Athens and Sparta – Rival Cities

In Ancient Greece, the cities of Athens and Sparta were such deadly rivals they were very often at war. This fierce animosity was the starting point for this week’s History lesson in 3PF. The teaching focus, however, was on how historians consider as objectively as possible the evidence left behind by people in the past. It builds directly on the ‘Prove It’ activities undertaken in Lower School, where pictures placed around the classroom provide examples to support the simple statements given to the children. Just the other week, in fact, Form 2 did a ‘Prove It’ activity about the seaside. The difference for Form 3 was that the evidence was presented in the form of written statements rather than pictorial clues.

In my lesson, I started by ensuring that the concept of a city was clear in everyone’s head. We thought about London and Birmingham which, although different in some ways, share the same set of values and belong to the same country. Not so in Ancient Greece. Athens and Sparta were self-governing city states, and each had a markedly different view of the ways things should be done. As a class, we explored the contrasts together. The girls in particular were shocked to learn that, in Athens, education for females was considered unnecessary and that women were not allowed to vote. All the more surprising, of course, given that Athens considered itself to be a democracy. Sparta, meanwhile, was governed very strictly by the king and no-one had a vote. Even so, the role of women in society was considered to be more important.

Once we had examined the evidence, I explained the task to the children. They had a bank of imaginary statements and had to use the documents provided to decide whether each statement was made by an Athenian or a Spartan or, crucially, whether it was impossible to say one way or the other. In order to do this, the children had to work in pairs to allow opportunities for discussion and debate. Observing the class at work was fascinating because the task provided challenges at several levels. Not only was it important to check the evidence, but the partners had to work in step with each other and confer continually. The pairs who were most successful during the lesson did all of these things brilliantly. Some children were absolutely convinced they could place the statements on the chart based solely on the discussion we had at the start of the lesson, but I was adamant that they must check because this is a very similar skill to that required for comprehension exercises, where answers have to be extracted from the text.

Some of the most interesting discussions between partners were had over statements that proved to be unclear. Oliver was quick to realise that ‘My city is the greatest’ could easily have been said by someone with civic pride living in either Athens or Sparta, and no-one disagreed with him. However, when he suggested that ‘I like to welcome people to my city’ could also apply to both places, Anya offered a convincing counter argument. The very location of Sparta, surrounded as it was by high and forbidding mountains, made it intrinsically less welcoming than low lying Athens, close to the coast and within easy reach of other cities. Oliver conceded this point but continued to insist that there was insufficient evidence to make a decision. Faizan and George, meanwhile, agreed to differ over the statement ‘Going to school? What’s the point?’ Faizan ascribed the statement to Sparta because the emphasis there was more on warfare than on learning. George felt that the statement could equally have been made by an ungrateful Athenian boy who didn’t like school. So persuasive were they that, in the end, I agreed to accept both arguments.

We can usefully pick some of these ideas up again as they provide an excellent starting point for philosophical discussion. Whilst we should not judge an ancient civilisation by our modern values, the treatment of women in both societies encourages the girls in particular to challenge their thinking and put together an argument.

From a purely historical standpoint, we will be considering evidence again in our next lesson when we have a close look at some of the painted vases preserved in the British Museum. Unfortunately, we can’t get our hands on the actual artefacts, but the museum website will allow us to explore what the vases tell us about the daily life of the hoplites, as the Greek foot soldiers were known. I am sure that the children will discover that, as with so much in history, no sooner have they answered one question, they will find another requiring investigation.