Ancient History & Civilisation




If I hate the manners of the Spartans, I am not blind to the greatness of a free people …

Chateaubriand, Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt and Barbary, 1806

It is an ill wind, proverbially, that blows nobody any good. Terrible and ghastly as were the tragic events of 9/11, they have also, I believe, provoked a salutary spate of Western reflection on just what it is to be ‘Western’, on what ‘Western civilization’ is or might be. The process of re-examining and rethinking what is distinctive and admirable – or at any rate defensible – about Western civilization, values and culture seems to me both to have been in itself a wholly good thing, and to have had some notably positive outcomes. One ancient Greek exemplar of that civilization, Socrates of Athens, is famously reported by Plato to have said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’. Rarely has the need for such cultural self-examination been more compelling.


This moulded head-vase, dated to the last quarter of the fifth century, depicts a bearded Persian, and on its red-figure rim-frieze shows a Persian servant with a Greek mistress; a good example of the continuing cultural interconnections between Greeks, especially Athenians, and Persia throughout the fifth century and beyond.

For instance, it makes us realize that we in the West do not necessarily have all the best tunes. Concepts and practices often imagined to be uniquely ‘Western’, such as reason, freedom and democracy, have had, and still do have, their active counterparts within Eastern cultures as well. Indeed, the tradition of Western civilization has been decisively shaped or enriched by Eastern – including, not least, Islamic – contributions. Had it not been for Arabic scholars, in both East (especially Baghdad) and West (Moorish Spain), in what we conventionally call the Middle Ages, a number of key works of Aristotle would have been lost to us, and Aristotle is about as central to any construction of the Western cultural tradition as it is possible to get.

Some of us Westerners, post 9/11, were provoked specifically into wondering aloud whether any definition of our civilization and its cultural values would justify our dying for them, or even maybe killing for them – as the suicide hijackers of September 11th, or the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza, clearly were and are prepared to die for their brands of Islam and freedom. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece pondered that question with especial intensity. For the world of ancient – or Classical – Greece is one of the principal taproots of our Western civilization, as I have already implied in quoting Socrates’s famous aphorism, and the Spartans’ behaviour at Thermopylae in 480 raises sharply the contested issue of ideologically motivated suicide.

The connection between the ancient Greeks and Us was forcefully expressed by John Stuart Mill, in a review of the first volumes of George Grote’s pioneering, liberal-democratic history of ancient Greece (originally published in twelve volumes, 1846–56). As Mill put it, with conscious paradox, the Battle of Marathon – which was fought in 490 BCE by the Athenians, with support only from the neighbouring small city of Plataea, against the invading Persians – was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. So too, arguably, or so at least I should want to argue, was the Battle of Thermopylae. Unlike Marathon, of course, Thermopylae was formally a defeat for the Greeks, a ‘wound’ (trôma), as Herodotus called it.1 Yet it was none the less glorious or culturally significant for that, since it was soon converted into a moral, that is a morale, victory. And as Napoleon once colourfully put it, in war the morale factor is three times as important as all the other factors put together.

Indeed, some would even say – and I am tempted to include myself in their number – that Thermopylae was Sparta’s finest hour. In any case, it’s Sparta’s Thermopylae experience that provides me with my starting-point and constant point of reference in trying to answer the question posed in this epilogue: what have the Spartans done for us? Perhaps we might begin by asking – as Great King Cyrus II, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, was supposed once to have asked, in about 550 BCE – who are these Spartans?

One answer is that they were the Dorian (Doric-speaking) inhabitants of a Greek citizen-state in the Peloponnese that for many centuries was one of the greatest of ancient Greek powers. Another answer, as one of Cyrus’s successors, Xerxes, found out all too painfully, is that they were a fighting machine strong enough, skilful enough and sufficiently iron-willed to play the key role in resisting and eventually repelling even his vast hordes – and so frustrating his attempt to incorporate the mainland Greeks in an oriental empire that already stretched from the Aegean in the west to beyond the Hindu Kush. Xerxes discovered these facts about Sparta in person, at Thermopylae, and his appointed commander-in-chief Mardonius discovered them again, fatally, at Plataea the following year, when it was the Spartans under Regent Pausanias who played the lead role in that famous and decisive Greek victory.

