To Die for? Paul Cartledge Sees Ancient Spartan Society and Its Fierce Code of Honour as Something Still Relevant Today
Cartledge, Paul, History Today
Uhe events of September 11th, 2001, jolted many of us into rethinking what was distinctive and admirable--or at least defensible --about Western civilisation, values and culture. Some of us were provoked into wondering whether any definition of that civilisation and its cultural values would justify our dying for them, or even maybe killing for them. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece wondered with especial intensity, since the world of ancient Greece is one of the principal taproots of Western civilisation. As J.S. Mill put it, the battle of Marathon fought in 490 BC between the Athenians with support from Plataea and the invading Persians was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. So too, arguably, was the battle of Thermopylae of ten years later. Although this was a defeat for the small Spartan-led Greek force at the hands of the Persians, it was none the less glorious or culturally significant for that. Indeed, some would say that Thermopylae was Sparta's finest hour.
The Spartans were the Dorian inhabitants of a Greek city-state in the Peloponnese that for many centuries was one of the greatest of Greek powers. But who were they really, these Spartans? That question was supposedly asked in about 550 BC by the Persian Great King Cyrus, as reported by Herodotus. Three generations later, Cyrus's successor Xerxes found out all too painfully who they were, and what they were made of: a fighting machine strong enough, skilful enough and sufficiently iron-willed to repel his hordes from the attempt to incorporate the mainland Greeks in his oriental empire already stretching from the Aegean in the West to beyond the Hindu Kush. He discovered these things in person, at Thermopylae. Although this was formally a defeat for the Spartan forces under King Leonidas, the battle constituted a massive morale victory for the Greeks, and the following year the army Xerxes had left behind in Greece was decisively defeated in a pitched battle at Plataea, principally at the hands of the drilled and disciplined Spartan hoplite phalangites (heavy infantry) commanded by the Spartan regent Pausanias.
Thus, one not insignificant reason why today we should care who the ancient Spartans were is that they played a key role--some might say the key role--in defending Greece and so preserving a form of culture or civilisation that constitutes one of the chief roots of our own Western civilization. That, at any rate, is certainly arguable. It helps to explain why 2002 might be called the Year of Sparta, rather as 2004 is to be the Year of Athens--and by extension of ancient Olympia and the Olympics.
This year there is a remarkable focus of academic and popular interest in the ancient Spartans. Two television series, one to be aired in over 50 countries on the History Channel, one on the UK's Channel 4; two discussion panels at international scholarly conferences, one to be held in the States (the Berkshire Women's History Conference), one in Scotland; and two international colloquia taking place in modern Sparta itself, one organised by Greek scholars, including members of the Greek Archaeological Service, the other by the British School at Athens (which has been involved with research in and on Sparta since 1906 and is currently seeking the funding to establish a research centre in the city). What can there possibly be still to talk about that merits focusing all this attention on ancient Sparta?
To begin with, Sparta, like some other ancient Greek cities or places, has left its mark on our consciousness by way of enriching English vocabulary. The island of Lesbos, for example, has given us `lesbian', and Corinth `corinthian'. But Sparta, prodigally, has given us not one but two English adjectives, and a noun besides: `spartan', of course, `laconic', and, less obviously, `helot'.
To choose an illustration almost at random, a recent profile of the British Tory Party leader Iain Duncan Smith referred casually to his naval public school as `spartan'--and aptly so, at least in so far as the British public school system, as invented virtually by Thomas Arnold of Rugby in the nineteenth century and continued by, say, Kurt Hahn's Gordonstoun in the twentieth, had been consciously modelled on an idea, or even a utopian vision, of ancient Sparta's military-style communal education.
The Spartan root of `laconic' is not so immediately transparent, but it comes from one of the ancient adjectival forms derived from the name the Spartans more often called themselves by: Lacedaemonians. Diminutive but perfectly formed discourse can, according to Umberto Eco, be simply irresistible--and so it seemed to the Spartans, who perfected the curt, clipped, military mode of utterance, used in dispatches from the front or in snappy repartee to an insistent teacher, t]hat we call laconic.
As for helot, the word is used to refer to a member of an especially deprived or exploited ethnic or economic underclass, and is a product of the dark underside of the Spartans' achievement. Other Greek cities, not least Athens, were dependent on unfree labour for creating and maintaining a politicised and cultured style of communal life. But the slaves of the Athenians were a polyglot, heterogeneous bunch, mainly `barbarians' or non-Greek foreigners, and they were mostly owned individually. The unfree subordinate population of Sparta, by contrast, was an entire Greek people, or perhaps two separate peoples united by a common yoke of servitude, whom they conquered during the eighth century and collectively labelled Helots. The word probably meant `captives', and the Spartans treated them as prisoners of war whose death sentence they had suspended so as to make them work under constant threat of death, in order to provide the economic basis of the Spartan way of life.
