The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

By Elizabeth Rawson | Go to book overview
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By 404 B.C. Sparta had brought Athens to her knees and succeeded to the hegemony of most of Greece. The impression made by this achievement was enormous, though to us Athens' mistakes and Persia's gold may seem to have had a good deal to do with it. There seems to have been a spate of literature, now almost entirely lost, describing Sparta's institutions from a crudely utilitarian viewpoint, even though Athens, and some of Sparta's former allies, were soon struggling not without success against her predominance. Aristotle complains that many laconizing works simply praise these institutions as conducive to victory and conquest (the idea of Spartan timidity and slowness has disappeared), and instances that of one Thibron,1 probably the Spartan commander of that name active against Persia in the 390s. Plato Laws2 also suggests that the Spartans (and Cretans) themselves regarded their' way of life as purely military in purpose: one of the interlocutors points out that the place looks more like a camp than a City.3 But they were clearly not alone.

The one surviving work with the title, so common in antiquity, The Lacedaemonian Constitution (or Politeia) to some extent reflects this narrow viewpoint. Its attribution to Xenophon has occasionally been questioned since antiquity, but it was certainly written by an Athenian (and for an Athenian audience) early in the century. If it is Xenophon's, it must date from the period in his life when this probably well-born young acquaintance of Socrates was in close contact with the ruling power. After his famous adventures in Asia Minor he found himself fighting under the Spartan King Agesilaus against Persia, and then against his own city. Under

Aristotle, Politics 1333b, cf Xenophon, Hellenica iii. i and iv. 8.
Plato, Laws i. 626c etc.
Isocrates in the Archidamus puts in that Spartan prince's mouth the claim that his state's superiority has always been due to its being run like an army.


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