Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.10

Nigel M. Kennell, Spartans: A New History. Ancient Cultures.   New York/Oxford/Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.  Pp. vii, 218.  ISBN 9781405130004.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by David W. Madsen, Seattle University (

For those who study or teach the ancient world but are not students of ancient Sparta, Nigel Kennell has written a work to bridge the gap between “the common conception of Sparta and what the specialists believe.” He argues that this is appropriate given the fact that, though the myth of Sparta is slowly crumbling (graphic novels and films like “300” may suggest otherwise), the new picture is far more fragmentary and complex than we might imagine. Kennell’s book attempts to highlight the advances in our knowledge, to reconcile, where possible, conflicting explanations, and frequently to admit that the state of our knowledge precludes coherent and compelling conclusions.

The book opens with a brief discussion of the geography/topography of the region; the brevity of this section is perhaps the clearest indicator of the lack of systematic archaeology in the region. Better known, and the subject of most of the chapter, are the twelve major sources of written or epigraphic evidence, which Kennell reviews (and evaluates) chronologically. Though all of the literary sources contributed to the Spartan myth, Kennell acknowledges that Plutarch is probably the chief culprit.

Chapter two, “Sons of Heracles,” attempts to reconcile the conflicts within the myths of Spartan origins with the evidence provided by archaeology. Kennell argues that, while the Spartans themselves may have reconciled the return of the Heraclids with the Dorian invasion, the archaeological record and linguistic evidence militate against a coherent explanation. Kennell is more confident about the archaeological record of the eighth century, during which, he notes, Lakonia was and remained lightly populated, almost exclusively in the Eurotas Valley settlements of Sparta and Amyclae. Myths/accounts of Achaean, Minyan, Lemnian, Parthenic migrations from Lakonia, he suggests, may reflect the gradual development of Spartan power and the xenelasia later associated with the Spartans. This may also be the period of the earliest foundations of the perioecic communities, in Kennell’s view a sort of internal colonization. But very much remains speculative and Kennell acknowledges that it is not until the seventh century that we can truly see a Sparta that is not legendary.

Chapter three takes up the conquest of Messenia and its causes; Tyrtaeus' Eunomia and the Great Rhetra, both difficult texts for which he provides a commentary, suggest that attempts to deal with unequal distribution of land may be the most cogent explanation for the annexation of Messenia. In this view Tyrtaeus becomes a Spartan Solon, but Kennell argues that the rhetra also demonstrate that land reform came with a cost to the damos. The resolution of the conflict between nobility and people did, however, provide the impetus for both the growth of the population of Lakonia and for the formation of the Peloponnesian League. When Cleomenes succeeded to the Agiad throne, Sparta had absorbed Lakonia and was clearly the hegemon of the Peloponnese.

In succeeding chapters (4, 7, 8 and 9) Kennell relates the history of Sparta through the reigns of the Spartan kings. His approach offers three significant benefits. First of all, we come to appreciate better the role of the king in both the formation and the execution of Spartan foreign policy. Secondly he provides a narrative that has Sparta as the focal point. Athens loses its customary place at the center of the Greek world, and Sparta becomes an agent rather than a respondent to historical events. Especially for the reigns of powerful personalities like Cleomenes I or Agesilaus II, Kennell offers a picture of policies deliberately chosen and consistently pursued, even if they did not produce the desired results. Finally, the focus on Sparta also allows a continuous narrative of domestic affairs and reveals, among other things, that Sparta’s so-called Lykurgan constitution evolved continually throughout its history. In fact the “Lykurgan system” as reported by Plutarch probably better represents the system of Cleomenes III and the third century rather than any archaic invention. These narrative chapters certainly are the most accessible of the book and offer an excellent corrective to traditional narratives of particularly the fifth and fourth centuries.

Kennell interrupts his chronological narrative twice to address particular issues or problems. The first excursus consists of two chapters which explore the helots and perioeci (chapter 5) and the government of Sparta (chapter 6). There are a number of issues or questions about the institution of helotage: origins, status, ownership usage, and disposition. Kennell believes that helots were individually owned but that there were restrictions on their disposition; he insists that helots were not chattel slaves. In order to explain why this significantly larger population remained subservient to their outnumbered Spartiate masters, Kennell points to opportunities for a transfer from agricultural to household work (by owner) or for military service (by the state). The neodamodeis mentioned by Thucydides probably represent helots already manumitted as rewards for service as light armed troops and now, as citizens, fighting in the ranks of the phalanx. The perioeci, by contrast, were freeborn in small (400-600), dependent communities that looked very much like domestic colonies scattered throughout both Lakonia and Messenia. Our sources, Kennell notes, suggest that they were ethnically and socially homogenous with the Spartans; thus they fought side by side with them in the phalanx. Their role in the economy is equally mixed; Spartans did engage in manufacturing and we know that perioeci farmed on behalf of themselves and the kings, with whom they had special ties.

