To Die for? Paul Cartledge Sees Ancient Spartan Society and Its Fierce Code of Honour as Something Still Relevant Today

By Cartledge, Paul | History Today, August 2002 | Go to article overview

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. …

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