Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.13

Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections.   London:  Duckworth, 2001.  Pp. xii + 276.  ISBN 0-7156-2966-2.  $27.50.  

Reviewed by C.L.H. Barnes, Department of Classics Brooklyn College, City University of New York (
Word count: 3006 words

The late Russell Meiggs once remarked that "one book on Sparta every two years was to be expected, but that two in one year might seem excessive." This short anecdote, related by Paul Cartledge (hereafter C.) in the preface to his new book Spartan Reflections, leads one to wonder what Meiggs might say now given the recent proliferation of publications in Spartanology. The last three years running have seen, so far as I am aware, three books in 1998, three in 1999, and three in 2000.1 The number of scholars who have recently worked on things Spartan more than suffice to start a syssition. C., in his fourth book on Lacedaemonians in over thirty years of study, shows us there is much more to Spartan life than the simple austerity embodied in black broth. He offers discussions of, among other things, polis and territory, literacy and education, politics, the role of women, slavery, and art.

Spartan Reflections is a collection of thirteen essays divided into four parts. Although almost all have been published previously (one appears in English for the first time, one is new) and many will be well known to BMCR readership, C. has written new introductions and revised the notes. The notes and introductions are up to date, often impressively so. We are told that the essays selected were those cited most often and that is certainly true of the majority. Five, however, have yet to stand the test of time and one, while certainly a good and informative read, does not concentrate on Sparta per se. Nevertheless, the book conveniently collects some of C.'s best into a single volume and provides a very interesting and useful bibliography throughout. We are told that these pieces are meant to be reflective and thought-provoking, and the book succeeds admirably in this regard. Given the range of topics and evidence covered, the different approaches used, the references to scholarly debate and the affordable price, Spartan Reflections would serve well as a text for advanced courses or seminars and ought to provoke productive discussion.

Part I, "Sparta-Watching", at less than three pages of text is truly, well...Spartan. We are told that the title of this section is derived from "China-watchers", "a cant Pentagon-inspired phrase...for American political analysts who specialised in Chinese affairs" (p. 4). From C.'s perspective, Sparta was as foreign to contemporary Greeks as Soviet Russia and China were to the West in the 1960s and 1970s. In essence, this serves as the central thesis of the work and many of the chapter titles reflect this, for example, "The Peculiar Position of Sparta in the Development of the Greek City State" and "Spartan Kingship: Doubly Odd." Given the recent trend in Spartanology which has sought to demonstrate that at least in some respects the Spartans did not differ from other Greeks as much as had been previously thought, the appearance of this volume is well timed.2 One must take professor Cartledge's formidable expertise on the subject into serious consideration. At issue is what Ollier called "le mirage Spartiate" (for a discussion, see pp. 56-57), which C. has concluded we cannot dispel. He therefore advocates four approaches. First, we can confront the legend or myth of Sparta, its genesis and evolution directly. Second, we can turn to archaeology and the results produced by both excavation and survey. Third, C. suggests a comparative approach, abundantly in evidence throughout the volume and usually involving Athenian examples, as one might expect. Fourth, he notes it is possible to employ a quasi-biographical approach in certain cases, as he has done in his work on Agesilaos. The chapter concludes with a brief mention of the impact of post-modernist theory on the study of historiography.

Part II, "Polity, Politics and Political Thought", finds a number of ways to highlight what made Spartans unique, the results stemming largely from C.'s aims in using a comparative method. As he remarks in the beginning of his paper "Comparatively Equal: A Spartan Approach," while some scholars employ this technique to discover universals, he believes it ought to highlight differences (p. 69). Thus, in "City and Chora in Sparta: Archaic to Hellenistic," previously published in Sparta and Laconia, two aspects of Spartan life in particular attract his attention: the absence of a city wall and the national festival, the Hyakinthia.

