The Magazine

Tough Guys

Athens gets all the press, but Sparta won the war.

Jul 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 42 • By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
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The Spartans

The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse

by Paul Cartledge

Overlook, 304 pp., $27.95

The Peloponnesian War

by Donald Kagan

Viking, 498 pp., $29.95

THE IMPORTANCE OF SPARTA to Greek history was nothing less than pivotal. It was the Spartan king Leonidas and his royal guard "The Three Hundred" who perished holding the pass at Thermopylae, spearheading a last stand that gave the Greeks to the south a few precious days to regroup at Salamis. A year later the Spartans' "Dorian spear" won the battle of Plataea and sent the Persians fleeing Greece for good. Without the bravery of such grim, oily-haired stalwarts in their bizarre red cloaks, Darth Vader-like helmets, and polished breastplates, the Athens of Themistocles might well have been stillborn.

As Paul Cartledge shows in his valuable new introductory survey of Spartan culture, for much of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Sparta's social rigor and the checks and balances of its tripartite constitution were the envy of Athenian utopian philosophers. Hypocrites like Plato and Aristotle thrived in the liberality of a tumultuous Athens even as they praised at a safe distance the order and stability produced by the life of the barracks one hundred and fifty miles to the south. It seems natural to equate a society's cultural worth and influence with its military prowess, but as in the Peloponnesian War, the connection can be misleading. After twenty-seven years of fighting, the Spartans brought to an end the much-celebrated Athenian fifth century--and with it the majesty and brutality of Pericles' empire. The defeat of Athens had a powerful effect on observers from Plato and Xenophon to the German philosophers Hegel and Spengler. They and others wrongly concluded that material wealth and equality inevitably lead to personal license and civic ennui, undermining martial virtue and civic patriotism.

Sparta, after all, did no better with its own hegemony in the next forty years. The enlightened empire of Athens was replaced by gruff harmosts ("fixers") who had nothing to offer allies, subjects, and neutrals--other than the fact of their past opposition to Athens. Under the inept leadership of a series of blinkered Spartan kings, the city-states stayed mired in internecine wars for decades. The result was an exhausted culture ripe for harvest by Philip II at Chaeronea (338 B.C.). Sparta ended its days as a curiosity for Roman sightseers (what Cartledge calls "sado-tourists"), who detoured to Laconia to see "real" Spartans of fame and legend, then little more than reservation warriors being whipped to the delight of a bored elite.

WHAT ARE WE to make of its rise and fall? The Spartan saga itself is inexplicable without careful study of its bizarre class system and especially the serfs around whom so much of the structure was built. It is to the plight of these strange helots ("those taken") that the classicist Cartledge has chosen to devote most of his life in a series of landmark scholarly studies that finally have given us full appreciation of how Sparta really worked. The fruits of that complex research--illuminating the reality behind the legend--are now presented in a short, well-illustrated review of some seven centuries of Spartan history and the fascination its mystique has held on two millennia of subsequent Western culture.

As Cartledge demonstrated in a long series of demographic, topographical, and social investigations of the Lacedaemonians, something strange, even awful, transpired in the eighth century B.C. A relatively tiny city-state in the southern Peloponnese saw its population rise beyond its resources. Traditionally, city-states sent excess people as colonists throughout the Aegean and Italy or turned to free-holding, intensive farming, and the homesteading of once marginal land to get more food. Instead, through accident, a trick of fate, or the mythical "Lycurgus," this city-state chose a different and improbable outlet. Less than ten thousand of its hoplites annexed over one thousand square miles of land surrounding Laconia and then audaciously marched over Mt. Taygetus and swallowed the even-larger state of Messenia in southwest Peloponnese.

Beware of wishes granted. The need to occupy and police as many as a quarter-million Laconian and Messenian helots led to an unsolvable paradox of great state power achieved at a price of abject vulnerability. Constant surveillance and control of the helot population left Spartan citizens (the "Similars") little time for anything but military preparation. Spartan boys underwent years of a brutal military regimen, beginning at age seven, while their fathers declared war annually on an entire subjugated people.