This is the seven (and last!) part of our seven part series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, Gloss., Retrospective) look at Sparta in popular memory and historical truth. Last time we talked about Sparta’s battlefield record and came away noting that it was profoundly, disappointing average. Longer term readers will know, of course, that we can’t judge military effectiveness by battles – the question is always achieving strategic objectives.
Moreover, our last discussion, on Sparta battlefield performance has actually left us with a bit of a puzzle. The Spartans were actually above average compared to other poleis in terms of some of their fighting capabilities, but this did not translate into a winning record. So we can also ask, why? What other deficiencies impaired their performance?
So today we are going to begin zooming out from the purely tactical layer discussed last time to the operational and finally strategic (even grand strategic) layers. Sparta, after all, has a reputation in the popular imagination for effective statecraft, so we are going to ask what goes did the Spartans set for themselves? To what degree did they achieve those goals and to what degree were those goals desirable?
But first, let’s clarify some terms. Military thinking is like ogres are like onions – they have layers.
We break these layers into tactics, operations and strategy. Put very simply, tactics is the layer of military thinking that concerns how an army fights; we discussed this last time. Operations is the layer of thinking that is concerned with getting the army to the fight – large-scale coordination and logistics live here. Strategy is concerned with bigger picture questions: what wars are worth fighting and for what objectives? Grand strategy extends this thinking to cover not only the military, but also political, cultural and economic institutions.
What we are going to do today is first assess Sparta’s operational capabilities – how well they marshal, move and supply armies. Then we’re going to jump up to the strategic layer and assess how well Sparta coordinates ends (the thing you want to achieve) with means (the methods you use to get it). Finally, we are going to assess, one by one, the various strategic objectives sometimes attributed to Sparta: to what degree did the Spartans achieve them, and were they worth achieving?
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Put simply, Spartan operational capabilities were extremely limited, even by the already low standards of its peers, meaning very large Greek poleis (like Athens or Syracuse).
Greek logistics in this period in general were very limited compared to either Macedonian or Roman logistical capabilities in subsequent centuries, or contemporary Persian logistics capabilities. Ironically, the most sustained study of classical Greek logistics concerns the campaigns of Xenophon (J.W. Lee, A Greek army on the March (2008)), meaning that it concerns not polis amateurs but an army of mercenary professionals, and yet compared to what the Macedonians will be able to do (see D.W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (1978)) half a century later in the same terrain, even these Greek logistics – probably the gold standard of their time – are astoundingly underdeveloped.
Put very briefly: Greek armies seem to have had relatively little carrying or logistics capacity. They did not seem to have generally moved with sufficient engineering tools or materials for effective field fortification or siege warfare. This is compounded by their inability to mill grain on the move (something Macedonian and Roman armies could do), which compounds problems of using local supply. You can eat unmilled grain (it can be roasted or boiled into porridge, but this is less than ideal. What they do tend to have is a high number of non-combat personal servants (precisely the sort of fellows good Roman or Macedonian generals drive out of the camp as soon as possible), who impose additional logistics burdens without much increasing the operational range or endurance of the army. Consequently, Greek armies struggled to stay out in the field throughout the year, whereas Roman and Macedonian armies were routinely capable of year-round campaigning.
(As a side note, you will often still see written in textbooks or popular treatments that Roman armies of the Republic before the second century didn’t/couldn’t stay in the field year-round or that had to go back for the harvest. This does not appear to be the case for Rome; Roman armies seem to have been year-round affairs from a fairly early point, unlike hoplite armies. On this, see N. Rosenstein, Rome at War (2004))
But let’s focus on Sparta.
Perhaps the most obvious example of poor Spartan logistics is their almost comical inability to sustain operations in Attica during the Peloponnesian War. This is, to be clear, not a huge task, in as much as logistics problems go. The main market in Sparta is 230km (c. 140 miles) from the Athenian agora; about a ten-day march, plus or minus. Sparta’s major ally in the war, Corinth, is even closer, only 90km away. The route consists of known and fairly well-peopled lands, and the armies involved are not so large as to have huge logistics problems simply moving through Greece.
During the first phase of the Peloponnesian War, called the Archidamean war, after the Spartan king who conducted it, Sparta invaded Attica functionally every year in an effort to inflict enough agricultural devastation that the Athenians would be forced to come out and fight (we’ll come back to this). The core problem is that it just isn’t possible to do a meaningful amount of damage in the short campaigning season before the army has to go home.
And I want to be clear just how long they bang their head against this rock. The Spartans invade in 431, siege a minor town, accomplish nothing and leave (Thuc. 2.18-20), and in 430 (Thuc. 2.47), in 429, because of a plague in Athens, they instead siege tiny Plataea (Thuc. 2.71ff) and then leave, but in 428 they’re back at it in Attica (Thuc. 3.1), and in 427 (Thuc. 3.26), and in 426 but turn back early due to earthquakes (Thuc. 3.89). But they’re back again in 425 (Thuc. 4.2), leaving each time when supplies run out. Sparta mounts no attack in 424 because Athenian naval raiding forces them to keep the army at home (Thuc. 4.57); in 423 they have a yearlong truce with Athens (Thuc. 4.117). They only finally suggest the creation of a permanent base in Attica in 422/1 (Thuc. 5.17) but the war ends first (they’ll actually fortify a small outpost, Decelea, only when the war renews in 413).
Thucydides is in several cases (e.g. Thuc. 3.1.3) explicit that what causes these armies to fail and disperse back home is that they run out of supplies. They are two days – on foot! – from a major friendly trade port (Corinth), and they run out of supplies. Their last invasion was six years after their first and they still had not resolved the logistics problem of long-term operations in what is effectively their own backyard.
To be fair, Brasidas – almost certainly the best commander the spartiates themselves ever produced – is able to operate far more freely in northern Greece and Thrace, but he does so with an army that doesn’t have any other spartiates in it. It’s made up primarily of helots and mercenaries (Thuc. 4.80) and is supported locally by forces (the Macedonians in particular) hostile to Athens. For comparison, Athens at the same time is operating as far north as Thrace, as far west as Sparta itself (and later Sicily) and as far east as Lesbos, just off of the coast of Anatolia. This is one of the reasons – along with the need to suppress the helots and later oliganthropia – that Spartan deployments outside of the Peloponnese often seem so small.
All of this is compounded by Spartan economic weakness. Because Sparta produced so little of value, the Spartan state simply lacked the funds to supplement its operational capabilities. It could not afford foreign siege engineers or experts (an increasingly dire liability in the fourth century as Greek siege craft both improved and became more technical) and crucially it could not afford a fleet. Spartan fleets, in the end, will be financed by Persia (we’ll come back to this).
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that while Spartan tactics may have been modestly better than most other Greek states, Spartan operations were dismal, placing severe limits on how effectively the Spartan army could be utilized. You may have the best soldiers – and again, Sparta does not appear to have always had the best soldiers – but they are of no use if you cannot get them to the fight, with the equipment (e.g. siege tools, ships) they need to win the fight. A mediocre soldier on the field beats a super-soldier sitting at home, every time.
Strategy: Ends and Means
Let’s move up one more analytical level and discuss strategy.
At the core of strategy is deciding on strategic ends and then coordinating the right means which will actually achieve those goals. For instance, if the strategic goal is to gain control of a key economic population center (read: a city), you don’t want to try to achieve that by, say, carpet bombing – you’ll destroy the very asset you wish to gain even if you win. In this respect, Sparta’s strategic thinking is straight-jacketed to a very narrow model of warfare. Sparta is the fellow in the aphorism that “when all you have is a hammer” but placed in a world of screws.
