Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.06

Anton Powell, Stephen Hodkinson, Sparta Beyond the Mirage.   London:  Classical Press of Wales, 2002.  Pp. 354.  ISBN 0-7156-3183-7.  $69.50.  

Contributors: Nikos Birgalias, Jacqueline Christien, Michael Clarke, Andrey Eremin, Thomas J.Figueira, Michael Flower, Noreen Humble, Michael Lipka, Marcello Lupi, Nino Luraghi, Norbert Mertens, Ellen Millender, Daniel Ogden, Stefan Rebenich

Reviewed by Sarah B. Pomeroy, The City University of New York (
Word count: 1591 words

This book comprises 14 revised papers that were delivered at a conference held at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in September 2000, with the addition of an introduction by Stephen Hodkinson (pp. vii-xx) and a short Index. It is the fourth volume of papers on Sparta published by the two editors, with contributions by many of the same scholars whose work appears in the earlier volumes. Echoing through these volumes is a reverence for the views of M. I. Finley, Hodkinson's mentor at Cambridge. According to Hodkinson, in the introduction to Hodkinson and Powell (edd.), Sparta. New Perspectives (London, 1999, p. x), "Finley's all-encompassing, revisionist essay on 'Sparta' (1968) continues to exercise a seminal influence over current approaches to classical Spartan society." In the current volume, only Marcello Lupi explicitly challenges the continuing fidelity to Finley's beliefs (pp. 309-11).

The arrangement of the papers is hierarchical, beginning with kings and ending with helots, perioikoi, and papers on methodology and historiography. The chronological parameters are mostly archaic and classical; none of the papers treats the Roman period.

In the first article "Herodotus and Spartan Despotism" (pp. 1-61) Ellen Millender applies the lens of analysis of "polarization" as she has done to the subject of Spartan women in the preceding volume of conference papers, Sparta. New Perspectives (pp. 355-91). Millender argues that in Greek thought the Spartan king was the equivalent of a tyrant. However, she neither deals with the fact that the dual nature of the kingship mitigated the exercise of absolute power wielded by each king, nor does she discuss why Sparta opposed tyranny in other poleis. With 31 pp. of text and 30 of notes and bibliography, this article is the longest by far in the collection.

Michael Clarke, in "Spartan ate at Thermopylae? Semantics and Ideology at Herodotus, Histories 7.223.4" (pp. 63-84), investigates the relationship between the Spartan suicidal ideal as glorified by Tyrtaeus and described by Herodotus and the influence of Homeric ideals of courage. Though the paper treats only the events at Thermopylae, it is relevant to note that the Spartans retreated from this suicidal ideal as they realized that they had a population crisis. With a constantly dwindling population of male citizens, they could not afford to be profligate with the lives of their soldiers.

According to Noreen Humble, in "Sophrosyne Revisited: Was It Ever a Spartan Virtue?" titled in the Table of Contents "Was Sophrosyne Ever a Spartan Virtue?" (pp. 85-109), conservative Athenian oligarchs associated Sparta with sophrosyne. Humble also analyzes in depth Plutarch's use of sophrosyne in connection with Sparta. This article is a rewritten version of a paper delivered at the preceding Sparta conference.

In "Three Evocations of the Dead with Pausanias" (pp. 111-13), the versatile Daniel Ogden tells vivid tales of a restless ghost, concluding that Thucydides' account is expurgated and that such Spartan tales did not differ from those told in the rest of the Greek world.

Both Thomas J. Figueira's "Iron Money and the Ideology of Consumption in Laconia" (pp. 137-70) and Jacqueline Christien's "Iron Money in Sparta: Myth and History" (pp. 171-90) point out that the government exercised tight control over the population to make them accept as a medium of exchange iron that had been rendered useless for other purposes, and both articles associate the continued lack of coined money with opponents of Lysander. In the course of his article, Figueira reveals his vast learning and multi-faceted understanding not only of Spartan institutions but of the growth and use of coinage elsewhere in the Greek world. According to Figueira, the pelanors were flat round iron ingots. (Thus they resembled the enormous tiddlywinks that served as currency among the Flintstones.) Pelanors were used almost exclusively by the state in imposing fines. They were virtually impossible to amass; hence a huge fine was tantamount to exile. The practical problems for individuals lacking currency with any intrinsic value are limitless. One wonders what the helots amassed and used to purchase their freedom from Cleomenes III? How did Cynisca pay the Megarean sculptor who forged her victory monuments in bronze? Christien examines coins showing iron ingots, but her exposition suffers from the abstractness of her English. For example, she states that her goal is "to re-examine the issues on the basis of personal experience of Laconia" (p. 173) and in her conclusion uses the term "scriptural money" without clarification (p. 185).

According to Michael Flower, in a sophisticated paper, "The Invention of Tradition in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta" (pp. 191-217), Spartan leaders exploited invented pasts for political goals. Though Flower does not explain why other Spartans accepted and believed traditions manufactured in their own lifetime, it seems likely that they willingly colluded in visions of history that enhanced their own connections to a glorious past. Though Flower asserts that Spartan archives were meager, it would appear that facts recorded in such polis archives were irrelevant; while the Spartans were ascribing laws to Lycurgus Athenians claimed to be reviving laws attributed to Solon.1 Thus nostalgia for a virtuous past preceding devastating defeats by other Greeks, Macedonians, and Romans shaped historical memory.