That in turn is one, not insignificant, answer to the question why today we should care who the ancient Spartans were. For they enabled the development of the civilization that we have chosen in crucial ways to inherit and learn from. What if the Persians had won in 480–479? Either that Greek civilization would have been significantly different thereafter, or/and we should not have been its legatees in the same ways or to the same degree. Another answer to the question why the ancient Spartans matter to us today concerns the impact of what has been variously labelled the Spartan myth, mirage or tradition. To put this differently: the variety of ways in which Sparta and the Spartans have been represented in mainly non-Spartan discourses, both written and visual, since the late fifth century BCE has left a deep mark on the Western tradition, on the understanding of what it is to belong to a Western culture.

To begin with, Sparta, like some other ancient Greek places, impinges upon our everyday consciousness through enriching our English vocabulary. The island of Lesbos, for conspicuous example, has given us ‘lesbian’, the city of Corinth ‘corinthian’, the city of Athens … ‘attic’. But ancient Sparta, prodigally, has given us ‘spartan’, of course, and ‘laconic’.



Official Persian documents were sealed by incised seal-stones like this example made of chalcedony; here the Great King himself is depicted demonstrating his manly martial prowess by spearing singlehanded a fearsome wild boar. Above them floats the familiar religious symbol of royalty.

To choose an illustration almost at random, a newspaper profile of Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Opposition, referred casually to his naval public school as being ‘spartan’ – and aptly so, in this sense: the British public school system, as invented virtually by Thomas Arnold of Rugby in the nineteenth century, was consciously modelled on an idea, or even a utopian vision, of ancient Sparta’s military-style communal education.

The Spartan etymology of ‘laconic’ is not so immediately transparent. It comes from one of the ancient adjectival forms derived from the name by which the Spartans more often referred to themselves: Lacedaemonians, or Lakones. As noted earlier, the Spartans were the past masters of the curt, clipped, military mode of utterance, which they used alike in sending written or oral dispatches from the front line or at home in snappy repartee to an insistent teacher, for instance – so much so that the ancients preserved collections of what they believed to be genuine Spartan ‘apophthegms’ (I have quoted a famous one of Leonidas’s), while we still call that manner of utterance ‘laconic’ in their honour.

Even less obviously, and much less happily, the Spartans have bequeathed us also a third English word: the noun ‘helot’. This is used today to refer to a member of an especially deprived or exploited ethnic or economic underclass. It thus reflects, accurately, the dark underside of the Spartans’ more positive achievements. The Greek word heilôtês probably originally meant ‘captive’, and certainly it was as captives and enemies that the Spartans treated the unfree subordinate population of Helots: more exactly, as if they were prisoners of war whose death sentence the Spartans had merely suspended so as to force them to labour under constant threat of extinction, in order to provide the economic basis of the Spartan way of life. Other Greek cities, not least Athens, were also of course crucially dependent on unfree labour for creating and maintaining a distinctively politicized and cultured style of communal life. But the slaves held by the Athenians collectively and individually were typical of the Greek world as a whole in that they were mainly ‘barbarians’, or non-Greek foreigners, a polyglot, heterogeneous bunch – in fact, they were mostly owned on an individual, not a collective, basis. The Helots of Sparta, by contrast, were an entire Greek people, or perhaps (if we distinguish the Laconian Helots from the Messenian) two separate peoples united by a common yoke of servitude.

These three little words – spartan, laconic, helot – are just a small linguistic token of the fact that English or British culture, indeed Western culture as a whole, has been deeply marked by what the French scholar François Ollier neatly dubbed ‘le mirage spartiate’. When he coined that phrase in the 1930s, Sparta – or rather ideas of how Sparta had supposedly worked as a society – exercised a particular fascination, as noted earlier, for totalitarian or authoritarian rulers, most notoriously for Adolf Hitler and pseudo-scholarly members of his Nazi entourage such as Alfred Rosenberg. Discipline, orderliness, soldierly hierarchy and subordination of individual endeavour to the overriding good of the state were among the Spartan virtues that the Nazis and other Fascists were most attracted by – only to put them to the most perverted uses. There are still neo-Fascist organizations (one, disturbingly, in France) that are proud to follow along this same shining path.

It is this modern totalitarian or authoritarian reception of ancient Sparta that has tarnished, probably irreparably, Sparta’s reputation as a political ideal or model in modern Western liberal-democratic societies. Yet Sparta’s idealized image had not always served such sinister or heinous purposes. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a huge fan of ‘the wisdom of Sparta’s laws’, and if anything an even greater fan of its legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. In Lycurgus’s ideal Sparta, Rousseau saw a society that was devoted to implementing the general will in a collective, self-effacing, law-abiding and above all thoroughly virtuous way. Rousseau helped to ensure a key role for ancient Greece (as well as ancient Rome) in the making of the modern world, and for Sparta no less than for Athens.

