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

Paul Anthony Rahe, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 424 pp., $24.00.

———, The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 232 pp., $38.00.

ATHENS AND Sparta were not only the great powers of classical Greece, but also exponents of sharply diverging visions of what a fulfilled human life might be. Sparta idealized self-effacement and engaged in constant training and readiness to defend itself. Athens, by contrast, prided itself on cherishing the pleasures of private life without succumbing to a self-indulgent disregard of its civic and military duties. At least this was the flattering description offered by Pericles after the first years of the great war with Sparta and its allies in 430 BC.

Athens may have been the first democracy, with architecture and drama second to none, but until the nineteenth century Athenian politics enjoyed a dismal reputation. Its democratic assemblies provided a cautionary tale of turbulence and disorder, proof that an ignorant mob was incapable of self-government. Ancient commentators were no better disposed to the rule of the demos; their warnings were taken to heart by the American founders, who sought, as far as possible, to shield government from the depredations of direct popular rule. Since then, of course, the barriers have steadily fallen and the stock of Athens commensurately risen. Now Paul A. Rahe seeks to restore the earlier veneration of Sparta. His aim is to teach, or at least remind, Americans of the difference between a republic and a democracy, a distinction that he believes has been effaced to our peril.

Rahe’s view of America could hardly be direr. In his massive Republics Ancient and Modern, which was published in 1992, the same year as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Rahe first offered his meditations on the future of the American republic. Both Rahe and Fukuyama have been deeply influenced by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, who emphasized the gulf (alluded to in the title of Rahe’s book) between ancients and moderns. But unlike Fukuyama, whose reaction to the outcome of the fall of the Soviet Union was mixed, Rahe took no comfort from it at all. Quite the contrary: he maintained that there was nothing to be complacent about. The United States had long ago abandoned the ideals of a virtuous republic, replacing them with an administrative state that coddled its wards from cradle to grave. Since then, Rahe has offered similarly despondent verdicts in a series of erudite studies of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville. Though his latest studies of Sparta do not comment explicitly on the decadence of the West, their warm embrace of Spartan ways, particularly when read in light of his previous works, may be taken as an implicit condemnation. Indeed, essential chapters of Rahe’s Republics have been incorporated into the present Regime.

RAHE’S POLITICAL pugnacity may help explain why such a prolific scholar, whose books appear under the auspices of eminent university presses, teaches at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan. Hillsdale presents itself as a nondenominational Christian institution whose mission is to guide its students back to the precepts and ideals of the Founding Fathers. As Erik Eckholm observed in the New York Times, scholars at Hillsdale allege that the American tradition, as laid out in its founding documents, “has been desecrated by a century of governmental overreach, including the New Deal and Obamacare.” Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale, and a former president of the Claremont Institute, which forms something of a redoubt of West Coast Straussians, declared that 2017 augured a “beginning to restore limited government.” Rahe himself has denounced everything from progressivism to the New Deal with gusto, pointing to a “steady erosion of our political and our private rights” in his book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift. A staunch fiscal and moral conservative, Rahe described Trump on his personal blog in November 2016 as a “swine” and “no conservative,” but stated that the depravity of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party meant that “you should hold your nose and vote for the slimeball anyway.”

For all his zest for polemics, however, Rahe is careful not to allow it to mar his scrupulous scholarship. His latest works, The Spartan Regime and The Grand Strategy of Sparta, thus offer a fine opportunity to examine the legendary warrior society. He covers a wide swath of territory, seeking to understand Sparta as it understood itself. Throughout, Rahe displays an unruffled temper in carefully weighing the evidence and in deciphering Greek and Oriental sources, apart from his disdain for social scientists. “Thou shalt not,” he might say along with Auden, “commit a social science.”

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.

