Send the SAS to pick flowers and the Marines to knit mittens, because the Spartans could have 'em for breakfast. In The Spartans: An Epic History, the book of the Channel 4 series, Paul Cartledge paints a vivid picture of one of the most extreme civilisations ever known--one whose ethos married the highest levels of societal and philosophical advancement with the most repressive and warlike of regimes. These ancient Greeks lived, breathed and slept "hard". They also happened to influence much of subsequent Western civilisation.
The perfect warriors, they lived to fight, and when they weren't fighting, they were training to fight. Their male children were brutally raised, and weak or deformed infants were mercilessly cast from cliff tops. Yet they were unusually egalitarian in their treatment of women, and embraced an intensely partisan social ethic. They enslaved much of the rest of Greece, yet provided the spark for Athenian Democracy. It is this apparently contradictory duality that continues to fascinate and that has since engendered concepts as diverse as Hitler's system of negative eugenics and Thomas More's notion of Utopia.
The Spartans, though accessible, is an accomplished academic work--you'd hardly expect anything else, Cartledge having already written 20 books on the subject. But without the window dressing of the TV show's stunning Grecian locations and its thinking-man's eye-candy presenter Bettany Hughes, this can seem a little dry--anyone expecting the latest glossy picture-filled Time Team-style coffee-table book is likely to be disappointed. If you're partial to a bit of accessible erudition, however, then it would be foolish to look this gift horse in the mouth. --Paul Eisinger