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.

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

  1. Obligatory nitpicks:
    “It is perhaps unfortunately that This. Isn’t. Sparta. comes behind my habit…” -> unfortunately to “unfortunate”, and probably “before” rather than “behind”?
    “since its principle author…” -> “principal”. (Also, looking up the particular dude in question… yikes.)

    And this one might not be a nitpick at all, but…
    “fifth century” -> fifth century BCE, right? (I’m used to style guides being a stickler and saying to include BC/BCE even when context makes it obvious.)

      1. Is there a missing word in FN 12? It says:

        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.’

        Based on the context I think you mean “not plausible”?

    1. “it is a think a statement about our societies’ own self-criticism”
      Did you mean “it is I think a statement”?

      “One may not by contrast the modernist/primitivist debate over the Roman economy”
      Did you mean “note by contrast”?

      1. I think he meant “one may not but contrast”. Also deducing that from the proximity of “y” and “t”

        1. Yes. His book “The Western Way of War” changed people’s thinking about hoplite warfare, overturning the analysis that I had been taught as a classics student in the 1970s. Subsequently, he has joined millions of his fellow citizens in opposing large-scale immigration and supporting Donald Trump, which means that his books can no longer be read on campuses (although his analysis is just as good as it ever was). Sad!

          1. Koenendijk actually talks about that in the podcast: His analysis *isn’t* as good as it ever was, becasue a lot of the stuff he presents as central (like the existence of a middling farmer class) just doesen’t exist.

          2. This is nonsense. The Western Way of War was entirely orthodox and what was taught in the vast majority of universities at the time it was published. While A.D. Fraser might have challenged the orthodoxy back in 1942, it wasn’t until Cawkwell’s 1978 biography of Philip of Macedon that the debate started. Despite some early support for the “heretical” view from Peter Krentz and Hans van Wees, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that opinion had solidly begun to turn. Archaeology and anthropology produced better understandings of the texts and undid the orthodox view of hoplite combat, and VDH’s political views have far less to do with academia’s rejection of orthodoxy than they do with why his supporters continue to support him in the face of considerable evidence.

            More importantly, WWoW has some incredibly shoddy scholarship. I like to play a game where I check his citations and see if they actually say what he says they do. Quite often they refer not to hoplites but to light infantry or cavalry, or else quite plainly don’t say what he claims they do.

  2. I’m curious, have you ever looked at Machiavelli’s look at Sparta in his Discourses on Livy? While I think he’s somewhat uncritical of ancient sources (which is hardly limited to his treatment of them on Sparta) his main two foci are “It’s kind of weird that the Periokoi didn’t agitate against the Spartiates more” owing to his general theories on class relations, and why Sparta was never able to expand even when it was successful on the battlefield. I’d just be somewhat curious as to what you thought of his arguments if you were in fact interested them.

    1. Success on the battlefield doesn’t let you expand very far at all without logistics and bureaucracy to manage a system of control extending beyond your core. The Spartans had neither. Give them laser cannons and they’d still have neither and not be able to expand very far.

      1. I would follow Machiavelli on this one that the issue is probably less about logistics or bureaucracy (It’s not like other poleis contemporary to Classical Sparta had that stuff either, and some of them were able to build empires, albeit short lived ones) and more that the Spartan system was only stable when you had the Spartiates at home en masse to intimidate the helots into line or attack them if intimidation didn’t work. Quite simply, Sparta isn’t politically set up to do stuff like occupy a hostile city or even embark on a long campaign; almost all of the energy of the spartan state went into maintaining the bare existence of the spartan state.

  3. It’s kind of scary that this blog has been around long enough to do a retrospective, but it’s neat that you can go back and handle critics in detail.

  4. if you don’t mind me asking, I am curious as to why you find the Romans ‘endearing’ from time to time, but not the Greeks? is it just professional preference, since you specialize in Ancient Rome and not Ancient Greece, or is it something else, like their cultural personality?

      1. This is interesting in that so many noted Romans of the Republic era were philhellenes. So were they in error, or what exactly? One can hardly separate the legacies we moderns have inherited (at great remove) from classical Greece and Rome. They seem now permanently affixed.

      2. Language? How could anyone prefer Latin to Greek, “a musical and prolific language that gives a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of philosophy”? Ah well, de gustibus non est disputandum.

      3. While I freely accept that this is not a matter of objective judgment, I remain curious as to the details.

  5. This was a very valuable article for me to read considering my own intellectual history on the subject. I was one of those undergraduate students you mention who was given Plutarch’s Lycurgus (as well as its parallel, which is Numa Pompilius, I think?) to read without any accompanying modern scholarship. (This being, I should say, how my undergraduate program handled literally everything; St. John’s College is weird.) It seems that I and most of my classmates ended up as amateur Cartledge Campers, because that reading of the primary source, taking most everything it says at face value, was still more than enough to take the shine out of nearly all of the Myths of Sparta that any of us might have held. The only myths which persisted in the minds of some of my classmates (even the worst of whom I don’t think deserve to be compared with Sparta Bros) were those of Spartan Poverty and Spartan Military Excellence; and the latter myth was to have quite a lot of the wind taken out of its sails by Thucydides later in the semester. In the end, the defenders of Sparta were ultimately forced to retreat into a gargantuan amount of abstraction of Sparta’s theoretical positive qualities from the actual polis we were reading about. It’s hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for defending the egalitarian merits of Spartiate land allocation after you’ve just covered recreational helot murder. Half the women in the class laughed aloud at Plutarch’s notion that Spartiate wives were always on board with wife-sharing arrangements. The other half didn’t buy it either, they just understandably weren’t laughing.

    (Although positive regard for Sparta did somewhat persist as a running joke among some of the college’s athletic clubs: self-mocking comparisons of ourselves, an eccentric and somewhat insular liberal arts college, as the Sparta to the neighboring Athens of the United States Naval Academy, persisted, especially since we generally got dominated by them in water sports of crew and sailing, but held our own against them on land in fencing and usually stomp them in croquet. The other running gag was that, like Spartiates, our education was preparing us very well for joblessness.)

    Point being, I think that even without distrusting the sources, as you say the camp of Hodkinson does, I think that Plutarch (quite unintentionally) gives a reader most of the tools to see through the myth; and the other sources can help clarify where Plutarch’s biases and hagiography still obscure.

    1. I am often torn on the value of myths and legends like the Spartans. As a myth, it’s incredibly powerful and fun. The same goes for myths about Vikings, the roman legions, knights in armor, cowboys…

      I’d love it if we can continue to gain something from the myths without trying to think that they’re based on real history.

  6. I’m curious now what kind of ancient sources there are describing slavery in mines and if they can be compared to the descriptions of the helots. The popular narrative seems to depict mining as especially brutal to slaves and it was one of the few places where they would be worked to death and simply replaced. Were the ancient sources unanimous in the consensus that slave miners were brutal like they are with helots? Do any ancient sources even discuss the mines?

    “it is a 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).”

    I think that pretty much every educated person in Western society with a liberal bent (and many without) will have encountered this phenomena. We’ll be discussing all the myriad problems with our own society with someone, problems that we as citizens care about at least a little. And then the person we are talking with will segue into uncritical acceptance of the claims that all these problems mean some authoritarian regime is actually better and freer then our societies. Personally it leaves my brain with such whiplash that I dont really know how to respond except with incoherent indignation…

    1. More broadly than Devereaux’s specific criticisms of Sparta, one may criticize the entire “cultural relativism” stance that, somewhat oversimplified, says that any society or culture that can perpetuate itself for a century or more has to be taken as valid at least unto itself. I for one find it not inconceivable that a splinter society could be founded on essentially sociopathic grounds, such as the infanticidal child rearing practices attested to in the anthropological literature; as well as extreme Maoist/North Korean indoctrination on the political Left, and on the Right such ultra-fascist movements as The Turner Diaries.

      In the case of Spartan society, it sounds exactly like what you’d get if a group of bandits or pirates decided to institutionalize their oppression of a larger group of victim/subjects, in order to make sure that a 2/3 or 3/4 majority could not in this case win a civil war or uprising. The only modern comparison would be pre-revolt Haiti.

      1. Doesn’t your last sentence here undermine the rest of your argument? It implies that Sparta, as portrayed in some of the sources, couldn’t have endured as long as it did; there should have been a successful slave revolt, just like in Haiti.

        I’m not necessarily convinced by this line of reasoning, mind you; obviously there’s a lot of logistical differences between the two cases.

        1. There has been only one slave revolt in the whole of recorded human history with successfully overthrew and replaced the slaver-government and you just named it.

          So no, even mediocre slave societies were generally able to maintain control. The enslavers, after all, have wealth, weapons, armies and an already-organized civil society; the deck is massively stacked against the enslaved.

          1. I think one of the key points of Hodkinson’s arguments regarding helotry is that the Spartan state we know of couldn’t have realistically exercised this sort of control. The Spartan citizenry weren’t just a rentier landholding class; they were by law and custom an exclusively urban rentier landholding class. Their most valuable estates were on the other side of a mountain range, and (albiet the evidence is sketchy) Lakonian conquest of Messenia doesn’t even seem to have affected the settlement pattern.

            Many of the oppressive actions of Spartiates towards the helots (ritual humiliation, depersonalization, economic exploitation, sexual assault, murder with impunity) could just as easily be said regarding the American South in periods where slavery was prohibited by law.

          2. Sadly one can argue the degree of success of the Haitian example given that nations continued problems. Getting rid of the enslavers was great but it takes something more to create a stable government

          3. Obligatory to distinguish here between the difficulty of former slaves creating a stable government/society per se, and the difficulty of doing so when subjected to a constant and in many ways still-ongoing state of economic siege warfare, punctuated by a string of coups and military invasions/occupations, from the former enslavers and their allies.

            Of course I’d assume you’re aware in some sense of Haiti’s centuries-long history along these lines, but being clear about this distinction still seems important in order not to inadvertently offer rhetorical cover to anyone interested in maliciously obscuring that history, whether it’s a geopolitical interest in minimizing the blood-soaked track record of imperial powers like France or the US, or a racist interest in asserting the inherent inferiority and savagery of black Haitians as people. (The two of which interests are also deeply symbiotic, even if many who might in some sense avow the former would strongly disavow any connection to the latter.)