The hammer Sparta has, of course, is hoplite battle. Sparta seeks to solve almost all of its issues by applying a hoplite phalanx to the problem, regardless of if the problem can be solved by a hoplite phalanx. Spartan strategic thinking is thus marred by both a failure to consider military solutions that did not consist of traditional hoplite battles, as well as an inability to consider or execute non-military solutions at all.
We can see the former weakness in Spartan planning in the Persian Wars. Spartan planning is both direct and unrealistic: find a choke-point, fortify it and hold it indefinately with a hoplite army. Attempted at Thermopylae this plan fails; the Battle of Thermopylae is often represented in popular culture as an intentional delaying action, but it was nothing of the sort – Herodotus is clear that this was supposed to be the decisive land engagement (Hdt. 7.175; Cf. Diodorus 11.4.1-5). The Spartans then attempt to recreate this plan at the Isthmus of Corinth and have to be rescued from their strategic stupidity by the Athenians, who threaten to leave the alliance if the plan isn’t abandoned (Hdt. 8.49-62). A blockade at the Isthmus would be easy for the Persian army to bypass – assuming it didn’t simply defeat it with generally superior Persian siegecraft – and worse yet was a diplomatic disaster given that it meant essentially writing Athens off as a loss, when the Athenian navy provided the bulk of the ships protecting the Isthmus.
Moving forward historically, we have already noted the years after years Sparta would spend invading Athens with hoplite armies which were singularly incapable of actually achieving the strategic objective of bringing Athens to the negotiating table. The problem here is summed up in the concept of a strategic center of gravity – as Clausewitz says (drink!), it is the source of an enemy’s strength and thus the key element of an enemy’s force which must be targeted to achieve victory. The obvious center of gravity for the Athenians was their maritime empire, which provided the tribute that funded their war effort. The Corinthians saw this before the war even started. So long as the tribute rolled in, Athens could fight forever.
It takes Sparta years of fighting Athens to finally recognize this – an effort in 413/2 to support revolts from Athens is pathetically slow and under-funded (Thuc. 8, basically all of it) and it isn’t until Sparta not only allies with Persia but entrusts its fleet to the mothax Lysander that they seriously set about a strategy of cutting Athens’ naval supply lines. This isn’t a one-time affair: Sparta’s inability to coordinate ends and means shows up again in the Corinthian war (e.g. in Argos, Xen. Hell. 4.7), where they are pulled into a debilitating defensive stalemate because the Corinthians won’t come out and fight and the Spartans have no other answers.
This is compounded by the fact that the Spartans are awful at diplomacy. Sparta could be the lynch-pin of a decent alliance of cities when the outside threat was obvious and severe – as in the case of the Persian wars, or the expansion of Athenian hegemony. But otherwise, Sparta consistently and repeatedly alienates allies to its own peril. Spartan leadership at the end of the Persian wars had been so arrogant and hamfisted that leadership of the anti-Persian alliance passed to Athens (creating what would become the Athenian Empire, so Spartan diplomatic incompetence led directly to the titanic conflict of the late fifth century). And to be clear, Athenian diplomacy does not score high marks either, but it is still a far sight better than the Spartans (Greek diplomacy, in general was awful – rude, arrogant and focused on compulsion rather than suasion – so it is telling that the Spartans are very bad at it, even by Greek standards).
In 461, Spartan arrogance towards an Athenian military expedition sent to help Sparta against a helot revolt utterly discredited the pro-Sparta political voices at Athens and in turn set the two states on a collision course. Sparta had ejected the friendly army so roughly that it had created an outrage in Athens.
During the Peloponnesian War, Spartan diplomatic miscalculations repeatedly hurt their cause, as with the destruction of Plataea – the symbol of Greek resistence to Persia. Later on in the war, terrible Spartan diplomacy repeatedly derails efforts to work with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, who has the money and resources Sparta needs to defeat Athens; it is the decidedly un-Spartan actions first of Alcibiades (then being a traitor to Athens) and later Lysander who rescue the alliance. After the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta promptly alienated its key allies, ending up at war first with Corinth (the Corinthian War (394-386) and then with Thebes (378-371), both of which had been stalwarts of Sparta’s anti-Athenian efforts (Corinth was itself a member of the Peloponnesian League). This led directly to the loss of Messenia and the breaking of Spartan power.
In short, whenever Sparta was confronted with a problem – superior enemy forces, maritime enemies, fortified enemy positions, the need to keep alliances together, financial demands – any problem which could not be solved by frontal attack with hoplites, the traditional Spartan leadership alienated friends and flailed uselessly. Often the Spartans attempted – as with Corinth and later Thebes – to compel friendship with hoplite armies, which worked exactly as poorly as you might imagine.
It is hard not to see both the strategic inflexibility of Sparta and the arrogant diplomatic incompetence of the spartiates as a direct consequence of the agoge‘s rigid system of indoctrination. Young spartiates, after all, were taught that anyone with a craft was to be despised and that anyone who had to work was lesser than they – is it any surprise that they disdained the sort of warfare and statecraft that depended on such men? The agoge – as we are told – enforced its rules with copious violence and was designed to create and encourage strict, violent hierarchies to encourage obedience. It can be no surprise that men indoctrinated in such a system – and thus liable to attempt to use its methods abroad – made poor diplomats and strategic thinkers abroad.
These are all fairly serious failings, but the question remains: did Sparta achieve its goals? No state can be good at everything, after all – but one barometer of state success is the degree to which the state achieves the goals it sets out for itself. The problem here is that Sparta espoused or seemed to pursue a variety of different goals at different times, leading different scholars to ascribe a different set of strategic objectives to Sparta. What we’ll do is make a quick inventory of all of the goals Sparta seemed to pursue, from the grandest to the meanest, and consider the degree they achieved them, starting with:
I) Hegemony over Greece. It is hard to say to what degree Sparta ever really pursued this goal. Several Spartan leaders – kings like Cleomenes I, the regent Pausanias, Agesilaus II, along with men like Lysander – once on campaign outside of Sparta seemed to have envisaged a much wider sphere of Spartan control over Greece and worked to achieve it. At the same time, the ever cautious gerousia (along with the ephors) almost always worked to restrain and eventually destroy such men. This should remind us that no state – not even Sparta – is really a unitary entity with one set of goals held by everyone; within the state there is a complex set of competing interests. For the Spartan kings and influential commanders, success outside of Sparta was an alluring way to potentially build power outside of the systems which restricted them within Sparta; for the gerousia and the ephors – who were that system – success abroad was a threat to stability at home.
Given Sparta’s inherent resources, the goal was not unrealistic: Sparta was by land area, if not by population, the largest polis in Greece. But Spartan hegemony lasted less than a decade, primarily because of the ineptness of Spartan diplomacy. While victory over Athens in 404 BC made Sparta the preeminent Greek state, the mistakes started almost immediately: the occupation/collaboration government (the ‘Thirty Tyrants’) in Athens was so cruel and unpopular that Sparta was forced to acquiesce to its removal after just eight months. Meanwhile, Spartan imperiousness – including a refusal to share the spoils of victory, as well as military activity against little Elis and big Persia unsanctioned by the Peloponnesian League – turned Sparta’s allies against them. Sparta’s efforts to restore their alliance militarily led to the Corinthian War in 395, which would prove that while Sparta was still strong, it was not strong enough to enforce its alliances by force of arms. If any of the Spartans ever aimed for hegemony or preeminence among the Greeks, it is safe to say they failed.
