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Sparta is one of the most widely admired and least understood communities of ancient Greece. Spartans were legendary in their own time for their martial prowess and obvious ‘otherness,’ even among their fellow Greeks. Their praise has since arisen from various corners across both time and space. The Roman republicans remembered the ‘good order’ of Sparta’s mixed government. Western writers (including recent Greek nationalists) remembered the Spartans’ noble stand at Thermopylae against the might of the Persian Empire. And the Nazis spoke admiringly of Sparta’s outright eugenics. Recently this interest in Sparta has taken on a more popular form as Thermopylae continues to amaze audiences through the artistic license of Steven Pressfield in his Gates of Fire and the resulting graphic novel and movie 300 (the latter of which is graphic in another sense). One might wonder then what there can “possibly still be to talk about that merits focusing all this media and other attention on ancient Sparta” (Cartledge 10). In his laconically titled book The Spartans, Paul Cartledge attempts to answer just such a “complex question” (10).
Cartledge approaches his subject with an unmatched depth of knowledge and experience in Spartan historiography. His well-known interest in Sparta is attested to by four previously published monographs on the subject as well as by sixteen other works in Greek history, which he has either edited or written (a partial list of these works is located toward the front of this particular volume). Throughout, the author’s conclusions are well supported by the findings of his own previous writings (including eighteen articles, books and essays; 289-290), which he supplements extensively with another six pages of sources on the subject. Also helpful is a broad sampling of classical sources including Thucydides, Plutarch, Herodotus, Sappho, Aristophanes, Pindar, Terpander, Simonides, Aristotle, Alcman, Xenophon, Arrian and Pausinias. Individual citations are contained in the form of endnotes immediately following the appendix (283-285).
The Spartans, however, is Cartledge’s first popular work on the subject. But by ‘popular’ history he does not mean “a process of dumbing-down . . . but rather one of wising-up; making the roots – or one of the taproots – of our western civilization more accessible, more user-friendly, reminding people in today’s three-minute attention span culture just how important it is to know where, ultimately, they are coming from, in a cultural sense” (273; see 10). Knowing this intended audience well, Cartledge attempts to emphasize in his work both the fact and the fiction behind what he calls “the Spartan myth” (24); that grand generalization of the Spartans as a people of tradition, duty, and courage that appeals to all and changes none.
The introduction is essential to understanding the role the book’s structure plays in meeting the author’s stated purpose. For the novice of Spartan history, Cartledge sets the stage for the ensuing narrative by providing a summary of the script (the book’s purpose, material, and sources) as well as its setting (a general overview of Greek and Lacedaemonian geography and topography). The narrative itself, however, is not purely chronological. Instead, it is “interspersed with snapshot biographies” in order to “bring the story of the past vividly and personally to life, and explore and illustrate underlying historical themes and processes” (23). This narrative is then presented in three parts, dealing in turn with Sparta’s ascension to prominence, height of influence, and its later decline.
Part I of the book takes its title from the popular epithet, “Go, tell the Spartans!” in order to explain this Spartan myth, in which “Sparta evolved into the most powerful fighting force in the ancient Greek world without ever completely transcending or obscuring the traces of its origins” (25).
Cartledge traces the roots of Sparta’s cultural identity to three sources: their traditional participation (and precipitation) of the Trojan War; their unique Lycurgan view of political, military, and social life; and the community’s relationship to its Peloponnesian neighbors (particularly the helots). He then continues by discussing the implications of Sparta’s foreign policy prior to the Persian Wars, namely their growing expansionism, opposition to tyrants, and high-handed treatment of their Peloponnesian allies. This rise to prominence is then crystallized by the valor of the 300 at Thermopylae and Sparta’s dual leadership with Athens throughout the remainder of the conflict. To heighten these events, the author also relates the lives of Helen, Lycurgus, Cleomenes I, Demaratus, Gorgo, Dieneces, and Pausanias as each becomes an actor on the historical scene.
The second part of the book is entitled “The Spartan Myth” and specifically addresses how Sparta behaved once this myth had become well-known by both the Greeks in general and the Spartans in particular. In no event is this more clearly demonstrated than “the epic confrontation between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies,” which Cartledge refers to (from the Spartan perspective) as “the Athenian War” (33).