          4. I would like to note that by the same token, European history includes only a single successful peasant revolt: Sweden. The difference from Haiti is that half a dozen years after the liberation war, Sweden was able to embark on a war against its creditors, and to win. Building a government was much easier when you are doing that with a clean balance sheet and control of your external trade.

          5. My knowledge of Swedish history is only moderate, but which Swedish revolt are you categorizing as both “peasant” and “successful”? I’m not sure there is a Swedish event that I would have described with both of those adjectives.

          6. The event I refer to is the Swedish Liberation War, ending in 1523 with the election of Gustavus Vasa as the Swedish King. Essentially, the peasants of Dalecarlia, who were revolting anyhow, succeeded in getting a credible high nobleman as their leader, and to gain legitimacy that normal revolts lacked. However, the neighbouring countries remembered this and used the inherent lack of legitimacy of the Swedish Crown as a political argument even 60 years later.

            As a result, the Swedish state relied on the support of the peasant class for centuries much more than any other European government. Even in mid-17th century, the kings could use the threat of royally-inspired peasant violence to force nobility to comply.

        2. The revolt took place after the French revolution had cracked the solidarity of the old political order, leading to Royalist, Republican and later Bonapartist factions.

          1. See for instance the inspiring story of Napoleon’s Polish nationalist auxiliary troops who initially served in the French force dispatched to reconquer and re-enslave Haiti, then switched sides when it became clear that the Haitians embodied the liberatory spirit of the French Revolution far more authentically than Napoleonic France.

  7. Incidentally, I will never stop finding it funny that Plutarch, the biggest peddler of the Myth of Sparta in the canon, has a name that basically means “rule by the rich.” I believe all modern scholars should be forced to adopt similarly on-the-nose-names. Maybe people would be less inclined to listen to apologetics for modern brutal authoritarian regimes if they had to be delivered by Dr. Strongman and Professor Genocide. Do you agree, Dr. Orc Logistics?

    1. Good point! I’ve also thought Xenophon’s name fit him very well considering the Anabasis and Cyropaedia. But Polybius would also have fit Plutarch

    2. To be fair, “Professor Genocide” could be a suitable moniker for any of the contemporary US foreign policy luminaries who’ve cited the US genocide of indigenous peoples in North America as a praiseworthy or otherwise non-pejorative precedent for modern US policies.

      I guess we’ve got figures like “Samantha Power” and “Anne-Marie Slaughter” in our foreign policy circles, maybe you could also throw in “Max Boot” in the spirit of the Orwellian aphorism about boots and faces, but that feels like a reach.

    3. Doesn’t “Plutarch” mean “ruler *of* wealth”? It’s a wish that the child will have money, not a statement about how society should be governed.

  8. 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.

    When a title is so obvious and so catchy, I’m not gonna fault someone for using it when someone else already did. A subtitle might have been appropriate, though?

    I’m glad this series exists. It’s an eye-opening exploration of one of ancient history’s sacred cows, it uses that attractive subject (and catchy title) to get people to learn about the ancient world more broadly, and it has a page custom-written as a rebuttal to people who say Sparta was good to its women. (And also other popular claims about Sparta, but I’ve personally gotten more use out of that one than the others combined.)

  9. I’d just like to add my voice to the chorus of people who greatly appreciate something so accessible to counter the Pressfield Camp. My first exposure to Sparta was Gates of Fire as a young person, and it imbued me with a worldview that was undoubtedly harmful for a long time. Knowing that the glorification of Sparta was fundamentally unserious and wrong would have been very valuable and would have changed a lot about my young adulthood.

    1. “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

      1. As someone who first encountered Tolkien and read LOTR at age 14, that makes me laugh heartily! Never read Ayn Rand, but I’m familiar with her works from reading about them and the people who’ve fallen under their diabolical spell.

      2. There are two books about hoplites that can inspire a bookish fourteen-year-old’s interest in ancient Greece: Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield and The Western Way of War by Victor Davis Hanson. One is structured around a deeply flawed historical analogy in which reactionary fantasies about righteous warfare by the modern United States are projected backward into history as a template for one’s understanding of classical Greek poleis, often engendering a chauvinistic indifference toward brutality and atrocities by one’s chosen society against its enemies, both foreign and domestic. The other, of course, is a novelization of the Battle of Thermopylae.

        1. “a chauvinistic indifference toward brutality and atrocities” seems to be the norm for most of human history. For example, different North American peoples torturing captives to death for entertainment is well attested. It seems to be a matter of how broadly one can empathize with Others, which in turn seems to be a function of what scale a political/economic system can incorporate disparate people in common citizenship. For all its flaws, western society has advanced the concept of not dismissing anyone not born in your village as a two-legged animal.

          1. Well it seems fair to say that even by the standards of his/our own society, VDH (the historian-turned-political-pundit to whom Bret alluded in the original post) has gotten fairly extreme in terms of chauvinistic bigotry against people from non-“Western” societies, starting his pundit career with a relatively respectable-seeming “clash of civilizations” neocon version of cultural chauvinism from the late ’90s into the early War on Terror years, before eventually diving off the deep end into gutter-level Trumpisch racist/xenophobic hysteria.

            Bret’s frequent interlocutor Roel Konijnendijk did a pretty great interview with the /r/AskHistorians podcast discussing the relationship between the two sides of VDH’s career, and why it’s not necessarily tenable to assume that his earlier respectable scholarly theories about Greek warfare can be neatly separated from his more recent far-right political views.

          2. The problem is, it’s pretty easy to think of many historians and writers of Marxist bent who defended Stalin, but no one says that Hobsbawm’s or Sartre’s work is thereby invalidated. Academics and other hypocrites generally focus on the motes in some eyes, while ignoring the planks in others. That’s why most of us don’t take their moral posturing or their politics very seriously.

          3. If there’s a clear, intellectually robust case that the scholarly theories of figures like Hobsbawm or Sartre are inextricable from an indefensible political stance as insufficiently vehement Cold Warriors, then sure… but I suspect this case wouldn’t be anywhere near as clear and straightforward as it is for VDH’s scholarly thesis about Greek warfare qua “Western” warfare, predicated as it is on a whitewashed depiction of classical Greek poleis as resting on the economic, political, and moral foundation of a virtuous and hardworking caste of free smallholding citizen farmers, a depiction that VDH himself unashamedly intertwines with his parallel political/ideological stance on the nature of subsequent “Western” societies like Anglo-Saxon Britain or the settler-colonial United States.

            In so many words, if Bret’s avowed motivation for his writings on Sparta is a sense of frustration that so many people regard a spectacularly brutal, hyper-militarized, slavery-fueled oligarchic microstate in classical Greece as an appropriate model (whether descriptively, normatively, or both) for European/American/“Western” societies in the present day, then it probably makes sense to be sharply critical of the relatively recent academic respectability of VDH’s historical theories, which arguably follow much the same template but papered over with a thin (and ever-thinner) scholarly veneer.

          4. Which is all well and good, but so far the criticism you are offering seems to be more “Hanson’s analysis is wrong because his politics are bad” rather than “Hanson’s analysis is wrong because he is wrong on the facts.”

          5. The point of interpreting Hanson’s scholarly work in terms of his political views isn’t some crude strawman like “Hanson’s modern political views are morally bad, therefore he’s a doubleplusungood wrongthinker whose scholarly arguments about ancient Greek history must be CAAAAAAANCELLED”

            The point is that by Hanson’s own explicit and proud admission, his thesis about ancient Greek warfare and agriculture is tied to his incorrect and heavily-mythologized (and also, incidentally, morally bad) ideological perspective about the nature of US/“Western” society, a kind of vulgar Turnerism that severely exaggerates the role of hardy self-reliant pioneers boldly taming the wild frontier before settling down to personally cultivate their small individual homesteads, while severely minimizing the role of large farmowners and land speculators whose vast estates have been cultivated by disempowered masses of tenant farmers, sharecroppers, indentured servants, migrant farmworkers, and slaves. In turn, this connection implies an obvious hypothesis as to why Hanson’s scholarly theories about ancient Greece — which similarly exaggerate the importance of small-scale landowning farmers with a virtuous work ethic derived from cultivating their land with their own two hands, and similarly minimize the importance of elite large-scale farmowners like the spartiates who actively shunned hard work in favor of a reliance on slave labor — have held such sway until relatively recently, because the abovementioned ideological views about US/“Western” society have also held sway until relatively recently, and it’s easy to see why an ethnocentric nationalist project attached to such self-aggrandizing myths would want to see itself as the bearer of a uniquely indispensable civilizational heritage handed down from the ancients like stone tablets from Mount Sinai.

            All of this would be made much clearer by listening to that Konijnendijk interview, which lays it out much better than a few blog comments can reasonably manage.

          6. Anyone who describes Hobsbawm’s and Sartre’s full-throated defense of Stalinism as “insufficiently vehement Cold Warriors” is not worth taking seriously. As Bret said, I don’t have discussions with tankies.

          7. Seems like repeatedly mashing the “crude strawman” button is easier than putting on our thinking caps… ah well, c’est la vie sur l’internet.

          8. I thought it was a bunch of words to say “Hanson is wrong because he’s factually wrong, but his fantasies about Greek civilization are what motivated him to be wrong.”

          9. I’ve read a lot of Hobsbawm, and he wasn’t a “Stalinist”. He was upfront about Stalin’s atrocities and he supported communism and the Soviet Union in spite of Stalin, not because of him.

  10. This is a useful retrospective, and nice to see the historiography being laid out in more detail. If the series is now being revisited, one slight deficit which I think could usefully be addressed is the question of how the Spartans got their undeserved reputation for military excellence. Article VI more or less lays it all the feet of Herodotus, which I’m not sure I find entirely convincing. Plainly, Herodotus was influential even in his own time, but he wasn’t the only surviving source for large chunks of knowledge about Sparta like he is now. It strains credibility that the whole of Greece could have been gobsmacked by the surrender at Sphacteria purely because they’d been hoodwinked by one historian’s bad take, which somehow overrode the extensive personal experience of fighting alongside or against Spartans shared by many thousands of Greeks. To be fair, the article also gives some credit to Sparta’s own wartime propaganda efforts, but it’s still something of a puzzle how they created such a successful and enduring image for themselves, given that (as article VII notes) their entire social structure predisposed them to be comically inept at diplomacy and soft power projection.