Otherwise Rahe’s picture is one of Spartiates making music, wrestling, boxing: “They hunted, they dined, they cracked jokes, and they took their repose.” We know of one kind of music they made together—namely, singing the elegies of Tyrtaeus. Tyrtaeus composed patriotic hymns meant to rally Spartan soldiers in the worst moments of the Second Messenian War, in the seventh century BC. The poems look forward not to victory, but to averting the disgrace of defeat: “It is a noble thing for a brave man to die, / Falling in the front ranks, doing battle for the fatherland.” The diction is Homeric, but where the Homeric hero fought for immortal glory in battle and likely death for himself, Tyrtaeus’s Spartans seek above all to avoid disgrace were they to flinch from facing death. Shame becomes the great deterrent to cowardice. Rahe observes, “Tyrtaeus introduced a new, fully political standard for measuring the merit of men. No longer would the Spartans assess a man’s status by anything other than his contribution to the welfare of the pólıs as a whole.”

This is right, but misses something significant: the love of death that the poems seem to betray. The lesson imparted is that to die fighting is the finest meaning one can give his life. Paul Cartledge links this ethos of death with the virtually suicidal resistance of the three hundred Spartiates to the army of Xerxes at Thermopylae. They died heroic deaths, frustrated Xerxes for three days and gained for the Greeks a slight tactical advantage. Jacob Burckhardt’s judgment was that the “tiny band under Leonidas was intentionally sacrificed so that Sparta might gain renown without having to expose its principal force to the possibility of defeat.” The Spartan authorities had promised Leonidas that they would reinforce his exploratory force with the bulk of their army. They never arrived. Leonidas and the three hundred had, at any rate, displayed the conduct that Germans called Kadavergehorsam, or the obedience of corpses.

FOR TYRTAEUS, the Messenians were subhuman, “like asses worn down by heavy burdens, bearing under harsh compulsion for their masters the half of the harvest brought by the land.” Here, the Helot’s job is to farm the land. Later they were to be found going about business in the agora, the civic center of Sparta, as we learn from Xenophon’s account of the conspiracy of Cinadon in his Hellenica. No date is given, but a year earlier, in 399 BC, Agesilaus, who would become the friend and patron of Xenophon, had ascended to the throne after a nasty succession dispute. Though congenitally lame, he had escaped the infanticide usually meted out to deformed offspring. He seemed likely to lose the contest with his rival because of an oracle being circulated to the effect that Spartans should guard against “a lame kingship.” Agesilaus, however, had a powerful backer in Lysander, his former lover, who urged that the oracle be interpreted in a less literal fashion: “The god was not warning us to guard against somebody stumbling and becoming lame but against a person not in the royal line becoming king.” However contrived this reading might seem, it gave Lysander’s partisans the cover they required to vote for Agesilaus. The oracle had, in any case, most likely been manufactured on behalf of his rival’s candidacy.

The uncertainty, hard feelings and confusion engendered by the dispute form the background of Cinadon’s conspiracy. One day an unidentified man appeared before the ephors “with information not only of the existence of a conspiracy but also of the name of the leader . . . a young man called Cinadon, strong, healthy and with plenty of courage, but not one of the homoioi,” the Equals or full citizens who were entitled, indeed obliged, to take their meals in the common messes and who constituted the master class. Cinadon, said the informant, had pointed out to him the enormous disparity in numbers between the scattering of Spartiates in the agora and on the roads compared to their inferiors, at a ratio of a hundred to one. The prospect of helots, déclassé Spartans and Inferiors joining up was certain, “their feelings toward Spartiates being such that they would like nothing better than to eat them alive.” The alarmed ephors consulted with members of the Senate, summoned Cinadon and ordered him on a mission to a country town to convey certain suspects back to them. Among them was “the most beautiful woman of those parts, who seemed likely to corrupt both older and younger Lacedaemonians coming there.” Once there, Cinadon was arrested, forced to divulge the names of fellow conspirators and hauled before the ephors. What, they asked, was he trying to achieve? “To be inferior to none in Sparta,” he responded. “After this,” we are told, “his hands were bound and his neck fixed fast in a collar. Beneath lashes and spear thrusts he and those with him were dragged through the city, and so they got their punishment.” Punishment is an oblique way of saying that they were executed.

