History is full of ‘ifs’ and the Spartan story fuller than most. If the 300 had not made their famous stand against a vast Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 BC, or if Helen of Troy, originally from Sparta, had not been abducted, we might not remember them today. If their young men had not been brought up so strictly the word ‘spartan’ might not have entered our vocabulary; nor, had they not valued brevity in an age that revered oratory, the word ‘laconic’ — from Laconia, a Spartan province. And if the Spartans had not remained such an enigma, there would be no need for this book.
It is Thermopylae that speaks loudest to us. The heroism of Leonidas and his Spartan holding force, prepared to give their lives to save their people from Persian servitude, remains a model of sacrifice, as Byron recognised when, writing of the Greeks’ 19th-
Andrew J. Bayliss, university lecturer in ancient Greek history, has been fascinated by the Spartans ever since he heard the Thermopylae story at school, and has spent much time piecing together a portrait of them from the scraps that time has strewn — artefacts and sayings, and the words of the many other Greeks who looked on (whose admiration was often mixed with distaste).
It soon becomes clear that while there was much to admire about the Spartans, they were not without their dark secrets. They did indeed live spartan lives. All males were educated in herds by the state until their 30th year, the system, echoing through British public schools, being light on blankets and heavy on deprivation, physical activity and corporal punishment, with regular naked inspections to ensure the young men were not putting on weight. This process was designed to produce world-beating fighters who would never yield and who would be called to serve up to their 60th birthday.
Spartan women, on the other hand, had a reputation for beauty, freedom and promiscuity, as well as for the influence they enjoyed over their men. Aristotle mocked Sparta for being a gynarchy. They were famous for their rump jumps, leaping with their heels hitting their buttocks, and for their sharp wit: when asked why they were able to rule men, where elsewhere in Greece women could not, Leonidas’s wife quipped: ‘Because we are the only ones who give birth to men.’
Bayliss makes a good case for Sparta, tucked at the southern end of the Peloponnese, being unlike anywhere else in Greece, and not just because of its austerity. It was a place built on paradoxes: a monarchy in which two kings ruled but which also boasted a council of 30 elders and a citizens’ assembly. Naked exercise sessions, brutal contact sports and other testosterone-fuelled activities were welcomed, but Spartan men were discouraged from having sex too often.
Perhaps the most striking paradox is squaring Sparta’s association with freedom and democracy with its treatment of its own underclasses, notably the helots, the original inhabitants, who were pressed into slavery when the Spartans arrived. Plato thought this ‘the most controversial subject in Greece’, and with reason, for it was the helots who kept the place running — farming, labouring, cleaning the houses — while the gentlemen trained to be warriors. Eventually a combination of cataclysmic earthquake and helot uprising brought an end to Sparta.
There are many curious details in this short book. Bayliss guides us well through the surviving material, sifting fact from opinion, warning against ancient Greek bias, and later romanticising, while admitting that often we simply can’t know what went on. But we do know that not all the 300 died alongside Leonidas at the hands of the Persians. Two Spartans who missed the final showdown (one was sent on a mission, the other had an eye problem) were publicly shamed as cowards, or ‘tremblers’; one committed suicide, the other rushed ahead of his comrades the next time they went into action.
But the Spartan story cries out for a broader context and a more imaginative storyteller. When William Golding visited the pass at Thermopylae half a century ago, he described the Spartans as standing ‘in the right line of history’. He also thought Leonidas and his comrades had ‘contributed to set us free’. Those words contain what this book lacks: a link between Sparta and us, as if its author, in all his enthusiasm, has forgotten to give us reasons to care for his subject.