- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003


By Paul Cartledge

Overlook Press, $27.95, 304 pages, illus.


The Persians were later defeated, first by the Athenians at Salamis, and then by the Spartans at Plataea. But the alliance between the two Greek cities soon fell apart, and some 50 years later the Spartans declared war on the Athenians, who had taken control of most of the eastern half of the Greek world because of their naval supremacy. The conflict between Sparta and Athens, known to the Athenians as the Peloponnesian War, continued on and off for a generation. Sparta won decisively, not only because of the brilliant planning of their generals Brasidas and Lysander, but also because of the Athenians’ own mistakes.

In retrospect the Athenians wondered if they had not lost the war in part because of their lifestyle and their lively cultural life. When Plato sketched his plans for a truly just society, he drew on Sparta as a model: Family life would be minimized; women would be educated along with men, only the strongest infants would be raised; everyone would have military training; there would be no recitations of epic poetry, or performances of dramas that might the encourage wrong kinds of emotions, and inspire people to think of themselves rather than the state.

Meanwhile the Spartans had allied themselves with Persia in order to help maintain their hegemony over the rest of Greece; but they soon were defeated by the Thebans, and then by the Macedonians under Philip. In earlier wars the Spartans had relied on the use of hoplites, heavily armed soldiers who stood shield to shield, marching forward in a line against the enemy in a phalanx, like a human tank. But now the opposing forces used long-distance missiles launched from slings, and the hoplite phalanxes could not defend themselves

Nonetheless, despite the ultimate failure of the Spartan military regimen, in times of war it has become almost instinctive to reflect on the remarkable achievements of their unique culture. Paul Cartledge’s new book, “The Spartans,” was written to accompany a PBS series; yet another series aired on the history channel. A new movie will be based on Steven Pressfield’s novel about Thermopylae, “Gates of Fire.” But the visual media inevitably concentrate only on a relatively few dramatic episodes. One still needs to read a book to learn about the details and to acquire a sense of the kinds of sources from which historians are compelled to gather information about Sparta.

Mr. Cartledge’s book provides an ideal starting point. His writing is never dull, and his fast-paced narrative is enlivened by comparisons with recent events, and with interesting portraits of some of the most famous Spartans, like the admirable Leonidas who died with his soldiers at Thermopylae. Leonidas was renowned not just for his courage, but his sayings, which typify what it means to be laconic (Laconia was the area where the village of Sparta was located). When the Persians threatened to attack him witha barrage of arrows, Leonidas calmly observed that then they would fight in the shade. On the day of their last fatal encounter with the Persian army, he is reputed to have said,”Tonight we shall dine in Hades.”

But not all the notable Spartans were kings and generals. Some are the women who stood behind their men, and who raised the next generations of fighters. Unlike their Athenian counterparts, aristocratic Spartan women were educated and participated in athletics; they could also own property. They were celebrated in antiquity for their pithy sayings, such as the Spartan mother’s proverbial “with it or on it,” meaning that her soldier son should bring his shield back home when he returns from campaign or be brought on it dead; leaving it behind and running away was not an option.

Mr. Cartledge rightly concludes that Lycurgus, the supposed founder of the Spartan regime, was a mythical figure, a projection in human form of Spartan values that came into being centuries after the time in which he was supposed to have lived. The author refuses to concentrate only on the positive achievements of the Spartans, but recognizes their limitations as well, both in strategy, and in failure fully to understand the customs of their enemies. They could have defeated the Athenians much sooner than they did, had they tried to cut off their supplies of food, which did not come from the countryside around Athens, but were brought in by ship from as far away as the Black Sea.

Most importantly of all, Mr. Cartledge dispenses with the notion that the Spartans’ military establishment existed primarily as a defense against their external enemies, foreign and Greek. Many writers about Sparta never explain that the Spartan nobles organized their lives to defend themselves not so much against outsiders as against the enemies in their midst. But Mr. Cartledge does not let us forget about the helots or “captive people,” the natives of the neighboring city-state of Messene, whom the Spartans captured and kept in a perpetual state of subjugation. It was with the support of the Messenian workforce that the Spartans were able to accomplish what they did.

When Plato used Sparta as a model for his ideal state, he retained the idea of a ruling class, whose communal life and comforts were supported by inferior “races” of craftsmen and farmers.

Mary Lefkowitz is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College. Her book “Greek Gods, Human Lives” will be published in November by Yale University Press.



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