The Discovery of Sparta

Warriors in red cloaks battling against the odds at Thermopylae is the image usually associated with Sparta. But a richer and more contentious tale lies in the ancient city’s stones.

Black figure kylix attributed to the Boreads Painter, Sparta, sixth century BC © Getty Images.

The chances are that you know of Leonidas and that you have heard of Thermopylae, both of which have been commemorated in Greece this year with 2,500-year anniversary coins. But what about the travellers, traders, cheats, conmen and the professionally curious who excavated the ancient city of Sparta? The stories of Sparta’s rediscovery include those of a 15th-century trader-turned-antiquarian, an 18th-century scholar who left his reputation (and Sparta) in ruins, the builders who reconstructed the city after Greek independence and the pioneering archaeologists of the early 20th century. Such characters have shaped the history of Sparta, both ancient and modern.

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