II) Prevention of Tyranny. One of the ways that Sparta positioned itself was as the state which championed the freedom of the Greeks. Sparta had fought the Persian tyrant, had helped to oust tyrants in Athens and had later framed Athens itself as a ‘tyrant city.’ Sparta itself had never had a tyrant (until Cleomenes III seized sole power in the 220s). On the flip side, Spartan hegemony was, apparently, little better than Athenian hegemony, given how Sparta’s own allies consistently reacted to it and Sparta would, in the end, do absolutely nothing to stop Philip II of Macedon from consolidating sole rule over Greece. When the call when out to once again resist a foreign invader in 338, Sparta was conspicuous in its absence.
It also matters exactly how tyranny is understood here. For the ancient Greeks, tyranny was a technical term, meaning a specific kind of one-man rule – a lot like how we use the word dictatorship to mean monarchies that are not kingdoms (though in Greece this word didn’t have quite so strong a negative connotation). Sparta was pretty reliable in opposing one-man rule, but that doesn’t mean it supported ‘free’ governments. For instance, after the Peloponnesian War, Sparta foisted a brutal oligarchy – what the Athenians came to call “The Thirty Tyrants” – on Athens; their rule was so bad and harsh that it only lasted eight months (another feat of awful Spartan statecraft). Such a government was tyrannical, but not a tyranny in the technical sense.
But the Spartan reputation for fighting against tyrannies – both in the minds of the Greeks and in the popular consciousness – is predicted on fighting one very specific monarchy: the Achaemenids of Persia.
III) Excluding Persia from Greece. This is the thing for which Sparta is given the most credit in popular culture, but Sparta’s record in this regard is awful. Sparta (along with Athens) leads the Greek coalition in the second Persian war and – as discussed – much of the Spartan reputation was built out of that. But Sparta had largely been a no-show during the first Persian war, and in the subsequent decades, Sparta’s commitment to opposing Persia was opportunistic at best.
During the late stages of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta essentially allied with Persia, taking funding and ships first from the Persian satrap Tissaphernes and later from Cyrus the Younger (a Persian prince and satrap). Sparta, after all, lacked the economic foundation to finance their own navy and the Spartans had – belatedly – realized that they needed a navy to defeat Athens. And of course the Persians – and any Spartan paying attention – knew that the Athenian navy was the one thing keeping Persia out of Greek affairs. So Sparta accepted Persian money to build up the fleets necessary to bring down the Athenian navy, with the consequence that the Ionian Greeks once again became subjects to the Persian Empire.
Subsequent Spartan diplomatic incompetence would lead to the Corinthian War (395-387), which turned into a nasty stalemate – due in part to the limitations of Spartan siege and naval capabilities. Unable to end the conflict on their own, the Spartans turned to Persia – again – to help them out, and the Persians brokered a pro-Spartan peace by threatening the Corinthians with Persian intervention in favor of Sparta. The subequent treaty – the “King’s Peace” (since it was imposed by the Persian Great King, Artaxerxes II) was highly favorable to Persia. All of Ionian, Cyprus, Aeolia and Carnia fell under Persian control and the treaty barred the Greeks from forming defensive leagues – meaning that it prevented the formation of any Greek coalition large enough to resist Persian influence. The treaty essentially made Sparta into Persia’s local enforcer in Greece, a role it would hold until its defeat in 371.
If Sparta held the objective of excluding Persian influence or tyranny from Greece, it failed completely and abjectly. Sparta opened not only the windows but also the doors to Persian influence in Greece – between 410 and 370, Sparta probably did more than any Greek state had ever or would ever do to push Greece into the Persian sphere of influence. Sparta would also refuse to participate in Alexander’s invasion of Persia – a point Alexander mocked them for by dedicating the spoils of his victories “from all of the Greeks, except the Spartans” (Arr. Anab. 1.16.7); for their part, the Spartans instead tried to use it as an opportunity to seize Crete and petitioned the Persians for aid in their war against Alexander, before being crushed by Alexander’s local commander, Antipater, in what Alexander termed “a clash of mice.”
IV) Maintaining Hegemony over the Peloponnese. This is a smaller question than hegemony over Greece. As we’ve noted, Sparta itself occupied roughly a third of the Peloponnese and so was the dominant state in the region almost by default. And Sparta does seem to have consistently taken concrete steps to achieve this, as Herodotus specifically notes (Hdt. 1.68). And Sparta seems to have actually pulled off this – again, quite modest – objective…for a while.
Sparta initially seems to have attempted (Hdt. 1.66-8) to have extended its treatment of Messenia to other parts of the Peloponnese (namely Tegea) in the mid sixth-century – the failure of this policy led to a more measured effort to subjugate the Peloponnese more loosely into a Spartan-lead military league (the Peloponnesian League). This project was never fully completed: Argos – the next largest power in the Peloponnese proper, but a solidly second-tier power compared to Athens, Corinth, Sparta or Thebes – successfully resisted Spartan efforts to dominate it throughout the period. But on the whole, by the late 6th century, Sparta did exert a (perhaps somewhat loose – the trend in scholarship lately has been to stress the plastic and fairly loose organization of the Peloponnesian League) kind of dominance over the Peloponnese.
The core of this control lasts until 371, when Spartan defeat at the Battle of Leuktra shatters this control. Epaminondas, the Theban commander, used the opportunity to free the helots of Messenia and reform them into a polis to provide a local counter-weight to Sparta, while Arcadia and Elis split off from Sparta’s alliance to form their own defensive league against Sparta and, to top it off, a number of the perioikic communities – including the Spartan’s elite light infantry scouts, the Sciritae – along with various borderlands also formed the new polis of Megalopolis on the northern Spartan border – it promptly joined the Arcadian league (this polis would later give us the historian Polybius; his anti-Spartan stance comes out clearly in how he treats Cleomenes III). Sparta, surrounded now by hostile poleis who had once been allies, would spend the rest of Antiquity as a political non-entity, safe for one brief effort to restore Spartan greatness in the 220s, crushed by the Macedonian Antigonids who were in no mood to entertain Spartan delusions of grandeur.
We might then say that Sparta is successful – though not entirely so (Argos!) – in establishing a hegemony over the Peloponnese, but only maintains it for c. 175 years. That’s not a bad run, but for the record of a larger state dominating its backyard, it is not tremendously impressive either.
V) Protecting the Spartan Social and Political Order. The final objective we can be quite certain about is that Sparta aimed to protect the internal social and political order of Sparta, which essentially amounts to a strategic objective to be able to continue mistreating the helots and the periokoi. In practice – given Sparta’s desperate shortness of manpower (and economic resources!) and continued unwillingness to revisit the nature of its oppressive class system, we may say with some confidence that Sparta effectively sacrificed all other objectives on the altar of this one.
And yet Sparta’s failure here was perhaps the most complete of all. The collapse of the spartiate class did not abate after Leuktra; by the 230s, there were hardly any Spartiates left. Meanwhile, the transition of Messenia from a group of subject communities supporting Sparta economically to an active and hostile power on Sparta’s border essentially represented the end of the Spartan social order as established in the seventh century with the reduction of Messenia to helotry in the first place.
