Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Retrospective

This week I want to do something we haven’t really done before and look back at one of the older series, This. Isn’t. Sparta. (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, Gloss., Retrospective), as I write this now reaching its three-year-anniversary, which seems a good time to make that sort of a retrospective. In particular I want to talk about the conditions that created the series and thus why it took the shape it did before making a more substantive answer to some of the critiques it has received in the three years since it appeared.

And of course before we dive in on this retrospective, if you want to support my public writing on historical topics, you can help both by sharing what I write (for I rely on word of mouth for my audience) and by supporting me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

The Whys and Wherefores

This. Isn’t. Sparta. is, by view count, my second most read series (after the Siege of Gondor series); WordPress counts the whole series with just over 415,000 page views as I write this,1 with the most popular part (outside of the first one; first posts in a series always have the most views) being the one on Spartan Equality followed by Spartan Ends (on Spartan strategic failure). The least popular is actually the fifth part on Spartan Government, which doesn’t bother me overmuch as that post was the one most narrowly focused on the spartiates (though I think it also may be the most Hodkinsonian post of the bunch, we’ll come back to that in a moment) and if one draws anything out of my approach it must be that I don’t think we should be narrowly focused on the spartiates.

In the immediate moment of August, 2019 I opted to write the series – as I note at the beginning – in response to two dueling articles in TNR and a subsequent (now lost to the ages and only imperfectly preserved by WordPress’ tweet embedding function) Twitter debate between Nick Burns (the author of the pro-Sparta side of that duel) and myself. In practice however the basic shape of this critique had been brewing for a lot longer; it formed out of my own frustrations with seeing how Sparta was frequently taught to undergraduates: students tended to be given Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (or had it described to them) with very little in the way of useful apparatus to either question his statements or – perhaps more importantly – extrapolate out the necessary conclusions if those statements were accepted. Students tended to walk away with a hazy, utopian feel about Sparta, rather than anything that resembled either of the two main scholarly ‘camps’ about the polis (which we’ll return to in a moment).

That hazy vision in turn was continually reflected and reified in the popular image of Sparta – precisely the version of Sparta that Nick Burns was mobilizing in his essay. That’s no surprise, as the Sparta of the undergraduate material becomes what is taught when those undergrads become high school teachers, which in turn becomes the Sparta that shows up in the works of Frank Miller, Steven Pressfield and Zack Snyder.2 It is a reading of the sources that is at once both gullible and incomplete, accepting all of the praise without for a moment thinking about the implications; for the sake of simplicity I’m going to refer to this vision of Sparta subsequently as the ‘Pressfield camp,’ after Steven Pressfield, the author of Gates of Fire (1998).3 It has always been striking to me that for everything we are told about Spartan values and society, the actual spartiates would have despised nearly all of their boosters with sole exception of the praise they got from southern enslaver-planter aristocrats in the pre-Civil War United States. If there is one thing I wish I had emphasized more in This. Isn’t. Sparta. it would have been to tell the average ‘Sparta bro’ that the Spartans would have held him in contempt.

And so for years I regularly joked with colleagues that I needed to make a syllabus for a course simply entitled, “Sparta Is Terrible and You Are Terrible for Liking Sparta.” Consequently the TNR essays galvanized an effort to lay out what in my head I had framed as ‘The Indictment Against Sparta.’ The series was thus intended to be set against the general public hagiography of Sparta and its intended audience was what I’ve heard termed the ‘Sparta Bro’ – the person for whom the Spartans represent a positive example (indeed, often the pinnacle) of masculine achievement, often explicitly connected to roles in law enforcement, military service and physical fitness (the regularity with which that last thing is included is striking and suggests to me the profound unseriousness of the argument). It was, of course, not intended to make a meaningful contribution to debates within the scholarship on Sparta; that’s been going on a long time, the questions by now are very technical and so all I was doing was selecting the answers I find most persuasive from the last several decades of it (evidently I am willing to draw somewhat further back than some). In that light, I think the series holds up fairly well, though there are some critiques I want to address.

One thing I will say, not that this critique has ever been made, but had I known that fellow UNC-alum Sarah E. Bond had written a very good essay for Eidolon entitled “This is Not Sparta: Why the Modern Romance With Sparta is a Bad One” (2018), I would have tried to come up with a different title for the series to avoid how uncomfortably close I think the two titles land to each other. I might have gone back to my first draft title of ‘The Indictment Against Sparta’ though I suspect the gravitational pull that led to Bond’s title would have pulled in mind as well. In any case, Sarah’s essay takes a different route than mine (with more focus on reception) and is well worth reading.

On to the critiques that have been made.

Two Camps in Sparta

I am going to skip over some of the truly unserious ‘Sparta Bro’ complaints that mostly amount to me having the temerity to actually read the sources and instead start with what I think is the broadest and most substantive critique that the series ails to take into account shifting scholarly views on Sparta and is thus “about 3 decades behind on the scholarship” or “may have been overtaken by more recent scholarship.” Not to bury the lede, I think it is important for historians to be able to distinguish between disputes that are or can be settled clearly by evidence and disputes in which multiple positions remain valid among experts. The legal world has this term, ‘colorable‘ to describe an argument that is legally plausible even if the person describing it might not agree with it or might not be sure it would win the day in a courtroom. I’ve started drawing on this term myself to think about historical positions that while I do not hold them are nevertheless common enough among learned scholars (and have enough evidentiary foundation) that I respect them even though I might disagree.

