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Joseph Bottum


The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta

A model for the West today?

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But in the end, what are we to make of the Spartans—those brutal, murderous enslavers who produced some of the Hellenic era's best poetry and who gave all future generations an image of noble patriotism as they prepared to die at the hot gates of Thermopylae?

It's true, as Rahe writes, that Sparta "possessed resources—moral, political, and military—that … no other Greek city could even hope to match." Even to the Ancient Greeks, Sparta appeared to have an orderliness—the eunomia of "a coherence and clear-cut orientation"—that other city-states lacked. But the Spartans had arrived at their haphazard political system by "trial and error" over many long years, as Rahe notes, and the effect of that system on the Greeks' fight against Persia was as unpredictable and unlikely as any historical circumstance could be.

Rahe wisely corrects the myth that the Spartans of the time were unaware or uninterested in what was happening outside the narrow realm of the Peloponnesus in which their defense against Helot revolt had constrained them—and for that reason alone The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta would deserve praise. But the book does much else, including forcing us, as Rahe intends, to consider how even in the modern world states manage to position themselves as international defenders of freedom and autonomy even while their own lands suffer from the lack of such things. From the Soviet Union during the Cold War to present-day Iran, these are lessons we should have taken from the Laconian city.

Still, readers might shy away from the book in part simply because of what Rahe calls the Spartans' "grand strategy." To the word grand, no who follows his story could possibly object. The stretch he makes comes instead in the word strategy. Clever diplomacy among the Greeks, bold action, great bravery, and extraordinary luck: Sparta had all that and more besides in its grand maneuvers in the Persian Wars. But to deserve the name of strategy, what Sparta undertook would need to be much more self-conscious, much more geopolitically savvy, and much more forward looking.

Athens and Sparta both came out of the war well-positioned among the Greeks—a fact that inevitably led the two states to antipathy and eventually to open battle in the Peloponnesian War that began in 431 and ended with Athens' defeat in 404. But the very fact of that war, together with the asymmetry of Sparta's land forces and Athens' navy, suggests that Sparta emerged from what Rahe terms the "existential crisis" of the Persian Wars with no grand strategy for what to do after Xerxes had been turned back.

This question of Spartan strategy is more than terminological. Rahe simply likes the Spartans too much for my taste—too much for the taste of most readers, I hope. Good as the book is, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta rarely conveys a sense of condemnation about the Spartans. In fact, it mostly praises the eunomia of the city's homoioi citizens. And perhaps their stern patriotism, stripped-down lifestyle, and laconic speech are deserving of praise. But the truth is that Sparta was populated with monsters whose martial skill and happenstantial reputation as opponents of tyranny showed them in a false light in ancient times—and continues to show them in a false light today.

If the price of Sparta's virtues is the child abuse, both sexual and pedagogic, that the Spartans practiced—if the price of those virtues is destruction of the family, induction of boys into murderous cults, and the enslaving of subject populations—then to hell with the Lacedaemonians' martial virtues. If patriotism and stable political highmindedness require the evils of Sparta, then patriotism and highmindedness be damned.

Fortunately, the civic arrangements that Lycurgus gave the Spartans may not be the only possibility to be found in the ancient world—may not be our only possibility today, however much the provocative subtext of Rahe's book is that the modern West must adopt something analogous to stern Spartan life if it hopes to survive. Portions of the history of Athens, portions of the speeches of a man named Pericles, suggest that Ancient Greece offers other lessons we might learn. Better lessons, and wiser ones.

Joseph Bottum is an essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Image).

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