The End of Sparta: A Novel
Victor Davis Hanson
Bloomsbury Press, 2011
464 pp., $28.00
Albert Louis Zambone
The End of Sparta
This is not rendered in the staccato prose of a thriller, which these days seems to be most strongly influenced by the editing of Ridley Scott or the over-caffeinated Michael Bay; there are no explosions of olive oil bombs in Hanson's book. Hanson's prose is deeply affected—but not affectedly so—by his reading as a classicist. From time to time he delivers a sentence that is a rescanned, reimagined line from Homer, but he does not burden us with these. He does not try to create a faux-Homeric style. But neither do his characters converse like 20th-century people, as do so many protagonists of even the better historical novels; they have neither the language, nor, more important, the sensibilities that allow them to talk in a way outside their own time.
Nor does Hanson choose to focus on the doings of the great and famous. True, they appear—Epaminondas himself, of course, but also Plato and the future Phillip II of Macedon—but only because of historical plausibility. They are not making appearances in order to comfort the reader by providing them with a name with whom they are familiar, a familiar piece of furniture in a strange room. Hanson's focus is always upon Melôn, but also upon others from the farm on Mount Helikon, particularly Melôn's three slaves: Gorgos, a former Spartan Helot who prefers being a slave to noble and vicious Spartans rather than to democratic and agrarian Boetians; Chiôn, purchased as a child, now grown to Herculean strength, who fights alongside his master at Leuktra and gains his freedom; and Neto, a prophetess now more devoted to the mysticism of Pythagoras than her skeptical owner, whose prophecy that Melôn will kill the King of Sparta brings him reluctantly to the field at Leuktra.
The result is that this story is strange and otherworldly, more so than a fantasy novel that is a half-baked, badly digested, pseudo-faux semi-allegory of the present; and yet at the same time it is familiar. This is, I think, Hanson's overriding intent, and his greatest achievement in this novel. Historians strive their entire career to make the past intelligible, and yet also preserve the sense of distance from the present to that past. This is what Hanson does in The End of Sparta.
Al Zambone lives in southern New Jersey, where he practices history at night, and education reform during the day.
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