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Joseph Bottum

The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta

A model for the West today?

At the beginning of his new book, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, Paul Rahe quotes a passage from John Stuart Mill—an 1846 passage in which Mill writes that Ancient Greek history is "unexhausted and inexhaustible," an epic poem written in action rather than words, and all subsequent history flows from that original Greek source.

It's a kind of Victorian blather, of course, a genuflection toward the classics, but Mill isn't wrong, for all that. The Greeks provide tropes of politics and art that influence us, even now—and more than influence us, Rahe insists: Classical Greece continues to shape civilization, whether we know it or not. As it happens, Mill and his fellow Victorians mostly did know it, while people today mostly do not. But since we are still living in the world the Greeks defined, we would do well to study anew their lessons—the lessons of the Spartans, in particular, Rahe thinks, and especially their clever, brutal, and brave role in the 479 B.C. defeat of Xerxes, the great king of Persia.

Rahe, a widely published historian and political theorist at Hillsdale College, is perhaps best known for his 1992 volume Republics Ancient and Modern—a magisterial 1,200-page survey of democracy from Ancient Greece to the American Founding. In such later books as the 2008 study of Machiavelli, Against Throne and Altar, and the 2009 Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift, he has extended his work with serious and provocative accounts of modern political formation. And in his recent thought about Sparta, he has gone back again to inexhaustible Greece, seeking insight about war and international politics in the crisis caused for Sparta by the Persian Empire's attempts to expand out of Asia Minor and into Europe.

In looking to Sparta, Rahe may appear to be joining the recent trend of popular fascination with those laconic Greeks—a trend exemplified by such popcorn as the wildly inaccurate but fun comic book and 2006 movie 300.

But, in fact, Rahe is bucking the trend of the academic world in which he has his being. Just as, in the 19th century, studies of Ancient Greece generally came to seem deeper and more important than studies of Ancient Rome, so, in the twentieth century, studies of the art and politics of Athens came to seem more revealing about both human nature and our modern situation than studies of the military virtues of Sparta. Sparta has had its admirers down through the ages, as philosophers and political theorists tried to align the city's peculiar political and social arrangements with the ideals of government suggested by Plato in the Republic. But in modern times, Athens has generally won the intellectual battle to be the shining star, the bright center of our fascination, in the ancient world.

And deservedly so, one has to say. The Spartans were a nasty and brutish set, a tribe of invaders ruling a long valley of slaves along the Eurotas River, in the south-east of the Peloponnesus. The traditional account identifies them as part of the migration of the Dorians out of northern Greece around 1100 B.C., as the older Mycenaean culture fell into the Greek Dark Ages. "The Return of the Heracleidae," it came to be called—a claim to resumed rule as descendants of the demi-god hero Heracles—and the invaders subjugated Laconia to make it their own.

All of this very ancient history is dubious and much disputed. Were the Dorians the "sea people" who harried Egypt? Were they the cause of Mycenaean collapse? Was there really any such thing as the Dorian invasion? Even the life of Lycurgus, the ninth-century lawgiver who established many of Sparta's political institutions, remains shrouded in too much myth to be more than speculative.

Still, the First Messenian War, from 743 to 724 B.C., is well attested, and it establishes a base from which to reckon subsequent Peloponnesian history. After expansionist victories over the cities of Messenia, the territory to the west of Laconia, Sparta crystalized into the society we now think of as distinctly Spartan. Most of the captured peoples of Laconia and Messenia were reduced to Helot slaves, while other Lacedaemonians were made into non-citizen freemen called perioeci—both of them distinct from the citizen soldiers of Sparta who were called Spartiates or homoioi: the alike, the peers, the (only) equal ones.

With slaves massively outnumbering masters, it's not surprising that the Helots revolted in 685. It took the Spartans seventeen years to put down that revolt in the Second Messenian War, and they did so by becoming, in essence, a people defined by the rigors of military training. The result left Sparta the preeminent military power in Greece for the next two hundred years.