So, does Sparta achieve its strategic objectives? By and large, I think the answer here has to be ‘no.’ Sparta – the supposed enemy of tyrants – by mismanaging its own leadership invited one foreign oppressor (Macedon) into Greece after another (Persia). As a state that seems – to me at least – to have considered itself the natural and rightful leader of all of the Greek states, Sparta, routinely and comprehensively proved itself unworthy of the position.
The one thing we may say for Spartan foreign and military policy is that it seems to have made the world safe for helotry – it preserved the brutal system of oppression which was foundational to the Spartan state. But consider just how weak an achievement that is – we might, after all, make the same claim about North Korea: it has managed only to successfully preserve its own internal systems of oppression.
Sparta After the Credits
What becomes of Sparta after its hegemony shatters in 371, after Philip II humiliates it in 338 and after Antipater crushes it in 330? This is a part of Spartan history we don’t much discuss, but it provides a useful coda on the Sparta of the fifth and fourth century. Athens, after all, remained a major and important city in Greece through the Roman period – a center for commerce and culture. Corinth – though burned by the Romans – was rebuilt and remained a crucial and wealthy port under the Romans.
What became of Sparta?
In short, Sparta became a theme-park. A quaint tourist get-away where wealthy Greeks and Romans could come to look and stare at the quaint Spartans and their silly rituals. It developed a tourism industry and the markets even catered to the needs of the elite Roman tourists who went (Plutarch and Cicero both did so, Plut. Lyc. 18.1; Tusc. 5.77).
In term of civic organization, after Cleomenes III’s last gasp effort to make Sparta relevant – an effort that nearly wiped out the entire remaining spartiate class (Plut. Cleom. 28.5) – Sparta increasingly resembled any other Hellenistic Greek polis, albeit a relatively famous and also poor one. Its material and literary culture seem to converge with the rest of the Greeks, with the only distinctively Spartan elements of the society being essentially Potemkin rituals for boys put on for the tourists who seem to be keeping the economy running and keeping what is left of Sparta in the good graces of their Roman overlords.
Thus ended Sparta: not with a brave last stand. Not with mighty deeds of valor. Or any great cultural contribution at all. A tourist trap for rich and bored Romans.
Conclusion: The Indictment Against Sparta
When we started this series, we had two myths, the myth of Spartan equality and the myth of Spartan military excellence. These two myths dominate the image of Sparta in the popular consciousness, permeating game, film and written representations and discussions of Sparta. These myths, more than any real society, is what companies like Spartan Race, games like Halo, and – yes – films like 300 are tapping into.
But Sparta was not equal, in fact it was the least equal Greek polis we know of. It was one of the least equal societies in the ancient Mediterranean, and one which treated its underclasses – who made up to within a rounding error of the entire society by the end – terribly. You will occasionally see pat replies that Sparta was no more dependent on slave labor than the rest of Greece, but even a basic demographic look makes it clear this is not true. Moreover our sources are clear that the helots were the worst treated slaves in Greece. Even among the spartiates, Sparta was not equal and it never was.
And Sparta was not militarily excellent. Its military was profoundly mediocre, depressingly average. Even in battle, the one thing they were supposed to be good at, Sparta lost as much as it won. Judging Sparta as we should – by how well it achieved strategic objects – Sparta’s armies are a comprehensive failure. The Spartan was no super-soldier and Spartan training was not excellent. Indeed, far from making him a super-soldier, the agoge made the Spartans inflexible, arrogant and uncreative, and those flaws led directly to Sparta’s decline in power.
And I want to stress this one last time, because I know there are so many people who would pardon all of Sparta’s ills if it meant that it created superlative soldiers: it did not. Spartan soldiers were average. The horror of the Spartan system, the nastiness of the agoge, the oppression of the helots, the regimentation of daily life, it was all for nothing. Worse yet, it created a Spartan leadership class that seemed incapable of thinking its way around even basic problems. All of that supposedly cool stuff made Sparta weaker, not stronger.
This would be bad enough, but the case for Sparta is worse because it – as a point of pride – provided nothing else. No innovation in law or government came from Sparta (I hope I have shown, if nothing else, that the Spartan social system is unworthy of emulation). After 550, Sparta produced no trade goods or material culture of note. It produced no great art to raise up the human condition, no great literature to inspire. Despite possessing fairly decent farmland, it was economically underdeveloped, underpopulated and unimportant.
Athens produced great literature and innovative political thinking. Corinth was economically essential – a crucial port in the heart of Greece. Thebes gave us Pindar and was in the early fourth century a hotbed of military innovation. All three cities were adorned by magnificent architecture and supplied great art by great artists. But Sparta, Sparta gives us almost nothing.
Sparta was – if you will permit the comparison – an ancient North Korea. An over-militarized, paranoid state which was able only to protect its own systems of internal brutality and which added only oppression to the sum of the human experience. Little more than an extraordinarily effective prison, metastasized to the level of a state. There is nothing of redeeming value here.
Sparta is not something to be emulated. It is a cautionary tale.
Next week: Finally, something different. I don’t know what yet. Probably something related to logistics. See you then!
87 thoughts on “Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Part VII: Spartan Ends”
I’ve really enjoyed this series, especially the consistent discussion of the helots who are too easily passed over in most depictions. Now that the series is over I’d like to offer a few comments for consideration.
First a minor point specific to this post. I think your judgment of strategic objectives is a bit unfair. It’s clear from your discussion that Sparta’s strategic objectives changed over time, which we should expect over such a long period. For example, you discuss how Sparta sometimes allied with Persia against other poleis and cite that as evidence of them failing at the objective of excluding Persia from Greece. Wouldn’t that be evidence that at that particular time that was not their objective? It seems harsh to judge them as having failed something they were apparently not trying to do, especially given that another common criticism you have levied is that Sparta suffered from a lack of adaptability.
On the series as a whole, I think there is a supposition that people admire Sparta itself. I believe that is true to a degree, but more so people admire the ideas that Sparta represents, among them the excellence and equality that you note. For example, I myself am fond of Laconic phrases, and even if all of the purported Lacedaemonian examples are apocryphal, the archetype itself remains. I think with Sparta it is the idea, not the thing itself that resonates. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the thorough historical takedown of Sparta. It’s great to examine the actual history. But inasmuch as this blog is about depictions in popular culture, I think it’s a meaningful distinction that what is being depicted is not a real society but a mock up of one. I mean, you’ve used 300 repeatedly as an example, and I don’t think anyone ever watches 300 and thinks that’s remotely like anything that ever really happened. Basically I guess I think people admire Sparta like they admire Superman – as cool stories exemplifying a certain set of values they like.
Finally, and maybe this is just me, but when I think “Sparta” certainly Leonidas and Thermopylae come to mind. But they aren’t the first things I imagine. I hear Sparta and think “Helen”, “Menelaus”, and “Castor and Pollux”. So I guess what I’m asking is, what can you tell us about historical Mycenaean Sparta?
I actually had planned writing a bit about Mycenean Greece in response to the recent Total War trailer, so I might touch on this then. The answer, in practice, is mostly “we don’t know.”
I know this is old, but I want to reply to this:
” I don’t think anyone ever watches 300 and thinks that’s remotely like anything that ever really happened”
I wouldn’t be so sure. I believe most people realize that the “equipment” the Spartans wear (cape, helmet, speedo, shield and spear, NO ARMOR) is not realistic, same for all the deformed and mutant Persians (and the Ephors too for some reason). But other than that, I suspect most people almost definitely believe, to varying degree, in the Spartan Mirage. The super-soldier badassery, the collective equality (among Spartiates at least), the whole “defenders of freedom and The West(tm)” thing.