By way of neutral example, on Roman demography I would describe both the higher versions of the ‘low count’ and the ‘middle count’ as colorable – there are serious scholars arguing for both, while I’d say the low-end low count has been discarded (all of the ‘low counters’ now seem to argue for the higher version of the low count) and the ‘high count’ is a fringe position (argued for, essentially by just one scholar, Elio Lo Cascio who has kept everyone else honest for decades now). When dealing with the public, I think historians ought to work to remain inside of the ‘colorable’ positions (if that is a wide range they should acknowledge that), but I find it unreasonable to much critique a work for the public that is simply in a different part of the ‘colorable’ range from my own position. On the flip-side, in pure field-to-field scholarship it is not bad thing to argue for a position not generally deemed colorable; that’s what scholarly debates are for, after all.

So to give the application of this, if a history textbook published today presented the high count without qualification (or one of the very low versions of the low count) as “roughly X people lived in Roman Italy,” I’d cry foul. But I wouldn’t protest much to see either the higher end of the low count or the middle count, or a range that included them, even though I, personally, am a ‘low counter.’ The middle count is ‘colorable,’ in that sense. Sometimes this same idea is expressed by describing one position as ‘orthodox’ (the older more established view) and another as heterodox (the newer, different but not wholly rejected view).

I say all of this because I would argue that when it comes to Sparta there remain two ‘colorable’ camps and I drew from both of them in my series, so I think that the critique that I am ‘out of date’ where I have not chosen the most recent of the two colorable camps does not hold. To very briefly cover the debate, the oldest scholarship tended to treat Sparta as perhaps more typical than Athens; if it was unusual it was unusually good. Moving into the 20th century, it became more common to see Sparta as unusual (as Athens became much more the focus)4 but I find there is a real break with the emergence of what I’m going to call the ‘Cartledge camp’ (after Paul Cartledge) in the 1970s and 1980s which saw Sparta as exceptional but perhaps exceptionally bad. For Cartledge, Sparta was an unusual polis permanently mobilized for warfare against itself, defined by the ‘class struggle’ between the spartiates and the helots. Of course historiography never stands still and so post-2000 there has been a reaction against this position, led most notably by Stephen Hodkinson – which I’m thus going to call the ‘Hodkinson camp,’ though there are other scholars involved – which argued that actually Sparta was far less exceptional (or indeed, not really exceptional at all) and that many of the practices that are represented by our sources as unusual were exaggerated.5 Hodkinson’s Sparta is stratified but not wildly over-militarized (compared to other Greek poleis) with social structures among the citizen class (the spartiates) that more or less resembled other Greek states.

(Finally, outside of both of these arguments we may posit a ‘Pressfield Camp’ which just reads the praise of Sparta in the sources we find entirely uncritically and concludes that Sparta was both extremely unusual and awesome; that position sits decidedly outside the colorable scholarly argument.)

Now I would say that my argument here is actually a blend of the Cartledge and Hodkinson camps, but the Cartledge element is certainly pronounced in part because so much of my focus is on the helots. So I want to defend this choice on three grounds: why I chose the Cartledge-camp angle, why I think that is a valid choice (and not a ‘dated’ one), and finally why I think a Hodkinson camp approach cannot save Sparta for the Sparta bro (not that I think Hodkinson is trying to do that).

First: why the Cartledge camp? Why so much of the old (if not busted) over the new hotness in Sparta scholarship? Of course part of the reason is that I think the Cartledge camp is right on some points (back that in a minute), but more broadly, in trying to persuade an audience that Sparta is not a society to be glorified or emulated, the Cartledge position is the obviously superior persuasive position. In this context, the Hodkinson position amounts to telling a ‘Sparta bro’ that all of the actual ancient sources they’ve read (like Plutarch) are mostly just liars. Of course, Hodkinson’s actual arguments are more sensible and careful than this, but you can’t begin with the kind of detail Hodkinson needs for those arguments, especially not when you are arguing the opposite of what the sources say. You end up having to concede that yes all our sources say that Sparta was a militarized society, a dominate of state (or community) over the individual, that is was exceptionally equal and so on before arguing that actually we’re seeing systemic flaws in the sources and so we should just, essentially, throw large portions of them out.

That’s a hopeless argument in this context (even though it may be right on many points!); the retreat of the ‘Sparta bro’ to the authority of the sources is easy and effortless and once taken removes all of your persuasive power even if you are right. You are asking him (it is usually a him) to begin the meal with the most difficult to swallow part of the argument. You may be right, but you will never convince anyone who is coming from the ‘Steven Pressfield Camp’ on Sparta, as it were. After all, who the hell are you to gainsay Plutarch and Xenophon?

