'The different ideologies between Athens and Sparta were the main cause of conflict in the Greek world during this period.' How far do the sources support this view?

This question comes from the 2015 OCR A-Level Ancient History paper and is typical in the style of the other questions. Using this question as an example, I’m going to demonstrate the key methods of approaching a these ‘bogus quote’ questions.

i) Exam Technique: Read the question, instructions and know how much time you have to write your answer.

You should know how long you have from preparation and looking at past papers; consider the amount of time you need to write a plan and introduction, and make sure that you stick to this, otherwise the effort of planning your answer will unravel as the essay develops due to time pressure.

To help reading the question, take a highlighter into the exam and highlight the key terms in both the quote and the question; this way, you know from the start exactly what is being asked of you, and it helps to make sure that you’ve answered each part of the question. In this example, I would highlight ideologies, main cause of conflict, Greek World, how far, and sources.

ii) Having established what is being asked, it’s important to check if there is any bias in the quote - in other words, whether the quote seems to push your answer a certain way. Whether you decide to follow the bias or not, being aware of it is hugely important at framing your answer. If you’re unsure which way to take your answer, I would always consider countering the quote first as this is usually more fruitful.

iii)  Definitions - as boring and obvious as it might seem, you need to define the terms of the question; this can be done in various ways, e.g. This essay will understand the Greek world as being of the entire sphere of Greek influence in the Mediterranean (i.e. mainland Greece, Asia Minor, Magna Graeca).

Similarly here, it is important to reiterate the time period that the essay will cover - 460-403 BC. This is as much for your benefit as for the examiners, as it will remind you to cover the entire period.

With definitions, it is also possible to challenge the quote; the concept of ideology is perhaps a good example here. It is questionable whether such a concept existed at the time - consider Xenephon’s use of the term politaea when writing on the Spartan constitution, rather than necessarily their political ideology and mind-set. The notion of bi-polar ideologies here could be challenged as being a modern conception which did not exist at the time the events occurred. Even though this could be countered by Thucydides’ rendering of Pericles’ Funeral Speech of 431 BC, it is another consideration which is good to flag up in your introduction.

iv) Planning and Structure

This is crucial - the points above will give you the first half of your introduction. You need to decide on a structure for your plan, and then insert a condensed version into the second half of your intro in order to highlight the direction the essay is going to take.

In History essays, there are generally 2 stock structures that can be used - and which are helpful to use in exams as they are simple, and take minimal time to plan.

Structure 1: Chronological - simply take the period, divide it into as many distinct periods as you see fit (and consider that you will need to have at least 3 to write a paragraph on each), and then jot down your examples under each heading. For example, here your periods would likely be 460-431; 431-421 (Archidamian War); and 421-403 (this could be separated into two if required).

Structure 2: themes - this is more complex, and in certain cases only advisable if your preparation has been thorough and you’ve prepared the same topic in advance. Themes can be as vague or precise as you’d like to make them, and do make reading (and writing) an essay less predictable. Here, for example, themes may be broken down along the lines of: instances of conflict due to Athenian and Spartan ideology, and, instances of conflict due to other factors (or involving other states). The crucial factor in this essay, more so than in structure one, would be the nature of ideologies (and your definition of them) as opposed to the causes of instances of conflict.

Other structures can be used - for example, this essay could be split according to the different sources (as that, after all, is what the question is based upon).

vi) Writing and Concluding:

In writing the essay, ensure that you support each point that is made with as much evidence as you can; this is linked to planning, as in drawing up your plan, you can evaluate the various strengths of your evidence. It is generally best to lead with your best points as this way you can spend the most time on them in your answer. Try to get at least 3 supported points per paragraph; for example, if you structured your essay according to sources, your first paragraph may consider the role of Thucydides in supporting the quote: the Funeral Speech, the ‘truest cause’ (Thucydides I.23), and the altercation between Sparta and Athens over the Ithome revolt (I.102).

As a side note to this essay, it is worth noting that Thucydides can be used to both support and oppose the quote (e.g. Book V and the events following the Peace of Nicias, which suggests there was no material ideological difference in practice).

In concluding, it is important to be brief; you have already laid down your argument in the above paragraphs. Often, it is best to sign-post the conclusion, e.g. In conclusion, … as this will make ensure to separate the conclusion from the main body. It is important to give your own opinion in your conclusion, though this should not be different to the general direction of the rest of the essay (i.e. conclude on the side where you have presented more, and more convincing, evidence).

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