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

An additional democratic element was the Assembly of Spartiates—left unmentioned by Rahe, perhaps because it was not very democratic. This resembles the Homeric assembly, in which the crowd of warriors was presented with a proposal, to which it might give or deny assent by shouting. Thucydides describes the assembly in which the Spartans decided on war with Athens. He records two speeches—a long intricate one by the elderly King Archidamus, arguing for a delay until the Spartans could prepare adequately for such an undertaking, and a real stem-winder by the ephor Sthenelaidas. To ensure that he obtained the majority, he altered the usual procedure of shouting by having those in favor of war move to one side. Thus, anybody thinking of moving to the peace side would know that his fellows would brand him a milquetoast. The war hawks won by a big margin. (So much for Rahe’s belief in the wise and moderate stewardship of the old in Sparta.) The incident reveals, too, the arbitrary power of an ephor who could change a long-standing practice the instant it suited him.

Kings had limited powers, but were sacral figures who reigned for life. Ephors might resemble tyrants, but were elected annually. Elders ruled through their prestige and the deference Spartans paid to the old, their tenure truncated only by death. Rahe finds in the checks and balances of this triad a powerful barrier to stasis; it removes any reason for discord between the few and many. The rights of private property and inheritance are upheld without creating any deep antagonism.

Is it as simple as that? There are good reasons for the widespread impression, in antiquity as well as modernity, that Sparta was in fact an oligarchy. Xenophon, for one, relates that when Lycurgus was formulating the laws for Sparta, he took care to get the assent of the kratistoi, the most powerful and wealthiest men in the city. “These same figures,” he writes, “collaborated in establishing the power of the ephorate. . . . For the more power the office had, the more they thought it would cow the citizens into submission.”

So Xenophon, an eyewitness of Spartan practices and ways, did not think Sparta particularly democratic. What’s more, Herodotus and Thucydides both attest to the primacy of powerful families; the former mentions influential clans by name. Herodotus tells the story of angry Spartans casting two Persian heralds, who had demanded tokens of submission, into a well. Even then, international norms existed in mythical garb, protecting heralds from harm. It was enforced by the “anger of Talthybius, the herald of Agamemnon,” though what form this wrath took is never made clear. After holding numerous assemblies, the Spartans issued a proclamation to ascertain whether any Lacedaemonian was prepared to die in order to appease Talthybius. Two wealthy, aristocratic Spartiates volunteered to travel to Persia. The assemblies were window dressing: the suicide mission resulted from an agreement between families. Thucydides relates that the Spartan authorities were eager to reach an accommodation with Athens to recover the men captured on the island off Pylos, “especially the Spartiates who belonged to the first families and were accordingly related to leading men in Sparta.” It’s common knowledge that Sparta supported oligarchic regimes around the Aegean, just as Athens did democracies. Behind the façade of the mixed regime, at any rate, prominent families exerted decisive influence, as they did in Athens.

RAHE’S MOST ambitious claim is that Sparta had a grand strategy, or, to put it more precisely, two strategies. In The Spartan Regime, Rahe shows how Sparta, through a combination of conquest and alliances, became the hegemonic power of the Peloponnese, stalemating its Argive rival while suppressing the Arcadians. The second strategy served to defeat the Persian invaders in 480 and 470 BC in alliance with the Athenians. Rahe is superb as a military historian. His description of the conquest of the Peloponnese, for example, is fascinating. But how much of what Rahe attributes to design was the outcome of ad hoc decisions? And how exactly was the Spartan regime’s nature reflected in its strategy?