On the Mythic and the HistoricThursday, February 3rd, 2011
My amigo Sean Meade ponders:
Notes: The Problem with Sparta
So here are some of the ideas and notes, for posterity.The Problem with Sparta (and Greece)
300 (original graphic novel by Frank Miller and better-known movie)
Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill
The fiction glorifies Sparta while the non-fiction is more critical than laudatory. I was struck by how much the fictional Sparta, in three stories I really love, did not match the history I’d been studying.
Did Pressfield make his story more palatable to his readership by soft-pedaling Helot slavery, radical conservatism and aristocracy, oligarchy and homosexuality and pederasty?
We moderns are very critical of the real, historical Sparta. Insofar as it stands in for Greece in the fiction above, it’s an inaccurate portrayal. To say nothing of all the problems with our view of the Golden Age of Athens…
Ah, the tension between history and myth.
Admiration for ancient Sparta was imprinted into Western culture because Sparta’s Athenian apologists, including Xenophon but above all Plato, left behind a deep intellectual legacy that includes a romantic idealization of Sparta that contrasts sharply with the criticisms leveled by Thucydides against Athens in The Peloponnesian War. The Melian Dialogue remains a searing indictment against Athens 2,500 years later but no equivalent vignette tells the tale of the Helots living under the reign of terror of the Spartan Krypteia. Plato’s Republic upholds oligarchic authoritarianism inspired by Sparta as utopia while Athenian democracy is remembered partly for the political murder of Socrates and the folly of the expedition to Syracuse. Somehow, ancient Athens lost the historical P.R. war to a rival whose xenophobic, cruel, anti-intellectual and at times, genuinely creepy polis struck other Greeks as alien and disturbing, no matter how much Sparta’s superb prowess at arms might be applauded.
The fact that the vast majority of the ancient classic texts were lost, or as Dave Schuler likes to note, very selectively preserved and edited – at times, invented – by later peoples with agendas, may account for some of the discrepancy.