By contrast the Cartledge camp largely accepts the same evidence base the ‘Sparta bro’ has, it accepts what the sources say about Sparta being unusual but then walks through what that means for the actual Spartan society. Because the argument proceeds from a ‘positivist’ methodology of assuming the sources are right unless proven wrong, the interlocutor cannot retreat to their authority and instead shares your evidentiary assumptions, creating fertile ground for persuasion. From that position you can walk them through the inevitable conclusions of their own assumptions; it leads with the easiest to swallow points and builds from there rather than beginning with the hardest pill. And so if the goal is to persuade people of an argument about Sparta – recall that this series was immediately prompted by dueling essays about the value of Sparta as an exemplar for modern politicsthe Cartledge position is clearly the more efficacious tool for reaching people who are not already convinced of the authority of modern scholars on these points. That being my aim, I used it.

The other major advantage to leaning of the Cartledge position, especially when it comes to the use of things like archaeological evidence, is to demonstrate what was known and available when the works which codified the modern public view of Sparta were written. It is a weak critique to fault the ‘Pressfield Camp’ for lacking a time machine to the future, so I often lean on somewhat older scholarship explicitly in the text because I want to show that these things were already well established by the 1990s.

All of which would be besides the point if I didn’t think there was still some validity to the Cartledge position and so…

The Validity of the Cartledge Camp

I think the Cartledge view on Sparta, in many of its particulars if not in whole, remains ‘colorable’ as an academic matter. Now I am not narrowly a Sparta expert, though being a trained ancient historian I can read all of the sources and assess the evidence and arguments well enough, yet I owe the experts some deference. And certainly there are more articles in the Hodkinson camp – many written by Steven Hodkinson, of course – these days. But it is important not to mistake the weight of publication with the weight of scholarly opinion; ‘revisionist’ or new positions, right or wrong, successful or short-lived, generally ‘out publish’ the ‘orthodox’ positions on any given debate. Precisely because these positions are New and Exciting they both draw scholars (we like new and exciting) and also just plainly make career sense; it is very hard to get a job arguing, “that old fellow over there actually solved my topic 40 years ago, go read him (or her).” At the same time while younger scholars with these new positions are often furiously publishing on them because that is the main thesis of their work, other scholars who hold the orthodox positions may at most sally in every once and a while to indicate why they are unconvinced.6 Simply marking quantity and newness isn’t enough.7

And in this case it isn’t like no one is arguing back to Hodkinson’s arguments that Sparta was in fact a much more typical polis than our sources let on. The loudest voice has probably been Mogens Herman Hansen (not exactly a minor scholar, though now retired), who offered a fairly strong rebuttal in Sparta: Comparative Approaches (2009) and seems to remain unconvinced. I am likewise struck that Paul Cartledge himself as recently as 2018 declared himself still more convinced by M.H. Hansen’s arguments in the last paragraphs to his forward of A Companion to Sparta (2018!), ed. Anton Powell. This is not to say that one cannot prefer Hodkinson’s arguments – I do on several points (discussed below) – but what I think one cannot do is go tell a public audience that someone following M.H. Hansen and Paul Cartledge doesn’t know what they’re talking about or is simply ‘out of date.’ The points are contested; I suspect given the nature of the evidence and the sensitivity of the question many of them will likely remain contested.

Of course I do follow Hodkinson on several points; here I think the critique mistakes my use of older scholarship for a lack of awareness of the newer scholarship. There are points, especially deeper into the series where I adopt Hodkinsonian positions: Sparta “follows this basic model” of polis government (more typical than not!). My take on Spartiate women owes quite a lot to Hodkinson’s “Female property ownership and empowerment” in Spartan Society (2004), ed. T. Figueira, including rejecting the notion that female inheritance was the fundamental problem motivating Spartan oliganthropia; I was taught the ‘female inheritance was the problem’ version in my MA and am convinced by Hodkinson that this was wrong. The argument that Sparta’s army is a fairly typical Greek army is likewise Hodkinsonian and leans into his arguments about Sparta not being so ‘militarized’ as our sources imply, contra Cartledge. Finally, while I do stress the rigidity of Sparta’s social structure and its inequality (in keeping with Hodkinson, Property & Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000)), I don’t believe at any point I argue for the ‘exceptional domination of state over society,’ except for the position of the helots. It is perhaps unfortunate that This. Isn’t. Sparta. comes behind my habit of bibliography paragraphs at the front of essays; there would have been quite a lot of Hodkinson, but also Powell, Figueira, I.M. Morris, etc. etc. Property & Wealth, especially, is a must read if you want to understand contemporary scholarship, though it is dense and written for scholars so you can’t start with it.

I do depart from the zeitgeist of the moment on a few points, however, which I’ll come to in a moment. First I want to note – and here I don’t think my interlocutors here would disagree – that the Hodkinson camp cannot ‘save’ Sparta for the Sparta bro.

Why Hodkinson Cannot Save Sparta (If He Wanted To, Which I Don’t Think He Does)

Crucially, the debate about Spartan exceptionalism swirls around questions about the Spartiates because as scholars we are used to asking questions about poleis primarily in terms of their citizen class. Thus for instance, the question ‘was the Spartan state unusually dominant in private affairs?’ is primary a question about its interference in Spartiate households. But my argument in This. Isn’t. Sparta. in its most important sections – where it comes to the value and morality of the Spartan state – is fundamentally unconcerned with the spartiates; where I address them it is openly as a concession to the implied reader who insists that all of the bad stuff they do was necessary for all of the cool stuff they did such that I must also show that the cool stuff was mostly fake. Instead, I think an argument about Spartan Exceptionalism which begins with the spartiates has already made a mistake: it is quibbling over pebbles while tripping over a boulder.

