Ancient History & Civilisation

6. An Estimate of Sparta

What type of man, and what kind of civilization, did this code produce? First of all, a man of strong body, at home with hardship and privation. A luxury-loving Sybarite remarked of the Spartans that “it was no commendable thing in them to be so ready to die in the wars, since by that they were freed from much hard labor and miserable living.”72 Health was one of the cardinal virtues in Sparta, and sickness was a crime; Plato’s heart must have been gladdened to find a land so free from medicine and democracy. And here was courage; only the Roman would equal the Spartan’s record for fearlessness and victory. When the Spartans surrendered at Sphacteria, Greece could hardly believe it; it was unheard of that Spartans should not fight to the last man; even their common soldiers, on many occasions, killed themselves rather than survive defeat.73 When the news of the Spartan disaster at Leuctra—so overwhelming that in effect it put an end to Sparta’s history—was brought to the ephors as they presided over the Gymnopedia games, the magistrates said nothing, but merely added, to the roster of the holy dead whom the games honored, the names of the newly slain. Self-control, moderation, equanimity in fortune and adversity—qualities that the Athenians wrote about but seldom showed—were taken for granted in every Spartan citizen.

If it be a virtue to obey the laws, the Spartan was virtuous beyond most men. “Though the Lacedaemonians are free,” the ex-king Demaratus told Xerxes, “yet they are not free in all things; for over them is set law as a master, whom they fear much more than thy people fear thee.”74 Seldom—probably never again except in Rome and medieval Jewry—has a people been so strengthened by reverence for its laws. Under the Lycurgean constitution Sparta, for at least two centuries, became always stronger. Though it failed to conquer Argos or Arcadia, it persuaded all the Peloponnesus except Argos and Achaea to accept its leadership in a Peloponnesian League that for almost two hundred years (560-380) kept the peace in Pelops’ isle. All Greece admired Sparta’s army and government, and looked to it for aid in deposing burdensome tyrannies. Xenophon tells of “the astonishment with which I first noted the unique position of Sparta among the states of Hellas, the relatively sparse population, and at the same time the extraordinary power and prestige of the community. I was puzzled to account for the fact. It was only when I came to consider the peculiar institutions of the Spartans that my wonderment ceased.”75 Like Plato and Plutarch, Xenophon was never tired of praising Spartan ways. Here it was, of course, that Plato found the outlines of his Utopia, a little blurred by a strange indifference to Ideas. Weary and fearful of the vulgarity and chaos of democracy, many Greek thinkers took refuge in an idolatry of Spartan order and law.

They could afford to praise Sparta, since they did not have to live in it. They did not feel at close range the selfishness, coldness, and cruelty of the Spartan character; they could not see from the select gentlemen whom they met, or the heroes whom they commemorated from afar, that the Spartan code produced good soldiers and nothing more; that it made vigor of body a graceless brutality because it killed nearly all capacity for the things of the mind. With the triumph of the code the arts that had flourished before its establishment died a sudden death; we hear of no more poets, sculptors, or builders in Sparta after 550.* Only choral dance and music remained, for there Spartan discipline could shine, and the individual could be lost in the mass. Excluded from commerce with the world, barred from travel, ignorant of the science, the literature, and the philosophy of exuberantly growing Greece, the Spartans became a nation of excellent hoplites, with the mentality of a lifelong infantryman. Greek travelers marveled at a life so simple and unadorned, a franchise so jealously confined, a conservatism so tenacious of every custom and superstition, a courage and discipline so exalted and limited, so noble in character, so base in purpose, and so barren in result; while, hardly a day’s ride away, the Athenians were building, out of a thousand injustices and errors, a civilization broad in scope and yet intense in action, open to every new idea and eager for intercourse with the world, tolerant, varied, complex, luxurious, innovating, skeptical, imaginative, poetical, turbulent, free. It was a contrast that would color and almost delineate Greek history.

In the end Sparta’s narrowness of spirit betrayed even her strength of soul. She descended to the sanctioning of any means to gain a Spartan aim; at last she stooped so far to conquer as to sell to Persia the liberties that Athens had won for Greece at Marathon. Militarism absorbed her, and made her, once so honored, the hated terror of her neighbors. When she fell, all the nations marveled, but none mourned. Today, among the scanty ruins of that ancient capital, hardly a torso or a fallen pillar survives to declare that here there once lived Greeks.

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