    All of this is why I wish there had perhaps been a little more coverage of how the myth was manufactured; and if older scholarship is indeed worth defending, it might be nice to have a bit more discussion of Ollier, since surely if one is going to set about debunking the ‘mirage Spartiate’, it makes sense to at least acknowledge the pioneers of that enterprise. However, I’m aware it was already a long series and is only getting even less laconic now, so perhaps it’s an unreasonable demand of mine.

    1. I’d also be interested in Bret (or pointers from Bret to scholarship) explaining, well, what the hell happened to Sparta. Was it really just “they conquered Messene, enslaved everybody, and then gradually restructured their society ever more and more totalitarian to keep their huge helot population down”? Or are there other ideas? And how’d they conquer Messene given all their problems with maintaining conquests anyways?

      1. I think that’s where the Hodgkinsonite camp is useful: Basically Sparta wasn’t *that* extreme in greek terms, but rather one end of the spectrum of “normal” greek states. And exerting power over a neighbouring city within two day’s march isn’t *that* difficult, even for a state as primitive as Sparta.

        Big reminder: Greece is isn’t that big (though it’s rough terrain) and the spartan domain was only a fraction of Greece.

    2. As to your first paragraph, it’s really pretty simple: For a while, the Spartans were actually pretty good at battle. If you take the entire list of battles our gracious host gives in this post:, the list can be very easily broken into three distinct eras:
      1. Pre-Peloponnesian wars (9 battles, 1 defeat, 2 draws, 6 victories)
      2. The Peloponnesian Wars (16 battles, 7 defeats, 9 victories)
      3. Post-Peloponnesian Wars (13 battles, 9 defeats, 1 draw, 3 victories)

      The disparity there should be obvious–Sparta’s record before the Peloponnesian Wars is fantastic, during the Peloponnesian Wars is so-so, and after the Peloponnesian Wars is utterly miserable. Herodotus is writing during the Peloponnesian Wars, and early on at that, so he’s writing at a time where the win/loss record indicates that the Spartans are doing something better than everyone else is, and I suspect his view colors that of most of the historians following him–sort of like how, in the early 2000s, certain people thought Notre Dame was still all that and a bag of chips due to memories of the Vince Lombardi era, despite them losing just about every time they faced an SEC team.

      Now, guys like Xenophon and Plutarch, who are writing after Sparta gets kicked around by Thebes, have much less of an excuse, but our host covered them in some of the other posts of that series.

      1. The pre-Peloponnesian period of that list isn’t exactly “fantastic”. Most of the victories in that period are pan-Helenistic coalitions against Persia. If you exclude those you have two very unglorious victories and a defeat. Sepeia is notable for Spartan treachery and the courage of the Argive women making the Spartan victory fruitless.
        The victory over Tegea comes after centuries of failure to subjugate their smaller neighbors and leads to the Spartans making the Tegeans their military vanguard. Ironically, Thermopylae is the only battle from the period one could imagine hearing about and thinking “Yeah, those Spartans sure are fierce”.

        1. That dog won’t hunt. First, if you’re going to delete the victories because they were as part of a coalition, you have to delete the defeat as well, since that happened as part of a coalition.

          Second, given that, just to give one example, the Spartans made up most of the Greek force that was actually engaged at Plataea and were the ones who slew the Persian general Mardonius, I’m rather less than convinced that Thermopylae is the only battle where you could say “Yeah, those Spartans sure are fierce.”

    3. In his seventh post, Devereaux has a section titled “Sparta After the Credits”, in which he explains that “Sparta became a theme-park” that lasted for multiple centuries, peddling the Spartan myth to rich Roman tourists. I imagine that went a long way towards solidifying the myth in the historiography.

      1. Unless the Athenians based their Peloponnesian War strategy on a theme-park version of Sparta that wouldn’t exist for another three hundred years, I highly doubt that’s the reason.

    4. I would note that Sparta had a couple of really good defenders: Xenophon, Plato and Herodotus. She was the model state of the panhellene oligarchic party, just like Pericles’s Athens was the model of democracy. Anyone who hated democracy looked to Sparta as their model state. (Parallels to modern age are obvious.) They might not really want to copy the Spartan system totally, but they thought it had good points, like the ephors and the silent assembly. So, they wrote admiringly about its superior moral qualities.

      It is a bit like people who admire SS today for its (mostly nonexistent) “military prowess”. They might not want to commit holocaust, but they would be fine with an oligarchic authoritarian government supported by an army of violent white thugs. BTW, these are usually also the people admiring Sparta.

  11. “Sparta Is Terrible and You Are Terrible for Liking Sparta.”

    If you could get this course started at Michigan State, that would be perfect.

      1. There aren’t many universities whose mascot is The Byzantines, though. Occasionally there is a Legionnaire. I also don’t understand the popularity of The Trojans, unless it’s a combination of Aeneid and not wanting to explain Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Lesser Ajax and Achilles as people to emulate to your freshmen.

        1. The Trojans have the advantage of evoking that ancient mythological archetype of strength, resolve, and heroism, without nailing you down any too closely to any specific examples or real world historical precedents.

          Note, for instance, that when Vergil wanted to write a Homer fanfic tying the origins of Rome back to the Trojan War, he didn’t portray the progenitor of the Romans as being, say, a Spartan, Athenian, Corinthian, or Rhodesian. All of those cities were well known real Greek city-states, and having the progenitor of the Romans be from any one of those cities would carry various different political implications, depending on which one he chose.

          Instead, he chose to have the pre-founding of Rome* be done by a refugee from Troy, the city-state that no longer existed and no relevant associations with the material politics and purely mundane history of the world he lived in.

          (since Romulus and Remus’ role is not rejected by Vergil, merely prequeled)

          1. The supposed Trojan origin of Rome had been accepted since at least the third century BC, when Pyrrhus claimed to be taking care of Achilles’ unfinished business by fighting the Romans. Virgil didn’t “choose” to make Aeneas a Trojan, he was following a well-known Roman foundation myth.

          2. Even in France, the popularity of the Matter of France sank during the Middle Ages, and that of the Matter of Britain rose. There were many reasons; for instance, everyone agreed that the Matter of Britain was preeminent in love, and ladies tended to like it.

            However, one was that many people were actually descended from characters in the Matter of France, and others claimed to be descended from (real or fictional) characters. While King Alfred can casually cite that no one is descended from King Arthur as a proverb. So the tales from the Matter of Britain didn’t come preloaded with politics.

            To give another example.

          3. The Italic peoples had a clear influx of culture from Asia Minor around the time that Troy fell. This is clearly visible in the archeological record: for example, the liver models used by the Etruscans for recording haruspices are almost exactly the same as those found in Asia Minor. So, it makes sense to assume that the Aeneid myth has some historical basis. Of course, Aeneid itself is about as close to history as Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”.

            And Troy is not fictional. It is an actual city, found by Schliemann.

          4. It is not generally accepted that we can identify material culture influences from Asia Minor in Italy in the last second millennium. While there are both Etruscan and Near Eastern (Hittite, inter alia) liver models used for haruspicy, they’re not ‘almost exactly the same’ except that, of course they are both models of the livers of animals.

            Troy was a real place, the occurrence of a ‘Trojan war’ is debatable (but didn’t resemble the narrative in Homer in any event), Aeneas appears to have been made up.

          5. IIRC, Aenas and him having some kind of great destiny is actually in the Illiad, but they conveniently leave out what that is, so the romans just adopted him, since no one else seemed to be using him. (there’s the potential that he was assumed to be the founder/forebear of some other city or people somewhere during the composition of the Illiad, that the author just assumed everyone was familiar with, but who we lost the context for)

      2. Yes. And the lesson you should probably take is that you should take past societies as they are, and not seek to make them into models for the present.

  12. I think it was a good idea to write a retrospective on the series, especially since it has garnered a bit of criticism from our dear Roel Konijnendijk and others. I still would like to read a bit more about the other state-enslaved classes of Greek poleis to be entirely convinced that helots were exceptional in this regard. Especially in Syracuse and Byzantium it seems somewhat like colonialism with the native population having helotlike status

    1. Every ancient source that talks about the helots talks about how exceptionally cruel their condition is. How much more evidence do you need?

  13. I think it was would be great to do more discussions on the ancient persons these groups tend to admire, I have also seen “worship” of Marcus Aurelius and Aurelian among “Romaboos”

    1. I can understand someone admiring Marcus Aurelius. He is not a bad philosopher, and our current world is so unhappy a place, and with so little hope for better that stoicism is attractive. I have seen wise, well-educated and liberal-minded people talking seriously of the great precepts of stoicism as the rational way towards personal happiness and dignity. Personally, I go all the way in the philosophies of Late Antiquity, being Christian.

      1. I find Marcus Aurelius and Aurelian tend to attract very different types of Romeaboos in general.

  14. “this ancient system of enforcing obedience (there isn’t much training in arms in many of these child indoctrination systems either, by the by)” By design I would think; you don’t trust involuntary conscripts with weapons until _after_ any disobedience has been broken and their indoctrination complete.

  15. Come to think of it, do we have any good scholarship on the origins on the Spartan system, or is it just too murky? It is such an unusual concentration of power. Plus Spartans more or less completely failed to extend helotry outside their immediate neighborhood makes me wonder how they got this started at all. I vaguely understand the Spartans reported they invaded from elsewhere but there’s very thin evidence for it.

    Being focused on the American Civil War I see similarities to Spartans to the Antebellum slave-owning class. The not-too-distinct treatment of slaves is a rather obvious point of comparison. But Spartiate sense of complete social dominance also reflects how slaveowners often dominated, or tried to dominate, the everyday people nearby. And white men or women who stepped “out of line” could face violent reprisal without recourse to common justice, similar to the true citizen/free/slave differentiation common in the ancient world.