That boulder is the helots.8 And it is a big boulder!

There has been some effort in the more recent scholarship to trim the number of helots, from Richard Talbert’s estimate of c. 200,0009 to Hodkinson’s estimate of c. 162,000 helots10 to Figueira’s low estimate of 75,000-118,000. As I expressed in the original post, I think Figueira’s approach, while valid, serves primarily as a lower-bound estimate because it assumes a very efficiently distributed helot labor force that is fully compliant with extraction and making no supplemental use of its labor.11 So we have a figure somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 helots, which in turn means a society somewhere between 65-85% helots in the fifth century BCE. It’s hard to know if we should expect that figure to increase over time as the number of spartiates dwindled because we don’t know how the numbers of the non-citizen underclasses changed with any certainty; it might have remained relatively static with the increase among free non-spartiates (that seems most likely to me).

This is, in essence, a fixed point in any analysis of Sparta; Figueira’s calculations do a good job of showing that the number cannot be any lower and still support the spartiates in the lifestyle we know they had. Consequently if everything else about our understanding of Sparta is made less exceptional, is made more like a normal Greek polis, we are still stuck with this absolutely wildly high percentage of enslaved persons in this society. And I want to dwell for a second on how insane that figure is. In 225 B.C. we figure Roman Italy’s enslaved percentage was perhaps 18% or so, rising to around 25% or so by the reign of Augustus – the fruits of two hundred years of successful warfare. The population of the American South in 1860 was 32.3% enslaved in the eve of the Civil War. Sparta is massively more enslaved than this, no matter what population reconstruction one uses. No other state – not a component of a larger empire, but a state as whole – I know of was so enslaved.

I think efforts to obscure this behind labeling the helots as ‘serfs,’ something still done by some modern scholars, is misguided. First, our sources have all sorts of ways to denote kinds of non-slave bonded labor – these societies had tenancy, share-cropping, debt-bondage and so on and they had words for those things. They do not use those words here; the helots are εἵλωτες (helots), οἰκέται (household slaves) or more explicitly δοῦλοι (born slaves). Our sources are not subtle and moreover it is the effective unanimous testimony of the sources that the helots were uncommonly badly treated; these were both slaves and – as Kritias (460-403BC) supposedly quipped, quoted by Plutarch and Libanius, the helots were the most enslaved slaves in all of Greece. Many of the sources that say this are close contemporaries of the system and some that hint at this – like Xenophon (e.g. Xen. Hell. 3.3.6) – are themselves pro-Spartan. Medieval serfs enjoyed legal protections over their persons, something that the helots quite explicitly did not have (Hdt. 4.146.2, Isoc. 12.181, Plut. Lyc. 28.4, Thuc. 4.80, Ath. 14.74, Aristotle via Plut. 28.7; this is honestly one of the most ludicrously well attested factoids we have about Sparta). The testimony is so frequent and so universal on this point that the helots were slaves and very badly treated slaves at that that I am not persuaded by efforts to sand off the edges of this system; I do not generally think arguing about ‘comparative cruelty’ between systems of slavery is useful but I do think the testimony we have is more than enough to put helotry in the ‘this was really slavery’ bucket.12

I am also unpersuaded that the system of helotry as practiced in Sparta was in fact similar to other systems in Greece. This is an argument that Hodkinson has made, but where I think M.H. Hansen had the better of the rebuttal: all of the sources that seem to be parallels are very late, dubious in their interpretation and even if accepted at face value (which they probably shouldn’t be) describe systems which in several cases appear not to have existed very long.13 Instead from the sources we have it sure seems like the typical Greek citizen in a polis was a male smallholder (though of course we must be wary of the Athenian bent of our sources), with only a much smaller class of rentier-elites; many poleis might limit the franchise of poor citizens (so they’re citizens, but they cannot hold certain offices or vote in certain ways) but it is not clear to me that it was normal anywhere but Sparta to simply reduce all of the poor people en masse to slavery. And of course more broadly our period sources do all seem to think the system of helotry is really unusual; on the balance, I think we should trust them (though I’d be open to more decisive evidence that we shouldn’t).

Consequently the choice between the Cartledge camp view of Sparta and the Hodkinson camp view of Sparta is essentially the question of if Classical Sparta was a totalitarian state (for spartiates) permanently mobilized for war against its own brutalized helot underclass (the Cartledge position) or if the Classical Spartan state was a more normal polis, except for the fact that it was built atop a massive brutalized helot underclass and also failed to produce any notable architecture or significant literature (the Hodkinson position, with the emphasis shifted around a bit). While this is an important question for scholars to work out, the answer has little bearing on what we ought to think about it; both potential societies are awful.

In either case, the final verdict of the series that Sparta was “an ancient North Korea…little more than an extraordinarily effective prison, metastasized to the level of a state” holds – but it is the helots, not the spartiates, who are the prisoners. The condition of the jailers – or their self-conception of themselves as jailers – matters not. For what it is worth, I think the structure of Spartan society was only accidentally cruel to the spartiates, not intentionally authoritarian, which puts me rather closer on this point to Hodkinson than Cartledge. The only difference is that I don’t care because how the state behaves to its elite 10% is not actually an interesting question for me if that means so badly mistreating its ‘median’ denizen.