When Athens formed the Delian League to press the naval fight against the Persians, the alliance resulted in rivalry between it and the already existing Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Thus, over time this rivalry became outright opposition when Sparta denied Athenian assistance during their helot revolts. Cartledge then dials back the tempo of his otherwise bellicose narrative long enough to discuss the more serene aspects of Spartan womanhood and religion, before relating how the military necessity of the Athenian War convinced Sparta to beg assistance from mercenaries, the Persians, and even their helots to win decisively—and even then at sea. Biographic sketches of leaders in this period include Tisamenus, Archidamus II, Brasidas, and Lysander.
Part III concludes the main body of the text by addressing “A Crippled Kingship” and how the Spartans’ military victory over the Athenians led to a political and cultural decline that was exacerbated by a lack of principled leadership. After securing victory over the Athenians, the Spartans were at the pinnacle of imperialist sentiment, employing the vocabulary of self-determination to substitute Spartan intervention for that of outside (mainly Persian) intervention in the preceding century. Combined with increased monetization at home and the consolidation of large amounts of property in the hands of a few, the Spartans then experienced a decline in the number of full citizens. With the arrival of Rome on the Greek scene, Sparta then experienced a brief revival of neo-Lycurgan reforms before reinventing itself as a nostalgic tourist hotspot, beginning the romanticizing of Spartan history that continues through our own period. And to exemplify these trends, Cartledge briefly describes the lives of Cynisca, Antalcidas, Archidamus III, Isadas, Areus I and Nabis.
Also included is an appendix entitled “Hunting—Spartan-Style” which, while seemingly peripheral, elaborates on certain historiographical problems inherent to drawing modern-day applications from the example of Sparta or any other Greek community. This section was produced mainly as a James Loeb lecture at Harvard in response to Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting, which Scruton hoped would both justify and advocate modern British foxhunting (285, 275). What Cartledge seeks to demonstrate is how such historical moralizing often takes events and themes out of their historical context and interprets them in a wholly unhistorical way.
Of particular concern here to Cartledge is Scruton’s generalization of Greek hunting, which is not only oversimplified due to differences between each Greek community but because it also fails to reflect the apparent religious, sensual, and political concepts that motivated various communities to hunt in the first place. (It was Athens where hunting became known for its religious and sensual aspects, hunting in Sparta was far more about citizens producing food for the common messes. In either case we deal with a distinct political concepts that no longer hold true for modern Great Britain.)
Also telling is Scruton’s silence concerning the human hunting that Spartans engaged in as part of their perpetual state of war against their neighboring helots. In other words, by his silence on human hunting and praise of Spartan hunting in general, Scruton advocates what even Aristotle criticized.
The Spartan sort of education, [Aristotle] observed, was systematically defective, in that it aimed to inculcate only one kind of virtue, martial courage, and tended therefore to turn out . . . ‘beast-like’ . . . Spartans [who held to a] practice that presumably not even Roger Scruton would wish to invoke as ancestral legitimation of his own pastime of choice. (Cartledge 281)
Throughout the work, Cartledge maintains a style that aids both the beginning and advanced student of Spartan history. Unlike many works on Greek language and culture, the author strikes a fine balance between explaining various Greek words and phrases in order to reveal their meaning in context and drilling so deep into the Greek as to bring the reader to the point of utter exasperation. By also offering alternatives to certain traditional translations of words (e.g. the polis as ‘citizen-state’ as opposed to ‘city-state;’ 56) he aids all by making the meaning of the original both clear and concise.
Perhaps the least attractive aspect of the work’s format is the pagination of the various biographies throughout the book. While helpful, these biographies are not as distinguishable from the main body of the text as they could be. Simple changes such as a light gray background would be welcome for the sake of flow. This would also allow the reader to skip the biographies and backtrack after finishing the chapter if so desired.
The effect of all of these factors on the overall relevance of The Spartans is overwhelmingly positive. Cartledge has taken full advantage of the rising popularity in Spartan history as an impetus for a genuine, scholarly review of Sparta’s glory days for the general reader.
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