The following review was written by Kevin Hendryx and posted on his website 'Sparta Pages' on May 27, 2004.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SPARTANS (color, approx. 200 minutes)
Produced by Triage Entertainment for The History Channel, 2003.
Overall direction by Richard Schmidt, with various writers, editors, and segment directors.
First broadcast in the USA by The History Channel (cable TV), 2002.
Available in the USA on A&E Video (DVD and VHS; two discs or cassettes)
First of all, a caveat emptor: the DVD
version of this documentary is available only on
DVD-R, a departure from the norm, and they have a
horrible incompatibility with many DVD players,
especially from those before 2000, I’m told. This writer,
with a Zenith DVD player bought in 2000, experienced this firsthand,
with two separate sets failing to play. I am
reviewing this from my old-fashioned VHS tapes made
from the original TV broadcasts in October 2002. Big
thumbs down to A&E and its DVD suppliers for
treating so many potential customers like second-class
citizens. The home video design consists of the dull, generic
History Channel packaging, too, in contrast to the PBS show’s
colorful box art.
Part 1: Code of Honor This program, like PBS’ THE SPARTANS, opens at Thermopylae.
And it, too, employs a lot of reenactor footage, much of it
shot in annoyingly blurred and grainy slo-mo close-ups
(this has the virtue of sometimes camouflaging sloppy
costuming). With these effects, a little typical CGI
work, and heavy reliance on static talking head shots, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SPARTANS
comes across as very much a formulaic, by-the-numbers
US TV documentary. There is little of the dynamism or
stylish composition of THE SPARTANS, zero humor,
and far too much redundant commentary by various
academic experts. These include many authors found in our Book
List: Victor Davis Hanson, Steven Pressfield, Donald Kagan, and
Paul Cartledge. The effect is a choppy and dull
production, not helped by the fadeouts for commercials
every 15 minutes or the hackneyed soundtrack, After the
intro, the narrative reverses course and discusses the
Dorian invasions and immediately loses credibility by
showing a map of Greece that places Sparta in a
completely wrong location (on the coast!) – a mistake
that is never corrected. Other factual errors slip into the narration.
Didn’t any of the experts see a preview copy?
Early Spartan art is
discussed, then the Messenian conquest, helots, and the
Lycurgan rhetra. Spartan social and political
institutions are examined. Some location photography of Sparta
is used to accompany voiceovers, but not as much as in the PBS
film, and often it is not clear what is being shown. Some
of the still art chosen for the camera is also suspect –
Turks substituting for Persians, Pantheon-like
structures for classical Greek temples, and so on. (Side
note: why doesn’t someone fully excavate Sparta’s
theatre?) The Spartan education system (the agoge) is
then treated at length (although the script sometimes
makes the agoge sound like a place or building rather
than an institution). At least the “compulsory homosexuality” claim
is not made, and the nature of Spartan male relationships is
addressed from all points of view. The term “regiment”
is used synonymously with the syssitia, the small,
intimate mess clubs, which is very misleading.
coming of the Persian Wars is then discussed, although some
elements are compressed (Athens did not have its navy until Xerxes’
invasion) and the date is wrongly given as “the end of
the 7th century BC” and Ionia is inaccurately portrayed
on a map of Asia Minor as a city rather than a region.
Hoplite warfare is detailed and the narrative
confusingly backtracks several generations to look at
the Spartan/Tegean conflict of the 560s BC. Then back to
the Persian threat. Then we learn about kings Cleomenes and
Demaratus, then Leonidas and Thermopylae, then we back up again
(after the commercial fade) to Marathon. The entire
chronology of this section is fragmented and jumpy.
The battle of Thermopylae is examined in great detail, rating much more time than given in THE SPARTANS.
(The site of Thermopylae is also usually misplaced on
the map.) We see many reenactor scenes, including some
subpar Greeks and a handful of pseudo-Persians. Computer
graphics give the false impression that the pass was
dramatically on the edge of a sheer precipice falling into the
sea. After the fall of Thermopylae, the remainder of Part 1 deals
with the battles of Salamis and Plataea. Keeping to the
pattern, Thessaly and Thebes are mislocated on a map.
Part 2: Tides of War The second part opens with a recapping of the rise of Spartan
power and the events of the Persian Wars, then moves on to
the origins of the Delian League and Athenian empire. In
fact, the focus of Part 2 shifts strongly away from
Sparta and onto Athens. Making up slightly for this
curious twist, Thessaly finally gets placed correctly
on the map.
Peloponnesian War dominates this part almost exclusively.
Strategies, maneuvers, and battles are exuberantly explained
by voiceovers and the corps of talking heads while drums and
brass thunder ominously in the background. Interesting
stuff, but it gets tedious as detail piles upon detail.
The narrative structure fights to stay on track while
each commentator veers the discussion into a different
avenue. Oddly, the watershed battle of Sphacteria is
given only a cursory mention. THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SPARTANS threatens to become The Alcibiades Show about 30 minutes into this half.
final third of Part 2 deals with the Spartan Hegemony following
the final defeat of Athens. The commentary turns quite harsh
at this point, with Sparta universally condemned as a
bully and its leaders presented as utterly unscrupulous.
This does not reflexively make Sparta’s enemies more
admirable to me; it just makes for a sad, tawdry
atmosphere to the end of this program. The defeat of
Leuctra inevitably comes – although Epaminondas’ new
tactics are inadequately explained – and some
speculation is given over to reasons why Sparta’s
population went into terminal decline. The founding of Megalopolis
and the separation of Messenia from the Lacedaemonian state
are presented as death blows to Spartan power. Like THE SPARTANS,
this documentary closes with mention of Roman tourists
treating Sparta as a theme park and of Sparta’s
surprisingly enduring legacy and influence on succeeding
states, from noble experiments such as the French and
American republics to the foul perversions of Nazi
there is no examination of religious customs or women’s
roles except briefly in Part 1. There is also no further discussion
of social or cultural issues in the second half of the
program; part 2 is entirely military/political history,
often with a pro-Athens slant. Regrettably, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SPARTANS
is something of a wasted opportunity. It has the
typical virtues and failings of what has become The
History Channel/A&E network documentary house style,
with none of the flair of THE SPARTANS made a year
later. Adequate, but nothing to get excited about, and marred
by embarrassing sloppiness. If you have to chose between the
two, I recommend buying THE SPARTANS and renting
this one. The former you’ll enjoy over and over again,
but the other is strictly pedestrian.