Odds and Ends: The Agoge and Spartan Battle

Likewise my description of the agoge has been in for some critique, here I think there is some real difference of opinion but also some problems introduced by my serial organization and the overall framing and a few points where I would revise my view. In the first post I am going out of my way to accept the ‘Pressfield Camp’ framing of the question for the sake of persuasion and so some of the key corrections here – like the fact that the agoge wasn’t a boot camp and didn’t teach martial skills are only really brought out later. The text as it stands is simply not clear on this, particularly the paragraph contrasting the wolf-killing scene with the actual murder of a helot which is meant to drive home the discordance of the ‘warrior-badass’ image but doesn’t make sufficiently clear that I do not actually think the agoge involved combat training. That’s my fault and while writing this I added a clarifying footnote to the original (now that I can do that). I’m in a similar mode when accepting an agoge with a fatality rate; I am convinced of that and I don’t note but should have that the legendary Spartan infanticide probably did not happen; we ought to have evidence of it and we don’t (another footnote there).

On the other hand, the comparison to modern systems of child soldier indoctrination is not intended merely as shock value but as a retort to the assumption that the agoge could not have been as cruel as it is described to us. There is a strain of response to the narrative we get – food and sleep deprivation, the liberal use of beatings both by men and boys against boys and the heavy implication of what we would define as sexual assault, and a graduation ritual at least for some that involves fatal violence against ‘outsiders’ – that responds with incredulity on the grounds of implausibility, that no society would conduct itself this way and no parent would allow their children to be exposed to that. It couldn’t have been that bad, right?

To which I am responding: “there are societies that conduct themselves exactly that way right now.” And not all of them are entirely involuntary, as I note with, for instance, Maoist militants in Nepal described in Bloom and Horgan (2019); under the right conditions people will voluntarily expose their children to those conditions. Plutarch and Cicero are, as I note, late sources who may be seeing a distorted version of this system, but I think we are largely stuck both with what Xenophon (a contemporary positive observer) tells us about the system. We are likewise stuck with a lot of attestation that the krypteia existed and at least what everyone thought it did. My point here is that actually adding up everything we are told (taking Plutarch with some salt) produces a system which is plausible and has modern comparanda, which in my mind makes the special pleading to remove this or that element much less persuasive. The agoge could have functioned exactly as described and it would have produced…exactly the results we see. This is an argument I intend to return to in a formal setting at some point – it is hard to find the space since I have my own research agenda which also demands time – but I really think the comparison between this ancient system of enforcing obedience (there isn’t much training in arms in many of these child indoctrination systems either, by the by) and modern ones is probative as to the actual nature of the agoge (and of course what we ought to think about it).

Finally the series post on ‘Spartan Battle’ has been critiqued for its vision of hoplite combat and also for not getting into the weeds of the debates about hoplites. The reason I don’t get into that argument is because it doesn’t matter for the series; the point here is that the Spartan system of hoplite combat was not meaningfully different from other systems of hoplite combat which remains true no matter which model of hoplite combat we impose.

More broadly, I confess I do not fully hold fully with either ‘school’ of hoplite warfare. The ‘orthodox’ position – held quietly still by some scholars but with few openly arguing for it – is overly rigid and formulaic, mostly on account of it not having been updated and adapted since its principal author decided to become a political pundit, poisoning the well for anyone trying to defend his thesis. But there are real flaws and unquestioned assumptions as its base; it’s cracked and beyond saving in its current configuration. But the ‘heterodox’ position – which now dominates in publication but see the caveat above – also does not fully convince me in all sorts of tiny little details: the rejection of a standard depth, arguments for cavalry and light infantry where they’re not attested, a developmental timeline that renders confusing at best the Italian evidence, a model of combat that I find unconvincing in some of its basic physics (though the orthodox model has this problem too), etc. etc. It is a topic begging for a sensible synthesis but that project is hardly going to happen on in a blog post about Sparta. I think the closest anyone has come to producing such a synthesis may be Everett Wheeler’s chapter on “Land Battles” in the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (2007).14


I have been asked if I would do a matching treatment for Athens. I may yet; it would be shorter I suspect as Athens’ faults are easier to point out: the disenfranchisement of women and foreigners that was ubiquitous in ancient self-governing polities, the existence of the institution of slavery (albeit on a smaller scale than at Sparta), the closed (but fairly large) citizen class and the fact that Athenian democratic principles did not extend to the empire they exploited in the fifth century BCE, along with the fact, well-observed in the ancient sources, that Athens’ democratic system did not always produce wise or careful leadership. But I find at least in a college setting students have much less trouble teasing out these facts about Athens; it is, I think, a statement about our societies’ own self-criticism that we are harsh with Athens, the place we think is like us, but overly kind to Sparta, the more supposedly alien and frankly dramatically worse society (in practice both societies would be profoundly alien to us).

In any event it will never cease to be funny the number of retorts I have gotten which assume I would go to the mat to defend Athenian honor and that I would thus clearly be ‘owned’ by a critique of Athens. I’d hardly make such a total defense of the Roman Republic15 and I actually find the Romans endearing from time to time, a thing I cannot generally say of the Greeks.