Rousseau was by no means the first intellectual to deploy an image or vision of Sparta as an integral component and driving force of an entire programme of social and political reforms. Among the very first on record was Plato, and it is through Plato that Sparta can claim to be the fount and origin of the entire tradition of utopian thinking and writing (utopiography). Utopia, too, acquired a bad name in the twentieth century; but in principle – the principle of hope that things can be and will be made better – it is not as bad a place as all that. In any case, it is not only for what intellectuals and others have made of Sparta, from the Classical period of ancient Greece down to our own century, that Sparta remains a choice subject of study. It is also for what the Spartans really did achieve, most conspicuously and effectively on the battlefield during the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480–479 BCE.

The Battle of Thermopylae, though a defeat, quickly became a morale victory. As such, it formed a vital and integral part of the eventual total Greek victory over the Persians. That victory, moreover, would not have been attained had it not been for the indispensable contribution made by the Spartans. The remarkably successful organization of their society into a well oiled military machine, and their development of a rudimentary multistate Greek alliance well before the Persians invaded mainland Greece, provided the indispensable core of military leadership around which a Greek resistance could coalesce. The Spartans’ heroically suicidal stand at Thermopylae showed that the Persians both should and could usefully be resisted, and gave the small, wavering and uncohesive force of patriotic Greeks the nerve to imagine that they might one day defeat the invaders. The charismatic leadership of Spartan commanders of the character and calibre of King Leonidas and Regent Pausanias crucially unified and inspired the Greeks’ land forces.

But what, if anything, did the Spartans bring to the feast of ancient Greek culture, the source of the Western legacy, beyond making the feast possible at all? Different modern interpreters emphasize different aspects of the classical Greek cultural achievement. I myself would privilege three distinguishing qualities or characteristics, above all: first, a devotion to competition in all its forms, almost for its own sake; second, a devotion to a concept and ideal of freedom; and, third, a capacity for almost limitless self-criticism as well as unstinting criticism of others (not least other Greeks).

The first two of these might be identified equally strongly in either of the two main exemplars of ancient Greek civilization, Sparta and Athens. The third, however, specifically self-criticism, was a distinctively Athenian cultural trait and apparently not a Spartan trait at all – or so contemporary Athenians liked to claim, and many have subsequently agreed. Pericles, for example, in Thucydides’s version of his Funeral Speech of 431/30, sneered at Sparta’s merely state-imposed courage; and Demosthenes a century later asserted falsely that it was forbidden to Spartans even to criticize (let alone alter) their laws.

Undoubtedly there were no Spartan equivalents of the Athenians’ democratic Assembly and popular lawcourts, nor did the Spartans enjoy the Athenians’ annual tragic and comic drama festivals, which provided state-sponsored opportunities for self-examination and self-criticism. Yet the Spartans were not quite the unhesitatingly obedient automatons that ancient Athenian and modern liberal propaganda have made them out to be. On occasion, grumbling at authority might turn into open defiance, both individually and collectively. Even Spartan kings, who were perched at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of birth, wealth and prestige, might be brought low by being tried and fined – or, worse, exiled like Demaratus under sentence of death. It would be fairer and more accurate, then, to say that the Spartans’ culture was not one that favoured intellectual argument or even open dissent either in the agora or in any other place of public assembly.

All Greeks, probably, were passionately keen on a good contest. Their word for the spirit of competitiveness, agônia, is the root of our word ‘agony’, and that etymological connection well suggests the intense, driven quality of ancient Greek competition. A war was for the Greeks an agôn(contest), obviously enough, as was a public debate, whether real or fictional. So too was a lawsuit, but so also was any religious festival that involved, centrally or otherwise, athletic or other kinds of competition – a festival such as the Olympic Games, for example. It was in fact the Greeks ultimately who invented our idea of athletic sports, just as they invented the prototype of our idea of the theatre, and both of them within a context of religiously inspired competition and competitiveness.

The Spartans yielded to no other Greeks in their passionate, almost fanatical attachment to competition. They even made the very act of survival at birth a matter of public competition, by entrusting elders with the task of supervising the wine-bath tests for neonates. The practice of consigning infants showing any obvious signs of physical deformity or debility to an early death at the foot of a nearby mountain ravine was not as callous or odd as it perhaps seems to us: both Plato and Aristotle advocated such ‘exposure’ of defective newborns in their respective Ideal States. Likewise, adult status for Spartan males could be achieved only by successfully passing the series of largely physical competitive tests that constituted the unique education or group socialization known as theagôgê or ‘upbringing’. Even then, becoming a full adult Spartan citizen in terms of political standing and participation was made to depend on passing a further and final acceptance test – admission by competitive election to a communal dining group, or mess, at the age of twenty.