This reprint does suffer some in its newer version due to the absence of maps. The original publication had six, which, given the importance of the locations of Sparta's sanctuaries and its five villages for the arguments, would have been helpful. The introduction, formerly the conclusion of the original version of the paper, features a brief, engaging history of British archaeology in Laconia, as well as a handy bibliography. From there, C. considers definitions of polis and polites, but his real focus, as the title suggests, is on the relationship between core and periphery. Sparta was like an armed camp, whose citizens were required to dine in their messes every night.3 Such a portrait not only reinforces the differences between citizens and everyone else, it makes the extent of their territory, roughly 8000 square kilometers, all the more remarkable, and makes one wish that more had been said about how the Spartiates managed to retain this territory given the requirements of the syssition.4 C. also sheds light on the famous Thucydidean passage 1.10, in which the historian implies that the casual observer could not possibly have detected Sparta's power by inspecting its physical environs. An armed camp does not conjure up the notion of urban splendor, while the absence of an enceinte wall blurs the separation between city and territory. C. seeks explanations for this wall-lessness in Spartan conservatism, the presence of the perioikoi, the difficulty of enclosing the four more central villages and outlying Amyklai, and the locations of religious sanctuaries, which he says served as a pomerium of sorts. The article concludes with a comparison of the Athenian Panathenaia and the Spartan Hyakinthia. The latter as a national festival reinforced the hierarchical divide between city and territory, unlike its Athenian counterpart which united polis and chora. The Spartans accomplished this through the inclusion of the helots in the festival, while simultaneously excluding them from certain rituals open only to citizens.5

The third article, "The Peculiar Position of Sparta in the Development of the Greek City-State", first considers the question "Was Sparta a polis?" We are told immediately that the answer in antiquity was yes. C. offers five criteria for polis-hood, two of which Sparta failed to meet: the lack of both an urban centre and of the embodiment of community of place. While this article complements the preceding one quite well, perhaps it should have come first as it provides a more thorough discussion regarding what constituted a polis as well as more about Sparta's historical development. The rest of the essay is devoted to explaining the origins of and reasons for the Lacedaemonians' remarkable political stability, which include the dual kingship, the Rhetra, Gerousia, probouleusis, the role of the damos, the ephorate and Spartan diplomacy. One small problem at the end of this chapter involves the demise of Sparta as a polis. C. seems to imply that this occurred at the battle of Sellasia in 222 B.C., while elsewhere he says that this happened in 145 B.C (p. 56).

In the next essay, "Literacy in the Spartan Oligarchy", C. presents a wide range of evidence for literacy in Laconia, from the dedication of a sacrificial meat-hook and the letters inscribed on an archaic aryballos to a variety of inscriptions and even a Hellenistic papyrus, all with a view to assessing ancient and modern contentions that the Spartans were illiterate. While C. demonstrates that many segments of Spartan society, hupomeiones, the "inferiors", and women too, possessed a certain level of literacy, he concludes it was primarily an oral culture, which differed from other Greek cities in its penchant for brevity and wit in self expression. One might also add this tendency made the Lacedaemonians a people about whom others wrote, thus contributing to the creation of the "Spartan mirage."

"Spartan Kingship: Doubly Odd?" considers the powers exercised by the two basileis, certainly an institution peculiar to Sparta. C. notes the traditional idea that competition for power created tension between the ephors and kings, seen for example in the monthly oath sworn by the former to uphold the kingship and the presence of two ephors when a king took the army on campaign. However, he prefers to see the real locus of power in the gerousia.6 The kingship itself he views as charismatic in a Weberian sense, in other words, "it was distinguished by its perceived possession of some special grace, of ultimately divine derivation" (p. 62). For example, the kings could not be touched in public and were exempt from the agoge, and all had to stand in their presence. Brief considerations of Kleomenes and Agesilaos II conclude the chapter and illustrate his arguments.

"Comparatively Equal: A Spartan Approach" is the first of two articles written in response to the scholarship of Kurt Raaflaub. It is also the most theoretical of the essays. C. draws upon the ideas of Q. R. D. Skinner to consider the "reference, criteria of application, and appraisive function" of equality in ancient Greece. We are reminded that equality among citizens did not imply, for example, similar backgrounds in terms of birth and wealth, or the status these advantages could bring.7 Of particular interest to C. is the difference between compounds of homoios and isos. Aristotle (1295b25-6) talks of citizens who would be "similars and equals." As C. points out, Sparta lacked an equalizing institution such as the lottery at Athens and we should think twice before referring to Spartiates as "Equals", a distinction which has long been on his mind.8