All told I think the series served its intended purpose well, not only as my own rebuttal to the ‘Pressfield’ version of Sparta but also as a readily accessible, popularly readable and reasonably complete tool for folks to use in framing discussions around Sparta, something that can be linked to online when the topic comes up that is more extensive than the shorter ‘but wait Sparta is bad’ essays that ancient historians tend to write from time to time for online outlets which will end up lacking the space to really mobilize the evidence in a substantial way and thus must rely on the authority of the author (which the ‘Sparta bro’ may not accept). In this latter goal the post as clearly succeeded marvelously; one finds links to it not infrequently on Twitter or Reddit or what have you. It is hardly path-breaking scholarship, as I hope I’ve made clear here, but the nature of the internet makes it readily available in a way that the many responsible book-treatments of Sparta are not. And so while quite a few of the critiques of its positions and framing are valid, in its limited goal of putting something out there to serve as a responsible, scholarly-acceptable and ready response to the ‘Sparta bros’ of the internet, it seems to have succeeded.

And so I reiterate my closing judgement:

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.

  1. I don’t have complete Google Analytics over the same time period, but judging from the periods where I do, the Google Analytics numbers would be about 10-15% lower as it is more aggressive filtering out bots, duplicate views, etc.
  2. There’s a very good article discussing this, Lynn. S. Fotheringham, “The positive portrayal of Sparta in late-twentieth-century fiction” in Sparta in Modern Thought, eds. S. Hodkinson and I.M. Morris (2012).
  3. Pressfield is by no means the only person who holds this view, of course. I am picking him in part because he lacks the much more difficult baggage of Frank Miller, but also because Pressfield’s Gates of Fire is sometimes taken far more seriously, in particularly on military reading lists, than I think it ought to be.
  4. In practice I tell my students that both Sparta and Athens were unusual poleis and it is unfortunate we do not have a equally well attested example of a more normal polis
  5. This is, I must stress, a wild over-simplification of a complex set of arguments that live in very detail-oriented specifics.
  6. You can see this pattern very clearly in the Roman demography debate. The ‘low-count’ came first, emerging in something close to its ‘orthodox’ form by 1971 with Brunt’s Italian Manpower. When the debate then properly ignited in the 1990s and aughts, the publication rate of the heterodox ‘high-counters’ was much higher, in part because most of the convinced ‘low counters’ were off making other arguments about smaller questions (like fertility, nuptiality, age structure, etc.). Scholars like Elio Lo Cascio produced a veritable storm of books and articles challenging the ‘orthodox’ low count position but largely succeeded only in forcing small refinements to the ‘low count’ and getting ‘low-counters’ to adopt more sophisticated demographic techniques. For all the Sturm und Drang the low count’s position as the dominant model remains undisturbed even now. Now I should note I do not think the ‘Cartledge Camp’ has fared nearly so well as the ‘low count’ which is why I break with it at quite a few points in my series; this is merely meant as an example where you can in fact have several decades where the side of the debate that publishes the most doesn’t actually end up as the new orthodoxy.
  7. One may note by contrast the modernist/primitivist debate over the Roman economy which was marked by several notable retreats by the primitivists where leading scholars of that group conceded ground and indicated they were convinced by the new arguments, e.g. R. Saller, “Framing the Debate Over Growth in the Ancient Economy” in The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models, ed. J. Manning and I. Morris (2005).
  8. I should be clear that Hodkinson doesn’t ignore the helots, but his primary interest is in the spartiates and so in works like Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta the helots mostly exist for him just as they existed for the spartiates – primarily as instruments of production. However, “Spartiates, helots and the direction of the agrarian economy” (2003) in Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messinia, ed. N. Luraghi and S.E. Alcock, puts more focus on the helots, although still primarily in terms of their role as economic producers and their relationship with the spartiates. This isn’t an invalid approach, but it obviously is not my approach, for the same reason I do not assess the Roman Republic entirely by the concern of the senate and the equites.
  9. R. Talbert, “The Role of the Helots in the Class Struggle at Sparta” Historia 38 (1989)
  10. In Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000).
  11. Note also Scheidel’s modeling here, with some valuable cautions.
  12. I should add here that there is substantial skepticism in the scholarship about the degree of violence directed against the helots. Our sources represent it as pervasive, but many modern scholars express doubts about the veracity of things like Thucydides’ report of the murder of 2,000 helots (Thuc. 4.80) and there are some decent grounds on which to express doubts about that instance. But as a general matter I find the general argument that the level of violence and repression our sources envisage was plausible itself unconvincing; well documented modern repressive systems functioned and function today almost exactly like this, with random or seemingly random acts of official violence used to keep a subordinated populace ‘in line.’ And without the basic assumption of implausibility, I see no alternative but to trust the sources we have, which all either report this or politely side-step the question. Xenophon, clearly at pains to diffuse what he sees as hostile stereotypes about Sparta in Xen. Lac. instead pointedly ignores the helots; he offers no defense of their treatment. I think his silence is telling.
  13. M.H. Hansen and S. Hodkinson, “Spartan Exceptionalism? Continuing the Debate” in Sparta: Comparative Approaches (2009), ed. S. Hodkinson.
  14. Though once again personal dynamics make persuasion here unlikely.
  15. Where, I think the This. Isn’t. Sparta. treatment is almost superfluous since the one fact everyone knows about the republic is that it failed.

