Men of Sparta resemble us not at all. Their crimes inspire horror. Their virtues make us shiver because we are weak and pusillanimous in good times and bad. Everything that bears a certain character of force or vigor seems to us impossible. The incredulity that we parade is the work of our cowardice rather than our reason.
This conversation is part of an interview I recently had with Paul Rahe, an expert in ancient Greece. Paul has written a trilogy of books on Sparta and the Spartans. You’ll find the links below.
- The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge, Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2015.
- The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy, Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2016.
- Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478-446 B.C., Paul A. Rahe, Yale University Press, 2019.
The full transcript of this conversation can be found below:
Bill: Basically in this warfare, in this era, was it in these groups of squads of eight deep? How many wide were they in general, from like a battle formation?
Paul: It depends on the terrain. And of course it depends on how many of them there are. They cannot spread out, because they need to be close to one another so that the shields interlock.
If the shields aren’t interlocking, it’s useless. But in your question you put points to something important -numbers matter. You really need to have a large community. This particular style of warfare which comes in during the late 8th and early 7th centuries, requires a measure of democracy. These Spartans, to come back to the question of equality that you raised earlier, they are they called the equals or the peers. I think peers may be the better word, because they are a lordly lot.
But among themselves, they’re all for putting down inequality. With the exception of one inequality – the inequality that some are stronger than others. They compete for excellence of a certain kind, but they don’t compete in the sense of keeping up with the Joneses, having the fanciest new car, having jewelry, having the beautiful clothing. At one level, what you have is a kind of socially enforced equality in which you don’t want to stand out because you’re one of the peers. In another way, you have sharp inequalities because some people have more prowess than others. So, they’re highly competitive in certain areas and noncompetitive in other areas.
Bill: Yes, it seems like that would be a way to mitigate that otherwise natural urge to want to compete in other domains with wealth, status, who has the most horses or whatever it was back then, it was normal.
Paul: Right. You know, they did have horses. One of the rules was you can take anybody’s horse and ride it. So, though there are differences in wealth and some people have horses or the portions of the time, because they’re expensive to sustain, there is a sharing of them. There’s a sharing of hunting dogs. There is a kind of communal feeling.
Paul: The other thing is there’s very little privacy, because you live together. It’s a small community, never more than say 10,000. At the time of the Persian War is 8,000. Everybody knows everything about everyone. And if you’ve made a fool of yourself at some point in your life, everyone will remember it. It’s tremendous social pressure to perform.
Bill: Yes, that seems like it’s a competitive cauldron. There’s been some American-Indian cultures that are the same way. I mean, even the American-Indians when they send their warriors out for their, I don’t know what they call it necessarily, but it’s something like a spirit quest where they go out alone and have to survive. It’s similar to what the Greeks did with the Spartan way from the agōgē experience.
You said that they sent them out into the mountains for a year back to the agōgē when they’re 18. Which is really interesting, because my son is 16. They would send the boys/men out at 18 into the mountains. From your book you said the Helots were, essentially the rogue Helots, were in the mountains. They sent the Spartan boys out with knives for a year. First of all, I’d like you to confirm that, and tell me what the actual experience was like and how did you learn that? Is it from oral tradition? Like who’s actually recording these facts that a historian like you would know how to interpret that, to come up with those?
Paul: It comes from a variety of sources. One of them is Herodotus who writes a bit about the Spartans, because they were involved in the Persian wars. Thucydides writes about them, because they were involved obviously in the great war between Athens and the Peloponnesians. In the 4th century after the Spartans defeat the Athenians, they set up an empire. The consequence of that is though they had been secretive in the past, they’re not really capable of being secretive anymore.
There are a whole series of figures who get to know Sparta rather well, including two students of Socrates: Critias who writes a treatise on Sparta that we only have snippets of; Xenophon who writes a treatise that we have in its entirety. But also later figures – the younger than these two, Plato, another student of Socrates writes about them both in his republic and in his laws. Aristotle wrote a constitution of the Lacedaemonians, that the Spartans call Lacedaemon, just as he wrote a constitution of the Athenians. We have Aristotle’s constitution of the Athenians. We don’t have his constitution of the Spartans, or regime of the Spartans, might be a better translation.
But, figures like Plutarch did have that, and they drew heavily on it. We have material from Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, and we have snatches of material from other figures who read these writings about Sparta. And what they had to tell us fits together pretty well. Now this business of going off for a year is called the Krypteia. You’ve probably heard of kryptonite if you’ve ever seen a superman movie. Well the root word means secret.
This is a kind of secret service in which they go undercover, so to speak, for a year. And they live something like Helots, rather than like Spartiates. In many cultures, there are rites of passage when you go from one condition to another condition. We have rights of passage, baptism, we have marriages. You go from being unmarried to being married. We have funerals. You go from living to dead. They had rites of passage that were connected with coming of age. Some Christian churches have confirmation, there are various ceremonies within Judaism that are similar to this, and actually there are ceremonies within Islam as well that have to do with coming of age.
The Spartans have this in a fairly elaborate way and there are stages, and these stages involve tests that you have to pass in order to move on to the higher ranks. We have graduations, 8th grade graduations, high school graduations, college graduations. I’m a parent, I have to go to these things. They’re awful.
Bill: I agree with that. Eighth grade, I don’t understand, what do we accomplish there?