The story gives us an unusual glimpse into the interior of Spartan life. The degree of the ephors’ alarm is noteworthy; they even alerted a cavalry regiment in the event that the arrest did not go smoothly. The men arrested were roughly dealt with, as the ephors had unrestricted power to deal with malcontents. They could commandeer army detachments in an emergency. Social tensions were clearly simmering beneath the placid surface of Spartan unanimity in opinion and feeling, for which Rahe has immense respect. “Without this chapter,” writes George Cawkwell, “the obscurity surrounding ancient Sparta would be ten times more opaque.” Mentioning it would have put flesh and blood on what are, in many instances, Rahe’s rather abstract musings on the Spartan polity. It would have complicated his picture of a Sparta undisturbed by the social conflicts endemic to the Greek poleis. The story does demonstrate the effects of the intense competitiveness—the love of honor—about which Rahe is quite perceptive. For there to be winners, there also had to be losers who would nurse their grievances. Cinadon might well have been one of those expelled from the syssitia, the common meals central to Spartiate existence, for falling beneath the minimum property qualification. The Equals, that is, were not equal. Inequalities in wealth and status steadily increased, owing to heredity laws, as land holdings became ever more concentrated. Cinadon and the Inferiors whom he hoped to enlist in his little vendetta might have been the victims of this system, in which collectivization of the activities of life rested on the retention of private property, and entry into the seigneurial class was conditional on such property. Such “social” facts pass through the filter of Rahe’s “primacy of politics.”

WHY RAHE, who makes no secret of his social conservatism, should feel any affection whatsoever for a system that relegated the family to a secondary role, that separated boys from the family at a tender age to harden them for military service, and that made pederastic attachments more emotionally satisfying than those of man and wife, is puzzling. A tentative answer may be found in his preoccupation with stasis, or factionalism, which he shares with the ancient sources. The Greek polis was riven by factions, coalescing at times around charismatic personalities, and usually setting rich and poor at each other’s throats. Oligarchs and democrats might hate each other more than they did the city’s foreign enemies. Rahe reminds his readers that stasis was very much on Madison’s mind when he proposed his celebrated remedy in Federalist 10. Madison proposed that instead of trying to cure the causes of faction, one might treat its effects. A multiplicity of factions in a territorially extended republic would prevent any one from gaining the power to oppress the rest. Interest would be stymied by interest. Alas, the slave interest was not to be contained by such essentially mechanical expedients, and Madison’s solution could not avert the Civil War. Rahe wishes to do Madison one better by looking back to Sparta. Here was no reliance on effects; by creating a uniformity of feeling and opinion, on the analogy of Rousseau’s general will, Sparta eradicated the very causes of faction. The band of brothers, so close that they might at times engage in wife-swapping, would at all times share opinions.

Rahe sees not just the fierce Spartan educational routine producing unanimity of thought and feeling, but also the mixed regime as an antidote to stasis. All larger interests are, so to speak, represented. The two kings, descended from the Panhellenic hero Heracles, exuding an aura of divinity, are obviously the monarchical element. In historical times, they functioned primarily as military leaders outside the boundaries of the polis; within, their duties were in the main ceremonial. This is why they played no part in quashing the conspiracy of Cinadon. The Gerousia, a council of twenty-eight experienced Spartiates along with the two kings, formed the aristocratic element. Its members, all over sixty years old, seem to have set policy and the general direction of the polis. Rahe, drawing on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, stresses the moderation of the old in tamping down the revolutionary and reformist impulses of the young (where would Bernie Sanders fit in?). These two instances must still be supplemented by a third, namely the board of five ephors elected annually, in contrast to the life terms of the Elders. Here is the democratic element. The ephors were a later addition to the politeia, introduced as a counterweight to the kings, from whom they extract a monthly oath “to rule,” Xenophon writes, “according to the city’s established laws.” He further notes that “everyone rises from their place for a king, except ephors from their chairs of office.” In exceptional circumstances, they might prosecute and imprison a king.

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?

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