256 thoughts on “Collections: This. Isn’t. Sparta. Retrospective

  1. I would love it if you took a critical look at the love affair many have with the Vikings.

    I’ll admit that I, personally, hate the Vikings. I hate the love affair much of society has with them. I see them as nothing more than thieves, slavers, raiders, murderers, and rapists. This is not to say I see all Norsemen this way, but that’s because I don’t see all Norsemen as Vikings.

    But my personal thoughts and feelings are neither here nor there. Maybe my view of the Vikings is what’s wrong, and they really were badasses that we should emulate. Either way, I’d appreciate some illumination.

      1. It is an excellent article.

        I haven’t played the new Assassins’ Creed, but it is pretty messed up that the game justifies colonialism, settlement, and destruction. It seems they try to justify this because the Catholic Church was corrupt and that the locals were better off under their new warlords, which is… insane. It is insane. God, I hate that so freaking much. I cannot express how angry that logic makes it. It’s too similar to the logic the CCP uses to colonise Tibet, or the Spainish used to colonise the Aztecs.

        God, I hate Vikings. I’m glad their way of life is dead and gone.

      1. That was what I was trying to stress when I said I did not see all Norsemen as Vikings. I know many people today do, and that frustrates me, but what is even more infuriating is the love and adoration given in undying tides to a group of rapists, slavers, and murderers.

        God I hate Vikings.

          1. The most romanticized pirates are those of the “Golden Age”, stealing gold and silver from Spanish ships carrying metals mined by slave labor, or raiding ships carrying Caribbean products farmed by slave labor, and dodging Royal Navy ships manned by forced labor…

          2. In between privateers and corsairs who were theoretically acting as agents of a state in wartime, and out-and-out sea bandits who were “hostis humani generis”, there is sometimes held to be an intermediate status for “buccaneers”: people living outside the authority of states in sparsely populated regions and often including unlicensed settlers and runaway slaves and bondsmen. These are sometimes romanticized as communally living proto-libertarians, although they could often behave as marauding tribes preying on outsiders.

          3. between the passage of the Navigation Acts and the development of enough ships to defy them, piracy flourished among the North American colonies because the British ship owners had all jacked up their rates as soon as they had that monopoly.

    1. Tom Shippey’s book “Laughing Shall I Die” is very good. He’s an expert in Scandinavian literature (and Tolkien), acknowledges heir brutality and explores their (nihilist) outlook on life.

    2. Well, at one level you’re not wrong, but unlike Sparta, in this case I would be skeptical that they were intrinsically worse than most other people of the time. Like the post-1500s Europeans, they had a combined advantage of geography and ships that meant they could strike without fearing a return stroke, so they could get away with more. (Also see horse nomads coming off the steppe.) But there’s a difference between “did more bad things because they’re bad people” and “did more bad things because they had more power to do them.”

      ‘thieves, slavers, raiders, murderers, and rapists’ — as Bret has been describing in his logistics posts, those were nearly intrinsic to pre-modern warfare in general. A marching army “forages”, namely raids and thieves from the peasants it marches among, with loot frequently as a motivation for the soldiers, with that loot often in the form of slaves. Is there a real difference between a Viking raid or a Roman attack? Or a 100 Years War chevauchee?

      As for being badasses, well their navigation and exploration were neat. And AIUI, it’s less that some Norsemen were vikings and others not, and more that ‘viking’ was a thing that many (male) Norsemen would do at some point, in between farming (at home) and trading (with people who could fight back.)

      1. And if those groups were praised and held as paragons of masculinity then I would have a problem with it. But they aren’t. At least, they aren’t by our general Western culture. Knights are praised for their chivalry and knightly virtues. Romans for their ingenuity and brilliance. Are those conceptualisations fair? Are they accurate? Are they just?

        It does not matter. To the average person, who only ever engages with pop-history, it really, absolutely does not matter. To historians it does matter, and if I were to put on my historian’s hat I would condemn the Vikings so strongly.

        What I do condemn is how they are portrayed and remembered in pop-culture and pop-history, and any and everything that knocks them down and shows them to be the murderers, slavers, and rapists they are, the better.

    3. All pagan Norsemen weren’t Vikings, but that wasn’t due to moral disagreements; it just wasn’t practical for some, or they were more risk averse, stuff like that.

      The idea that it was morally wrong to afflict, kill and rob strangers outside the bonds of kin and propinquity is part of your value system, but not that of pre-Christian Scandinavia.

      Moral denunciations of past societies is boring and futile, just in-group tribal solidarity dances.

      “My tribe Good and Right; their tribe Bad and Wrong. Ooook!” — as you wave your spear and dance around the campfire.

      To make something plain: I’m an ethical nihilist. That is, I regard all judgments of value as purely subjective personal preferences — no link between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

      That isn’t to say I don’t have moral opinions: I do. For example, I think murder is wrong and should be punished.

      Other people think that whose who deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Host at mass are evil heretics who should be burned alive.