These three words are a small token of the fact that English and indeed European or Western culture as a whole have been deeply marked by the Spartan image or myth, what the French scholar Francois Oilier neatly dubbed `le mirage spartiate'. That phrase was coined in the 1930s, an era when Sparta--or rather ideas of how Sparta worked as a society--exercised a particular fascination for totalitarian or authoritarian rulers, most notoriously Hitler and pseudo-scholarly members of his 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 most attracted them. There are still neo-fascist organisations that are proud to follow along the same shining path.
Yet Sparta's reputation had not always been put to such sinister uses. When Enlightenment intellectuals of the eighteenth century took up the cudgels where the combatants in the recent Swiftian battle of the books between the ancients and the moderns had laid them down, a contest developed between the proclaimed model virtues of Athens and those of Sparta. In the Athens corner was Voltaire, the advocate of learning and luxury. But in the Sparta corner was, most redoubtably if less predictably, the equally progressive thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau formed his view of Sparta in the course of a raging polemic on luxury during the years 1749-53. In his prizewinning First Discourse (Discours sur les sciences et les arts, 1749-50) he offered a celebrated description of Sparta as a city as famous for its `heureuse ignorance' as for the `sagesse de ses lois'; in short, he presented it as `a republic of demigods'. Then came fragments of inchoate historical works drafted in 1751-53, which included a parallel drawn between Sparta and the Roman Republic and also the beginnings of a history of Sparta. Thereafter, in all the major works of his mature political philosophy, from the Second Discourse of 1755 (Discours sur l'origine et les fondemens de l'inegalite parmi les hommes) onwards, he gave honourable, if rarely extended, mentions to Sparta and its at least semi-legendary legislator, Lycurgus.
Most notably, in his Considerations sur le Gouvernement de Pologne of 1772, Rousseau counterposed to mere `lawmakers' the three ancient `awgivers', that is, Moses, Lycurgus, and Numa, the second king of Rome; and in Lycurgus (whose ancient dates were variously given) he saw an almost divinely inspired and authoritative legislator, so in tune with the temper and spirit of his people that he laid down laws which they could unswervingly abide by for centuries to come. Rousseau wrote, approvingly, that Lycurgus fixed `n iron yoke' and tied the Spartans to it by filling up every moment of their lives. This ceaseless constraint was, to Rousseau, ennobled by the purpose it served, that of patriotism, the ideal of which was constantly presented to the Spartans not only in their public laws, but also in their marital and reproductive customs, and in their festivals, feasts and games. In short, Rousseau saw in Lycurgus's Sparta a society devoted to implementing the general will in a collective, self-effacing, law-abiding, thoroughly virtuous way.
Rousseau was by no means the first, or the last, intellectual who deployed an image or vision of Sparta as an integral component and driving force of a programme of social and political reforms. Among the first on record to do so was Plato, and through him Sparta has a good claim to be the fount and origin of all utopian thinking and utopiography. Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of what Elizabeth Rawson called `the Spartan tradition in European thought' that some of Sparta's most fervent admirers have been people who--had they actually experienced the real Sparta at first hand--would not have survived it for very long, or whose peculiar genius would have been quickly snuffed out by Sparta's harshly physical educational system and uncultivated social regimen. Although Plato admired Sparta for having an educational system designed to inculcate virtue, it is impossible to imagine an institution as intellectually radical as Plato's Academy being founded in conservative, tradition-worshipping Sparta.
Yet it is not only for what intellectuals or politicians have made of Sparta, through the centuries, that Sparta remains a choice subject of study. It is also for what the Spartans really did achieve, most conspicuously on the battlefields of 480-479. Had it not been for the Spartans' remarkably successful organisation of their society into a well-oiled military machine, and their diplomatic development of a rudimentary multi-state Greek alliance well before the Persians came to Greece, there would have been no core of leadership around which the Greek resistance could coalesce. Had it not been for the Spartans' suicidal but heroic stand at Thermopylae, which showed that the Persians could be resisted, it is unlikely that the small, wavering and uncohesive force of loyalist Greeks would have had the nerve to imagine that they might one day win. But for charismatic Spartan commanders of the character and calibre of Leonidas (r.490-480) and Pausanias (regent, 480-c.471), the Greek land forces would have been critically weakened.
Finally, had the loyalist Greeks lost in 480-479, and the Persians absorbed the Greeks of the mainland as well as of the islands and the western Asiatic seaboard into their farflung empire, the ensuing Greek civilisation would have been immeasurably different from and, most would say, inferior to what actually evolved in the fifth and fourth centuries.
