Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.49

Stephen Hodkinson (ed.), Sparta: Comparative Approaches.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2009.  Pp. xxxiii, 502.  ISBN 9781905125388.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by William S. Morison, Grand Valley State University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Was Sparta exceptional? Given that Spartan society is traditionally presented as one of the most singular polities in the ancient Mediterranean world, the answer might seem straightforward. However, this collection of ten essays, which grew out of a conference at the University of Nottingham in 2007 entitled “Sparta: Comparative Approaches and Classical Tradition,” suggests that Sparta was not as unusual as it is often portrayed, but neither was it without some singular features. The book is capped by a debate over Spartan exceptionalism between the book’s editor, Stephen Hodkinson, and Mogens Herman Hansen. This excellent collection presents a complex and nuanced perspective that deepens our understanding of many topics in Spartan political, social and cultural history.

The book’s first part consists of two papers that concern Spartan “Political and Hegemonic Structures.” In the first of these essays, Ellen Millender explores the history of Sparta’s “dyarchy” or practice of having two hereditary kings by examining the ways that the mostly non-Spartan sources conceptualized monarchy on the basis of their own experiences with autocracy and then applied those conceptions to Sparta. She examines the situations of a number of Spartan kings in comparison with some of their counterparts in Persia and Hellenistic Egypt, and further compares powerful female Spartan royals with their Achaemenid and Ptolemaic contemporaries. Her analysis shows that Sparta’s kings never held the kind of absolute power that some of their Near Eastern neighbors attained, but that the special status of Spartan kings provided opportunities for extraordinary individuals like Cleomenes I and Agesilaus II to have “extraordinary control over Spartan foreign policy” and gave royal women like Gorgo and Cynisca “an unusual degree of influence.” (40) In the next essay, James Roy compares the development of regional hegemony by the Spartans in Laconia with a similar development of domination by Elis over its neighbors during the late Archaic and early Classical periods. He notes that while both Sparta and Elis came to dominate their neighbors during this time, Sparta developed a unique system of “dual citizenship” that gave the perioikoi a connection with the Spartan elite. No such system developed in Elis, where the Eleans maintained their control through a system of subordinate allies.

The next two papers examine two key Spartan social institutions: pederasty and drinking. The educational institutions of Crete and Sparta have been commonly linked since antiquity. However, Stefan Link turns this notion on its head and argues that in Crete pederasty was institutionalized and “this special kind of ‘friendship’ strengthened the citizenry on Crete” (102), whereas in Sparta it was not a part of state education but a result of “a framework of private nepotism and patronage” (101) that ultimately “weakened the citizenry of Sparta.” (102) The institution of the Spartan syssitia had very different results. Adam Rabinowitz explores the development of Spartan dining and drinking customs during the Archaic period as agents for the negotiation of social roles defining citizenship and elite status. He concludes that Spartan commensality was unique in that it involved a deliberate reform of the earlier Greek symposia into an idealizing commensal structure that helped to enforce political equilibrium. The article is particularly strong in its discussion of the divergent scholarly approaches to the Spartan syssitia compared with the symposia, and provides an excellent integration of the textual, iconographic, and archaeological evidence with a sound anthropological base.

In the third section, Spartan religious institutions and the practice of oath-making are compared with Greek practices in general. Michael A. Flower’s essay, explores how different religious practice in Sparta was from the rest of the Greek world. In his discussion of their unique gods and religious personnel, as well as festivals like the Gymnopaediae and the automatic heroization of their kings, Flower portrays Spartan religion as profoundly different from that of other Greek city-states. This thought-provoking and too brief contribution should inspire more work on one of the most important and yet understudied aspects of Spartan society. In his discussion of a very specific aspect of Spartan religious practice, Andrew J. Bayliss examines the role that Sparta’s proverbial brevity of speech (brachylogia) played in making oaths and deceiving enemies. By closely investigating some exceptional Spartan oath-makers, such as Cleomenes, we see that what made the Spartans exceptional was their ability both to deceive an enemy and keep an oath “by carefully omitting key words when framing oaths.” (252)

