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What would petrify the Spartans? Role play can unmask a wealth of learning when children study the ancient Greeks, says Chris Ball

The legacy of the ancient Greeks keeps reasserting itself. The Olympics are on the horizon and philosophy is advancing into the curriculum. Then there's the language, which has had such an influence on our own. But apart from sport, the meaning of life, and language, what have the Greeks ever done for us? Is there really anything else they have to say to pupils today?

The concept of ancient Greece isn't that easy to get a handle on. It was not a homogenous country as it consisted of city states with different cultures, traditions and political organisations. Further, "Ancient Greece" spans well over a millennium. The best focus for a junior class is probably the 5th century bc, a period which encapsulates both the apogee of domestic Greek culture and power as well as relationships with foreign powers.

Surprisingly, drama is a good way in. A few years ago, I had to find a starting point for a five-week drama project on the subject with Year 5s in inner-city Liverpool. In history, the children had done quite a lot of drawings of vases. But I saw little detailed historical enquiry into what the pots and the diversity of images on them either signified to the Greeks or might mean to us today.

I wanted us to embrace as many facets of Greek life as possible.

Contrasting the states of Sparta and Athens offered an opening for exploring language, politics, religion, war and peace, sport and culture as well as the odd vase. I adopted the role of Socrates. No costumes or funny voices, I just explained that I would be taking on a role and introduced myself to the class. I discussed philosophy, its purposes and its roots.

The pupils were fellow enquirers after truth. We talked about philosophical discourse with its open questions and dialogues. We also talked about other "phil-" words which they might know, such as philanthropy or Francophile.

On a map of Greece I indicated the site of Sparta, whence I had just arrived. I told the children that as I walked in the shadow of Mount Taygetus, I had heard a baby crying. It had been abandoned to die. I had brought the baby (revealing a doll in a basket) with me and I now had a dilemma. What should I do with it? Information gleaned from the neighbouring villages revealed that the Spartans, because of a society where everyone - men, women and children - undertook intensive military training, did not allow babies with any physical weakness to live. What sort of people would do that to a baby, I wondered, as was my philosophical wont.

My main question was not whether to entrust the child to the Spartans, for they would clearly kill him if I did. It was to establish with the pupils'

help what was the best way to bring up a baby. Should it be as a warrior, dedicated to the pursuit of martial arts and conquest, or as someone who questioned and reflected on action and its consequences - a lover of wisdom, a philosopher? I needed help with my dilemma and any information about the Greeks would be useful.

Over subsequent weeks the class researched and then presented episodes from Spartan and Athenian life for analysis. Any gobbet of information was useful in resolving Socrates' dilemma.

We looked at the battle of Thermopylae in 490 bc where 300 Spartans and their small band of allies held up the might of the Persians, refusing to surrender or accept safe passage home. We attempted to fathom why, on the morning of the battle, the Spartans combed their hair and did gymnastic exercises, showing no sign of fear. We explored and wrote about the thoughts and feelings of the Persian king Xerxes as he looked down on this defiant spectacle. We set up a scene where a Spartan mother responded to her child's complaints of being bullied. This was compared with what we imagined an Athenian reaction might look like. Then we analysed the pros and cons of these attitudes. We looked at myths such as Perseus and Medusa and considered what might petrify Spartans and Athenians and what would turn us to stone today.

We considered how we could defend ourselves against these threats and what our own "shields of Perseus" would consist of. For example some suggested that a shield against bullying would be to talk to friends.

Having examined the theocracy of Olympian gods and their roles, we chose gods to embody the mores of Athens and Sparta. Using the evidence of vase paintings, we recreated our own images of Olympic events and imagined the sentiments of winners and losers. The children discussed the political systems of the two city-states and the relative merits of collectivism and individualism.

Writing sprang out of the project. In role, pupils created narratives, prayers, journals, dialogues, diaries, poems, designs for temples and myths.

Some time later the pupils' teacher (now a deputy head) invited me into her new school, Our Lady's Bishop Eton RC Primary, and we undertook the same project with two classes which worked together and independently as Spartans and Athenians - this time complete with costumes. Finally the headteacher came in and heard the arguments of each class from lofty cloud-covered Olympus (a chair perched on a stout table surrounded by the billowing clouds of a parachute). Wreathed in a handy sprig of rhododendron and a sheet, he watched the presentations and made his judgments.

Ancient Greek is the language that first defined tyranny, democracy, monarchy and any other "-archy" or "-ocracy". The mantle of these concepts has been taken up by our rulers today.

As Greek philosophers, the pupils had discussed and dissected the roles, responsibilities and duties of citizens in a free city. They had set up their states and analysed their effectiveness until the final intervention of all-seeing Zeus. On reflection they might well have made the decision themselves just like that ancient Athenian democratic assembly voting on matters of war and peace.

It's wise not to be too dogmatic about the differences between Sparta and Athens. After all Athene was the goddess of war as well as wisdom.

Athenians fought with a conscript army and they too had to keep fit and train to serve their state. They were served by slaves and were not beyond resorting to the sword and exacting vengeance.

But, generally, their democratic system was reflective and thoughtful. For example,the celebrated episode where they sent a trireme to kill the inhabitants of the rebel city of Mytilene was memorable for the fact that their subsequent debate and agonised realisation of the wrongness of the action led to their sending a second trireme to stop the first wreaking revenge - thankfully it arrived just in the nick of time.

Chris Ball is a freelance teacher. A framework for teaching the Ancient Greeks is included in Speaking, Listening and Drama Years 5-6 by John Airs and Chris Ball (Hopscotch)

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