From The Independent, Sunday, 4 October 2009
Alexander was less than Great, and the Spartans were little more than thugs, says new book
By Paul Bignell
Spartans! Prepare for, well, embarrassment. It seems that far from being elite, noble warriors, each worth 1,000 of any rival soldiers, King Leonidas' crack troops were a bunch of bullying thugs. And Alexander the Great? A mummy's boy: in fact, his mum was a better fighter by a long chalk and died a soldier's death on the battlefield.
They and other figures from antiquity are to have their reputations shattered by a new British study which reveals the "truth" behind long-established legends. Michael Scott, a classicist at Cambridge University, points to evidence that could change the way we think about our classical heroes.
The heroic Spartans of Thermopylae, whose valiant standoff with an enormous Persian army is immortalised in the Hollywood film 300, are unmasked by Dr Scott as little more than war-mongering bullies of the ancient world who policed Athens with near-mindless violence, destroying anything they took a dislike to.
Alexander the Great, remembered for his conquests across the known world and spreading Greek civilisation to the east, is dismissed was a "mummy's boy" whose endless stream of letters from the battlefield to his mother Olympias infuriated his generals.
Despite the fact that Alexander was recently voted the greatest Greek of all time by in a poll in Greece, Dr Scott charges that his successes were merely opportunistic exploitation of foundations laid by his father, Philip II.
Olympias, sympathetically portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the film Alexander, was a violent and fearless warrior to put her son to shame, according to Dr Scott.
It's even suspected that she may have murdered her husband, Philip of Macedon. She was finally captured in battle and put to death in 316BC by Macedonian comrades of those whom she had slain in battle.
The Greek philosopher Isocrates also suffers under scrutiny. Until now he was thought a steadfast believer in democracy in Athens and is widely believed to be one of the greatest orators and political commentators of his time. But, late in life, Isocrates realised democracy no longer worked in Athens and threw in his lot in with Philip of Macedon when Philip became king.
Even the great "Golden City" of Athens itself is not spared a kicking from Dr Scott. He argues that its early successes have, over time, obscured a darker history that mirrors societal problems in 21st-century Britain. Far from being a major world player, fourth-century BC Athens imploded under the weight of a crippling economic downturn, while politicians embroiled themselves in fraud. Meanwhile, they sent the army to fight unpopular foreign wars and struggled to cope with a surge in immigration.
"If history can provide a map of where we have been, a mirror to where we are right now and perhaps even a guide to what we should do next, the story of this period is perfectly suited to do that in our times," Dr Scott said yesterday.
"It shows how an earlier generation of people responded to similar challenges and which strategies succeeded. It is a period of history that we would do well to think about a little more right now – and we ignore it at our peril."
/Michael Scott's book From Democrats to Kings is published tomorrow by Icon Books
From The Daily Mail October 5 2009
The truth about Greek 'legends': Alexander the Great was a mummy's
boy, the Spartans were thugs and ancient Athens was corrupt
The myth of a democratic ancient Greece populated by fearless and enlightened rulers has been shattered by new research released today.
The Spartans were thugs, Alexander the Great was a mummy's boy and ancient Athens was corrupt and bankrupt, argues Cambridge University classicist Dr Michael Scott.
He also goes on to warn that the eventual collapse of Greek democracy 2,400 years ago took place in circumstances chillingly similar to modern Britain.
Dr Scott points out that Athens imploded in the middle of crippling economic downturn, while politicians fiddled finances, sent troops to fight unpopular foreign wars, and struggled to cope with immigration.
He believes the parallels between the ancient world's 'Golden City' and Britain's credit crunch, expenses' scandal and war in Afghanistan cannot be ignored.
Research by Dr Scott shows the classical heroes of that era as fallible mortals with a propensity to violence and political back-stabbing.
Alexander the Great, recently voted the greatest Greek of all time by a poll in Greece, is widely credited with spreading civilisation as he marched across what was then the known world.
But according to Dr Scott, he was little more than a mummy's boy who sent an endless stream of letters from the battlefield to his mother, Olympias.
His military successes merely built on the pragmatic foundations laid down by his father Philip II.
In fact, it was Olympias, sympathetically portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the Hollywood blockbuster Alexander, who was the true warrior in the family.
Dr Scott described her as a violent and fearless leader who is suspected to have murdered her own husband before being captured in battle and put to death in 316BC.
When it comes to the Spartans of Thermopylae, long famed as an elite band of noble troops, they are branded as nothing more than a bunch of warmongering bullies who policed Athens with mindless violence.
Even Athenian orators like Isocrates, traditionally remembered as one of the most enlightened politicians of his time, is exposed as ditching democracy in favour of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander.
Dr Scott's book argues Athenian democracy did not fall as a result of being conquered by Sparta at the end of the fifth century BC.
Instead the stresses and strains of the fourth century BC, when Athens sacrificed its ideology in a last-ditch attempt to remain a player on the world stage, was the real cause.
It abandoned past allies and tried to forge 'slippery-fish' alliances with the new powers of Macedonia and the Persian king, all at the expense of its once flourishing democracy.
Athens committed itself to unpopular wars and its economy, heavily dependent on trade and overseas resources, crashed when conflict began to affect arterial trade routes.
This resulted in series of domestic problems, including an inability to fund a traditional police force, and democracy began to buckle under the strain.
The city started the century a flourishing democracy but by the end it was hailing its latest ruler, Demetrius, as both a king and a living God.
Dr Scott added: "In many ways this was a period of total uncertainty just like our own time.
"There are grounds to consider whether we want to go down the same route that Athens did.
'It survived the period through slippery-fish diplomacy, at the cost of a clear democratic conscience, a policy which, in the end, led it to accept a dictator King and make him a God.'
He said his new history of the fourth century BC should be read as a lesson for the challenges of our generation.
He said: 'If history can provide a map of where we have been, a mirror to where we are right now and perhaps even a guide to what we should do next, the story of this period is perfectly suited to do that in our times.
'It shows how an earlier generation of people responded to similar challenges and which strategies succeeded.
'It is a period of history that we would do well to think about a little more right now - and we ignore it at our peril.'
Dr Scott's book 'From Democrats to Kings' is released today.