Do we know anything about how the Spartans brought Messenia under its rule in the first place? From what you have said here it sounds like it might have actually been one of their more impressive achievements and yet you didn’t really discuss it beginning your assessment of them with it an already accomplished fact. I have always vaguely assumes that it was the conquest of Messenia that produced the Spartan system do you think that is correct?
This relates to something I would like to know:
To what extent were the helots of a different ethnicity than the Spartiates?
In India, for what we know (thanks to genetic evidence that trumps the denialists) the caste system developed because of conquest, i.e. the Aryan invasion.
The winners placed themselves on top of the social hierarchy and ensured they stayed there.
Did something similar go on in Sparta?
The Messenian helots were Greek speakers who spoke the same dialect (Doric) of Greek as the Spartans. So no, this isn’t an ethnically distinct slave under-class.
Regarding logistics, how much do we know about logistics of Gondor? Note that some things can be inferred from Byzantine army, as Gondor is based on Byzantine Empire in many way, including political and military organization: its organization is based on Byzantine theme system, *not* on your typical Western European feudal army. I wrote more about it here:
Fantastic series that fits my anti Sparta biases really well.
Would it be fair to place Sparta in the bottom 10 human societies.of all time? If not, who would you say is worse?
Great post. Disagree that Frank Miller made up the religious festival delaying forces to Thermopylae, at least according to Herodotus:
“The force with Leonidas was sent forward by the Spartans in advance of their main body, that the sight of them might encourage the allies to fight, and hinder them from going over to the Medes, as it was likely they might have done had they seen that Sparta was backward. They intended presently, when they had celebrated the Carneian festival, which was what now kept them at home, to leave a garrison in Sparta, and hasten in full force to join the army. The rest of the allies also intended to act similarly; for it happened that the Olympic festival fell exactly at this same period. None of them looked to see the contest at Thermopylae decided so speedily; wherefore they were content to send forward a mere advanced guard.”
“No innovation in law or government came from Sparta”
I would would agree with Russell and Popper that all the totalitarian regimes owe their origin to Sparta, as systematized by Plato. Of course, that is a tremendously negative achievement, 16 to 20 million killed by the Nazis and 80 to 100 million by Communists in the last century alone.
It’s a fair observation, though as you note, hardly an exculpatory one.
One should not discount the world outside Europe; the Legalist tradition in China’s Warring States Period also sets up an excellent foundation for totalitarianism. The authoritarian governments of Asia (Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China and North Korea) represent a blending of that cultural background with the example of the USSR, which was of course influenced by the Sparta PR campaign.
One should not discount the world outside Europe; the Legalist tradition in China’s Warring States Period also sets up an excellent foundation for totalitarianism. The authoritarian governments of Asia (Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China and North Korea) represent a blending of that cultural background with the example of the USSR, which was of course influenced by the Sparta PR campaign.
Great series of articles.
I know you weren’t really covering pop culture representations of Sparta, but I was wondering if you had read the comic Three? It was written as a sort of “response” to 300, and while parts of it are probably inaccurate I thought it did a pretty good job of showing Sparta as a proud, decaying dystopia.
I was wondering this too….
I have not. Comic books are one of those things that I’ve always considered getting more into, but just never had the time or resources. Still, I’ve seen a lot of folks bring this up here and on twitter, so I’ll put it on my to-get-to-list!
I’ve enjoyed reading this series. It’s delayed my grading for a couple of days now. I’m looking forward to plunging into the rest of the blog to steal — pardon me — borrow material for my course lectures.
I’m always so glad to hear that anything I’ve written has been helpful in another classroom!
And if it puts off grading – well, putting off grading is the venerable tradition of college instructors everywhere, no?
You say that Spartans/Spartiates weren’t ethnically distinct from the Messenian helots in terms of linguistic and genetic differences but that is our modern conception of ethnicity. The exclusivity of the Spartiate class beyond all sensibility suggests its not just simple economic greed and more approaching a fanatical obsession with purity of blood/race (not as in our modern definition) as a core value.
The sad story of the Spartans seems to begin with a tribe that started with a simple conquest of their neighbors and decided they liked living as subjugators and so turned every facet of their culture to sustaining a holy race war forever.
The trick is, nearly every Greek polis (and there were… I don’t know, hundreds of them I’m pretty sure) had the same basic dynamic: there was a citizen class who were citizens of that particular polis, and citizenship was rarely if ever open to outsiders. The classical Greek concept of ‘citizenship’ was absurdly closed and xenophobic by modern standards.
This wasn’t so much because of a fanatical obsession with “the blood of Sparta/Athens/Thebes/Corinth/et cetera” with everyone being a ultra-fanatical race purists for a subtly different but virtually identical ‘race’ of spartiates/Athenians/Thebans/Corinthians/et cetera. It was just because in ancient Greece, citizenship was something you passed on to your kids, and that was shared by a small, tight-knit community.
The only difference was that in Sparta, all males of the citizen class underwent child-soldier indoctrination and traumatization in the agoge. And that the Spartans had a WAY bigger proportion of free non-citizens and slaves than was normal for Greece or for that matter anywhere else.
Notice that if a spartiate became too poor to make his required donations to his military lodge structure, he stopped being treated as a spartiate, and (importantly) there was NO way back. Spartan ‘blood’ was worth literally nothing compared to the status of being one of the idle military aristocracy. A man of ‘Spartan blood’ who performed manual labor was not, and could never be, a spartiate.
I found your blog a few days ago and I got hooked. (I just finished binge-reading the Spartan series.) The movie 300 put me in mind of some other movies that I would enjoy reading about (nit-picked), like Gladiator and Troy. If you have the time that is… Until then there are still some posts for me to read. Great articles, thanks for taking the time and effort!
Tangent, but how did Roman citizen-farmer-soldiers stay in the field all year, or spend 7 years of their life in arms? Who was doing the farming? Seems early for massive slave dependence and who would have been overseeing the slaves?
The book you want to read is Nathan Rosenstein, Rome at War.
Basically, the Roman freeholding farmer family structure appears to have oriented itself substantially around this cycle. The Romans preferred to recruit men in the late teens and early 20s (the iuniores) rather than older men (seniores). Roman men generally didn’t get married or start families until in their 30s, when their fighting years would be over, all of which meant that they – ideally – wouldn’t have dependents back home relying on their labor.
In terms of ‘who is the agricultural labor force’ – well your mid-teen-age boys aren’t called up at all, and the men ages 30+ are only called up in extreme emergencies, and around half or so of the men in their 20s are enrolled in any given year, leaving enough men back home to tend the farm (along with, of course, all of the women, we did engage in agricultural labor, it seems, during periods of peak demand).
Fun series. Very informative. Who was the last spartiate, and when did he die?
In Halo the “Spartan program” is repeatedly referred to as a war-crime, and it’s strongly suggested that its mastermind, Catherine Halsey, is an undiagnosed psychopath.
She herself named the program “Spartan” because, while to the public mind it suggests the myth, to the educated it suggests kidnapping, brainwashing, and very frequently killing children from the age of seven, to train them as soldiers…which is exactly what her program did.
The original purpose of the program, though the Spartans came to be humanity’s salvation in the war against the Covenant, was to put down civilian insurrections—just as the original Spartans did a lot more helot-killing than killing in battle. So I don’t think Halo is really guilty of perpetuating the myth.