Michael Lipka, in "Notes on the Influence of the Spartan Great Rhetra on Tyrtaeus, Herodotus and Xenophon" (pp. 219-25), gives a close verbal study of Tyrtaeus, Herodotus, and Xenophon, and concludes that the Great Rhetra was an agreement between the Spartan king and the damos and that the text preserved in Plutarch, Lycurgus 6.1-4 derives ultimately from Aristotle's Spartan Constitution.

Nino Luraghi, in "Helotic Slavery Reconsidered" (pp. 227-48) and Nikos Birgalias, in "Helotage and Spartan Social Organization" (pp. 249-66) offer provocative, iconoclastic papers depending largely on rejecting the testimony of Thucydides (1.103.3) that helots enjoyed a family life that was acknowledged by the Spartans. Yet David Hume astutely observed that, as a result of their treatment, helots were the only ancient servile group to reproduce themselves.2 Luraghi (p. 240) supports the view that helots were merely lower class members of the same ethnic group as the Spartiates. These two factors alone, family life and ethnic affinity with their masters, render Luraghi's comparisons between helotry and New World slavery less cogent. Though Luraghi does not draw this conclusion, this ethnic affinity could explain why Sparta was willing to grant some form of citizenship to mothakes, the offspring of Spartiate fathers and helot mothers. Indeed, the generals Lysander and Gylippus were said to have been mothakes. Birgalias, in his revisionist view of the effect of helots on Spartan institutions and society, suggests that Spartan militarism did not result from fear of the helots. This argument rests on a rejection of Thucydides' description of the murder of 2000 helots (4.80.3) and of Plutarch's report of the yearly declaration of war against helots (Lyc. 28.7). Birgalias observes that repression of the helots would have caused conflict and then rejects the historical reports of such conflict (pp. 255-57). He argues that the Spartans would not have armed helots to serve in the military forces if such hostility existed. Yet George Washington commanded slaves armed with muskets in the Continental Army. Furthermore, in my view, the wives and children of the helots served as hostages for their good behavior. The helots surely understood that the alternative to fighting on the Spartan side might have been defeat by an enemy who would sell them and their families into slavery and transport them to distant places. That fate would have been far worse than remaining as helots on their own land.

Andrey Eremin, in "Settlements of Spartan perioikoi: poleis or komai?" (pp. 267-83), uses Hellenistic and Roman evidence to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of earlier periods and discusses the validity of this methodology. In an earlier volume in this series, Robert Parker had cautioned against inferring earlier religious practices from later evidence.3 This quandary must be faced by all who study the social and cultural history of Roman Greece. Eremin classifies perioikic communities as villages (komai) and argues that perioikoi were not citizens of the Spartan polis in any sense. In the following article, "Ouk homoioi, agathoi de: the perioikoi in the classical Lakedaimonian polis" (pp. 285-303), Norbert Mertens, more persuasively defends the traditional view that the perioikoi were part of the polis and were citizens, though without the same rights of Spartiates.

Marcello Lupi, in "Sparta Compared: Ethnographic Perspectives in Spartan Studies" (pp. 305-22), surveys comparative ethnographic approaches to the study of Sparta. He questions the continuing acceptance of Finley's analyses. If Lupi's assertion that Spartan men, even married ones, did not engage in reproductive sex until the age of thirty is valid, then there would be yet another reason for the population decline.

Stefan Rebenich, in "From Thermopylae to Stalingrad: The Myth of Leonidas in German Historiography" (pp. 323-49), examines the heroization of Leonidas in Germany 1850-1945, and, in passing, looks at attitudes towards Sparta in Germany in general. This Spartan king and his army were exploited as models of valiant soldiers meeting certain death. Rebenich's article neatly frames the collection for Leonidas is the sole exception to the denigration of Spartan kings in Millender's article.

Despite the many recent publications illuminating the artistic and archaeological evidence from Sparta4 and the Laconia land survey, none of the papers in this volume deals primarily with archaeological evidence. It is to be hoped that the twenty-first century will see the creation of new models and paradigms, and that with the help of an interdisciplinary approach Spartan studies will truly move beyond the "mirage." Meanwhile Powell and Hodkinson deserve our thanks for nurturing the study of Sparta.


1.   T. Engberg-Pedersen and L. Hannestad (edd.), Conventional Values of the Hellenistic Greeks (Aarhus, 1997).
2.   "Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations," (1742) in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (Oxford, 1963), pp. 381-451, esp. p. 393.
3.  "Spartan Religion," in Anton Powell (ed.), Classical Sparta. Techniques behind her Success (Norman, OK, and London, 1989), pp. 142-72.
4.   See further Sarah B. Pomeroy, Spartan Women (New York, 2002), Appendix "Sources for the History of Spartan Women," esp. pp. 161-70.

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