Those unfortunates who failed any of these educational or citizenship tests were relegated to a limbo of exclusion, of non-belonging, to permanent outsider status. Nor did internal competition for status end at the age of twenty for those who did achieve full citizenship status: far from it. Not for one moment did they cease to compete amongst themselves and against others, both abroad, in war, of course, and no less famously and successfully at the Olympic Games, but also at home – in local equestrian and athletic contests, for instance, or election to high office, or for membership of the elite royal bodyguard. One disappointed Spartan who had failed to be elected to the bodyguard in his twenties was said to have claimed he was delighted to know there were three hundred Spartans better than he; and even so, he went on to achieve high public distinction in later life.

As for the general Greek passion for freedom, it was said by the right-wing Athenian political writer and activist Critias, who wrote about the Spartan way of life in both prose and verse and thereby founded the literary tradition of the Spartan ‘mirage’, that ‘In Lakedaimon are to be found those who are the most enslaved and those who are the most free’. By ‘the most free’ he meant the Spartans themselves, or more precisely the Spartan master class, who were freed by the compulsory labour of their enslaved workforce from the necessity of doing any productive work whatsoever, apart from warfare. By ‘the most enslaved’ he meant of course the Helots. These people, as noted above, were Greeks who, despite their birthright of freedom, were collectively enslaved and treated with unusual severity by the Spartans, as a conquered but permanently threatening and subversive population.

This harsh treatment at first puzzled and later deeply disturbed the more sensitive Greek observers of the Spartan scene. Plato, for example, by no means unfriendly to Sparta in general, remarked: ‘The Helot-system of Sparta is practically the most discussed and controversial subject in Greece.’ This controversy reached a peak in Plato’s adult lifetime. For, in the aftermath of the decisive defeat of Sparta at Leuctra in 371 by the Boeotians led by Thebes, the larger portion of the Helots, the Messenians, finally achieved their longed-for collective freedom and established themselves as free Greek citizens of the restored (as they saw it) free city of Messene. I must add that the Spartans were by no means untypical, let alone unique, among the ancient Greeks in seeing no incompatibility between their own freedom and the unfreedom of a servile class, and indeed in basing the former on the latter.

These two aspects of Spartan culture and society – competitiveness and contested notions of freedom – almost by themselves make our Spartan ancestors worthy of our continued cultural interest and historical study. But they very far from exhaust Sparta’s extreme fascination. Let’s take a look at those more or less well attested Spartan social customs or practices that we have focused on in Chapter Four: institutionalized pederasty between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the compulsory framework of the state-managed educational system; athletic sports including wrestling practised officially – and allegedly in the nude – by teenage girls; the public insulting and humiliation of bachelors by married women at an annual religious festival; polyandry (wives having more than one husband each); and wife-sharing without either party’s incurring the social opprobrium or legal guilt of adultery.

One common factor runs through much of this: the unusual (indeed, by Greek and even most pre-modern standards, unique) functions, status and behaviour of one half of the Spartan citizen population, the women. The extant evidence is sufficiently plentiful to have prompted a recent book on them. This is also one of several modern studies prepared to speak of the existence of a certain ‘feminism’ in Sparta. I think, however, that we should take at least some of this highly controversial evidence with a pinch of (presumably Attic?) salt, especially where the ideological or propagandistic intention is blatant. Our written sources are exclusively male, almost entirely non-Spartan and often heavily Athenocentric. But there is enough that is reliable to enable us safely to infer that Sparta really was, in such vital areas as marriage and procreation, seriously different, even alien, from the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse.

And this surely does make Sparta perpetually worth studying, not only by historians, but also by comparative cultural anthropologists and sociologists, among others. Herodotus, the father of (comparative cultural) anthropology as well as of history, declared famously that he agreed with the Theban lyric poet Pindar that ‘custom was king’. He meant that in his view every human group believes that its own customs are not only relatively better than those of others, but the best possible. Not surprisingly, he took a special interest in Spartan customs, practices and beliefs. Here are just a few related illustrations. All are taken from the seventh book of his Histories, the Thermopylae book, and all of them go to establish the point that the Spartans were not just willing, but culturally predisposed and educated, to die for their ideals: that is, to sacrifice their individual lives for the sake of some greater collective goal, whether local or national.