    1. The big difference to me always seemed to be one of the economy: The Antebellum south was an export-driven commodity producing economy, producing cash froms for sale on the world market. I’m not sure to which degree this was true in Sparta, or if it was more of a “The enslaved workers produce goods to be consumed locally by the upper class”

  16. I just want to thank you once again for… all of this. As a total layperson, about 99% of what I (think I) know about history comes from 1) Wikipedia and 2) ACOUP. Your ability to accessibly explain not just the material, but the historiography behind it, is nothing short of amazing to me.

  17. I think with the Athenians, the thing to point out would be that they didn’t just disenfranchise women – they basically pushed them out of public life to Taliban-esque levels. “Respectable” Athenian women did not go outside the home unaccompanied and unveiled when not absolutely necessary – that was for sex workers and enslaved women.

    1. It’s difficult to tell how restrictive that actually was: There’s clearly *some* degree of restriction but it’s not clear how they’re talking about how things *should* be rather than how they actually were, there’s a couple of examples of women showing up doing various chores, going to religious ceremonies, etc.

      It’s fair to say that Greek society was in general worse for women’s rights than roman society, but it’s a bit unclear both if Athens was an outlier, and exactly how complete it was.

      Our problem with Athenian sources is that even more than usually it’s mostly just like five rich guys who all hang at the same parties.

      1. Well consider this. Aristotle is considered a great thinker and he got away with saying that women are deformities without reason and just failed men who are only a shade better than slaves.

        1. I think that for most of the past two centuries, any college professor could have gotten away with saying that. Even very recently one could say that in slightly more clinical language and still be considered a great thinker; just look at how long Lawrence Summer’s reputation survived.

          1. Given that Summers didn’t actually say that in more clinical terms, but something radically different, that’s not exactly great evidence for your point.

      2. Well, we have a prosecution speech where a man states that the man he is prosecuting tried to break into the women’s quarters in his house, to the terror of his female relatives who were unused even to the sight of their male relatives.

        Notice that the man thinks that this will be sympathetic, and therefore necessarily plausible.

    2. I’m not sure about the whole “out of public life”: afaik there were plenty of religious festivals that were reserved for women, so it was more of a case of pushed into a completely different public (and private) life than the one where the men acted (and all of our sources are concerned with the latter).

      The public sphere of men probably had more of an influence on the lifes of women than the reverse, which is obviously problematic and prone to abuse, however.

      1. Eh, one prosecution speech we have tells the jurors they should vote to convict or their wives will hate them.

        It’s very hard to measure informal power even though we know it can force kings to not do things the law explicitly says they can.

        1. I think it was Themistocles who said his toddler son actually ruled Athens. His son ruled his mother; his wife, the mother of his son, ruled Themistocles; and of course Themistocles technically governed Athens.

    3. That was certainly the Masculine Greek ideal. Aristophanes’ comedies however clearly display male insecurity over their control of their women.

  18. Great article as always. I just have one question: how internationalized/insular are these kinds of debates and historiography in general? You seem to have mainly referred to works written by scholars from the English speaking world, but I imagine there are many relevant works about Spartan society produced by, for example, Greek or Russian academics. Or is every respectable historian publishing in English nowadays?

    1. I do not know much about this debate in particular, other than what Bret and Roel Konijnendijk have written online, but I think it is relatively common for a theory to be proposed in one language and then spread to others. When it comes to ancient history I think German and French are the most important research languages besides English. “Continental” scholars rather often write in English to nowadays, but especially if they are Francophone of German-speaking (Teutonophone?) they might work mainly in their native language. For instance Bret has previously recommended Le Miroir d’Herodote and discussed it as an important work, and I also looked up Mogens Herman Hansen (guessing him to be a Dane based on his name, correctly), and he has apparently written one work in Danish, a lot in English and one in German

    2. It depends a bit on the specific field but, unless they live and work abroad, scholars from France, Germany, Italy or Spain usually write in their own mother tongue (except for articles published in foreign journals), whereas it’s far more common to write books directly in English for academics born in the smaller European countries such as Benelux, Scandinavia, etc.

    3. Greece is a relatively small country, and it may well be that Greek scholars studying the history of ancient Sparta are simply outnumbered by “everywhere else” scholars studying the same thing. That wouldn’t make their contributions irrelevant, but it would tend to impact the relative volumes. And it would also incentivize them not to publish in Greek, or not only in Greek.

      Russia hasn’t had a lot of money to spare for high quality humanities studies in the past few decades, I’m guessing. Oligarchs would only spend money on it for prestige, and the prestige goal is frankly better served by hacks than by serious academics. And in the Soviet era the atmosphere for doing studies on the humanities was… well, kind of stifling unless you were a sufficiently orthodox Marxist-Leninist.

      1. Actually, I’ve recently heard in an interview with Russian diplomat and foreign policy expert Alexander Baunov (who studied classical philology at Moscow State University) that Soviet classical studies were on a very high level and attracted excellent academics. The field was one of the few in humanities which wasn’t politically controversial, so it was possible to produce original thought unencumbered by Marxist orthodoxy.

        As for Greece, I presumed that the close linguistic and, to a limited degree, cultural connection might produce at least a few internationally influential experts.

      2. “Russia hasn’t had a lot of money to spare for high quality humanities studies in the past few decades, I’m guessing. Oligarchs would only spend money on it for prestige, and the prestige goal is frankly better served by hacks than by serious academics. And in the Soviet era the atmosphere for doing studies on the humanities was… well, kind of stifling unless you were a sufficiently orthodox Marxist-Leninist”

        I agree with the first part of this comment- the Putin regime has tragically underfunded universities and other intellectual pursuits, and Russia’s intellectual establishment has still not recovered from the collapse in the 1990s. I strongly disagree with the second part. Every scholar, whether they’re working in a “free” country or an unfree one, has social, cultural, economic and political pressures shaping the way they think, and every scholar has preconceptions and values that shape the way they interpret other societies, their own, and the past. Some societies and some historical eras are tougher about how they impose those constraints than others, but all of us (including me) are operating under some degree of constraint that limits what we can say, whether we live in a communist country or not. Isaac Newton, after all, had to keep quiet about his religious views his whole life, or he would have been fired: that didn’t stop him from being one of the most prolific and groundbreaking scientists and mathematicians in world history.

        I think we can learn a ton by reading scholars who *don’t* share the baseline assumptions of our own society, who value different things and have different ways of viewing the world, and who view the past through a different set of lenses than our own. That goes for Communist scholars during the Cold War era, but also scholars who are working in a nationalist tradition, or an Islamic one, or whatever else. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their conclusions, but I think reading what communist historians (or for that matter late medieval Islamic scholars) had to say about ancient Greece would be a valuable complement to reading historians from the Anglo-American world. In this case particularly: I think there are lots of situations where Marxist analysis works terribly and lots of situations where it’s just inappropriate to apply it (say, studying clan-based horticultural societies in the mountains of Northeast India or New Guinea), but an *extreme* slave society like Sparta seems like it’s exactly the kind of situation where thinking about things through the lens of class struggle might make a lot of sense.

  19. Your essay series is fantastic and I’ve linked it to people many times, but there one thing I’ve always wondered that it doesn’t address…  how and why did such a uniquely awful society arise in the first place?

    I have no doubt that the absolute nullity of sources would limit you to nothing more or less than wild speculation (surely why it isn’t in the essays) but I’d like to invite you to do exactly that (it’s just a comment go wild)!

    1. See the other comment I made about this, but in brief: ordinarily it’s considered a truism that a 2/3 or 3/4 majority is sufficient to guarantee victory in a civil war. The only way a minority can subdue an overwhelming majority is by the most brutal of suppression tactics. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question of which comes first, the minority rule or the brutality, but they do seem to be linked. As I said earlier, look at 18th century Haiti for a modern example. Or for a somewhat less ghastly example, apartheid-era South Africa.

    1. My Mum loves period detective novels, and likes to say – I think she is quoting someone – that they are a wonderful source for historians. The reason given is that they tend to mention people’s ordinary habits and practices, because it is commonly some small detail or departure from these that clues the detective in on whodunnit.

  20. “a developmental timeline that renders confusing at best the Italian evidence”

    I’m not entirely clear what you mean here. How does the idea that the close ordered form of combat only took off in Greece c.500 BCE not match up with the Italian evidence?

      1. That’s the thing: we don’t have any evidence for it. The only written evidence comes many centuries later and seems to be describing a Macedonian/Hellenistic pike phalanx as the original method of Roman fighting.

        The Illyrians were perfectly able to fight in the proposed Archaic Greek style (Thuc. 4.124-127) – which is also supported by Archaic poetry, I should add – even with large round shields, so we know that the equipment worn by earlier hoplites, whether Greek or Etruscan or Roman, doesn’t force a particular kind of fighting style.

        Etruscan art, moreover, frequently shows heavy infantry with two spears in the Archaic Greek style, even into the 4th century BCE. It also shows the oblong/rectangular shields in use prior to the 5th century BCE, so these weren’t any kind of innovation.

        The archaeological evidence, combined with re-evaluations of Archaic Greek poetry using comparative ethnography, suggests that the Roman fighting style in the mid-Republic was a development only in that it structured and formalised a method of fighting that was common across Central Europe and the Western Mediterranean well back into the 8th or 9th centuries.

        The development of Greek close order fighting more probably was the result of contact with Mesopotamian societies and the experiences of the Greek and Anatolian mercenaries who served in those armies.

  21. Off topic, but I’m wondering if you might do a post at some point comparing the Roman heavy infantry system with other systems which seemed to usually be based on spears. You’ve mentioned that for most pre-modern combat the sword was a backup weapon–I’m curious of how Rome was such a successful exception.

    1. The sneaky bit here is that heavy infantry systems in the ancient world are mostly based on shields.

    2. Maybe I’m just speaking from ignorance but I think this has a very straightforward answer. Good swords are expensive and not everybody had the knowledge to make swords good for both thrusting and stabbing. So spears were used by most people, including the Romans. Then the Romans learned Spanish sword techniques and started equipping all their soldiers at state expense so it made sense for them to make swords the standard weapon.

