[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
Our friends at The Strategy Bridge are continuing their own explanation of the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides’ timeless take on it. Ali Wyne from The Atlantic Council responds to Dr. Frank Hoffman’s previous post at War on the Rocks on “Thucydides: Reading Between the Lines“:
….Far from being incidental to the Spartan polis, slavery was among its central characteristics. Slaves—or helots, as they were known—widely outnumbered non-slaves, perhaps by as much as a factor of ten. According to the director of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies, a “fundamental feature of Spartan society was that the Spartiate citizens lived as rentier landowners supported by a servile population…who worked their estates.” Any disturbance to this arrangement threatened not only Sparta’s agrarian economy, but also, by extension, the leadership’s authority. The English classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford observed how centrally “the constant menace of revolt” figured in its decision-making: “To meet this danger, and not for the purposes of conquest, their military system was designed and maintained.” Sparta spared no measure to achieve domestic tranquility: the University of British Columbia’s Nigel Kennell observes that it “regularly sent young elite soldiers out into the countryside as armed death squads to murder any helot they found on the roads after dark or any working in the fields they thought too robust.”
As Cornford’s judgment implies, however, fear of a slave revolt did more than influence Sparta’s approach to internal order; it was instrumental in shaping the city-state’s foreign policy, for an external antagonist—or even mere opportunist—could attempt to turn the helots against Sparta’s leaders. As it happens, they scarcely required encouragement. According to Jean Ducat, France’s foremost authority on Sparta, there existed “a state of open war between the helots and the Spartans throughout the period from 520 to 460.” Most notably, following an earthquake in the Eurotas Valley in 464 that destroyed much of Sparta, the city-state’s slaves joined forces with their counterparts in Messenia to attempt a coup. Even though strategic tensions between Sparta and Athens had been rising following their collective defeat of the Persians in 479, the former initially welcomed the latter’s assistance in suppressing the uprising. Soon, however, Sparta asked the Athenian contingent to leave, fearing that the democratic ideology of its members might encourage further helot subversion: British historian Paul Cartledge explains that “[t]he Spartans simply did not want several thousands of democratically minded citizen-soldiers running loose among their Greek servile underclass in their tightly controlled territory.”
The paradoxical nature of Spartan culture and its leadership in the Hellenic world is something worth pondering.
The Spartans were at once the most Greek of the Greeks yet also in some respects rather weird and alien. Their religious zeal for attending to religious rites and habit of relying upon divinatory guidance to military campaigns has already been remarked upon in this roundtable. Similarly, A,E. Clark and T. Greer have debated the meaning attached to Spartan “honor” and it’s impact on Spartan moral reasoning. The upper classes of other Greek polities, including Athens itself, were often admirers of ascetic Spartan martial virtues, it’s Agoge and the despotic regimentation the Spartiates imposed on the lower classes and helots (we can include Thucydides to a degree among their number). I.F. Stone wrote of young Athenian aristocrats as “Socratified youth”, swaggering through the streets with red cloaks and clubs in imitation of Spartans. Even the Athenian hedonist noble par excellence, exiled Alcibiades, joined in Spartan customs with sufficient enthusiasm to charm his grim hosts.
But the Spartans were also strange. They were the only polity to enslave on a massive scale their fellow Greeks, which was both the basis of their power as well as their Achilles heel. They scandalized other Greeks with the boldness of Spartan women, their penchant for sadistic whipping contests and their eerie practice of living and working among the remains of their dead. Finally their harsh eugenic practices which made every Spartiate life almost too valuable to lose. These things made Sparta different from it’s allies and rivals, shaped the political judgement of Spartan leaders and the strategies by which they pursued victory.