Chapter six, “Governing Sparta,” reviews the offices of Sparta, enumerating the responsibilities, powers, and prerogatives of the kings, ephors, gerousia, and assembly. As in the rest of the book, the kings occupy pride of place. Kennell argues that they were not, strictly speaking, homoioi: they identified themselves as Achaeans rather than Dorians and they did not participate in the agoge. Priests, commanders, and judges, they were “expected to politic as well as reign.” They supported themselves with the spoils of war, the produce of royal estates, and tribute paid by the perioeci, but their influence in the state depended upon their charisma as much as it did their ancestry and tenure. Annual office was the weakness of the ephorate, though Kennell’s enumeration of their responsibilities shows clearly why they could challenge a weak king. Ironically he suggests that the office may well have been a creation of the kings, “a voluntary limitation of royal authority under pressure for reform.” The ephors were in charge of foreign policy and domestic affairs, mobilized troops in time of war, had judicial powers, and served a probouleutic function for the assembly whose meetings they supervised and whose decisions they implemented. The Gerousia, a central element of the Lykurgan reforms, was likewise a probouleutic body, and Kennell explains the legislative process in order to show how ephors and gerontes shaped the legislative process. Kennell concludes his constitutional review with remarks on the assembly, which, while certainly more circumscribed than the Athenian, did exercise ultimate authority in matters of peace and war.

Kennell’s last interruption of the chronological, “royal” narrative comes within the chapter on Agesilaus. Having buried the king, Kennell focuses on three sources and three battles (Herodotus and Plataea, Thucydides and Mantinea, and Xenophon and Leuctra) to study the size, structure, training, arms and culture of the Spartan army. He posits a major reform between 479 and 425 which resulted in carefully structured units with a large cadre of officers. Most interesting are his comments on the arms and armor; the hoplite was not as metal clad as we might believe. Instead it would appear that the phalanx formation itself was the best guarantor of safety and survival for individual soldiers.

The last chapter examines post-monarchic (or dyarchic) Sparta under the authority of the Achaean League and then Rome. While Philipoemen outlawed the Lykurgan system, it was restored under the Romans after Pydna. As the civil wars of the first century in Rome spread into the Balkans, all Greece was caught up. Fortunately for Sparta, the dynast Eurycles sided with Octavian and his support was rewarded with citizenship for himself and benefits for the city. His subsequent fall and the fall of the dynasty under Nero removes Sparta from prominence until the time of Hadrian, when the agoge, or rather a nostalgic and needlessly brutal recreation of it, was renewed. Alaric’s capture of the city in 396 brings this short chapter and the history to a close.

An eight page bibliography and a detailed, sixteen page index conclude the book. While there is a map of the city of Sparta, maps of Lakonia and the Peloponnese would be useful additions to a future edition. Moreover, since the monarchs are the thread of the narrative, a king list, including relevant regents, would be helpful. I found the twelve black and white photos poorly reproduced and not particularly helpful.

There is much about Sparta that we do not know; coherence has too often been achieved by ignoring contradictions among our sources or between written and material evidence. In that respect we too have embraced the myth. Kennell effectively demonstrates that the center will not hold, but readers will have to rest content with a picture that can be very confusing (for the bronze and early Iron Age) or fragmentary (even for the best attested periods and institutions). What he has managed is to teach us to be more inquisitive, incredulous, and circumspect when looking at or speaking of the history and institutions of this most unusual and fascinating city. For those of us not experts in Sparta this is a useful and informative, but occasionally demanding, read.

Table of Contents:

The Name, the Land, and the Sources

Sons of Heracles

Conquests, crisis, and consolidation

From Cleomenes to Pausanias

Helots and Perioeci

Governing Sparta

Leotychidas to Lysander

Agesilaus and the Army

From Archidamus III to Nabis

From the Achaean League to the Roman Empire

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