Part III, "Society, Economy and Warfare", contains arguably the strongest articles in the book. These essays are also some of the best known and consider the most controversial subjects, as we are told in the relevant introductions. "A Spartan Education" addresses when and how the agoge came to be what it was in the Classical period and what function this education served in the wider context of Spartan society. C. begins with a review of Athenian education in order to highlight the striking differences between practices at Athens and in Sparta. More importantly, C. sees the creation of the helots as the primary motivating force behind the institution of the agoge. When this occurred is implied rather than made explicit. The next essay, "The Politics of Spartan Pederasty", helps with this question somewhat by providing a terminus post quem for the agoge of circa 700 B.C. This second chapter, while focusing on a unique aspect of the Spartan educational system, illustrates, above all, the problems in confronting the Spartan mirage. We hear the conflicting testimony from Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle concerning homosexual physical gratification among the Lacedaemonians. In addition, Aelian's report that Spartiates who failed to take an eromenos were fined by the ephors is presented to help make the case that pederasty was institutionalized, something which certainly made the Spartans different from other Greeks. A number of approaches are adopted to consider this practice at Sparta: ethnographic, anthropological, and philological. The last section of the chapter makes a compelling case for the political potential of pederasty by drawing on two examples. Lysander became the erastes of Agesilaos in order to promote his status. The other involves the intercession of Agesilaos's son on behalf of his beloved in a capital case involving the latter's father.

"Spartan Wives: Liberation or Licence", the ninth chapter, considers to what extent Spartan women enjoyed freedoms different from those of other Greek women in a more or less womb to tomb analysis. A number of anecdotes survive which portray the Spartans as ruled by their women (gunaikokratoumenoi). Once again, C. confronts the Spartan mirage as he contrasts the testimony of Aristotle, Xenophon, Plutarch, Ibykos et al. A fascinating paradox which emerges from this discussion is how a society which stressed the importance of child-bearing (teknopoiia) and enjoyed a reputation for loose sexual mores in the promotion of this goal suffered from a loss of man-power. In contrast to the ideal of austerity so often attributed to the Lacedaemonians, women owned a great deal of property and did enjoy luxuries, one of which may have been the frequent absence of their men. This is a fine piece of work.

C.'s introduction to the excellent "Rebels and Sambos in Classical Greece: A Comparative View" tells us that the piece began as "an evangelistical exercise in the comparative method." As such, it ought to be read by anyone contemplating the use of such an approach. Drawing heavily upon Eugene Genovese's work concerning slavery and slave revolts in the Americas, C. applies eight criteria for detecting a pronounced tendency toward slave revolts to an analysis of the world of the ancient Greeks. As elsewhere in the volume, he is concerned with "how important the helots were to the entire Spartan political, cultural and social regime" (p. 128). The introduction relates the controversy which has arisen concerning Thucydides 4.80. C. believes the testimony that Spartiates massacred 2000 helots in 424 B.C. is indicative of their normal relations with the latter. Such behavior, indeed the very institution of helotage, effectively marks the Spartans as different from other Greeks and underscores the importance of the helots for the Spartiates themselves.

"The Birth of the Hoplite: Sparta's Contribution to Early Greek Military Organization" differs from its first published form in several ways. First, it appears in English rather than Italian, and the reprint does not include the appendix and illustrations of the original. As the introduction reminds us, this topic has seen plenty of competition in the scholarly arena, in spite of and paradoxically due to the lack of evidence for the period under consideration, 800-500 B.C. C. is content to have "retired from the fray and is content to look on in relative safety from the sidelines" (p. 156). He notes the general agreement that by 500 B.C. hoplites dominated the battlefield. The debate, then, has raged over how this came about. C. connects hoplite warfare with the rise of particular states and notes that it made colonization possible, for example in the case of Sparta's southern Italian colony Taras. He is interested also in hoplite ritualization and how the Spartans came to identify hoplite virtue with virtue itself, as illustrated by Thucydides' narrative of the Battle of the Champions in 545 B.C. The chapter ends with a comparison of the Athenians and the Spartans. Unlike the former, all Spartiates were hoplites, as opposed to the wealthiest 30-50 percent of the population in other poleis. In addition, C. argues that their weapons were supplied by the state.

Part IV, "The Mirage Re-Viewed", has two chapters, "The Mirage of Lykourgan Sparta: Some Brazen Reflections" and "The Importance of Being Dorian: An Onomastic Gloss on the Hellenism of Oscar Wilde." The former purports to focus on Spartan bronzes, including mirrors and archaic figurines, ten of which are seen in plates accompanying the article. However, this consideration of artisan production in Lacedaemon also covers vases, ivories, and terracotta masks. In addition, we learn about the archaeology of Sparta, in particular the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. It was C. who noted over twenty years ago that the evidence for such products was incompatible with the austerity which the lawgiver Lykourgos supposedly instituted at Sparta.9

The last essay, "The Importance of Being Dorian", serves to reflect perceptions of Sparta in nineteenth century England. To that end, it does find its place within this volume. In addition to learning about Oscar Wilde's talents as a classicist, we discover that the given name Dorian was not in use before the publication of his famous novel. Why then did Wilde choose such a name for the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray? C. argues that Wilde deliberately used the name in reference to the Spartan's notoriety for homosexuality and provides compelling evidence in support of this argument.

