“Go, tell the Spartans!”

Recently, I finished reading Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Vintage) and The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Cambridge professor and historian of classical Greece, Paul Cartledge. Scholars of the classical period have to be artists among historians for it is in this subfield that the historian’s craft matters most. While modern historians are literally drowning in documents, classical sources are, for the most part, fragmentary and/or exceedingly well-known, some texts having been continuously read in the West for well over twenty centuries. The ability to “get the story right” depend’s heavily upon the historian’s ability to elicit an elusive but complicated context in order to interpret for the reader or student. Dr. Cartledge acquits himself admirably in this regard.

Thermopylae and The Spartans can be profitably read by specialists yet also serve as an enjoyable introduction to the world of ancient Sparta to the general reader. Cartledge concisely explains the paradox of Sparta, at once the “most Greek” polis among the Greeks yet also, the most alien and distinct from the rest of the far-flung Greek world:

“Again, when Xenophon described the Spartans as ‘craftsmen of war’ he was referring specifically to military manifestations of their religious zeal, such as animal sacrifices performed on crossing a river frontier or even the battlefield as battle was about to be joined. The Spartans were particularly keen on such military divination. If the signs (of a acrificed animal’s entrails) were not ‘right’, then even an imperatively necessary military action might be delayed, aborted or avoided altogether” (1)

“Plutarch in his ‘biography’ of Lycurgus says that the lawgiver was concerned to rid Spartans of any unnecessary fear of death and dying. To that end, he permitted the corpses of all Spartans, adults no less than infants, to be buried among the habitations of the living, within the regular settlement area-and not, as was the norm elsewhere in the entire Greek world from at the latest 700 BCE, carefully segregated in separately demarcated cemetaries away from the living spaces.  The Spartans did not share the normal Greek view that burial automatically brought pollution (miasma).”(2)

The quasi-Greeks of Syracuse probably had more in common in terms of customs with their Athenian enemies under Nicias than they did with the Spartans of Gylippus. Cartledge details the unique passage of the agoge and the boldness of Spartan women that amazed and disturbed other Greeks as well as tracing the evolution of “the Spartan myth”. In Cartledge’s work the mysterious Spartans become, from glorious rise to ignominious fall, a comprehensible people.

1. The Spartans, P. 176.

2. Thermopylae, P. 78.

5 comments on this post.
  1. strategist:

    Good reviews, Mark. I’m particularly keen on reading The Spartans. Having just finished reading Victor Hanson’s A War Like No Other – an account of the Peloponnesian War – I’m looking for another good Greek history to read.

  2. Lexington Green:

    These both sound good, and I will add them to my list, which is the outer layer of my gray knowledge, if I understand the terminology correcly. But my next Greek history is going to be the Anabasis — based on an earlier post by you, once certain other commitments are taken care of. You can take the boy out of the University of Chicago, but you cannot take the U of C out of the boy — always go back to the original texts if possible.

  3. zen:

    Hi Strat,
    Are you going to review A War Like No Other ? I’m curious on your take on VDH as a historian.
    Hi Lex,
    You’ll enjoy the Anabasis. I agree with you on texts. Guys like Cartledge can read them in the original languages but I must rely on skilled translators. On a different genre, I’ll pick up a copy of Starship Troopers next time I go to Border’s.

  4. Fabius Maximus:

    A War Like No Other is a fascinating work, but its a case of "reader beware."  I realized this only at p 207, with this passage about the envents before the Athenian expedition sailed for Syracuse:
    "While Alcibiades may have been involved with the pranks that defamed the secret ferility rites at Eleusis, he probably had nothing to do with the bolder escapade to mutilate the hermes, stone totems sacred to Hermes that dotted the Attic landscape to ensure devine protection for travelers and private households."
    How nice that he delivers this verdict, perhaps speaking ex cathedra.  But how does he know?  We can only guess, for he does not elaborate on this important point.
    The book is filled with these judgements, which are often not clearly indicated to the reader.

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