An Analysis of a Good Lesson:



Every year of my teaching career I have had the great fortune to teach ancient history, usually at the 9th grade level. I call this ‘great fortune’ because ancient history was my main interest in college and served as the foundation of my degree in History. A quarter of a century later it is still my favorite intellectual interest. I have worked to carry this interest, this love, into my classroom. 

The first semester of ancient history includes, among other civilizations, Greece. I begin with  Crete as way of introduction, and then continue with the Ionians, who founded Athens. We then move on to the Mycenaeans, who fought and won the Trojan War. Next come the Dorian Greeks, and it is here that the lesson concerning Sparta begins. It was the Dorians who founded Sparta, thus creating a natural counterpoint and opponent to Athens. This conflict between Athens and Sparta is the defining aspect of Greek history, a conflict that results in the Peloponnesian War. To understand the nature of this struggle, in Thucydides’ words the most monumental one to that date, we must understand the natures of Athens and Sparta---Sparta especially. 

Why Sparta? 

Unlike much of ancient history, Sparta truly represents a different, an alien, reality. It was a hyper-militaristic state, with a corps of citizen soldiers undefeated for hundreds of years. It was also a slave state extraordinaire, where those in bondage outnumbered the citizens by 40 to 1. This explains the brutal logic of Sparta’s totalitarian militarism: it had to watch for, and defend itself against, any possible rebellion from those it enslaved. It was forced---it forced itself---to devote all state resources, including its citizens, to the military. The main point is that all males severed in the military until the age of 60. All their time from the age of seven was devoted to military affairs: drill, training, athletics, and war---above all else war. 

Development of Lesson

1. Outline for students why Sparta is different. Contrast with other civilizations that were studied. 

2. Stress the fact that males were forced to live in the barracks from the age of seven. Ask students to imagine their lives if they had been born in Sparta. 

3. Relate how the Spartans were only able to devote their lives to the military because slaves would do all labor for them. Ask students to imagine their lives as a slave in Sparta. 

4. Study in detail Spartan (as well as Greek) war making, especially its horrific aspects. Contrast this with the generally high level of Greek civilization. 

5. Explain how Sparta can, on one hand, be seen as the savior of Western civilization; and on the other, be seen as a traitor to it. 

6. Trace how Sparta's sole emphasis on militarism eventually destroyed it and left bereft much of Greece itself. 

7. Ask students if they can see elements of the Spartan mentality in the modern world, and ask what they can expect from such attitudes. 


Because Spartans began their military careers so early there is a natural level of interest in Spartan history among high school students. Most of the students I teach realize that they would have already been in the army for eight years had they been born in Sparta! They would have also killed their first man and developed a taste for war. A contrast with their present lives is scarcely imaginable. A student's natural inclination leads toward an interest in the Spartan mentality. This of course makes my task all the easier. 

I have heard from many students that the unit on Sparta was the best of the year. Many students who graduate and go on to college tell me that they remember the lesson on Sparta over all others. What teacher could ask for more? (Except that he could wish that EVERY unit were as edifying and entertaining!)


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