Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.40

Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece.   Woodstock:  The Overlook Press, 2003.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 1-58567-402-8.  $27.95.  

Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World.   Woodstock:  The Overlook Press, 2006.  Pp. 336, 35 b/w plates, 6 maps.  ISBN 1-58567-566-0.  $30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Noreen Humble, University of Calgary (
Word count: 3215 words

[The author apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Paul Cartledge has probably done more than anyone else in the past three decades to advance knowledge of the Spartans both in academic circles and in the public arena. His scholarship has always been characterized by a very catholic taste in reading. His willingness to draw on as many different disciplines and theoretical approaches as he can, and his deep and broad research into these, have both propelled him to the forefront of his field and provided much stimulus for those of us who have joined him in the search for knowledge about the Spartans and their influence. Both books are aimed primarily at a general audience but established academics would be unwise to ignore them.

The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse

The first of the books under review here is, as Cartledge himself notes, 'the first properly general book' that he has written on the Spartans, and it ties in to a 2003 Channel 4/PBS production of the same name. Following a preface, the material in the book is divided into 3 main sections: the first takes us from the shadowy origins of Sparta down to the end of the Persian Wars, the second from 478-404 BC, the third from 404 BC to AD 14, as well as including (in the last chapter) a discussion of some aspects of the long legacy of Sparta. There is also an appendix on Spartan hunting, a useful timeline (pp. 13-17), maps (pp. 18-20), further general reading (pp. 286-7) and a select bibliography (pp. 288-294).

The introduction reminds us that the Spartans continue to fascinate on various levels, from their defeat at Thermopylae to their cruel repression of fellow Greeks. The book shows us why. Cartledge also reminds us of the fact that western heritage owes as much to the Spartans as to the Athenians (p. 44). This is an important point and it is a particular virtue of Cartledge's book that it presents Archaic and Classical Greek history as far as possible from a Spartan viewpoint instead of from an Athenian viewpoint. This inevitably requires considerable comment on the source material, since we have very few direct Spartan sources, and Cartledge indeed provides clear and accessible discussion of the sources and some of their biases throughout.

The first chapter deals with early Sparta down to the conquest of Messenia. This chapter is particularly good for its lucid presentation of the varied, fragmentary source material (and its problematic nature) which we are reliant on for reconstructing the period, from the archaeological evidence (or lack thereof in the case of Menelaus and Helen), through the fragments of the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, to Pindar, Herodotus and Aristotle, down to the problems inherent in the much later work of Plutarch. The institutions which were all attributed to the lawgiver Lycurgus by later ancient authors are presented here (e.g. the gerousia, the agoge, the krypteia, syssitia) and also examined are the complexities of the tripartite social structure of full citizens, perioikoi and helots and their relationship with one another.

The second chapter sets the scene for the coming wars with Persia by looking at the state of Sparta c. 500 BC, since it is from this period that we have fuller source material. Receiving treatment here among other issues are Sparta's leadership of the Peloponnesian League, her relationship with the great panhellenic centres of Olympia and Delphi, her not quite deserved reputation as a tyrant-slayer, her naval expeditions in the 6th century, and the myth of austerity in Archaic Sparta.

Chapter Three examines Sparta's role in the Persian Wars. The brief engagement with counter-factual history which ends the chapter (i.e. what if the Spartan resistance had not happened?) suggests that Cartledge views Thermopylae as the pivotal battle in the Persian Wars (the second book under review, see below, argues this point in detail).

The period between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars is covered in chapter four. Cartledge argues that Sparta brought in radical military reforms c. 450 BC (after the serious helot revolt) by including the perioikoi in their regiments to boost numbers and ensure perioikic loyalty (p. 154). This is important to note since the popular image of the Spartans as the perfect soldiers must be tempered with the knowledge that the perioikoi 'made up half or more of the Spartan army throughout the classical period' (Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare [London 2004] 84, who deals with the issue in greater detail).