The volume is well edited and I have found few errors. Footnote 31 in chapter 4 leads to a red herring. When one checks the note on p. 198, one is told to look on p. 153, the first page of chapter 11 which has nothing to do with envoys or literacy. On page 58, Richer's publication date is given as 1999 twice, instead of 1998. The same mistake is made in the bibliography. On page 79, the page numbers cited for C.'s review of Kennell's The Gymnasium of Virtue ought to be 98-100, instead of 99-102, an error repeated in footnote 2 on p. 193. On page 127, marxist should be Marxist. The bibliography is missing two of Cartledge's own articles, "City and Chora in Sparta: Archaic to Hellenistic" and "The Importance of Being Dorian". While not really an error, on p. 182 I would prefer to see the sources which called the Spartans practitioners of a manual techne, i.e. Xenophon, Lak. Pol. 13.5 and Plutarch, Pelopidas 23.3, cited rather than C.'s article. On page 252, the bibliographical entry for J. Neil's Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaea Festivals should have the singular Festival in the title.

In 1976, C. wrote, "the field of Spartan studies has been so thoroughly ploughed, planted and harvested that the fertility of its soil is near to -- or some would say, past -- the point of exhaustion." ("A New Fifth Century Treaty", LCM 1 (1976), 87). At that time, he suggested new fertilizer could be found in archaeological and environmental research. Since then, as the above chapter summaries will show, he has continued in this quest. One may not always agree with his arguments or conclusions, one may feel that a few articles in this volume do not treat ancient Sparta enough, but there is no denying that C. is very good at being provocative. One must thank him for supplying the food for thought.


1.   E. Baltrusch, Sparta: Geschichte, Gesellschaft, Kultur (Munich, 1998); M. Meier, Aristokraten und Damoden. Untersuchungen zur inneren Entwicklung Spartas im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und zur politischen Funktion der Dichtung des Tyrtaios (Stuttgart, 1998), reviewed by Van Wees in BMCR (1999.10.5); N. Richer, Les Éphores (Paris, 1998); W. G. Cavanagh and S. E. C. Walker,eds., Sparta in Laconia (London, 1999); S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, eds., Sparta: New Perspectives, (London, 1999), reviewed by Shipley in BMCR (2000.11.16); N. Birgalias, L'Odysée de l'éducation spartiate, (Athens, 1999); E. Kourinou, Σπαρτη· συμβολὴ στὴ μνημειακὴ τοπογραφία της (Athens, 2000), reviewed by Salapata in BMCR (2001.8.11); S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000), reviewed by Millender in BMCR (2001.7.26); and Marcello Lupi, L'Ordine Delle Generazioni: Classi di età e costumi matrimoniali nell'antica Sparta (Bari, 2000).
2.   See for example, Jean Ducat, "Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period", and Ellen Greenstein Millender "Athenian ideology and the empowered Spartan woman" in Sparta: New Perspectives, 43-66 and 355-391, respectively, and Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Sparta, op cit. 1.
3.   Cf. H. W Singor, "Admission to the Syssitia in Fifth-Century Sparta" in Sparta: New Perspectives, op. cit. 1, 67-89.
4.   Cf. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, op. cit. 1, 113-149.
5.   Cf. J. Neils, "Introduction" and D. Kyle, "The Panathenaic Games: Sacred and Civic Athletics" in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaea Festival, J. Neils, ed. (Princeton, 1993), 13-28 and 77-102, respectively.
6.   Cf. D. M. Lewis, Sparta and Persia, (Leiden, 1977), 36-49.
7.   Cf. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta.
8.   See "Hoplites and Heroes" in JHS 97 (1977), 27 and n. 111.
9.   Cf. S. Hodkinson, "Lakonian Artistic Production and the Problem of Spartan Austerity", which, oddly, does not make it into the bibliography, and A. Powell, "Sixth Century Lakonian Vase Painting", which does, both in Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence, N. Fisher and H. van Wees, eds., (London, 1998), 93-118 and 119-146 respectively.

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