      What’s the difference between those opinions? Well, mine is more powerful… right now, for now. Other than that, nothing at all.

      I’m cheerfully willing to impose my values by force if I get the chance, but I don’t regard them as anything -but- opinions. This is why ethical nihilism is so restful — you might call it the ‘anti-knickers-in-a-twist’ worldview.

      Beyond that, as far as I’m concerned arguments about questions of value are utterly pointless unless you’re arguing -from- a mutually agreed presumption; Bentham’s calculus of pleasure and pain, for example.

      That begs the question of -why- I should care about other people’s pain or pleasure, of course. (Incidentally, generally speaking I don’t.)

      Arguments which assume sort of ‘objective’ validity for one or another moral assumption are pure semantic null sets: endless repetition of “Snurgle flugga wug-wug” and variations thereon.

      Your values are just opinions too, but you’re basically fooling yourself with self-flattering ‘legitimizing myths’.

      1. I think you missed my point:

        “I would love it if you took a critical look at the love affair many have with the Vikings.”

        You could also make your entire argument about the This Isn’t Sparta series, but Devereaux isn’t talking about Sparta just to morally denounce it. He wrote these articles in order to critically analyze the alt-right’s fascination with Sparta. The alt-right is having the same sort of love affair with the Vikings, and I believe it is worthwhile to address and to knock down.

        1. “He wrote these articles in order to critically analyze the alt-right’s fascination with Sparta.”

          That’s definitely the most important part. It’s not just that they were bad (all our ancestors were cruel, brutal people easily swayed by nonsense), it’s that they’re considered a model by the vicious for the destruction of better ways of life introduced very recently.

          The valorizing of parasite “warrior” classes by people wanting to strip rights (and life) from others is a real problem in modern society.

  2. (Hdt. 4.146.2, Isoc. 12.181, Plut. Lyc. 28.4, Thuc. 4.80, Ath. 14.74, Aristotle via Plut. 28.7; this is honestly one of the most ludicrously well attested factoids we have about Sparta)

    Is the Herodotus note a typo? Because 4.146 has nothing to do with Helots, and, indeed, seems to be happening centuries before Lycurgus’ time.

  3. For me, you made the case of Sparta’s lack of value strongly enough when you made it clear how the majority of the people in their state were Helots. I had been thinking of the Helots as a proportion of the population comparable to the American slave states; I was unaware that the proportion was so lopsided.

    1. Some of the slave states, in the Deep South, were little better. IIRC the proportion over the whole South was like 1/3 slave — not good — but that’s ranging from border states to ones where slaves were a majority of the population.

      1. Yet even the Old South was comparatively a paradise next to Haiti. As I alluded to earlier, the higher the proportion of slaves to masters, the more mercilessly brutal the masters apparently have to be to enforce obedience.

  4. However badly the helots were treated, that does not make them slaves. Were they brutally oppressed, exploited, often beaten or killed, kept in semi-starvation and exploited?


    Were they slaves?


    Prisoners in the Gulag were forced laborers, were brutally oppressed, often beaten and killed, and kept in a state of semi-starvation (or outright starved to death); they weren’t slaves either.

    The distinguishing feature of chattel slavery is not exploitation or brutal treatment or lack of legal rights; it is that the slave is, well, a chattel.

    That is to say, personal property that can be disposed of by sale or acquired by purchase.

    But helots could -not- be sold or bought as private, individual property; they could only be allocated by the Spartan state, though the mechanism is obscure.

    There were actual chattel slaves in Sparta, but they weren’t helots (or very numerous).

    1. Your argument seems to be that helots weren’t slaves because they weren’t chattel slaves. Then you go on to say they can’t be chattel slaves because they were owned by the state rather than individuals. That seems to be an argument based on semantics rather than what we known of the system of their enslavement.

  5. This blog is truly interesting and the articles are obviously based on solid research.
    But I have one thing that makes this article and the others from the original series truly unsatisfaying: the application of current morality to another civilization from another time (2500 years are quite a lot).
    It is as illogical as wanting to bring back the government, culture, morality of the Spartan (or the Romans, or everyone else).
    History is about understanding what happened and, mostly, who did it (and possibly why did it).
    For this reason I understand the necessity to explain what Sparta truly was, but, for example, saying that slavery was bad because for us is bad (and of course today it should be considered an heinous crime) is also a mystake.
    PS: not my first language so I’m sorry for any grammatical error.

    1. I think that Deveraux makes couple of points, none of which is really about applying the current morals to the past:
      a) The Spartan form of society was not that successful even in those aspects of life where they claimed to be superior: producing safety, social equality and well-being to the upper class and winning wars. In fact, the Spartan military was not that much better than its peers’, and the average Spartiate was hanging on his privileges only because they were able to suck up to a magnate.
      b) During the historical period, the Spartan way of life didn’t compensate for this by production of anything aesthetically superior (Bertrand Russell’s argument).
      c) The Spartan system was such an outlier among Greek states that you can’t really think it corresponded even the normal Grek morality of the time.
      d) The Spartans were so outrageously immoral from our perspective that admiring them now is a moral fault.

      And I would agree with him. Just like anyone who admires German or Soviet armies of WWII has a serious moral issue, anyone who admires Sparta is on their way to becoming a monster.

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