The chronological narrative is broken in chapter five for an examination of Spartan women and religion. The natural starting point is Aristotle's comment about Sparta being a gynecocracy. The customary images of Spartan women (e.g. being sexually licentious, exerting political influence, exercising naked, etc.) are all dealt with. The chapter ends with the image of the tough Spartan mother sacrificing her son for the state and it is only here on this last point that the source material (Plutarch's Sayings) could have been given greater critical attention.

Chapter Six is entitled 'The Athenian War' (a.k.a. the Peloponnesian War) to hammer home the point that we too often view Classical Greece uncritically through the lenses of our Athenocentric sources. Brasidas and Lysander are singled out, both in their way unusual Spartans, as being able to escape being 'imprisoned in hoplite mentality', unlike their majority of their comrades.

The seventh chapter covers the period from the end of the Athenian War to the Battle of Leuctra. King Agesilaos II, on whom Cartledge has published a seminal monograph -- Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (Baltimore 1987) -- is central to the narrative. Cartledge does see Agesilaos as bearing considerable responsibility for the downfall of Sparta with his 'counterproductive conservatism' (p. 211), but also sees the main source on Agesilaos, Xenophon, as trying to obfuscate this fact. While the majority view is still that Xenophon is an apologist for Agesilaos, there has been significant dissension from this view: see most importantly C. Tuplin, Failings of Empire (Stuttgart 1993). What we do not always get in this book, as is generally the case in books written with the general public in mind, is full engagement with opposing scholarly opinions.

Chapter Eight deals with the years from Leuctra to 331 BC. The repeated unsuccessful attempts by Sparta to regain the territory of Messenia, liberated by Epaminondas after Leuctra, are chronicled. Cartledge reasserts at the end of the chapter that he firmly believes Agesilaos must bear a large part of the responsibility for the state of affairs in Sparta in 331 because he had at one and the same time made poor decisions concerning foreign policy and ignored social and economic problems at home (p. 237).

Two brief chapters then deal with post-classical Sparta. Chapter nine brings us down to AD 14 and the gradual transformation of Sparta into a 'theme park to attract cultural tourists' (p. 252). The 3rd century BC revolutions chronicled for us in Plutarch's Lives of Agis and Cleomenes, and the reigns of Areus I and Nabis are foregrounded, as is the gradual dismantling of the distinctive features which had set Classical Sparta apart from its rival states: the dual kingship (Nabis ruled alone, p. 248) and the tripartite social structure (the gradual loss of helots and perioikoi as the state shrunk, pp. 249, 252-3). The final chapter then deals with the Spartan legacy, focusing on Leonidas, with emphasis on the 19th century European fascination with him.

The appendix on Spartan hunting provides a thoughtful reminder that however much we may see ourselves in the ancient Greeks (and the focus here is upon an appeal by a proponent of fox hunting to ancient practices which were recorded by Xenophon), there are significant cultural differences, even more so with Spartans, whom even contemporaries regarded as 'other'. (I'll come back to this point in the second review below). Clearly Cartledge is covering huge territory in this book. What I find particularly impressive is that throughout the work Cartledge manages over and over to clearly set forth the problems inherent in the ancient source material and what might be the reasons behind them (e.g. how Herodotus' explicit bias against Cleomenes is actually undercut by his own narrative or events, p. 92; the conflicting nature of the sources on Pausanias, p. 133). This is no small feat in a work covering hundreds of years of social and historical development and aimed at a general audience. The work is also peppered through with references to modern works drawing on Sparta (e.g. John Barton's Tantalus play-cycle, the novels of Pressfield and Manfredi [see below]), well proving Cartledge's point that the Spartans continue to fascinate and provide a springboard for cultural self-examination. There could be no better or no more accessible starting point to learn about the Spartans than this book -- Cartledge need not apologise (as he does in a round about way at the beginning of the appendix, p. 273) for 'popularising' his subject.

I have only two minor quibbles with the overall format of the book. In each chapter 'snapshot biographies' of Spartans of interest are inserted. They start clearly enough but the way they end is inconsistent and sometimes confusing, with the continuing narrative often repeating much of what was noted in the biographical sketch (the transition from King Archidamus II's biography back to the narrative, pp. 162-3, was particularly confusing). Secondly, it would have been helpful if the artifacts in the illustrations could have included approximate dates.

Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World

The second book under review focuses more specifically on the Spartan defeat at the hands of the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC. That there is something about this particular battle that continues to capture the public imagination is evidenced by the recent novels of Steven Pressfield (Gates of Fire: an epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, 1998) and Valerio Massimo Manfredi (Spartan, 2002), Frank Miller's graphic novel The 300 (1999), the 2007 film 300 which is based on Miller's work, and a made-for-tv movie Last Stand of the 300 (2007). Also on the Spartans more generally, though Thermopylae looms large, there have been two television series, the History Channel's Rise and Fall of the Spartans (2002) and the Channel 4/PBS production mentioned above. Academic interest equally has not lagged behind.

While John Stuart Mill argued that the Battle of Marathon 'was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history' (p. 202), and the dedicatee of The Spartans Barry Strauss, has chosen as a subtitle for his book The Battle of Salamis (New York 2004) 'the naval encounter that saved Greece -- and Western Civilization', as the subtitle of this book clearly suggests, Cartledge is going to argue for the centrality of the Battle of Thermopylae to Western civilisation.

The copy I received consisted of the uncorrected proofs so some material was not yet in its final form but the general structure of the book sees a prologue and epilogue framing nine chapters (shades of Herodotus?): four chapters setting the scene, three on the battle itself, and two chapters on the afterlife of the battle and its reception. In addition there are three appendices (all on Herodotus as a source), a timeline, a family tree of the Achaemenid royal family and various maps (showing the extent of the Persian empire, the Greek world, Xerxes' campaigns, and the battleground at Thermopylae), a useful glossary of terminology which would be familiar to classicists but not to the general public, a chapter by chapter account of the important bibliography used (in place of footnotes, though a few footnotes are promised in the final edition), a traditional bibliography and an index. All these tools serve to enhance the reader's experience.

The first four chapters set the scene, starting broadly in chapter one with 'the ancient world in 500 BC -- from India to the Aegean'. Chapters Two, Three and Four focus more specifically on the major players and their state of affairs in c. 485 BC, the Achaemenid Empire in Persia, the Greeks as a whole, and then Sparta. The great strength of these chapters lies in the attempt to present a picture of each of the major players from their own perspective. This is particularly strikingly done in the chapter on Persia, which is often simply reduced to the barbarian opposition, rather than the complex and highly developed state that it was. The current body of scholarship on the Achaemenid Empire certainly makes this possible, though often still the Greek presentation of the Persians takes precedence. The positive and negative aspects of Herodotus as a source are well brought out in these chapters and again in the appendices.

The three chapters on the battle itself are divided up into 'mobilisation', 'preparations for battle' and 'the battle'. Cartledge continues to take care to point out the nature and limitations of Herodotus' account and makes every attempt to widen this picture with judicious conjecture about more realistic issues which must have faced the players on both sides (such as security, status, economics, internal politics). Interesting discussions ensue, for example, over the choice for the site of the conference of Greek states to organize resistance (p. 99-103), over why Thermopylae was chosen as the point of resistance (pp. 125-7), over the sending of a suicide squad of 300 and the difference between the suicide of the Spartans and modern suicide-bombers, and the similarities with Japanese kamikaze pilots (pp. 129-131). A minor objection here is that in stark contrast to Cartledge's careful assessment of Herodotus as a source, he once again (see above) uses Plutarch's Sayings out of context without discussion (e.g. p. 132). While the sayings are certainly memorable, they more than likely belong to a time period well after the events in question and would have been more appropriately relegated to the reception chapters. The actual description of the battle in chapter seven mostly eschews critical assessment of sources in favour of dramatic presentation of the heroism of the Spartans.