      1. I presume you mean “the same sort of sword techniques that centuries later the Spanish would use to fight pike squares”. 🙂

        1. Eh, not really. We know very little (if next to nothing) about Spanish fencing before the late XVIth century, the so-called “esgrima vulgar/comùn; meanwhile the fencing that became common in those years, the Verdadera Destreza, is a very sophisticated system of Italian origin with a strong philosophical and geometrical bent, but utterly unsuited to the battlefield.
          More generally speaking, fencing styles and weapons of the XVIth century and onward do not really have anything in common with the “gladius & scutum” combo of the ancient Romans nor with fighting in any kind of formation, as neither are discussed in the fencing treatises of the period. Though, to be honest, they don’t even illustrate the “side-sword & round-shield” fighting adopted by Spanish rodeleros against pike formations (partial exception must be made for Achille Marozzo, who teaches three techniques against a lone opponent armed with hafted weapons).

          1. I was specifically thinking of the rodeleros (didn’t know the term), not “fencing” or any other sort of personal combat sword technique.

        2. *Millenia later. Spanish fencers wouldn’t face pike squares until the 16th Century, and Roman conquest of Spain was begun around 200 BCE and finished by 0 CE. I am highly suspect that any tradition of fencing or swordfighting remained meaningfully intact for 1600 – 1800 years.

      2. The Romans adopted the pilum + gladius combo sometime in the fourth century, IIRC, and didn’t see serious action in Spain until the Second Punic War, so I’m not sure the timeline really makes sense.

        1. “The Romans adopted the pilum + gladius combo sometime in the fourth century, IIRC”

          Do you mean the triple acies legions? Two thirds would be hastati/triarii/velites. That was what I was thinking about when I said the romans were using spears like everyone else.

  22. If true Spartans would hold us in contempt, maybe that says something more about our modern society and lifestyle than it does about the Spartans. Just something to think about.

    1. I did think about it. I thought about it while I actually read all of the ancient sources and while I taught university courses on Greek history and while writing 45,000 words about Sparta.

      I may suggest that I have probably thought about it rather more than most. And no. It says more about the Spartans and their garbage society.

      And to be clear, they don’t despise ‘our modern society.’ The Spartans despised anyone who wasn’t born rich enough to never have to work.

    2. I find interesting that your nickname is an ungrammatical latin sentence and not a greek one: for someone who clearly admires the Spartans, one would think that’s the minimum.

    3. Well I mean that is true in the sense that our modern society and the society of Sparta have such different values that conflict would be inevitable if you brought the nobility of Sparta into the modern day given they would hate that the “common people” now have a voice in politics and other such differences. Tbh I suspect that the helots of Sparta(aka: the majority of its population) would find modern values much more agreeable if you could bring one of them into the modern day, given that those values would lead to them not being treated as they were in Sparta (at least in comparison to the nobility anyway I imagine they would find our society alien as well)

    4. The “true Spartans” in your comment would presumably be the spartiates? So 10-15% of the population, then. I wager if you grabbed the *average* Spartan, which is likely a helot, and brought them to the modern world they’d love it.

  23. Kudos!


    the series ails

    our sources envisage was plausible — ‘implausible’, in context

    I think we are largely stuck both with what Xenophon (a contemporary positive observer) tells us about the system.

  24. It would be instructive to examine why so many contemporaries admired Sparta, and why there are complimentary aphorisms and poems about the Spartans. and their virtues (go ahead and cough), the stability of their government (at least to a degree). They couldn’t have been the monsters described by modern critics (well, not all of them, not all the time, and perhaps especially not in the earlier centuries, when they were an expanding state and the arts were still flourishing). Pindar even wrote some nice things about them. They were admired for the beauty of the women (if scandalous to other Greeks), their dance and music, their Olympic achievements — it wasn’t all military muscle flexing. Apart from our modern tendency to focus on what we see as unforgivable (chattel slavery, oppression of women), I see an alien society that was innately conservative and rigid to the point of collapse. All the worst tendencies of Sparta were amplified as time marched on and left the city behind. One could say the same about the USA today.

    1. What people admired – and particularly what the aristocrats who wrote most of our sources admired – may well not be admirable to us (or indeed to the many unvoiced of their own societies). Brutal conquest, successful raiding, a readiness to violence and a mind to revenge are all admirable traits to past warrior elites (Spartans, Vikings, medieval European nobles…).

    2. How is the fact that ancient aristocrats (who themselves had few or no problems with doing some very bad things) admired the spartiates (who mostly did similar bad things, only more forcefully) proof that the spartiates “couldn’t have been that bad?”

      While we’re at it, I have a problem with the phrasing “the monsters described by modern critics.” That phrasing is often used, I’ve seen it many times. It is a sort of reverse-demonization. Accuse your opponent of calling you (or your friend) a demon, so that they look like a simple-minded bully for crticizing you (or your friend).

      No one called the spartiates ‘demons’ or ‘monsters.’ They were human. They were very much human, and anything bad that they did, they did for human reasons. It’s just that some of the things humans do, really aren’t things humans should be proud of doing.

    3. Spartans exemplified (in an extreme sort of way) the ideals of greek aristocrats. They were that lifestyle taken to it’s logical conclusion, unfettered by political constraints or the neccessities to give concessions to the unwashed masses. (or at least, so other greeks thought) Of course other greek aristocrats admired them, They wished they could just kill, maim, rape and murder those who slighted them (which they could still get away with, but often had to at least present a fig-leaf of justification)

      1. Of course other greek aristocrats admired them, They wished they could just kill, maim, rape and murder those who slighted them (which they could still get away with, but often had to at least present a fig-leaf of justification)

        Except for the bit where Xenophon completely skirts round the issue of the Helots, or where Plutarch argues that the oppression of Helots must have begun later since a great statesman like Lycurgus would never have countenanced such cruelty. Ancient Laconophiles weren’t a bunch of psycopaths who enjoyed the idea of killing people; they admired the Spartans for their bravery, wit, leisured lifestyle, and political stability, not for their treatment of the Helots.

        1. Similar to how the Lost Causers liked to talk about genteel southern society and valiant southern generals and not so much about whipping people to death.

          1. Pretty much, yeah. And just like most Lost Causers don’t actually wish they could whip people to death, I suspect most ancient Sparta fans didn’t wish they could go around murdering the lower classes.

          2. The whippings are so tightly bound up in the nature of the society that I do not think they can be meaningfully separated.

            The sleeping demon of “I wish I had a bunch of slaves who would do all the work in my life so I could cultivate manly virtues” is rarely acknowledged, but it’s built right into either the Antebellum South or into Sparta. There simply isn’t anything there if you refuse to lionize the slavery and the way it permitted the aggrandizement of aristocrats.

          3. Good things can come out of evil. The doesn’t make the evil good, but it doesn’t make the good things evil, either.

          4. What are the good things that come out of Sparta, again? What great work of art or science or philosophy? If a society produces nothing but evil and human misery, then what is the purpose of defending it?

          5. “If a society produces nothing but evil and human misery, then what is the purpose of defending it?”
            A question one might put to the leadership of North Korea. In a _1984_-esque sense, it almost seems like the admiration of brutality becomes its own reward: “We’re the Tough Guys, and everyone else are decadents”.

    4. Most non-Spartan observers would have interacted much more with actual Spartiates than with Helots, so naturally the Spartiates’ personal qualities and lifestyle would have loomed larger in their minds than the plight of the Helots. It’s kind of like an ancient Greek equivalent of someone nowadays reading about the personal lives of Southern planters, thinking how chivalrous and gentlemanly they all seem, and forgetting that Southern society was based on a particularly oppressive form of slavery.

      1. I read about the lives of Southern planters and think what idiots they were, and how awful it was living debt and constant fear of their slaves

  25. I mean, undergraduate me got Sparta from Herodotus and (mostly) Thucydides, so my impression was basically that they were dangerous idiots.

  26. A very minor point, but he’s ‘Stephen’ Hodkinson, not ‘Steven’. Also, if you haven’t read it, I recommend the conversation between him and writer Kieron Gillen in Gillen’s graphic novel Three, which has quite a bit about Helots, though without scholarly apparatus.

  27. I’m afraid I found that article really hard to grok; I think there are undertones that I’m missing.

    What are “Sparta bros”?

    Is this article really about contemporary US politics? If so, it’s *really* well disguised.

    1. Sparta bros are a specific subculture found in multiple Western countries (but since we are having this conversation in English, the US tends to be a go-to example).

      “Sparta bros” are, quite simply, individuals who present Sparta as an example of superior ancient virtue that should be emulated in the modern day, based on their belief that the Spartan way of life was particularly [i]manly[/i]. That the Spartans had the trait Latin calls ‘virile’ (literally ‘manly’ but also ‘robust’ or ‘stout’ or ‘brave’ or ‘warlike’). And that modern society is insufficiently ‘virile’ and needs to make itself more like the ‘virile’ Spartans.

      There are a lot of different ways that this idea expresses itself. Not everyone who thinks this way zeroes in on Sparta as their example. The people doing the talking may have different views or do or advocate different things in detail.

      But this remains an article about ancient history and modern perceptions about ancient history. It is only relevant to modern US politics insofar as the Sparta bros, not the author pursue a consistent political agenda fueled by Sparta-fanship.

  28. I haven’t been keeping up with all the posts, but here are a few instances I noticed, where you might want to address a copyediting concern:

    extrapolate out the necessary conclusions > extrapolate the necessary [delete redundant out]
    series ails to take into account shifting scholarly > [besides the typo for the word fails, there seems to be something missing or misstated here?]
    scholarship it is not bad thing > not a bad thing
    that is was exceptionally equal > that wasexceptionally
    every once and a while > every once in a while
    and here I don’t think my interlocutors here. [eliminate one instance of here?]
    is primary a question > is primarily a question
    stuck both with what Xenophon > [both Xenophon and what?]

  29. Early on in the series you said students identify with the literate aristocrats and start thinking the uneducated mob wasn’t fit to rule. With the resources available at the time was mass education possible and what would it have looked like?

  30. I know what the pundit who must not be named has done (it must be weird to live in a subculture where there are more Marxists than Republicans, but that’s for another day), but does anyone know what Everett Wheeler has done such that his ideas must be canceled?

