“Go, tell the Spartans!”
Lakeview Jr. High School proudly goes by the nickname “The Spartans“, after the great warrior city-state of Ancient Greece. But who were these 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 millions of documents, classical sources are, for the most part, few, fragmentary and/or exceedingly well-known, some texts having been continuously read in the West for well over two thousand years. ” Getting 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 does an admirable job in this regard, explaining much about Spartan culture in just two short books.
Thermopylae and The Spartans can be an enjoyable introduction to the world of ancient Sparta for the general reader. Of the two, teens are better off reading Thermopylae, as the book uses the heroic battle of the 300 Spartans against the armies of Persia at Thermopylae as the backdrop to explain Sparta’s place in Ancient Greece. Cartledge concisely explains the paradox of hypercompetitive Sparta, at once the “most Greek” of all the Greeks yet also, the people 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 sacrificed 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 semi-Greeks of Syracuse, Sicily, probably had more in common in terms of customs with their Athenian enemies under Nicias in the Peloponnesian War than they did with their allies, the Spartans of Gylippus. Cartledge details the unique passage boys went though in Sparta’s ferociously brutal educational system, the agoge, and the boldness of Spartan women that amazed and disturbed other Greeks. Cartledge also traces the evolution of “the Spartan myth” that culminated in the recent action move 300, by Frank Miller.
In Cartledge’s books the mysterious, secretive and disciplined Spartans become, from glorious rise to ignominious fall, a comprehensible warrior-people .
1. The Spartans, P. 176.
2. Thermopylae, P. 78.