Shortly before the epic conflict at Thermopylae, as we saw, it was reported to Great King Xerxes by a mounted spy that the Spartans in the pass were combing and styling their very long hair. He simply refused to believe that men who coiffed like women before fighting would make serious opponents in the field. Or rather, in the case of Thermopylae, not just serious opponents but men who would of set purpose put their lives on the line in the certain knowledge that they were going to be killed. That this was indeed what lay behind the Spartans’ decision to send a specially selected taskforce of three hundred under King Leonidas to Thermopylae in 480 is proven not only by the way they fought and died, but also by the fact that the men chosen all had to have a living son, so as to prevent their family lines from dying out – in other words, after their own assured deaths.

That their mission was suicidal self-sacrifice is supported further by another story in Herodotus Book 7, recounted, significantly, not long before he tells the story of Thermopylae. In the run-up to the Persian invasion of 480 the Spartans considered how they might try to persuade Xerxes to abandon it. Being a very pious people, they thought that the invasion was at least in part heaven’s way of punishing them for the sacrilege of having killed, some years earlier, the heralds sent to them by Xerxes’s father Darius – persons whose office invested them with sacrosanctity. So they conceived the idea of making atonement to Xerxes, and of sending two Spartans to be killed by him as restitution and compensation. Call the Spartans naive – certainly, that was how their gesture was reportedly regarded by Xerxes (who simply dismissed the would-be patriotic suicides from his presence with haughty contempt). But the spirit of self-sacrifice for a larger cause, in this case the good of all Greece, not just of Sparta, shines out.

In the event Xerxes did invade Greece and, after stiff Greek resistance, forced the pass of Thermopylae. ‘Go tell the Spartans’, the beginning of Simonides’s famous epigram hymning the heroic Spartan dead in this encounter, has resonated in recent popular culture. As the epigram’s next words, ‘… passerby, / That here, obedient to their laws, we lie’, suggest, the laws of Sparta were unusually rigorous, and rigid. But another emblematic passage of Herodotus Book 7 – a supposed interview between Xerxes and the deposed Spartan ex-King Demaratus – makes clear how this last clause of the epigram was supposed to be read: as illustrating the characteristically Greek civic quality of obedience to the laws, a quality that the Spartans embodied and acted upon to the full.

Demaratus assures Xerxes that the Spartans will stand up to him, because they fear the Law more even than Xerxes’s subjects fear him. More importantly still, the Spartans, unlike them, were able to make a free choice. They established their own laws for themselves by collective agreement, and they chose to obey them. They were not compelled by sheer terror or force to obey the arbitrary and lawless whim of a despot or autocrat. That, certainly, was a biased, ethnocentric judgement by Herodotus. But it also contains an essential truth, both about the ancient Greeks as a whole and not least about the leading Greeks of the Persian War period: the Spartans.

THE SPARTANS and their unique society occupy a central place in the utopian tradition. But Utopia, as the Greek-derived word’s inventor, Thomas More, was well aware, is formally ambiguous. Depending on how the prefix ‘U’ is taken, it can mean either ‘No-place’ (outopia) or ‘Well-place’ (eutopia). The news from the Spartan Nowhere is admittedly not always good. An article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, featuring my earlier Spartans book and TV series, was introduced editorially as follows: ‘They hurled babies into ravines and culled their workforce yearly. Historian Paul Cartledge thinks we could learn a thing or two from those Spartans.’ Nevertheless, I should still like to think, and like my readers to think too, that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be the worst place on earth to find ourselves – minus, of course, the exposure of infants and the exploitation of Helots.

At any rate, the ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae still resonates today: it is the concept that there are some values that are worth dying for, as well as living for. That notion, however, can be a two-edged sword. As applied by certain suicide bombers, for example, it seems to me to be wholly repellent, however justified their cause. Yet when developed in the direction taken by the Spartans and their founder-lawgiver Lycurgus, it can generate ideals of communal co-operation and self-sacrifice that qualify for the honorific label of (e)utopia.

Traditionally, and rightly, Sparta is not commemorated as a hot-house of high culture. But there was, I think, no paradox or irony when William Golding, a future Nobel Laureate for literature, wrote in 1965 after a visit to the Hot Gates:

A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.

It is worth bearing this judgement in mind as one contemplates the Thermopylae memorials on offer in Greece and elsewhere today, both in Sparta and, more poignantly if also more noisily, at Thermopylae itself.

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