Friday, September 10, 2010

Why write – or read – about Ancient Sparta?

Ancient Sparta probably seems obscure and irrelevant to many modern readers – even those of you who like historical fiction. Not only are we separated from Sparta by two and a half centuries, but Sparta does not live on in any contemporary society. Unlike Athens, Rome or Constantinople, there is not even a modern city that traces its ancestry back through the generations and the architecture to the ancient one.


Yet ancient Sparta was remarkably “modern” – not only compared to other Greek cities but with respect to a variety of characteristics from artistic taste to the role of women. Personally, it was the role of women in Sparta that first attracted my interest in the society as a whole. While women in Athens were treated essentially the way women in Afghanistan are treated under the Taliban today, women in Sparta enjoyed freedom of movement, public education and economic power. The fact that the debates, intrigues and scandals of the Athenian Assembly seemed astonishingly similar to what goes on in modern legislatures had already alerted me to the fact that ancient Greece had more to teach us about human nature than what we learned in school. The status of Athenian women, however, was so alienating that I had never wanted to write about ancient Athens. Sparta’s radically different and more modern attitude to women was attractive enough to make me start to learn more about Sparta.

I soon realized that Sparta shared far more with modern Western society than just the treatment of women. For example, Sparta was the only ancient Greek city to introduce public education for all future citizens, just as we have in Western countries today. Sparta sought to ensure a minimum standard of living for all citizens by giving each citizen an estate large enough to support him and his family, rather the same way that welfare payments and other forms of subsidies for the poor are intended to prevent abject poverty in modern Social Democracies. Despite its overwhelming military might, Sparta had only one vote in the defensive alliance it founded and headed – a situation comparable to that of the U.S. in NATO today. Spartan artistic and architectural style was minimalist and functional rather than highly decorative – something evocative of Scandinavian design today. All these factors convinced me that writing about Sparta would underline the degree to which humans have shared values across millennia.

Yet for all its remarkable similarities with modern Western societies, Sparta was still radically different from the world we know today. Many features of Spartan society such as the life-long, compulsory military service and membership in dining clubs for men, the lack of currency, or the polytheism and slave economy Spartans shared with the rest of the ancient Greek world seem strange if not offensive to us. Thus reading about ancient Sparta entails not only recognizing familiar values and attitudes but learning about strange ones as well.

It was the mix of the familiar and the peculiar that made me decide to write about life in ancient Sparta. In my series of Spartan novels, I explore human nature and analyze universal themes by stretching our vision beyond the familiar and examining human behavior in a strange, often uncomfortable, setting. While I strive for the greatest historical accuracy in all my works, the focus of my novels is not distant historical events but rather the society and people responsible for historical development and above all what they tell us about our own society and mankind generally. My characters are not modern people dressed up in Spartan scarlet and bronze; they are people who, despite being the products of their unique society, share emotions, and some values and behavior patterns with us. I believe my novels reveal the extent to which the characteristics of human nature have remained recognizable despite the passing of millennia and dramatic differences in technology, life-syle and ideology. This is what makes writing – and reading – about ancient Sparta so intriguing.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Helena, I saw your post on the Amazon "Have you written a historical fiction book" and came to visit. I am doing a series on Writing Historical Fiction that talks specifically about how I approach it. You can find my blog at www.pilotlion.blogspot.com or through my website at www.ldalford.com.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for becoming a follower. I will check out both blog and website.
    Helena

    ReplyDelete