    1. I’d like to know what the problem with Wheeler is too. But when it comes to Marxists you can find a surprising amount of them, especially elderly, even in parts of Western Europe

      1. The same Wheeler who organized against womens (and especially black womens) voting rights, or somebody else?

          1. I love how conservatives swing around terms like “cancel culture.” When I was growing up I was taught that if I didn’t like a person I shouldn’t spent time around them, if I didn’t like a business I shouldn’t spend money there, and if I didn’t like a movie I shouldn’t watch it. Now I do that and suddenly I’m part of some mass movement. Why should I spend time on someone I find personally odious?

          2. @ey81: is that meant as some kind of answer to my comment. What does the father in law of Caesar to do with My question about the identity of a mr Wheeler mentioned earlier? Note that I am not American, so there might be something going on here that I don’t understand (but then please enlighten me).

          3. I love how conservatives swing around terms like “cancel culture.” When I was growing up I was taught that if I didn’t like a person I shouldn’t spent time around them, if I didn’t like a business I shouldn’t spend money there, and if I didn’t like a movie I shouldn’t watch it. Now I do that and suddenly I’m part of some mass movement. Why should I spend time on someone I find personally odious?

            The objectionable part of cancel culture isn’t the bit where people decide not to associate people they don’t like, it’s the bit where they try to stop anyone else associating with them, either.

          4. “The objectionable part of cancel culture isn’t the bit where people decide not to associate people they don’t like, it’s the bit where they try to stop anyone else associating with them, either.”

            So you object to the founding of the United States of America? The first Continental Congress, literally the very first collective action by the colonies, was about organizing a boycott. Then, as now, people were outraged at the notion that public backlash would be organized. Then, as now, people denounced those organizing the backlash and cheered violence against them. So you seem to think that the boycott was objectionable and the Tories were right? God save King George? Or is it only when people you disagree with are doing it that it’s bad?

          5. “Hmm, so you think elected governments are allowed to do things private citizens aren’t, interesting”

          6. “Hmm, so you think elected governments are allowed to do things private citizens aren’t, interesting”

            Wait… Isn’t it usually the other way around. I thought most conceptions of liberty held that a government should be more constrained that private citizens. Violence is the main exception, but we’re talking about the non-violent right to associate, or not.

          7. Wait… Isn’t it usually the other way around. I thought most conceptions of liberty held that a government should be more constrained that private citizens.

            No? There are plenty of conceptions of liberty, not all of which have much to say about the precise delineation of government power. Even those that do, don’t generally accept such shallow reasoning as “Well, this government did X, therefore it must be OK for private citizens to do X as well.”

            Violence is the main exception, but we’re talking about the non-violent right to associate, or not.

            As a point of information, the US hasn’t had the non-violent right to associate since at least the Civil Rights acts of the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe you think it should have the right, but if so, be careful who you say it to, else you’ll likely get cancelled by the sort of people who say that cancel culture doesn’t exist.

            More fundamentally, most forms of liberalism say that you don’t have a right to deprive other people of their rights. So even if people have a right to freedom of association *in general*, this doesn’t cover actions taken to deny other people’s right to freedom of speech.

          8. Michael Gustavson: It’s a joke, a reference to characters and events in the Shakespearean play “Julius Caesar.” I don’t even know if the episode in the play involving two different men named “Cinna” is historical.

      2. There are a substantial number of people (in some countries a majority) in Eastern Europe, particularly in the former Soviet Union, who if you ask them will say they prefer an economy based on “state planning” than one based on “free markets”. Although that’s a very different thing than “Marxism” in the philosophical sense, and one doesn’t have to imply the other. As you note this tends to be more common among elderly people.

  31. The Sparta described by Xenophon and other ancient fans is profoundly horrible and dysfunctional by any rational standard. But it supposedly had features that said thinkers admired: state run education for children, or at least boys, and Dining clubs or messes for men. Greek writers have a tendency to project these institutions on any unfamiliar society, such as Persia and Carthage, where they certainly didn’t exist. Which makes me wonder if they existed in Sparta either.

    1. It seems to me that the article covers this, and has been discussed in previous articles as well. Deciding whether someone/something existed, or something happened, is what historians do. Often we can’t be certain, only more or less confident. See the paragraphs about “colorable” arguments. (And there is stuff we will just never know.)

      Sparta is geographically, culturally, and especially linguistically much closer to the rest of Greece than either Persia or Carthage. So much more likely that a source is writing based on what they actually heard, read, or saw themselves than just making stuff up. We also have multiple different sources, some more ‘pro’ Sparta than others, which as discussed in the previous post about Julius Ceasar makes it less likely that all the sources are repeating some official view.

      If a source writes that “Sparta had feature C” and we know that other sources agree with them about features A and B, and/or archeology has confirmed that the source was correct about A and B, then we can be more confident about C.

      And our pedantic historian host is very good about providing primary and secondary references, both here and in previous articles. You could investigate yourself.

      1. I’ve read the primary sources, in translation that is. Ideal constitutions sch as those proposed by Plato are extremely statist ver family centric this is also the claim for Sparta. I just wonder which came first – are the philosophers using Sparta as a model or are they projecting again as with other examples. As Bret points out in the original series Plutarch’s claims of equality between Spartiates and iron money are fantasy, so maybe the agoge and public messes were too? I just wonder how much of the Mirage is air.

  32. @Michael Alan Hutson

    I was specifically thinking of the rodeleros (didn’t know the term), not “fencing” or any other sort of personal combat sword technique.

    Well, almost any kind of sword (or other weapons) technique actually involves personal combat almost by definition since, martial arts movies nothwithstanding, one can only attack and/or defend against one opponent at a time.
    But, regardless of these technicalities, I’d think it’s obvious that Roman legionaries and Spanish rodeleros used very different weapons, which require different techniques/moves/skills/etc.

    P.S. just to clarify, “fencing” doesn’t mean “1v1 combat”, but more generically the art/science of fighting with hand-weapons. Etymologically derives from “fence” (duh !), itself derived from the Latin defensus, but assumed this specific meaning only in the late XVIth century, supposedly under the influence of the Italian word scherma, which comes from a Germanic root meaning “defence, protection”.
    I apologize for the digression.

  33. “Sparta Is Terrible and You Are Terrible for Liking Sparta.”

    This is why despite your interesting digressions on orc logistics, I can’t trust anything you write on this blog. You wear your biases on your sleeve. You’re engaging in presentism which currently blights academic history as demonstrated by the president of the AHA, James Sweet, in his recent column:

    As he writes, doing history with integrity has been replaced by interpreting the past through the optics of the present. For pointing this out, he was attacked by your fellow historians and forced to issue a grovelling apology. This is why history is dying and enrollment is falling: in an attempt to push their political views into the study of history historians have undermined what made it a worthwhile discipline in the first place.

    1. “wear biases on your sleeve” — what, you’d prefer that he keep his biases secret? Or you entertain a fantasy of entirely unbiased people?

      And it is no more ‘presentist’ to say “Sparta did many bad things” than to say “Sparta is an admirable role model”.

    2. As Bret has mentioned several times, when even other slave-owning polities of the time said Sparta treated its slaves notoriously badly, that’s saying something. Couple this with the historical record indicating that the meme that Spartan brutality at least produced extra tough and hardy warriors simply isn’t true, I for one am convinced that Sparta- and even more so the _myth_ of Sparta- isn’t something to be admired or emulated.

    3. …Surely wearing his biases on his sleeve makes him more trustworthy, since you can see them?

      Also, as others have pointed out, it is equally presentist for people to go on about how wonderful Sparta was. Indeed, the column you cite closes with a rather accurate admonition that people worshipping Sparta would do well to heed.

      Yet they weren’t heeding. Hence the article series.

    4. Uck, that is disgusting that Sweet was forced to issue that sort of Maoist self-criticism. I have been thinking about going back to school to get a master’s in history, but I like to think and speak freely, and I question if that’s possible in the contemporary academy.

      1. You can say whatever you want. You just have to deal with the consequences of saying it, which might involve losing your job.

        Before you start screaming about Mao and Stalin, note that’s losing your ^job^. If we were talking about Stalinist repercussions. it would losing your ^life^.

        1. So if Mao and Stalin had just forbidden their political opponents from having jobs instead of executing them, that would be OK?

        2. Nate T: So the McCarthy era blacklist was A-OK with you? In fact, often dissidents under the Soviet and Maoist systems were punished by losing their jobs and assigned to some menialj position. And that was fine too, in your book, I guess.

          1. This is not a situation of a government agency coming down on someone for a stance they are taking. This is other people in Sweet’s field saying that they disagree with him — and enough of them saying it that he reconsidered his position. Criticism and debate between academics is the cornerstone of intellectual rigor. Are academics not allowed to criticize the position of other academics, now?

          2. This is not a situation of a government agency coming down on someone for a stance they are taking. This is other people in Sweet’s field saying that they disagree with him — and enough of them saying it that he reconsidered his position. Criticism and debate between academics is the cornerstone of intellectual rigor. Are academics not allowed to criticize the position of other academics, now?

            We all know that’s an extremely disingenuous way of describing what happened, so I don’t know whom you’re trying to fool.

    5. Like Mindstalk0 wrote, Bret is open in his political positions. That makes his academics actually more transparent and trustworthy. “Nonpolitical” humanities belong to the same realm of fantasy as Plato’s nonpolitical, wise Guardians. Being “nonpolitical” means that you don’t even allow opposing ideologies the right to discuss with you on level basis: everyone else is an ideologue, while you are upholding the Truth.

      Essentially, doing historiography is a political endeavour. Every generation reads its predecessors and its sources via the lens of the contemporary society.

      So, when you know a person’s bias, then it is easier to analyse the way they interpret the sources. I think that Bret gives here an excellent critique of the extraordinary deficiences of the Spartan society, and differentiates between sources, interpretation of those sources and moral judgements quite well, while also giving an enjoyable rhetoric presentation. This is good historiography.

      1. Yes, I don’t agree with Bret’s normative preferences in general, but I think he’s correct in his conclusions here, especially since he’s transparent about both his sources, what they say and don’t say, and his own political positions. A society that both has contempt for productive labor and holds 85% of people in slavery seems pretty singularly unappealing to me.

  34. Regarding the the agoge/modern child soldier comparison–Singer’s Children at War includes an account from the Eritrean independence war wherein a commander left his unit’s group of juvenile conscripts to hold a bridge against overwhelming odds while the rest of the force retreated. The retreat was successful, and the children appear to have all died in the defense.

