Meet the Spartans

Men dressed as ancient Greek warriors stand in front of the parliament building during a performance in Athens, Greece, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

There are good reasons for the widespread impression, in antiquity as well as modernity, that Sparta was in fact an oligarchy.

November-December 2017

Since the very concept of “society” could not be predicated of the ancient polis, there is nothing for social scientists to study. If there is no society, then the primacy of politics becomes obvious. Indeed, the first volume of Republics Ancient and Modern begins with a chapter entitled “The Primacy of Politics in Classical Greece.” Ancient thinkers may not have had the concept of a society in their kit bags, but that doesn’t bar us from using it in a cautious way if we find things that look like and talk like “society.” The concept of politeia, which Rahe terms “regime,” (a practice popularized by Strauss) is expansive enough to include almost anything societal. Xenophon, for example, begins his Politeia of the Lacedaemonians with a disquisition on Spartan childbirth and marriage practices. Rahe, like the rest of us, is bound to have recourse to contemporary criteria, just as his interest in Sparta may have some of its sources in current political tensions. The question hovering over his work is whether he offers an idealized portrait of an ancient society unflinchingly subordinating untutored impulses to the common weal.

A formalistic view of politics sometimes distorts Rahe’s understanding of the texts. “Thucydides,” he writes, “depicted the great war between Athens and Sparta as an epic contest between two different polıteíaı and used his history to analyze the weaknesses of each.” He seems to have in mind the contest between a democratic regime and one that is a mixture, with democratic, aristocratic and monarchical elements balanced against each other. Thucydides, in fact, has virtually nothing to say about the structure and workings of the Spartan regime, save for what emerges incidentally from his narrative of the war. He does advert repeatedly to the contrasting character traits of Athenians and Spartans, the former ever on the lookout to seize an advantage, oriented towards what is new and challenging, while Spartans for all their military prowess are sluggish, slow to react and more intent on preserving what they possess than searching for new worlds to conquer. Athenians are mobile, turning to the sea for commercial gain and creating the naval empire that strengthened and radicalized their democracy. By enlisting in the fleet, Athenians of the lower census classes won political influence, while tribute from the subject cities enriched the “tyrant polis,” as it came to be known to those allies. Of these political ramifications, though, Thucydides has little to tell.

In contrast to the Athenian temper, caught by Thucydides in the unforgettable phrase “in doomed love of what is far off,” Sparta would not have gone to war with Athens had it not been consumed by fear of Athenian expansion. Its power rested in the land; it resisted the foreign influences to which Athens was exposed, in part by periodically expelling outsiders from its territory. When Xenophon, after praising the Lycurgan constitution, laments the depths to which the polis has sunk in neglecting Lycurgus’s laws, he singles out the failure of the Spartans to continue the expulsions. Without a rigorous exclusion of the new, the Spartans could not be relied upon to preserve their noble traditions.

THE SPARTANS were, of course, notorious for their piety. Athenians, as shown among much else by the trial of Socrates, were not deficient when it came to religious fanaticism. But Spartan devotion to ritual exceeded the norm of Greek societies. Spartans nourished close ties to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which returned the favor. Spartan hoplites turned up a day late for the Battle of Marathon with the excuse that they had been held up by a religious festival. But the picture of Spartan caution and reluctance to project its military power would be incomplete without mentioning the peril posed by the Helots. The Helots constituted the majority of the slaves held by Spartans; they performed the labor, agricultural, domestic and craft-oriented, for their masters, who were forbidden by law from engaging in labor of any sort apart from hunting and military exercises. Chattel slavery, to be sure, was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean world. The Spartan variety was different in that it procured a servile labor force neither by war, nor purchase, but through the conquest of the southwest Peloponnese, particularly Messenia.

The Messenians, bound to their ancient soil, continued to cherish national memories and aspirations during centuries of subjection. By contrast, Athenian slaves, numbering perhaps many multiples of the free citizens, were polyglot and deracinated; we hear of no rebellions. The Messenians took to arms in at least three fierce conflicts. Indeed, a permanent state of war existed between Spartiates—the citizen-warriors—and the Helots. At the beginning of each year, the ephors, or overseers, declared war on the Helots; that allowed any Spartan who murdered a Helot to escape the pollution he would otherwise incur. As part of their initiation into manhood, young Spartans became members of the Krypteia. The object of this secret service was to catch and kill any Helot it might find roaming about during the night. Night became a natural element for Spartiates, who were forbidden to use torches when they moved about in the dark, and whose armies marched at night. Rahe acknowledges in the conclusion of Regime that the privileged communal life of the Spartiate seigneurs had “one precondition: Lacedaemon’s continued dominion over Laconia and Messenia and her brutal subjection of the Helots on both sides of Mount Taygetus,” which separates Laconia from Messenia.