As someone who doesn’t know the Halo mythos very well, this is a *really* interesting wrinkle on the story. Thanks for adding that. (And it’s good to see that video game makers seem to have hired people who know history in serious depth, too)
The problem with that is that, as far as I can remember, it’s all confined to supplementary material. All that 90% of Halo players will see is the badass, Covenant-massacring Spartans that are in the video games, while all the interesting examination of the costs of the program is in the books. I recently played through Reach and Halo 5, and I only remember Halsey coming off well. She’s a highly influential and respected mother figure to the Spartans we play as. Recalling the concept Protagonist-Centered Morality from earlier in this series, it really undercuts her alternative characterization as a psychopathic war criminal who designed dissent-suppression tools.
It feels a bit like the authors of the background material have a strongly different take on the morality of the SPARTAN program than the authors of the game do. Which is cool, but a little dissonant.
Games other than the first Halo – Halo 2 and Reach are the ones I’ve played – definitely lean into the books’ depiction of the program and of the UNSC government in general.
honestly, i think the flaw isn’t protagonist centred morality, but a player-centred understanding of military functionality. Master Chief is basically trotted out as the proof of the effectiveness of the Spartan system, visa-a-vi the justification of Halsey’s work, when his military utility is as the delivery vehicle for an experimental EWS system. Cortana does all the militarily important things- literally all of the strategic level stuff, chief just handles tactical concerns in the delivery of electronic warfare that for some reason requires physical proximity (notably, when cortana solves the proximity issue, she becomes nigh-on omnipotent).
Sad to say I think I disagree on this one. Considering the inherent flaws of the system (I’ll leave Lycurgus and his existence or non existence out of my scope) the “Spartan Regime” with all its internal struggle, revolts and such… probably lasted more than 4 centuries (or even 5) so it lasted more than the Roman Empire, more than any current state…
Would we call the roman empire unsuccesfull just because (as anything) it fell?
Sad as it may be, sustaining such a system against ~85% of your own population (non citizens, population) for so f…. long has to be considered a success by the spartiates, terrible without a question, but a success.
Anyhow, I’m enjoying each and every post.
The Roman Empire started in what, the ~60/50s BC?, and only finally stopped in the early 1300s.
I think that’s a pretty good run.
The Republic would add another two centuries or so…
The Roman empire is kind of vague. The *empire* was mostly built up by the Republic over centuries, still effectively an empire since it was run by and for a city-state, rather than being anything like a distributed or federal republic a la the continental USA as we expanded. It started transitioning to effective one person rule around 80 BC (we could start with Sulla, I figure). Octavian starts the Principate in 27 BC. Some centuries later the system mutates (Domitian?) then mutates more and migrates to Constantinople, losing/abandoning Rome itself, but coasting along until 1453 when the Ottomans finally end it.
I don’t know why I was thinking of 1344 as the year the ERE fell. I can’t even find anything Roman-related right now that happened then. Just one of those things, I guess.
I think we could say that Caesar put the last nails into the Republic fairly conclusively, even if Cicero would’ve liked to make strong arguments otherwise. And then Augustus Octavian inherited the main reins of control, even if he did run a second civil war to secure it entirely for himself, and finished the job.
My main point is that the Republic was already an empire. Or had an empire, if you prefer. If you were a wealthy citizen in or near Rome, able to vote, the transition made a difference. For most people, not so much. It’s as if the USA were run by the city council of Philadelphia.
You’re absolutely right. My comment was incorrect enought to not include the bias I fall into when I refer to the Roman Empire when I’m only thinking “western” empire and not taking into account other reforms from what we use to consider the “classical” roman empire here (e.g. no tetrarchy, no republic also :)).
My bad for the terrible definition given here, but please don’t let that substract from the point I’m tryin to make 😉
If you count the beginning of the Spartan state it survives from the 500s BCE to 192 BCE. However by the middle of the 300s Sparta was already devastated as a military power. In 338 Phillip II invaded and Sparta didn’t even bother putting an army in the field! By the simple question of “were there kings in Sparta” sure the Spartan state survived, but clearly Spartan military achievements and the myth of their amazing soldiers had been put to rest.
Furthermore, regarding the Roman Empire — well the Empire can be said to begin in 27 BCE or so when Augustus had defeated his political rivals and been installed as emperor by the Senate. The Western Empire lasted until 476 CE, at the very least matching your claims of Spartan longevity and quite possibly surpassing it Meanwhile the Eastern Empire would remain in control of Constantinople until the 15th Century! More than a thousand years of lineage!
Heck, compared to more modern empires, the British started establishing their overseas holdings in the 1500s and held on until WW2 and the forced decolonization, over 400 years of being the dominate power in Europe and later the world.
And both Rome and Britain, just to name two examples, produced leagues of art, science, technology, architecture, and literature. We can argue about whether or not those achievements balance out the oppression and misery that they inflicted on conquered peoples, but Sparta offers NOTHING except for the oppression and misery!
By your logic … if North Korea lasts for hundreds of years, it’s a success?
I think the “big picture” argument of this series is that Sparta as a society was terrible, even for its time, and contributed nothing of value to humanity.
And, as pointed out in the series of articles, Sparta *declined* precipitiously. It *didn’t* last long compared to its contemporaries, and, if it had, that would *still* not be a success, because Sparta, the *real* Sparta, *sucked*.
Very interesting series. It appears in your desire to bring Sparta low you bring the rest of the greeks low. For though what you say about Sparta is true, in my opinion their greatest achievement is that they held the fate of athens in their hands. Had they been wrathful as some of their allies had wished Athens as a polis could of been entirely destroyed.
And if they had destroyed Athens entirely then what you describe as an inflexible, bungling and moronic north korean like dystopia, with aristocratic class of traumatised child soldiers would have crushed the city with some of the greatest thinkers in it.
By denigrating Sparta you denigrate Athens.
I suspect this whole work was because you have seen to many Molon Labe stickers, too many ignorant opinions based on 300 and then wrote this as catharsis.
It is hard, as someone who studies the Roman army (and, I find in talking with them, this extends to specialists in the Macedonian army) to take almost any Greek claims towards military excellence seriously. Xenophon’s Anabasis may serve as a notable exception, but even then, the 10,000’s operational/logistical and battle capabilities would have been an enduring embarrassment to a Macedonian or Roman (or even Persian or Assyrian!) army.
The Greeks fought well on the rough country their fighting system was designed for. That can be said of a great many middling and not terribly exceptional armies.
Ah ok so all the ancient greeks (Macedon excepted) are mediocre at war.
Just to clarify the reason I wrote my comment was I also read you much less flippant post on thucydides and about how he may have inspired aspects of modern International relations and realised how different this spartan series was.
Nonetheless it was still enjoyable.
And I understand what you are arguing against, the spartan mirage of the supersoldier, I just thought it was kind of funny how strong your hateboner for the spartan mirage is.
Anyways thankyou for the reply.
It is fair to compare apples vs. oranges?
The Hoplite system was a specific fighting style in a specific area in a very small theater of operation (Greece). Rome had to fight over more varied terrain, and was forced to invent logistics just to have the empire they craved. So did the Persians. And, not to be blunt, but the Persians lost to the Greeks.
On the defensive, the Persians lost to the Macedonians, not the Greeks. By the time Philip got done with them, and possibly before that point for all I know, the Macedonians had adapted, expanded, and changed the Greek system until it was only barely recognizable as a Greek system. Among other things, Macedon was a state, not a loose coalition of independent cities.