  35. I’m not sure WHAT it says that you are the first person I have seen to describe helotry as a system of slavery, but it’s not good. Yet for some reason Athens has slaves, but Spartans have helots.

    I think the Spartans coast a lot on that – comparative slavery may be tricky, but if you describe Athens as “democratic, about equal parts slave and free, but slaves have some rights” and Sparta as “99% slave, and the 1% maintaining their rule through an ongoing terror campaign of rape, murder and arson” I think people would not see it as the contest of moral equals it has sometimes been presented as.

    1. I’m not sure WHAT it says that you are the first person I have seen to describe helotry as a system of slavery, but it’s not good. Yet for some reason Athens has slaves, but Spartans have helots.

      That’s just following the ancient Greek usage: Helots were called εἵλωτες, regular slaves were called δοῦλοι.

        1. They sometimes use δοῦλοι, but εἵλωτες is more common as far as I can see. Certainly it is in Herodotus, whom I’ve read cover-to-cover in Greek.

      1. It is, but I think it’s unhelpful for the layman’s understanding. The context that would be obvious to an ancient Greek is that being a helot would be worse than being a slave, which is missing from the public consciousness today. That missing piece of context, when stacked up next to the heavily charged term ‘slave’ in modern language, creates the false impression that being a helot wasn’t as bad as being a slave.

        It’s a similar issue to the ‘foraging’ series. Because historical societies use a word that has a profoundly different meaning in the modern world, the modern public interprets it that historical armies survived by picking berries from bushes and hunting game rather than the truth which is well known in learned circles.

  36. > the Google Analytics numbers would be about 10-15% lower as it is more aggressive filtering out bots, duplicate views, etc.

    And those of us with Google Container or a Pi Hole or otherwise blocking all contact with Google Analytics.

  37. “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”

    Seems a bit of cheap shot at Athens and its democracy. It was supposed to de novo produce a democracy equivalent to what modern Sweden? I mean really the enfranchisement of its male citizens was pretty sweeping and as far as I can tell with its metics also pretty open to long term foreigners settlement in way that I am not sure I see mirrored in other polis. It worth noting Jus Soli is not the norm now, and European democracies turned out not be so welcoming to recent mass Syrian or African waves of foreigners and did happily set about integrating them quickly into their societies with no or little any controversy. US record is rather pretty not to impressive on that score either. Also suggesting democratic principles were not extended to the Arche also seems a trap. The attempt would very much have been seen as harsh imperialism by the oligarchies that made up the bulk of the rules of the polis of the Arche (as I recall the oligarchs of Mytilene raised such fears according to Thucydides – that Athens will on day impose a democracy as justification for revolt). Using disenfranchisement for women for seems off. Failure to enfranchise women is more accurate as the democracy did take a way right Greek women enjoyed in general in the Greek world.

    1. It was not a ”shot” at Athens, it was an explanation of why Athens is automatically considered very morally superior to Sparta in the public mind. The point was not that Athens was bad for not having the traits of a modern European democracy, but rather that since Athens is closer to a European democracy than Sparta ever was, it’s failings are more recognizable.

        1. No, it really isn’t, Most european democracies has some kind of rules for acquiring citizenship for non-citizens. Athens explicitly did not. Not only that but athenian citizenship required both parents to be athenian citizens to be transferred to children, something that is at best very unusual among modern democracies.

    2. Whether you think “integrating large numbers of ethnic outsiders into your societies” is a good thing or a bad thing is of course going to depend on your ideals and values. If you’re a nationalist you’re going to think it’s a bad thing, and that European countries were right (more so the eastern countries than the western ones) to say no to it. And likewise, if you’re a nationalist you might see the relative openness of ancient Greece and Rome to be a bad thing rather than a good thing (a cosmopolitan would see it as a good thing).

      1. Well, according to our host, Rome was more successful when it was doing things its way, and started falling (as an empire) when it became more closed and failing to assimilate the migrant Germans.

        I suppose a nationalist might emphasize the ‘assimilate’ part, melting pot rather than “stew”.

        “relative openness of ancient Greece and Rome to be a bad thing” — this seems an odd thing to say given how different they were. 300s Athens: citizens needed two citizen parents, basically no path to citizenship, in fact rather stricter than any European or Asian nation I know of. Rome: *freed slaves* became citizens.

        1. I tend to distrust historians of whatever political stripe when they invoke ancient history in support of their views on current political issues. Having studied with Donald Kagan and Ramsey MacMullen, I’ve seen it done both ways. Bret is not more persuasive than either of the foregoing.

          1. There comes a point at which one must ask: Yes, this argument supports the author’s views. Because what kind of idiot author would see tons of evidence in the past and not be convinced?

            There’s an assumption that someone who says “the Romans were stronger for being a more diverse polity capable of assimilating foreigners and not trying to crush their identity and provoke still more rebellions” is saying this because they, I dunno, feel strongly about developed nations having open borders or something.

            What if it’s the other way around?

          2. There comes a point at which one must ask: Yes, this argument supports the author’s views. Because what kind of idiot author would see tons of evidence in the past and not be convinced?

            Rome’s practice of Romanising its conquests and incorporating them into the empire was completely different to modern-day mass immigration or diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Anybody who uses the former as evidence for the latter is likely engaged in motivated reasoning.

          3. It should be notes that in Deveraux’s posts on Roman diversity, he explicitly discusses the “Romanization” aspect of Rome’s relative inclusiveness.

            I think he thinks that, in the modern-day, assimilation is rather more emphasized than it actually is.

          4. There’s an assumption that someone who says “the Romans were stronger for being a more diverse polity capable of assimilating foreigners and not trying to crush their identity and provoke still more rebellions” is saying this because they, I dunno, feel strongly about developed nations having open borders or something.

            First of all, nobody reads history through a purely objective lens. *Everyone* looks at the world and filters the evidence through a normative value system, including Mr. Devereaux. We can try to separate facts from values as much as possible, and we can try to be as objective as possible, but I think the commitments (capitalist, communist, liberal-democratic, monarchist, nationalist, religious or whatever else) are still going to influence how we interpret history.

            Secondly, it’s perfectly possible for someone to accept the first claim (about Roman openness making them “stronger”) and also to reject the second claim, because to go from A to B requires a certain set of normative, subjective preferences. Maybe America is a world superpower today partly because it’s an open and diverse society, but not everyone agrees that superpowerdom (at least, the form of superpower that America is) is something to aspire to. Is America a better country right now than a “closed”, ethnically homogeneous state like Slovakia? They both have the same inequality-adjusted Human Development Index right now, interestingly enough, so I’m not sure how you would *objectively* prove that one is better than the other, it’s going to come down to what you value. Given my own ethno-racial background, America is certainly a more pleasant country *for me* than Slovakia would be- they wouldn’t want people like me over there, and I don’t want to be in a country where people don’t want me. But whether it works better for me isn’t the question: I think Slovakia probably is a better place to live *for Slovaks*, in general, than America is for most Americans (although again that comes down to *my* normative preferences, I’m not wholly objective either).

        2. “Well, according to our host, Rome was more successful when it was doing things its way, and started falling (as an empire) when it became more closed and failing to assimilate the migrant Germans.”

          I’m sure he’s right, but from a normative perspective, I’d question the value of “success”. I don’t believe in empires, I believe in national states. I don’t particularly want empires to succeed, whether it’s the Roman, British, Austro-Hungarian, Mughal or which ever other empire.

          Devereaux argued in his bit on the fall of Roman empire that Europe took a substantial material hit in terms of standard of living, but even if that’s the case, 1) he concedes himself that the hit didn’t last for more than a couple of centuries, if I’m remembering the post right, and 2) I think there are other things to value in the world besides just material prosperity.

  38. > 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).

    I would like to propose a different hypothesis. The myth of Sparta is not the myth of strong, brave warriors. It is a myth of THE STRONGEST, THE BRAVEST, and so on. The flawless, the perfect. “The most” is part of the definition. I think this is why people influenced by the myth are so uncompromising and and can’t take any criticism of Sparta.

    1. I dunno, I should think that the venn diagram of “Sparta bros” and “People studying Classics at American colleges” is likely to have a very small overlap.

  39. I sort of get it. Devereaux writes for a popular audience and therefore stakes out an uncompromising position. I’d like to see more dispassionate analysis, not mirror-imaging boneheaded takes to debunk them. I have no confidence that in his rush to dismantle Sparta or Rome or whatever bros he’s not cutting corners to present a more one-sided view than merited. This is partly why his original Sparta series was criticized.

    1. I dunno–at a certain point, if you don’t show at least some kind of disapprobation of a society where at least two-thirds of the population is enslaved and the high aristocrats actively despise those who work for a living, I’m going to question your ability to make a clear judgment.

      And could you provide evidence that Deveraux has presented a “mirror-image boneheaded take”? (And I say this as someone who has criticized some of his contentions about Sparta.)

    2. “I have no confidence that in his rush to dismantle Sparta or Rome or whatever bros he’s not cutting corners to present a more one-sided view than merited.”

      The sources he cites are in favor of Sparta. If anything, he’s steel-maned the arguments–using those arguments intended to make Sparta LOOK GOOD to make his arguments. What the author presented is the best possible interpretation of Sparta given the what the sources say and what the archaeological evidence supports.

      Is there any specific data available on Sparta to counter any point made in the series? Is there any data to mitigate it? Remember, the author examined at least one such argument–that the Spartan system, while brutal, made effective soldiers. It did not end well for Sparta, but it demonstrates the author’s willingness to examine such lines of reasoning.

      1. Is there any specific data available on Sparta to counter any point made in the series? Is there any data to mitigate it? Remember, the author examined at least one such argument–that the Spartan system, while brutal, made effective soldiers. It did not end well for Sparta, but it demonstrates the author’s willingness to examine such lines of reasoning.

