp. (UK), 2003.
Directed by Melanie Archer; hosted and narrated by Bettany Hughes. Consultant: Paul Cartledge (author, The Spartans).
Broadcast in the USA by the Public Broadcasting System network, 2003.
Available in the USA on PBS Video (DVD and VHS)
An engaging documentary artfully assembled, this 2003 British production has been a hit for PBS in the United States, with the videos and tie-in book (the US edition of Paul Cartledge’s The Spartans) often on backorder status. It is a rarity in that it gives Sparta its due for helping Greece resist the Persian threat and credits Sparta for its more enlightened attitude toward women. Although at times it may project a faint pro-Athens bias, host Bettany Hughes is a sympathetic and knowledgeable narrator. THE SPARTANS boasts terrific location photography by Douglas Hartington, with some impressive aerial shots of the Taygetus gorges. For the first time in a television documentary, we are treated to detailed examination of many artifacts in the Sparta Museum as well as shown many photos of archaeological excavations at Sparta. The atmospheric soundtrack is composed by Anthony Burke. Evocative reenactor footage is used – not as much as in the A&E production, maybe, but effectively presented, even if the footage tends to be come repetitive by Part 3.
THE SPARTANS opens at Thermopylae and with the epitaph of the Three Hundred -- and very stirring it is to hear this spoken in the original Greek -- before introducing some of the topics that will be addressed in the program. (Hmm. The claim that “male homosexuality was compulsory” is extremely dubious; the first boldfaced assertion as fact of a subject hotly debated among ancient and modern experts.) After the introduction, we journey to the Dark Ages of Greece, the end of the Achaean Age and the coming of the Dorian Greeks to the Peloponnesus and Laconia. An effective look at the development of hoplite warfare is presented. Next comes the Messenian conquest, then the establishment of the Spartan constitution. The upbringing of Spartan youths, warts and all, is then addressed at length. A good point is made that the sublimation of the individual as practiced by the Spartans can be very liberating – “the possibility of transcending your limitations as an individual and becoming part of something bigger and better.” Spartan institutions are credited for initiating a system of political rights and responsibilities among its citizens centuries before other Greek states conceived of such things.
The finding of the so-called statue of Leonidas in 1925 is used to introduce the Persian Wars, which are then examined in detail. There is much footage of Thermopylae, including the eponymous hot springs, and the commentary casts the Spartans’ self-sacrifice in terms that hearken to the Japanese samurai’s bushido code.
This segment begins by exploring at how Sparta and Athens fell out after the Persian Wars, with a look at Athenian politics and society and how these contrasted to Sparta’s. This is a refreshingly non-partisan treatment, not hesitating to be equally critical of Athens. Women’s life in Sparta is given much attention. Sparta comes off as considerably more enlightened, by modern Western standards, than Athens. (Interesting sidebar – in her remarks during a November 24, 2003, online chat with Channel 4 (UK) viewers, narrator Bettany Hughes, when asked where she’d have rather lived, Sparta or Athens, replied “Sparta. No doubt.”) Hughes wryly notes how Spartan women were “objects of fear and fascination” to non-Spartan men. The legacy of these “radical” Spartan customs on later societies is discussed. Amusingly, whether by design or not, Hughes wears a scarlet dress for much of this sequence – fit garb for a Spartanette – and conducts her narration while striding purposefully about the Laconian countryside or riding on horseback in full exhibition of energetic Spartan vitality.
Lastly, the Laconian earthquake of 465 or 464 BC and subsequent helot revolt is noted and seen as the event that lit the sparks of conflict between Greece’s two leading cities. The opening clashes of the Peloponnesian War and the Spartan disaster at Sphacteria ends Part 2.
The last section of the film opens at Delphi and takes a look at Greek religion and Spartan attitudes toward the gods and oracles before resuming the history of the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades, the Syracuse expedition, and Lysander are all examined, taking up half of Part 3. Then the period of the Spartan Hegemony is briefly described, shaped by the “crippled kingship” of Agesilaus and marked by power struggles among Sparta’s ruling factions. Hughes notes the critical decline of Spartan citizen manpower and the rise of Thebes as a rival. She takes us to the battlefield of Leuctra, where Spartan military superiority was broken in 371 BC. The remaining sequences very quickly sketch how classical Sparta became a second-class power and finally a tourist attraction for wealthy Romans. The show concludes with a summation of Sparta’s influence on Western philosophy.
THE SPARTANS is a standout documentary, wonderfully photographed and directed, and is highly recommended as a visual overview of Spartan history.
Those interested in further information about this production can read an online interview about “The Spartans” with classicist Bettany Hughes and historical consultant Paul Cartledge answering questions from viewers (November 2003) at BBC Channel 4's website.