As far as I know, the only thing Alexander the Great’s armies had in common with the Greek coalition that fought at Plataea, for instance, was that they both spoke the Greek language, and that there were big rectangular blocks of men holding pointy sticks. Macedon’s system beat the Greeks on the Greeks’ home soil first, then proved effective in a wide range of conditions outside it, and in general dominated the Eastern Mediterranean world right up until the Romans came along with a system that was even tougher.
You should read what Finley said in …1968 (in JP Vernant, Problemes de la guerre en Grece Ancienne, the paper is in English), and also the latest French books on Sparta (Richer and Ruzé). Finley had already debunked a number of problems and suggested many analysis which have been proved being right since .
This said I do not share some of your assertions :
-Sparta was not a militaristic state
– the role of women in the property system should not be overlooked (as you do)
-Leonidas combined the resistance of his soldiers with the greek fleet; it was a combined op. Herodote is pretty clear on the topic
-all in all, the Spartan army was a bit better than you say !
All the best,
” – the role of women in the property system should not be overlooked (as you do)”
The role of the vast majority of the women in Sparta was to *be* property.
Yes and no. Ask Aristotle, or S. Dickinson for that matter, Spartan women owned 2/5 of the land.
Spartan citizen women might have. Most Spartan women were helots, slaves.
Did they own it in a meaningful way, or was the control of the property and its incomes given to their husbands (who were chosen by the kings)?
This is a very interesting series on Sparta, thank you very much for writing and sharing it! As this touches on those themes and you make some interesting references, do you have (or do you have any plans to write) any writings about Greek civilizations more generally (maybe Athens or Macedonia) or Persia?
or as an alternaative, do you know anyone else who blogs about such things?
I keep thinking that the well-kicking thing is a stunningly bad diplomatic move, for being a rejection of the entire concept of diplomacy, characteristic of the Spartan approach to negotiation. Imagine my dismay when I learned that this was not an invention of Frank Miller, but taken straight from Herodotus, and worse, that the Athenians are said to have done the same thing.
I suppose that if you don’t think negotiation is on the table and surrender isn’t an option, killing the ambassadors can’t ruin diplomacy any worse than it’s been ruined. But it does telegraph your intentions to the enemy far too quickly. So — I am left to wonder if the Athenians actually did such a thing, and to believe that the Spartans would certainly have done so, because they were a pack of bullies in place of a functioning government.
More to the point, Spartan Diplomats never STOPPED acting like this, which put them in a real pickle when they wanted to have any allies at all.
With regards to the Athenians, the (wholly speculative) thought occurs that the driving force of Athenian internal politics was extreme paranoia. Time and again people would be brought low by accusations of plotting to seize power and/or sell out the polis to its enemies. Add to this the real attempts of various politicians, factions and classes to undermine each other. In such a city, publicly burning bridges with an expected foreign enemy may have been considered a necessary measure to foster at least some measure of internal cohesion, any other strategic considerations be damned.
Reblogged this on I must know, now. and commented:
Learnt a lot of useful history and analysis here. Not boring to read too.
Pesky proofreading corrections:
This is the seven (and last!) -> This is the seventh/VII OR This is seventh/VII OR This seventh/VII
) look at Sparta -> ) looks at Sparta
profoundly, disappointing average -> a profoundly, disappointingly average
what goes did the Spartans set -> what goals did the Spartans set
boiled into porridge, but -> boiled into porridge), but (ending parenthesis inserted)
regardless of if the problem -> regardless of whether the problem
slow and under-funded -> slow and underfunded
consider the degree they achieved them -> consider the degree to which they achieved them
the call when out to once again -. the call when out to once again
non-entity, safe for one brief effort -> nonentity, save for one brief effort
Second to last line should be:
the call when out to once again -> the call went out to once again
This is an excellent series of posts and you lay out some great info (or rather, some deeply disturbing but extremely valuable and important info) that should be required knowledge for anybody interested in classical Greek history, ancient history, and/or military history in general.
That said, I think you’re missing something much more basic about why exactly Sparta is fetishized the way it is, or maybe you understand it full well and just haven’t framed it explicitly in these terms. If the problem you’re highlighting is the disconnect between the historical image of Sparta being most notable for the martial and civic virtue of its awesome badass warriors, versus the actual Sparta being most notable for the exceptional cruelty and brutality of its authoritarian slave society, then maybe the most attractive thing about Sparta for many of the people who most admire it most (i.e. the kinds of people who’d display a Spartan lambda alongside, say, a Confederate battle flag) is this very disconnect itself: if you’d like to run an exceptionally cruel and brutal authoritarian slave society, but would like that society to be remembered first and foremost for the martial and civic virtue of its badass awesome warriors, then the disconnect between the popular image of Sparta versus the reality of Sparta is exactly what you’re trying to achieve, and in that sense Sparta really is an unambiguously successful model for you to emulate.
In other words, the reason these people love Sparta so much doesn’t ultimately have much if anything to do with Sparta’s (highly dubious) military prowess at all, it’s primarily about the prowess of Spartan PR.
If your plan is to hide the important bits in ‘cool’ ephemera, why bring attention to it by adding Spartan symbolism? If you’re trying to get the Spartan ‘cool’ by proximity, the appalling Spartan truth makes it a liability.
The phrase that comes to mind is ‘too clever by half.’
It would, if the Spartans’ important bits (the cruelty, oppression, and cultural/economic sterility) were not already masked by the ‘cool’ ephemera (the reputation for stern, mighty warriors and invincible armies).
Unfortunately, in this generation and certainly in those of the recent past, the Spartans have succeeded in performing this masking task, at least in the eyes of the general public. And we can regrettably expect this to remain true until and unless sources like this blog popularize the alternative view.
So basically, the result for the would-be fascist, Confederate revivalist, or other supporter of a system cruel to the many in the name of the few remains the same. They signal “we are pro-cruelty and pro-inequality” to a relative handful of historically educated folks who probably mostly already opposed them anyway, and “we are pro-badassery and pro-heroism” to the majority of less educated folks who only remember that version of the Spartan story.
Anyone who knows enough to read their Spartan symbolism as a warning, was probably already quite capable of seeing them for what they really were anyway.
The author briefly mentioned Umberto Eco’s article Ur-Fascism in one of the posts. In it he lists several things he believes constitute an “ur-fascism”, sort of a universal psychologoical /ideological core.
I think the psychological appeal of the kind of fascism he describes contributes in explaining the appeal of Sparta. Plenty of people find these things attractive, without necessarily ascribing to some fascist ideology. IMHO part of it is because it makes things *easier* — less complicated, you have to think less, no gray areas.
Here are the first four items from Eco’s list:
1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
Fear of difference.
Excellent series! The point about the agoge being primarily an indoctrination system rather than teaching military skills stands out to me as really interesting. But one thing does bug me about your evaluation of Sparta’s military capability: the Spartans win roughly half their military engagements despite being laughably bad at logistics and operations and the like. This seems to me like evidence that the ancient reputation for success in battles is pretty accurate. So I wonder if the agoge system might actually have been militarily relevant after all.
(I’m not a historian or a scholar, so if the following doesn’t make sense or is horribly wrong, I apologize. It’s just what I’m thinking after reading this.)
Suppose morale and cohesion is the key thing that makes or breaks a phalanx’s effectiveness (this also works with your point about hoplite forces needing relatively little drilling anyway); the agoge and the syssitia seem like they would produce exactly that. Then the reputation for not running away then feeds back into making opposing forces more likely to retreat (as you pointed out), making Spartan forces even less likely to run away, etc. Sort of like the game Chicken where two cars drive at each other until one swerves; if you disable your car’s steering, the other guy *has* to swerve (or crash) and you win. So maybe the lack of imagination and flexibility in Spartan leadership was almost necessary to maintain their crucial reputation.