What did the Spartans bring to the Greek cultural feast, beyond playing a vital role in winning the war that made it possible at all? Different interpreters might stress different aspects of the classical Greek cultural achievement, to emphasise either those aspects that they find most admirable and imitable, or the ones that they consider to have been the most influential on subsequent cultures of the European or Western tradition. I would privilege three qualities or characteristics above all: a devotion to competition in all its forms almost for its own sake; a devotion to a concept and ideal of freedom; and a capacity for almost limitless self-criticism.
The first two might be found equally strongly in either of the two exemplars of ancient Greek civilisation, Sparta and Athens. The third, however, was a peculiarly Athenian cultural trait and not a Spartan one at all. Or so contemporary Athenians liked to think--and many have subsequently agreed. Demosthenes, for example, stated to an Athenian audience that it was forbidden to Spartans to criticise their laws, and there was undoubtedly no Spartan equivalent of either the tragic or the comic drama competitions which provided the Athenians with two annual state-sponsored opportunities for self-examination. On the other hand, the Spartans were not quite the unhesitatingly obedient automata of Athenian propaganda. On occasion grumbling might turn into open defiance of authority, both individually and collectively. Even Sparta's kings might be brought low, tried and fined--or, worse, exiled under sentence of death. It would be fairer and more accurate to say that the Spartans' culture was not one that favoured, let alone encouraged, open dissent or argument. Let me therefore first expand a little on Greek, and especially Spartan, competitiveness, and then on Greek, and especially Spartan, attitudes to and practices of freedom. All Greeks, probably, liked a good contest. Their word for competitiveness, agonia, gives us our word `agony', which well suggests the driven quality of Greek competition. A war was a contest for them, as was competition in athletics (so called because there was a material or symbolic prize at stake, an athlon). But so too was a lawsuit, and any religious festival that involved athletic and other sorts of competition. It was the Greeks who invented our idea of athletic sports, just as they invented the prototype of our idea of the theatre, both of them within a context of religiously-based but significantly secularised competition.
The Spartans yielded to no other Greeks in their passionate attachment to competition: they even made the act of survival at birth a matter of competition (it was decided by the tribal elders, not by the parents, which boy or girl babies should be allowed to survive and be reared, and which ones hurled to their certain death down a ravine). Likewise adult status for males could be achieved only as the outcome of the series of largely physical competitive tests that constituted an education or group socialisation (known as the Agoge or Upbringing). Thucydides's Pericles referred witheringly to the Spartans' `state-induced' courage, but that was hardly fair to the ancient Greeks' only state-sponsored, compulsory and comprehensive system of public education, which so warmly impressed Plato, Aristotle and Rousseau among many other commentators. Finally, to become a Spartan full adult in terms of political standing and participation, citizenship was dependent on passing an acceptance test--admission by competitive election to a communal dining mess, at the age of twenty. Those who failed any of those educational or citizenship tests were consigned to a limbo of exclusion, of non-belonging, to permanent outsider status.
As for the general Greek passion for freedom, it was said by Critias--an Athenian admirer, admittedly, who was also an extreme authoritarian thinker and politician, leader of the Thirty Tyrants regime (404-403)--that in Sparta there were to be found both the most free people in Greece, and the most unfree. 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 performing any productive labour apart from warfare. By the most unfree the author meant the Helots. These people were treated as a conquered population. They came to outnumber their Spartan masters manifold, and for that reason among others were constantly a source of fear, even terror, to them. In the 460s a massive Helot revolt, following a major earthquake that hit the town of Sparta directly, caused serious damage, psychological as well as political and economic. But the Spartans outmatched the Helots in terror in return. The first act of the Spartans' chief board of annual officials, the five Ephors, on taking office was to declare war in the name of the Spartan state on the Helots collectively, the enemy within. That meant that any killing of Helots by Spartan citizens, deliberate or otherwise, was officially sanctioned, even perhaps encouraged, and, crucially (the Spartans were hugely pious), was in religious terms free from ritual pollution.
The Helots, and the Spartans' severe treatment of them, at first puzzled and later disturbed the more sensitive Greek observers. Plato, for example, remarked that the helot system was the most controversial example of servitude in Greece. This controversy was heightened in Plato's lifetime, when, in the aftermath of a decisive defeat of Sparta by the Boeotians at Leuktra in 371, the larger portion of them, the Messenians, finally achieved their collective freedom and established themselves as free Greek citizens of the restored (as they saw it) free city of Messene. This autonomy was attained, moreover, after another collective revolt--something which slaves elsewhere in Greece could only dream of.
Those two aspects of Spartan culture and society by themselves make Sparta worthy of our continued study, but they far from exhaust Sparta's fascination. Consider the following more or less well attested social customs or practices: institutionalised pederasty between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the compulsory state-run educational cycle; athletic sports including wrestling practised officially by the teenage girls; marriage by capture of a bride by the prospective groom; polyandry (women with more than one husband); and wife-sharing without the opprobrium or legal guilt of adultery.