        There’s not much specific data on anything that long ago, but many of the most objectionable parts of the Spartan system are only attested centuries after the system faded away (e.g., the Krypteia is mentioned by both Plato and Plutarch, but only the latter mentions its Helot-killing role). So, if I were tasked with defending Sparta, I’d probably argue that the evidence for its being uniquely bad is late and unreliable, and that, given that the city was widely praised as a model for good government and foreigners would often try to get their children raised in the Spartan way (either by hiring a Spartan nursemaid or getting their sons enrolled in the agoge), the real Sparta probably wasn’t the dystopia that, e.g., Plutarch suggests.

  40. As a side note, by the way, I think you’re being unfair to a lot of the “Sparta bros.” Most of their liking of Sparta is founded on their knowledge of the stand at Thermopylae and notions of Spartans being superior warriors, and their absolute ignorance of anything else about the place. I’ve found that once you start talking about the helots and the pederasty and how the Spartan polity ended up breaking itself, it usually, ah, considerably dampens their enthusiasm.

    1. I think a few are jumping onto the Mongol hype train as the “Sparta that succeeded” for a time.

      But without the Agoge and other ways that this North Korean style Militarism actually destroyed Military effectiveness. Taking away operational flexibility and strategic genius possible among the Mongols. Alongside their herds being their mobile food source of milk and meat.

      Mongols are definitely a much more successful Warrior society as covered previously by the Author. although Nomads has been defeated by the Agrarian mastery of Logistics when dealing with them and Firearms.

  41. How many boys were in the agoge at any given time, what was the size of the “graduating” classes?

    With 4,000 adult male citizens and a declining population there’d be less than 100 males born each year, with some drop off from that.

    Does that sound correct?

  42. I actually would like to see comparable series on Athens and Rome, not in the “case against” sense, but in the sense of a long top-to-bottom look of how an ancient society worked. But then, article 5 was my favorite, so maybe I’m just weird.

    1. You could probably do something similar with Athens, but rome has the problem that it’s *massively* larger, both in time and place. Describing how Rome works even cursorily is the work of a tome of not inconsiderable size, and that’s the quick version.

      1. I would recommend Robert Flacelière’s Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles and Carcopino’s Daily Life In Ancient Rome. They are old, and old-fashioned, and not without their problems, but they are well-written, concise and enjoyable. (At least, if you are an upper middle class white cis-het male, like the authors and I.)

    2. Describing the society of Rome is an entire semester-long class, not a five or seven part essay series.

  43. Nomads succeeded far more often in terms of having all abled bodied Men being Warriors where Sparta failed.

    It seems that the Militarism of Sparta is simply unsuited for Agrarian Civilization.
    In terms of Human Flourishing and Military Competence.

    1. Even in modern times, the ideal of the citizen-soldier militia runs into practical problems. An all-hands call to arms works best on a local and defensive basis*, and becomes increasingly difficult the more a polity wants to project offensive force where the most efficient option is for the populace to support an elite of professional troops. Rome went through this when it evolved from defending the walls of a city to defending the frontiers of an empire. So did the USA when it went from small settlements on the eastern seaboard to a global superpower.

      *it’s been argued that this is a feature rather than a bug; that republics of free people should aim to mind their own business, stay at home and live in peace, only going to war when overtly attacked. Unfortunately a purely defensive strategy doesn’t seem to be possible in the long run.

      1. Being a citizen of a country which aims to mobilise ca. 5 per cent of its population in a war, and which had, about two decades ago, plans for mobilising about 10 per cent of the population, and which did mobilise ca. 13 per cent of the population in WWII, I would like to note that an all-out war where you mobilise your male military-age population is an expensive proposal. You need to retain a core of administrative and production capacity at home, which takes a lot of personnel planning, jointly by the military and the employers, and still, your economy takes an extremely serious hit when you mobilise: most non-vital industries will grind to halt. Simply doing that kind of mobilisation is economically equivalent of a medium war. You can do that only if you have a very strong political support for the proposed military action.

        Though the system also allows for a different view: Finland has, for decades, deployed volunteer forces to crises points of the globes on a smaller scale, at battalion level. Curiously, those troops are not viewed as “elite”: anyone who has undergone conscription can apply. The population views those who do deploy more as adventurers and slightly unadapted to peaceful life than as military elite: the real purpose of the military is at home, and service here is honourable. You get more social respect by serving well as a reservist without ever deploying.

        1. The Mongols pulled off near 100% mobilisation of all its able bodied Men unlike all other Agrarian people’s.

          Seems like lack of inherent logistical advantage like food on hooves which can be killed and milked for food. Created limitations on how much of abled bodied Men in Agrarian society that could be mobilized.

          1. The Mongols also didn’t make any of their steel weapons or armor locally, nor did they create fine textiles or other goods. It’s easy to mobilize “all your men” when your artisans and craftspersons are not part of your “core” population.

          2. Like Nate said, you are now counting only free Mongol men with no medical issues to hamper fighting ability, and most likely, even part of these stayed home to guard the flocks.

            If we look at actual mobilisation rates, the Finnish mobilisation in summer 1941 encompassed ca. 68 % of the male cohort in age bracket 20-44. The current planned mobilised strength of Finnish Defence Forces is 29 % of that age cohort, and knowing that 20-35 year olds are preferred, 56 % of that age bracket (ca. 50 % if you discount for 19-year-old conscripts and about 15,000 women reservists).

            These are, from historical experience, very close to mobilisation rates that an industrial society can shoulder in real life. The 1941 mobilisation almost caused a famine the next winter and we needed to decrease the mobilised strength to about one half to avoid a collapse of the economy.

          3. “These are, from historical experience, very close to mobilisation rates that an industrial society can shoulder in real life. The 1941 mobilisation almost caused a famine the next winter and we needed to decrease the mobilised strength to about one half to avoid a collapse of the economy.”

            Hence my comment about the limitations of citizen-soldier militia. That level of mobilization can only be maintained if you’re repelling an invasion of your home territory, and for about a year. Traditionally peasant levees only served for ninety days a year at the height of campaign season; they simply couldn’t be spared from work for any longer.

        2. A medium war in which you collect no reparations.

          Remember that Germany’s plan was to make France pay reparations, and pay for the war that way. Mobilizing without war meant forgoing the money.

      2. “Unfortunately a purely defensive strategy doesn’t seem to be possible in the long run.”

        I think a purely defensive strategy can work fine in the post 1945 era. The experience of the World Wars has made it clear that aggressive war is generally going to be a negative sum proposition, and so they’re much less common than in the past. (Yes, some people like Vladimir Putin and for that matter George W. Bush haven’t learned the lesson, but in general, inter-state wars are much less common than they were before 1945, maybe even like 1965).

        1. When nuclear weapons mean every first-rate power has a “Samson” option of taking its opponent down with it, decisive victory in pre-nuclear terms becomes problematic. I doubt full-scale war has become less common simply because the world has somehow become more enlightened.

          1. I mean, I agree? I don’t believe the world has become more “enlightened”, but I think the cost/benefit of war has changed (inter-state, not civil war necessarily), and that’s generally going to make wars less common.

          2. It shifts the tactics. There’s an upper limit of what you can effectively do. Pass that limit, and billions of people in countries not involved in the war die. While some regimes may be on board with such a thing, most aren’t. They can’t afford to be–modern warfare is so expensive that extensive trade networks are necessary to keep an army operational (as the current Ukraine war demonstrates on both sides). Putting your ostensibly-neutral supply lines in existential danger tends to make them unwilling to help you.

            News coverage is also a significant factor. In WWII folks learned about the butcher’s bill after the fact, and often never saw the bodies. In modern warfare, with entrenched reporters and daily video updates, it’s hard to escape the real cost in human lives. This has lowered tolerance for death and destruction. I recall a news article about a Russian attack that killed 22 people a couple of days ago. In WWI 22 people would have been a tragedy for the folks in that unit, and certainly for their families, but the rest of us wouldn’t notice. And before someone says “They were civilians”: In WWII we were carpet-bombing whole cities. Both sides.

            What this means is that war is more destructive on a per-soldier basis, but it appears to be smaller in scale. You can’t win via Zerg Rushes anymore.

        1. In the sense that in their early days they were frontier settlements where attack by native Americans was a real threat. Which is why virtually all the colonies had laws mandating militia preparedness and service.

  44. “Aenas and him having some kind of great destiny is actually in the Illiad”

    Huh! Green translation, Book 20:

    “Come then, let’s snatch him away from death ourselves,
    for the son of Kronos may well be wrathful, should Achilles
    slaughter Aineias here, who’s destined to survive
    that his race may not perish unseen for lack of seed, the line
    of Dardanos, whom Kronos’s son loved above all children
    who have ever been born to him of mortal women. So now
    he’s come to look with hatred upon Priam’s line: now surely
    mighty Aineias will reign as king among the Trojans,
    he and his sons, and his sons’ sons born in time to come.”

    And that’s *Poseidon* speaking, not exactly pro-Trojan at this point!
    Aeneas seems to be the best fighter after Hector, and protected a lot by Aphrodite (duh, his mom) and Apollo.


    “if the god of earthquakes had not marked it quickly and called the gods at once who grouped around him: “Now, I tell you, my heart aches for great Aeneas! He’ll go down to the House of Death this instant, overwhelmed by Achilles — all because he trusted the distant deadly Archer’s urgings. Poor fool — as if Apollo would lift a hand to save him now from death, grim death. Aeneas the innocent! Why should Aeneas suffer here, for no good reason, embroiled in the quarrels of others, not his own? He always gave us gifts to warm our hearts, gifts for the gods who rule the vaulting skies. So come, let us rescue him from death ourselves, for fear the son of Cronus might just tower in rage if Achilles kills this man. He is destined to survive. Yes, so the generation of Dardanus will not perish, obliterated without an heir, without a trace: Dardanus, dearest to Zeus of all the sons that mortal women brought to birth for Father. Now he has come to hate the generation of Priam, and now Aeneas will rule the men of Troy in power — his sons’ sons and the sons born in future years.

  45. TBH, this was interesting to me largely in explaining why anyone ever claimed to like Sparta in the first place. The major things I knew about them before reading the original series were:-

    a) They suffered a heroic defeat at the hands of the Persians.
    b) They allied with the Persians to defeat Golden Age Athens.
    c) They had, even by ancient world standards, a huge number of slaves per person.

    Point a) might have happened to anyone, but b) and c) never really gave me the impression they were people to cheer on.

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