Bettany Hughes chronicles the rise and fall of one of the most extreme civilisations the world has ever seen, one founded on discipline, sacrifice and frugality where the onus was on the collective and the goal was to create the perfect state and the perfect warrior.
Hughes reveals the secrets and complexities of everyday Spartan life; homosexuality was compulsory, money was outlawed, equality was enforced, weak boys were put to death and women enjoyed a level of social and sexual freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world.
It was a nation of fearsome fighters where a glorious death was treasured. This is aptly demonstrated by the kamikaze last stand at Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his warriors fought with swords, hands and teeth to fend off the Persians.
But there was bitter rivalry between Sparta and Athens, two cities with totally opposed views of the 'good life'. When war finally came, it raged for decades and split the Greek world until, in a brutal and bloody climax, Sparta finally emerged victorious as the most powerful city-state in Greece.
But under King Agesilaus, the dreams of the Spartan utopia come crashing down. By setting out to create a perfect society protected by perfect warriors, Sparta made an enemy of change.
A collapsing birth rate, too few warriors, rebellious slaves and outdated attitudes to weaponry and warfare combined to sow the seeds of Sparta's destruction, until eventually the once great warrior state was reduced to being a destination for Roman tourists who came to view bizarre sado-masochistic rituals.