The two chapters on the reception of the battle deal with select examples from antiquity, and then from the renaissance to the modern day. Cartledge sensibly does not overwhelm us with examples to the detriment of contextualization, but gives an interesting cross-section from different media, and with different motivations. So, for example, in a speech written shortly after the Spartans defeat the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, Cartledge points out that the orator Lysias certainly acknowledges the bravery of the Spartans at Thermopylae but at the same time is keen to note (Cartledge suggests he does so with enjoyment) that it was a defeat and that on the same day the Athenians themselves won a victory at Artemisium (p. 167). Or again, for example, in Jacques-Louis David's 1814 painting of the battle, Cartledge presents us with the speculation that David's own 'homoerotic proclivities' influenced his presentation of events. Clearly here choices have had to be made but a wide variety of examples attests to a continued consciousness, reception and appropriation, throughout European intellectual life, of Leonidas' stand at Themopylae.

As with all Cartledge's work this book simultaneously enlightens, challenges and provokes. There is a sense, however, in which Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World, turns out itself to be another example of appropriation, influenced by specific contemporary circumstances and used to attempt to make sense of the same -- i.e. as a springboard for cultural self-examination. The emphasis in the framing sections is on the broad question of east-west cultural relations, which as Cartledge notes, has been brought more immediately into the public consciousness by the events of 9/11 and 7/7: Thermopylae was a clash between west and east with the glorious suicidal sacrifice being made by the West; notions of 'freedom' and 'self-sacrifice' were as important then as they are in the debate now. Cartledge at times reads some of his sources more in light of this overarching frame than in their contemporary context. Thus in Appendix 3 Herodotus is presented as an antidote to 'contemporary forms of religious fundamentalism, the dominant feature of which appears to be a radical intolerance' (p. 248). Further influenced by the overarching frame is the idea that the Spartans put the notion of 'Greece' ahead of individual advantage (e.g. p. 92). This point, I think, is debatable. It is certainly more complex than Cartledge wants to allow here. Xenophon's evidence on the issue of fighting to the death (Lac. Pol. 9), which Cartledge does not closely examine in this book, suggests that the Spartans were encouraged to do so by the institution of penalties for cowardice which amounted to complete social ostracism, which, in a state where life was lived on the public stage, amounted to internal exile. This point alone complicates understanding of Spartan motivation.

Of particular interest to one having read these books back to back is how in the first the Spartans are most clearly set apart as a very alien culture (the appendix, as noted, quite succinctly demonstrates and reinforces this), yet, in the second we are invited to see ourselves as inheritors of the Spartan spirit and to be asked to consider 'that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be the worst place on earth to find ourselves' (p. 213). Well, I, for one, would not want to find myself living in a totalitarian state where constant supervision and the threat of punishment for deviating from a narrowly prescribed way of behaving was standard -- and that's the positive side of things for the males in the society! Thus, it seems to this reviewer at any rate, arguing for the centrality of Thermopylae as saving western civilization, in the light of current historical events, has led Cartledge to somewhat undermine his more judicious assessment of Spartan culture as definitively 'other' in the The Spartans, and I wonder whether such claims would have been made so strongly for Thermopylae and the Spartans prior to 9/11.

In this regard I want to add one further example to Cartledge's collection of modern appropriations of the battle. The following are comments from a review of the film 300 by Mustafa Akyol written on March 24, 2007 in the Turkish Daily News:

'The message that the film is designed to give us is all too obvious: Western civilization (which is free, rational and beautiful) has always defended itself against the barbaric East (which is tyrannical, irrational and ugly) . . . However . . . if the idea of a weak and outnumbered group of dedicated warriors standing against the world's superpower is to be seen as a prelude for today's 'clash of civilisations' . . . then the out coming message has to be quite the opposite . . . in case you haven't noticed, the United States is the world's superpower today, and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda see themselves as the few who will conquer the many'.1

The very fact that Sparta and Thermopylae can be appropriated by radically different groups is one of the many reasons for our continued fascination with this difficult-to-understand ancient Greek state. Cartledge, as ever, keeps the fascination alive and the debate current, and for that we are all indebted to him.


1.   The review can be found at:

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