The last set of essays concerns the historiography and representation of Helots, Spartans, and barbarians. In his wide-ranging essay on helots Nino Luraghi discusses the very different comparative approaches taken by ancient scholars, who tended to focus on case studies, and moderns, who have generally focused on comparable systems of unfree labor in order to formulate models for understanding Helotage. While both approaches have taken their start from an assumption that Spartan practice was exceptional, comparison with the practice of serfdom in Russia, the situation of the Nobi in Koryo-period Korea, and the transformation of dependent labor during the Spanish conquista of the Americas reveals that Helotage was not unique. Instead, “a consideration of Helotage in the broad comparative field of systems of unfree labor seems to offer the possibility of formulating a reasonably coherent socio-historical interpretation of it.” (285) Appended to this article is “A note on the etymology of Εἵλωτες,” in which Timothy Barnes makes short work of the two most common derivations for the term—either from εἷλον “seize, capture” or from the place name Ἕλος—and instead posits its origins from a proto-Greek word “*seilôt- that meant “bondsman” or “slave” (286-287). In the essay that follows, Dorothy M. Figueira and Thomas J. Figueira provide a brief, but useful critique of postcolonial theory and its applicability for understanding the evolution of Messenian identity. (312-320) While one of the shorter offerings in this collection, it is also one of the most rewarding. In the next essay, Lydia Langerwerf examines the portrayal of the Messenian rebel leader Aristomenes by Pausanias in comparison with an account of Drimakos, the leader of a Chian slave rebellion, in Athenaios. In her close examination of both accounts, Langerwerf demonstrates that we learn at least as much (or more) about attitudes towards slave rebellions in the second-century AD Roman Empire, as we do about the histories of the rebellions themselves. In the last article, Rosie Harman compares the way Xenophon uses instances of ‘viewing’ barbarians in the Kyropaideia and Anabasis with his ‘viewing’ of Spartans in the Polity of the Lakedaimonians. Her analysis demonstrates the importance of the visual in Xenophon’s examination of ‘other’ cultures, both barbarian and Spartan, and reveals much about “how Sparta was conceptualized” (374) by Xenophon. In a manner that is similar to Langerwerf’s, Harman calls into question the historicity of these documents for understanding Spartan institutions and practice--both essays provide a salutary reminder that most of our sources for Sparta tell us far more about their non-Spartan writers’ attitudes and times than they do about Sparta itself.

In the last section, Mogens Hansen and Stephen Hodkinson engage in a spirited and collegial debate over whether Sparta was a normal or exceptional polis. In brief, Hansen argues that Sparta was unusual, particularly in the relationship between the urban center and countryside, its economic function as a ‘consumer city’, the helots, the oliganthropy of its ruling Spartiate class, Sparta’s fusion of state and society, and the Spartan institutions of kingship and iron currency. Hodkinson’s long reply ably, though not always completely convincingly, contests these arguments and concludes by stating that “in many respects Sparta is best characterised not so much as a ‘normal polis’ (which gives insufficient weight to her elements of distinctiveness) nor as an ‘exceptional polis’ (which, though capturing her distinctiveness, gives insufficient weight to her transformation of widespread Greek norms), but rather as a ‘hyper-polis’, which developed certain Greek norms to their fullest.” (459) This debate is successful in clarifying and moving forward on certain matters of contention in Spartan studies, particularly those surrounding the Spartan economy and the degree to which the Spartan state intruded into the private lives of its citizenry. However, given the stature and diversity of opinion of many of the other participants at the Nottingham conference, one cannot help but feel that an opportunity was lost to integrate their voices more directly into this debate.

In sum, Hodkinson is to be congratulated on producing and editing a thought-provoking work of first-rate scholarship on some of the central questions in modern scholarship on Sparta. However, as is almost inevitably the case in an edited volume, there is a certain unevenness in the essays. For example, Rabinowitz’s excellent essay on commensality is detailed and closely argued, whereas Flower’s article on religion and the Figueiras’ article on post-colonialism tease the reader with their provocative, but not always fully expressed ideas (in both cases, one hopes that more substantial treatments are to come). None of this diminishes the overall value of this handsomely produced compilation of papers that is essential reading for any scholar concerned with archaic and classical Sparta.

Table of Contents

Stephen Hodkinson, Introduction, ix

Ellen Millender, The Spartan Dyarchy: a comparative perspective, 1

James Roy, Hegemonial structures in late archaic and early classical Elis and Sparta, 69

Stefan Link, Education and pederasty in Spartan and Cretan Society, 89

Adam Rabinowitz, Drinking from the same cup: Sparta and late Archaic commensality, 113

Michael A. Flower, Spartan ‘religion’ and Greek ‘religion’, 193

Andrew J. Bayliss, Using few words wisely? ‘Laconic swearing’ and Spartan duplicity, 231

Nino Luraghi, The helots: comparative approaches, ancient and modern with an Appendix, A note on the etymology of Εἵλωτες by Timothy Barnes, 261

Dorothy M. Figueira and Thomas J. Figueira, The colonial ‘subject’ and the ideology of subjection in Lakonikê: tasting Laconian wine behind Lacanian labels, 305

Lydia Langerwerf, Aristomenes and Drimakos: the Messenian revolt in Pausanias’ Periegesis in comparative perspective, 331

Rosie Harman, Viewing Spartans, viewing barbarians: visuality in Xenophon’s Lakedaimoniôn Politeia, 361

Mogens Herman Hansen, Was Sparta a normal or exceptional polis?, 385

Stephen Hodkinson, Was Sparta an exceptional polis?, 417

Mogens Herman Hansen and Stephen Hodkinson, Spartan Exceptionalism? Continuing the debate, 499

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