All this, despite the fact that the city never had more than 10,000 citizen soldiers—and its political institutions were a bizarre jumble of three tribes in five villages, with each village providing one of the five ephors, who oversaw the city's two kings, as advised by a council of elders known as the Gerousia, whose laws were voted on by all male citizens over eighteen and then enforced by a kind of secret police known as the Krypteia. And the Krypteia, it turns out, were trained Spartan boys sent out to terrorize and murder Helots, both to encourage the other Helots to greater servitude and to teach the boys how to kill as they grew into full citizen soldiers.

As I said, a nasty and brutish set, but hard to beat in battle, as by the end of the Messenian wars the Spartans had turned a system of unified companies of spears and shields into an unrivaled force of phalanxes—unrivaled but limited by the necessity never to let Sparta get so deeply involved in external wars that the city could not prevent rebellion in its home territories. According to Herodotus, Sparta held seven times more Helots than citizens at the time of Plataea and Mycale, the land and sea battles that brought an end to Xerxes' invasion in 479. "Spartan policy," as Thucydides would later write, "is always governed by the need to take precautions against the Helots." Or, as Rahe's Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta puts it, Sparta found "an almost perfect match" between the heroic virtues taught by the Spartan system and the military requirements for Sparta's continued existence.

By the 6th century, Sparta had realized that its limited numbers would not allow expansion of its Helot system into the Arcadian territories to the north, and it's at that point we reach the strangest part of the story. Sparta could not survive the conquest of further land, but neither could it tolerate some other power—Argos, Thebes, Corinth, even fairly distant Athens—dominating Arcadia. Dominating any significant tranche of Greece, for that matter. Sparta's system left the city too small to rule Greece, but that same system demanded that no other city be powerful enough to invade Spartan lands and set off a Helot revolt. Simply as a matter of necessity, Sparta began a policy of supporting the independence of the smaller Greek cities against their larger neighbors—and a policy of supporting popular rebellions against local tyrants who might attempt to make militaristic states out of Greek cities.

Even Athens benefited, as the Athenians expelled their tyrant ruler Hippias in 510 B.C. with the help of Cleomenes I, one of the dual kings of Sparta. Admittedly, the unscrupulous Cleomenes had plans to put his own puppet in Hippias' place, but beggars can't be choosers, and the Peloponnesian League, the group of allies organized by Sparta, halted his machinations with a refusal to join any further campaign against Athens.

It was perhaps the oddest era of Hellenic affairs, as Sparta, the most brutal slave state of Greece, became widely heralded as the great defender of liberty, the great opponent of tyranny, and the great champion of all that was considered authentically Greek culture and Greek virtue. And as a survival strategy, it worked wonderfully—until a man named Darius, great king of Persia, became annoyed with the obstreperous Greeks in the islands and coasts on the edges of his rule. In 492, Darius undertook an invasion of Greece, and Sparta was trapped by its own reputation into becoming, with Athens, a defender of Greek autonomy against the largest empire in the known world.

Darius was stymied by the improbable Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490. His son Xerxes tried again in 480, and initially found more success. Both the Greek attempts to block Xerxes—holding the Persian army at Thermopylae and the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium—failed, and Xerxes swept through Boeotia and Attica, capturing and burning Athens along the way. But the Greek ships, led by the Athenians, somehow managed to decimate the Persians at Salamis and the next year at Mycale, while the Greek phalanxes, led by Sparta, broke the Persian land forces at Plataea—ending the invasion of Greece.

Paul Rahe's telling of all this in The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta is masterful, as he traces the Spartan portions of the story from Darius' initial exasperation with the Ionians all the way down to Xerxes' final flight back to Persia in terror. Particularly interesting is Rahe's account of Sparta's role in the formation of the Hellenic League that would band together to fight the second Persian invasion, and he shows what close-run things all the battles of the war really were.

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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