What Happened When Sparta Stopped Innovating on the Battlefield?
Sparta had a dominating run over 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean. One of the causes of their decline was that they shifted their focus in order to become an Imperial power. The formidable culture that they had built was stretched. Accountability weakened and the decline happened. They stopped innovating on the battlefield and stopped living lives in accordance with Spartan principles.
What can we learn from them, from their mistakes and their strengths and their leadership? This conversation is part of an interview I recently had with Paul Rahe, an expert on ancient Greece. Paul has written a trilogy of books on Sparta and the Spartans. You’ll find the links at the bottom of the page.
Listen to this short clip and hear how thinking in a much larger way can lead to long-term survival amidst times of disruption and change.
If you are interested in seeing the details of this conversation, the full transcript can be found below:
Bill: A lot of people listening are thinking, “Okay, Bill, what’s this have to do with me today?” I’m endlessly fascinated with a warrior cultures. I think I mentioned to you, I love reading about the Spartans, the Mongols, the Comanche, the Samurai. In the context of the Spartans, what can we learn from them from a leadership perspective that you think stands out from this class, this culture, this political system? Where looking back on this, we can see that in the middle of the United States. You know, we’re in our 243rd year, the Spartans went about, they went about 400 years?
Paul: Yes. Something like that. Yes.
Bill: So what can we learn from them, from their mistakes and their strengths and their leadership?
Paul: Well, one thing you can learn is, survival of a political community depends in some measure on the virtues of the members of that political community. Look, we halfway understand this. If you look around the United States, can you think of a sports team called the Athenians?
Paul: There are Spartans everywhere. Not least at Michigan State University. When I dream at night, sometimes I dream of giving a lecture at halftime about the ancient Sparta at a Michigan State, University of Michigan football game. This will never happen, I assure you, but it would be fun. But there are Spartans everywhere. And why? Because there are coaches and schools that want their sportsmen, especially their football teams, basketball teams too – to have that kind of endurance and strength and team spirit that was exemplified by the ancient Spartans.
Now look, sports are a preparation for war. They’re in some sense an image of war. The kind of language that coaches use on the eve of a game is warlike language. [00:51:30] So for a country to be able to defend itself, it has to be able to put forces in the field that are not unlike the Spartans. And for a country to be very effective, they need to build up the kind of prestige that the Spartans build up. You need to have a reputation. You don’t want to take those people on. They’re real trouble. That’s one part of it.
Another part of it that I think is important is political institutions. One of the reasons that we’ve been tolerably successful in the United States is we have political institutions designed to provide for deliberation and perhaps produce wisdom, but also designed to produce consensus. We have a separation of powers between a president, the judiciary, the legislature. And within the legislative body, it’s divided between the senate that has a certain character, and the house that has another character. All of this slows down decision making, but when decisions get made, they usually stick. That’s a great advantage, resoluteness.
Paul: Which can arise from domestic harmony, promoting domestic harmony. And we’re not always so successful at that, but we’ve done pretty well over the years. The consequence is that we have a reputation. You don’t really want to mess with the Americans.
Bill: Well, I love how you brought this ancient culture to life. I really enjoyed reading the book. I’ve also noticed, and you and I talked about this, this concept between your books, these themes that are building around strategy and grand strategy. This also has a leadership element to it as well. A lot of my listeners like that we talk about innovation quite a bit and we talk about the ability to respond, and the ability to change one’s mind and being mobile, not just with your human body, but being agile with your mind. I’m curious, what did you mean by grand strategy and strategy as you wrote out these books, and maybe you could talk to us about that.
Paul: Okay. Strategy is focused on a particular struggle. How are we going to win this struggle in these circumstances? It’s very much tied up with the passing moment, and would be tied up with the technology of the moment, the circumstances in which we find ourselves in now. Grand strategy is something that political communities develop over time. Sometimes because they have brilliant leadership, more often by a process of trial and error in which they learn what it is they need to protect. They come to be governed by a particular political regime that has particular imperatives, and that fosters a way of life that they want to protect. There are certain things that are permanent in these conditions. The geography is more or less permanent.
So, grand strategy looks at a political community in its situation over time, over long periods of time. And it asks, “What is necessary for this political community to flourish?”; and “What threatens the flourishing of this political community?”
Grand strategy involves looking at, not just warfare, but looking at the economy, looking at diplomacy, looking at one’s rivals and potential enemies and their character, what they’re likely to do. If you were a practitioner of grand strategy today, you would want to know what makes Russia tick? What is it that Vladimir Putin is aiming at? What are their resources like? Are they overreaching? Are they much less powerful than they pretend to be? You’d ask the very same questions about China. What is it they’re aiming at? Is that compatible with our ability to flourish? What sort of resources do they bring to the table? What can we do to limit their capacity to advance their cause in a way that is damaging to us? You have to know what your own interests are. You have to know what your own concerns are, and then you have to apply the same kind of analysis to other countries of significance, including your allies or your potential allies. What is it that they want? How can we keep them on board?
So you think in a much larger way. You’re not thinking about winning this battle, or even necessarily this war. You’re thinking about flourishing in the long run.
Bill: How strong was Rome at this time? Clearly Sparta declined at some point. Was there an event that caused the decline or did it just gradually disappear because it just got diluted? The culture was diluted in its message and just became a greater part of Rome.
Paul: What destroyed Sparta’s strength and reduced it to a kind of backwater group that was a kind of Disneyland in later times was overreaching. The Spartans of the 7th, 6th, and 5th century, most of it anyway, understood that their culture, their way of life was a hothouse flower. They understood that they did not have the manpower to create and sustain a great empire. So they practiced a kind of Peloponnesian isolationism, and they sallied forth from the Peloponnesus – this peninsula that’s sort of at the bottom of the Balkans, only when they had to. Like when there was a threat from the outside that was apt to overwhelmed them such as the Persians, or the Athens with their empire. But when they were done with the war, they returned to their homeland, they didn’t seek to become a great imperial power.
At the end of the third Attic War, at the end of what readers of Thucydides often call the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, the Spartans changed their grand strategy. Instead of following a policy of isolationism in order to preserve their way of life, they chose an imperial venture. The effect of the imperial venture was that it displayed all of the weaknesses that earlier generations of Spartans had warned against. That is to say when they went abroad they lost their sense of discipline, because there was nobody in their community watching them. In the absence of surveillance, they went wild. They learned that their manpower was insufficient for the task and they got themselves into a series of struggles with other powers including, the Boeotians and the Thebans in particular, in which they fought repeated wars with these people and taught them how to fight.
The Thebans worked out a technique on the battlefield that could blow a hole in the battle line of the enemy. Instead of lining up eight deep, they lined up 25 deep in one corner of the battlefield, and the aim was to knock a hole in the enemy phalanx, pour through that hole and hit him from behind.
The Spartans didn’t keep up in a certain sense, technologically. The technology of war. Under pressure from the Spartans, the Thebans experimented and they tried something new, and it worked. So in 371, the Thebans defeat the Spartans, and the Spartans can’t really sustain themselves thereafter, because of the loss of manpower. In the aftermath of this battle of Leuctra in 371, the Thebans and their Boeotian allies liberate the Messenians from the Spartans. They lose the economic foundations for maintaining a way of life that makes them strong and dangerous.
Now this, by the way, is at a time when Rome is still a power in Italy and has not expanded beyond Italy.
Bill: Okay. That makes sense. That’s interesting. So that answers one of my questions about innovation as far as the reasons they didn’t quite keep up to the battlefield tactics and then lost a critical part of their empire, Messenia to that group.
Books by Paul Rahe, References:
- 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.
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