A common factor runs through much of this: the unusual (indeed, by Greek standards, unique) functions, status and behaviour of the female half of the Spartan citizen population, the women of Sparta, evidence for whom is sufficiently plentiful, but also sufficiently controversial, to provoke and almost justify an entire book on them.
Spartan girls, unlike Athenian girls, underwent a form of state education, separate from the boys but comparably rigorous and physical; this entitled them to equal food rations to enable them to develop physical strength, especially for eugenic reasons. Spartan wives and mothers were not shrinking violets. They openly berated and chastised any hint of cowardice in their sons. They wept tears of pain if their son or husband came back safe but defeated from battle, tears of joy if he died in a winning cause. The laconic admonition `With your shield, or on it', meaning either come back alive and victorious or come back dead and victorious, was credited to the archetypal Spartan mother. They ritually humiliated men who were thought to have remained unmarried for too long, or showed signs of not wanting to get married at all. They inherited and owned property, including land, in their own right. They slept with men other than their husbands, and got away with it, indeed sometimes were actually encouraged to do so--by their husbands.
So independent-minded were they that Aristotle (admittedly not the most liberated of ancient Greeks in his outlook on women) believed that in Sparta the men, for all their prowess on the battlefield, actually were ruled at home by their women. In the second book of his Politics he devoted considerable space to the defects as he saw them of Lycurgus's arrangements, and no single factor did he reckon up more adversely than the excessively powerful position of the citizen women.
We should take at least some of this with a dose of salt. Our written sources are exclusively male and non-Spartan. Nevertheless, we may safely infer that Sparta was in vital respects seriously different, even alien, to the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse. That alone makes Sparta worth studying. Herodotus wrote that he agreed with the Theban poet Pindar that `custom was king', in the sense that every human group believes that its own customs are not only better than those of others but absolutely the best possible. With Sparta, he was on to a winner. Here is an illustration from the seventh book of his Histories.
Shortly before Thermopylae, it was reported to Xerxes that the Spartans were combing and styling their long hair. He had been told, by an exiled Spartan former king in his entourage, that the Spartans feared the Law more even than his Persian subjects feared their Great King and that in obedience to their Law they would never flee in battle, no matter how greatly outnumbered, but stand firm either to conquer or to die. Xerxes had laughed, refusing to believe that men who coiffed their tresses before fighting would make serious opponents in the field. Yet events were soon to confirm the laconic statement reportedly made by the Spartan ex-king: `This is their custom before risking their lives'.
Modern Sparta is a charming provincial capital; a few miles to the west, in the foothills of the Taygetos range, lie the ruins of Mistra, once capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea. Here in the fifteenth century, as the Ottoman Turks prepared for their final assault on Constantinople, a monk, George Gemistos Plethon, sat composing Platonist nostrums for regulating the ideal state of human co-existence.
That utopianism seems a world away from the down-to-earth and brutally efficient society of ancient Sparta. And yet the ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae still resonates, if not always with the happiest of consequences. It is the concept that there are values that are worth dying for. Taken in a destructive direction, as by fundamentalist suicide-bombers, that notion can be wholly repellent. Developed in the direction taken by Lycurgus, however, it can generate ideals of communal co-operation and self-sacrifice that qualify properly and justly for the honorific label of utopia.
I end with one of Lycurgus's more long-lasting endeavours, his involvement--according to some sources--in the foundation of the Olympic Games (traditionally in 776 BC) and in the swearing of the first Olympic truce. That truce, partly religious and partly a pragmatic device to enable the Games to take place despite chronic inter-city warfare, is usually misunderstood. For once, though, a historical misunderstanding can be constructive today and in the future. Modern sport can too often be a form of war minus the shooting, as George Orwell put it. But it need not be so, and it is possible for individuals to go faster and higher and be stronger without provoking or exploiting international hatred. The modern Olympic movement, including the Olympic Truce organisation based at Olympia itself, offers a mental as well as material space for overcoming the sort of lethal differences that continue to divide peoples and cultures. For that ideal, we have to thank, in part at least, a Spartan.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Paul Cartledge Spartan Reflections (2001); Sparta and Lakonia. A regional history 1300-362 BC (2nd edn, 2001); L. Fitzhardinge The Spartans (1980; Charles Freeman The Greek Achievement (2000, paperback 2001); Elizabeth Rawson The Spartan Tradition in European Thought (1969, paperback 1991); N. Sekunda & R. Hook The Spartan Army (Osprey 1998).
Paul Cartledge is Professor of Greek History and Chairman of the Faculty of Classics, in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Clare College.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: To Die for? Paul Cartledge Sees Ancient Spartan Society and Its Fierce Code of Honour as Something Still Relevant Today. Contributors: Cartledge, Paul - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 52. Issue: 8 Publication date: August 2002. Page number: 20+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.