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

In The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, Rahe usefully refutes received opinion when it comes to Sparta, but it is difficult not to wonder when Sparta’s grand strategy will in fact make an appearance. Was it the quickly abandoned attempt to block the Persian juggernaut in the northern Vale of Tempe? Another candidate might be the attempt to block Xerxes’s forces at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, but the Spartans, of course, did not send the larger force they had promised. While the glorious sacrifice of the three hundred might have been a morale booster for the Greeks—though there is no evidence that it was—strategically it made little sense. Another contender might be the beautiful wall that Herodotus has the Peloponnesians building at the Isthmus of Corinth. But as Herodotus points out, the Persian fleet would easily have outflanked it; in any event, no wall could have stood up to an army the size of Persia’s. Anyway, the Athenians defeated the Persian fleet at Salamis. The strategy, to lure the Persians into the narrow straits where the quality and number of their fleet would actually be a liability, came from the fertile mind of the Athenian Themistocles. As for the Battle of Plataea, in the following year, the truly decisive encounter—for the Persians had to be defeated on land—there the Spartan hoplites under Pausanias certainly proved their mettle. But from Herodotus’s account it is next to impossible to know whether strategic considerations played a part or not. It would appear that the Persians lost because they committed more errors than the Greeks. In his epilogue Rahe maintains that, following the conflict, the Spartans fashioned a strategy of retreating from the war in order to defend their bastion in the Peloponnese. This marks a return to the prewar doctrine of maintaining supremacy in their own neighborhood once the foreign threat had been banished—a strategy, yes, but surely not a grand one. Perhaps Rahe will have more to say about this in the further two volumes on Sparta that he has promised.

The grand strategy that strikes the eye in Rahe’s study is not Greek, but, rather, Persian. This emerges as Rahe skillfully delineates the religious dimensions of Darius’s drive to extend the boundaries of the Persian Empire. “With Darius’ accession we are witnessing in the Near East the triumph of a distinctive strain of Zoroastrianism, which was militant and thoroughly politicized.” Might we be experiencing something similar today in the West?

Gunther Heilbrunn is a retired classicist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Image: 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