(Of course, the problem with the “disable your car to win at Chicken” strategy is that at some point you come up against a bulldozer called Macedon.)
Another thing I found really interesting was the fact that Sparta ritually declared war against the helots every year; being virtually at war against a large subset of the population you rule over seems to be the thread connecting all the most evil and brutal regimes I can think of, e.g. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the USSR, the Confederacy, the Congo Free State, etc. Except for the Congo Free State, all of these also have the Spartan reputation for having especially die-hard soldiers.
There’s also the Flower Wars, where the Aztecs regularly declared war on their own subjects in order to gain more prisoners to sacrifice.
Sparta as the North Korea of antiquity. Right. That’s going to stick in the brain, I think.
You mention that rich spariates lived abroad. Do we have any accounts of how they found their time there? How did they perceive the culture of other greco city-states (art, poetry, writings, etc.) and did they ever compare that to Sparta (or it’s lack thereof). Did they find themselves integrating into their host societies?
Mostly they had a reputation as being arrogant and kind of jerks, though there does also seem to be a sustained concern among Spartan leaders that spartiates abroad might ‘go native’ and start liking all of those things spartiates were supposed to despise.
This collection been an informative read, however after completing the series I can’t help feel that an alternate interpretation of Sparta’s timeline and some baseless speculation could provide an interesting take on the origin of Sparta, their myths and lackluster performance in the documented timeframe.
The main goal of the Spartan society is to maintain the citizen class, but as you note in the entire documented era the size of the nobility was shrinking. This suggests that Sparta was already in decline even as their large state allowed them to continue to project power, seek helpful allies and remain locally relevant for some time. I wonder if the subjugation of Messina wasn’t their true peak.
In the agoge, children are underfed and encouraged to steal to nourish themselves. However in your economic/agricultural analysis, which seems reasonable, pillaging neighboring poleis is not a signficant factor. One possible explanation is that, due to their inept logistics, after Messina Sparta simply didn’t have the capacity to steal enough to support themselves, beginning to atrophy. Maybe Spartan austerity is really about a lack of resources and maybe scandelous girls’ outfits are about a lack of textiles produced by terrorized overworked helot women.
If agoge and krypteia are around at the start of Sparta’s rise, they probably look a little different, and in my mind are probably mainly about securing meat, equipment and camaraderie-through-trauma/psychopathy so that elite Spartans can reliably beat other troops on roughly equal footing. Other spoils are a distraction and a consistent level of eliteness augments this strategy. This pragmatism seeds the two big myths of Spartan excellence. I wonder if a more pragmatic strategy for growing this elite class didn’t exist at one point as well, until it grew beyond what the region could sustain. Child soldiers typically aren’t hereditary.
After Messina, Sparta is a big fish. To compete with other big fish you need numbers and brains. Larger battles dilute Sparta’s advantages and highlight their weaknesses. Sparta struggles to adapt to the changing situation. But while they can’t maintain any sort of excellence, they can sustain the myth. They are so successful at propogating the myth that it lasts far longer than Sparta.
A bit of a ramble but I hope it’s kinda intriguing/plausible 😛
Thanks so much for this. I was brought to your website via some cites in a book review on Scott Alexander’s website to your series contrasting GOT and the Middle Ages. Once I was here I read through one series after another. The embarrassing thing is, I’d see references in other posts to “the Spartans were really bad” and I would think — he’s saying that for the benefit of people who are coming at this via 300 and GOT and LOTR. I, who have read Thucydides and Herodotus (in translation) — I won’t be shocked when I read his series about the Spartans. Well, I finally read that series and, yeah, i was shocked. Mostly by my own ignorance, but also how horrible it was. The analogy to child soldiers — as you’re fond of saying in your captions, now I’ll never unsee it.
Thanks for all you do, and please keep it coming.
Dr. Devereaux, should you ever happen to familiarize yourself with S.M. Stirling’s Draka books – the series screams for the kind of analysis you do.
This series makes me wonder about the other guys who often get the treatment of military excellence: The Prussians. I feel like their reputation is equally overblown and silly, if (afaik) with a significantly less oppressive societty attached to it.
Good series, although it could do without orientalist comparisons at the end. In many respects you’ve outlined in here, such as:
Military adventurism abroad with a dubious track record, army that hinges more on its reputation than its merit;
Very short lived domination of the greek world;
Dysfunctional government system wrought with cronyism, with “checks” that fail when different wings have the same interests, which exists only to perpetuate itself to enrich the very few at the expense of the most other members of society and that is unable to reform itself even when facing certain disaster as a result of its function;
Society that indoctrinates in its own exceptionalism, fetishises and glorifires violence from the very young age;
Weak, illusory democratic rule where people can’t really propose and decide on any government policy, that exists solely to build consensus;
Even the installation of reviled puppet fascist dictatorships such as in Athens.
feel free to add more.
Indeed, out of modern countries it sounds like Sparta has much more in common with the US.
Wait, so using North Korea (freedom house score: 3/100) as an example of a totalitarian state because it is a clearly totalitarian state is ‘orientalist’ (do you suppose I chose North Korea and not South Korea by accident?)
And of course the United States is the real totalitarian state…::eyeroll::
Do better, buddy.
Oh, I see it has little Freedom Points™, my mistake. People with polisci degrees are hard at work making up graphs assigning freedom points, racism points and so on.
I think in vilifying DPRK you’re making the same mistake that people who glorify Sparta do, that is relying on deeply biased sources. Most of what we know of it is propaganda. And yes, it is orientalist to view it as a caricature of asiatic despotism, unlike Sparta a lot of its problems are inflicted on it by foreign powers starting with the genocidal bombing campaign and continuing with laying a permanent siege on it which along with having few arable lands, most of its landmass being mountainous. As a historian you should consider the historical and material circumstances when talking about a system, no? It would be malpractice otherwise. I think it’s undeservingly vilified in western media much like Sparta is glorified. So that is a similarity at least.
United States is totally not a totalitarian state. You can vote for any party you want, but if you don’t vote for democrats or republicans they’ll tell you your vote is wasted. Their platforms are toootally different, but they end up doing the same things, especially with regards to economic and foreign policy. And CIA is a moral, law abiding institution, better than these shifty Asiatics in KGB, retired spooks like John Cipher can’t lie right. The concept “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” strike you as familiar?
Do better, to you as well. You can totally make your historical articles without remarks about despotic asiatics. These really bring nothing.
Oh and I completely forgot to mention the highly effective propaganda machine that glorified Sparta, spartan way of life, spartan “democracy” that is widely believed across the world and which runs entirely contrary to objective reality.
Really familiar no?
Prior to this, I had the mental image of Sparta being vaguely shit, but not extraordinarily more than its surrounding. Now I have the impression that they’re actually quite extraordinary in pointless or even counterproductive awfulness.
You’ve said a few times that their rating as a local first tier power was because they had a huge land area. But what I don’t understand is how they managed to reach that position in the first place. Wouldn’t other contenders have subjugated or at least pushed them back before they got into such a dominant position?
Is this a matter favorable geography, that there’s simply no other significant cities in a large range, allowing Sparta to expand based on an initial manpower advantage. Is it a matter that Sparta used to be better at war or statecraft in the time before we have good sources, and then institute changes to cement the power structure that eventually ended up degrading their abilities?