Sparta, a Social History – Dissertation Summary

This is a blog post by Harvey Richardson, a year 3 student, on his dissertation topic of ancient Sparta.

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I chose my dissertation to be on ancient Sparta as it was an area of research that I was incredibly interested in and passionate about (both of which are very much needed when choosing a topic!) having previously studied Sparta at AS level.

Sparta was a totally unique society, both by today’s standards and by the ancients’. It took young boys from the age of 7 from their family homes and put them into a gruelling state education system designed principally to ensure its soldiers were well-trained, merciless and the first professional warriors in the art of war. Politically, its society was presided over by two kings and a series of groups each designed as a power check over another. It was a monarchy, an oligarchy and a democracy.

With the help of my dissertation supervisor, Dr Maria Preztler, I chose to narrow the scope of my research to a single century, exploring the reasons behind Sparta’s sharp rise as a prominent city-state and her meteoric fall not one hundred years later when her forces were comprehensibly smashed at the battle of Leuktra in 386 BCE.

My dissertation, however, was not primarily concerned on the historical recounts of battles. A lot of scholarly work on Sparta concerns itself with the chronology of events, rather than the sociological factors behind them. Instead I wanted to explore a multitude of sources, both Greek and Roman, in order to gain a sense of how this unique society contributed to both her success and her eventual decline. By using ancient philosophers such as Aristotle in tandem with ancient biographers such as Thucydides and Xenophon, I sought to peer behind the idealised veil of a Spartan military-state (which the Spartans themselves were and still are all too happy for you to believe) and investigate a state ravaged by internal factional rivalry and fragmented foreign policy. By focusing on society and several prominent individuals that shaped and bent it, my dissertation came to the conclusion that Spartan society hungered for military dominance yet when this was achieved was unable to sustain it.

Without a doubt doing a dissertation was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences I’ve ever faced. But by picking a subject area that I grew increasingly curious and passionate about, I found the process to oddly be quite enjoyable. Research for one’s dissertation is an exponential process, there are always more books and opinions to read, but I would encourage anyone doing an ancient historical dissertation to pick a topic that at 2am on a Thursday night you feel will still be able to read and write about.

Written by Harvey Richardson – Edited by Emma Garland