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On the Mythic and the Historic

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.

5 Responses to “On the Mythic and the Historic”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    (1) Tyrants to their helots, yes, but amongst the small minority of citizenry, they were free people, and hence typical of the Greek polis.  There was a germ of freedom there, despite the brutality of their dealings with their subjects and even with their own citizens.  We think freedom and equality should go together.  The ancient Greeks did not.  Spartan freedom was founded on inequality.  (Freedom and equality cannot really go together until you have, at least, the steam engine.  Good thing we do.)  So they were at their core, Greek like the rest of Greece, they were not aliens, and they represented an ideal, and the others knew that.   (2) Military success, military glory, manly virtues, blows instead of talk or art or commerce, disdain for death and danger, fortitude in the face of hardship, a long record of war stories and stirring songs and legends and anecdotes, might, power, victory — these will always be admired and respected as long as men are men, and will be lusted after, despite denials and much blushing and dissimulation, as long as women are women. Sparta had all this, in the supersized, super-strength package.  (3) They saved Greece from Persia.  For that, much, if not all, was forgiven.(4)  They saved Greece from Athens.  Same thing.  (5) Unlike Athens, they did not fall apart all by themselves out of frivolousness and infighting and greed.  (6) Any civilization needs its Spartan strengths and virtues, or it will be destroyed by those who do have them, and we all know that.  Of course we love Sparta and its myths.  They are founded on fact and they meet a need.  

  2. TDL Says:

    I disagree with Lex here, but then again my mother’s family is from Naupaktos which was resettled primarily by the Helots after their subjugation by the Spartans.  There was a stark difference between the Spartans & the rest of the tribes/city-states we still call Greeks; they systematically enslaved other Greeks (somewhat verboten @ the time.)  As for freedom, the Spartan system was very much a proto-fascist system that repressed any non-militaristic service to the state (i.e. everything was for the glory of Sparta.)  There is much that Lex says that is true, especially when we get into the more emotional qualities of what Sparta was (something that Spartans cling to even now.)  In the end though, the Spartans did come to end because they became arrogant, corrupt, & greedy (and were eventually undone by Thebes.)


  3. zen Says:

    Hi Lex,
    Victory does give the winner a lot of slack, true.
    "Alien" was a harsh term but my reading, such as it is, gives me the impression that the other Greeks viewed the Spartans with a mixture of admiration for the martial qualities, discipline and extreme religiosity and dislike for their weird affectations of living amongst their own dead (normally taboo), the mores of Spartan women, which most Greeks found offensive and especially Sparta’s enslavement of fellow Greeks that TDL discussed.
    Greeks drew a sharp line between themselves and the barbarians and slavery was something inflicted on barbarians and Sparta knew it, which is why they seldom permitted free Greeks from another polis into their lands, except when they were known (like Xenophon) as Sparta’s friends and representatives. Regarding the germ of freedom, I agree with you. It was there in Sparta but more of it was elsewhere in Greece. I’d prefer the influence of Sparta, civilizationally speaking, to that of Persia, Mycenae or Egypt, but Athens gave us a better legacy.
    The Spartans may have been, in some ways, "the most Greek" but they were also the furthest from the Hellenic mainstream of classical Greece. Maybe they were just the most Dorian.

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    "Athens gave us a better legacy."  True.  And Athens won at Salamis.  But Sparta won at Plataea.  Without both, Greece becomes a conquered province of Persia, and human freedom would have disappeared beneath the stone slab of Asiatic despotism.  Men from both cities were citizens, their foes were slaves driven to battle with whips.  As bad as Sparta was (very bad indeed) and as great as Athens was (nothing has ever been greater) Sparta is part of our DNA and we would not be here without it.  

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    […] The podcast on the Peloponnesian War reminded me of points David Schuler raised in a couple of blog posts that Zenpundit once linked to: […]

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