Paul: Yes, right. It’s just… Oh God! But anyway.
Bill: Clearly, sending them away into the mountains was a significant test – for a year in there they’re living like the Helots. You often quote in the book some philosophers that from the 16th century, Montesquieu and Rousseau, and you actually started the book out, and I think this is really fascinating. I’d like to hear why you did that. Here is the quote from Rousseau. “This is clearly about the Spartans and the Lacedaemonians. The crimes inspire in us horror. Sometimes their virtues themselves make us shiver, because we are weak and pusillanimous in good times and bad. Everything that bears a certain character or force and vigor seems to us impossible. The incredulity that we parade is the work of our cowardice rather than that of our reason.” That was from Rousseau, and you started the book out that way. Can you give me some idea of where you were going with that, because that’s really powerful.
Paul: Well, an awful lot of the scholarship on Sparta in the 20th century and stretching into the 21st century has been guilty of incredulity. A simple refusal to believe what the ancient sources tell us about Sparta. In the 30s, there was a book written by a French scholar called Le Mirage Spartiate, The Spartan Mirage. I don’t believe there was much of a Spartan mirage. I think the problem is exactly what Rousseau identified in the 18th century, which is, we live comfortable bourgeois lives and we just can’t believe that these people were as tough, and as disciplined and as dedicated, as they obviously were.
Now another reason I use the passage from Rousseau is this, in the 19th century and in the 20th century and into the 21st century, there’s a great fascination with Athens. There is a propensity for us to imagine that the Athenians were just like us. We looked to Athens as a kind of model for democracy. Prior to the French Revolution, no one, not one figure I can think of as an exception to this. Marchamont Nedham looked to Athens as a model. They looked to Sparta and they looked to Rome.
Paul: Rousseau is in some ways typical. I could have extracted a very similar statement from a figure in the Scottish enlightenment named Adam Ferguson, who wrote a book on the history of civil society. Adam Ferguson was familiar with the highlanders in Scotland. And when you read him talking about Sparta, you can see that he’s really talking about the highlanders who lived a life not unlike that of the Spartans.
Bill: Yes. I think there’s a shocking part to it, because we grow up and tend to be soft in the Western world. It’s unbelievable to think that you would take the children away at seven. But what’s really interesting, I think you mentioned it in the book, either way maybe you can confirm this story or not, but when the boys were reintroduced to the mothers, was that relationship gone forever or not? Because the stories I’ve heard is that the mothers would say, “Listen, go out to battle and win the battle and either come back their swords and their shields, or you come back with your head on someone else’s, or something of that nature.
Paul: It’s more laconic. The Spartan mother handed the shield to her son and she says, “With it or on it.” Okay. With it means, you kept your shield, you fought in battle. On it means, you’re dead. Now the alternative is you throw it away and you run as fast as you can. Now you can’t run with that shield. It’s too bulky and too heavy, they’ll catch you. If you lose in battle, you throw away your shield. And what the Spartan mother says to him is, “With it or on it.”
My view is we have the sayings of the Spartan women. We have a bunch of these that Plutarch records. I think the relationship between mothers and sons is intensified by taking the boy away from the mother. That is to say there is deep longing on both sides. And you frustrate that longing, you intensify that longing.
There’s a kind of irony here that in trying to loosen the relations, they actually tighten the relations.
Bill: Now from the clear abundance of writing on the topic, how tough were the Spartans? Meaning if a Spartan were in battle, what was the force multiplier? Like was one Spartan worth 10 Helot warriors or was one Spartan the equivalent of 30? And was it clearly the physical presence or was it their ability to think that made them different? Is there any clarity on this?
Paul: There are three different things that make them different. The first is physical strength. If you devote yourself to gaining in physical strength, you’re likely to be pretty good. The second thing is drill. Greeks are amateurs on the battlefield. They’re farmers, they are soldiers on the weekend, if there is a weekend. There’s not a whole lot of drilling. The Spartans can maneuver, a command can be given and they can do it. Marching and counter marching and changing the formation and so forth, they’re really very capable of that. They’ve got a flexibility that other Greek armies don’t have. The third thing is prestige. At some point the Spartans begin having a lambda for Lacedaemon on their shields. What it means is, if a Spartan army is closing in on you, you know who it is closing in on you, it’s the Spartans closing in on you. One of the things that we see is that the other side simply cuts and runs.
There’s a great battle in 418 BC in Mantinea which I have written about in my new book that came out this past August. It’s called, Sparta’s First Attic War. And at that battle, two armies, the Spartans and some of their local allies, the Argives, some Athenians the Mantineans, they join in battle. The armies are roughly equal in size. The Argives are the great rivals of the Spartans within the Peloponnesus, and this is their chance to become the dominant power. They close, and it’s the Spartans on one side versus the Argives on the other in that part of the battle line, and the Argives cut and run.
Bill: Just ran?
Paul: Yes. So, you know, prestige is a tremendous force multiplier, because if you think you’re going to be beaten, the way to try to save your life is to cut and run. So, that’s one part of it. But the other part of it is endurance. I said something about strength, but it’s more than just raw strength. The Spartans don’t give up. And of course, the famous example of that is Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae where they fight to the death. If you are a Greek Hoplite from some other city, you don’t want to fight against people who are going to fight to the death. You want to fight against people who you will clash with and then they will cut and run. But the Spartans will never cut and run.
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