Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.16

Thomas Figueira (ed.), Myth, Text, and History at Sparta. Gorgias studies in classical and late antiquity, 18.   Piscataway, NJ:  Gorgias Press, 2016.  Pp. 330.  ISBN 9781463205959.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Timothy Doran, California State University – Los Angeles (

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

This work contains a Table of Contents, Acknowledgements, a six-page introduction, and three essays: one by Thomas Figueira of Rutgers University and one each by Aaron J. Beck-Schachter and Aaron Hershkowitz, his graduate students. The essays all display an advanced level of scholarship.

Figueira’s chapter “Politeia and Lakonika in Spartan Historiography” collects and analyzes all known fragmentary references to and quotations from the shadowy littérateurs who composed lost treatises on Sparta. Like a ghost hunter, Figueira reconstructs these spectral figures’ vanished works and their historical contexts, rehabilitating each author’s importance. He thereby reins in claims that our surviving accounts of Spartan institutions possess severe distortions and contamination caused by lateness and retrojection, or by ancient writers’ idealism toward Sparta, by pointing out that significant works on Sparta were produced in the Classical period, not only the Hellenistic or later periods. These include vanished literary works by King Pausanias of Sparta, the Spartiate Thibron, and the navarch Lysander. Later writers used them: Stoic scholars such as the third-century Sphairos, the later Hellenistic Laconian (and possible perioikos) Sosibios, and the late Spartiate writer Aristokrates.

Fully comprehending this essay requires many texts at hand, especially all of Plutarch and Athenaeus, as well as Fragments of the Greek Historians in some form. The essay is divided into sections: an abstract and an introduction are followed by a table adapted from FGH usefully listing the dates of all known works written by ancient Greeks about Sparta, starting with the lost “Karneonikai” of Hellanikos and the constitutional work by Kritias of Athens and ending with Aristokrates in the first century AD and Pausanias. Twenty-three names are given. 1 The next section, “The Stoic Politeia”, concerns Persaios, Sphairos, and Dioskourides, all influenced by Zeno of Kition’s interest in Lykourgos. We then have sections on the Stoic constitutions and their contexts and a table (Table 2) of Athenaios’ references on Spartan dining with key Hellenistic writers of Spartan constitutions bolded. Table 3 gives more attestations of constitutional writers.

The next section, “Sphairos and ‘Lycurgan’ Sparta” (38-48), recapitulates the Stoic scholar Sphairos’ career as well as possible and vindicates Sphairos not as a source of Hellenistic contamination within Plutarch’s material on earlier Sparta, but as a careful writer whose influences can be traced reasonably well. Figueira dismantles the “scaffolding of speculation that has been erected since the publication” of François Ollier’s influential Le Mirage Spartiate (38). He convincingly and refreshingly defends Sphairos against key arguments of Ollier, Hadot, Gabba, Tigerstedt, and Schofield (39, no. 100), concluding “there is no persuasive argument that Stoic philosophy through Sphairos shaped Kleomenes’ program, or that the Stoicism of Sphairos contaminated Plutarch’s treatment of primeval Spartan institutions, or that Kleomenes’ reforms have through Sphairos warped the ‘constitutional’ interpretation of Sparta so evident in Plutarch” (47). Finally, Figueira argues that if any “contamination” occurred, it is more likely that Kleomenes’ reforms were “contaminated” by his own understanding of earlier and contemporary writings on the Spartan constitution, than that Sphairos was unduly influenced in his description of the earlier Spartan politeia by Kleomenes’ reforms.

This section is a tour-de-force. Its argument’s importance to Sparta studies should not be neglected. For if Figueira is correct, we must discard other scholars’ arguments that later ancient writers retrojected Kleomenean reforms (such as land-division) into the Archaic era.

Sosibios, treated next, is dated here to the second quarter of the third century BC – hence, importantly, earlier than Agis IV’s attempted reforms, and so he thus could not have been “contaminated” by them in his writings on early Sparta.2 Here Figueira rehabilitates Sosibios, particularly as a preserver of Laconian traditions and of Alkman’s texts (68), in the face of Jacoby’s “minimizing” of his significance. Each work attributed to Sosibios is described, each fragment painstakingly examined: those in Pausanias receive a remarkable three-page table (65) cross-referencing Immerwahr’s 1889 monograph Die Lakonika des Pausanias auf ihre Quellen untersucht. Trusting so much of Pausanias’ Lakonian material to Sosibios requires guesswork: reasonable, but not bullet-proof. This section concludes with tables of select parallel attestations from ancient writers on Sparta arranged by FGH numbers and a 9-page table of Sosibios quotations in Hesychius.

Figueira then moves on to later writers. He suggests that a shift in titulature among later ancient works (Λακώνων instead of Λακεδαιμονίων or certain other terms) represents non-Spartiate Lakonians trying to reclaim the Lakonian legacy after Nabis’ depredations against it (83-6). The only definite Spartiate among this late group was Aristokrates, who may have been Plutarch’s source for the passage describing Philopoimen destroying the Lykourgan system so that the Spartiate boys will become meek, cutting the sinews of the polis (Philopoimen 16.5-6). Figueira gives several possible dates for Aristokrates, including the early Principate. Surely Aristokrates cannot have written post-Livy: if Plutarch’s passage indeed comes from Aristokrates, its language of meekness and nerve-cutting uncannily resembles Livy’s description of the same event (38.34.9), and suggests that Aristokrates was Livy’s source as well.

There is not much to criticize in this essay. The writing is sometimes dense. Many of its arguments rely upon supposition; however, the sources’ gossamer nature surely requires supposition, lest we helplessly conclude that knowledge on Sparta is impossible. I would have liked to see more discussion of Daniel Tober’s 2010 “Politeiai and Spartan Local History”, which, like Figueira, sees Spartan writers’ view of their past as less diachronic and more synchronic than Athenian writers viewed the Athenian past.3 Altogether, this essay effectively takes many steps to dismantle the tired notion that a “Spartan Mirage” permanently occludes our understanding of Sparta. This is important: for Mirageism has dominated too much scholarship on Sparta over the past century. It has become conceptually flabby, has become a go-to for scholars indulging alternately in hypercriticism against our sources and in epistemological nihilism. Figueira has done much to counter that hypercriticism by his extraordinarily thorough readings, rehabilitations, and reconstructions here.

Aaron J. Beck-Schachter’s article “The Lysandreia” argues that the mode of worship that the Spartan navarch Lysander permitted to evolve on Samos in 404 attempted to compete ideologically with the Spartan kings’ traditional honors as successors to Sparta’s arkhagetai. Lysander’s acts of allowing himself to be set up as a kind of arkhagetes of a renewed Samos and dedicating an expensive statue group at Delphi symbolized something similar to what the regent Pausanias did by declaring himself arkhagos of the Greeks on the Serpent Column during the Persian Wars.

Beck-Schachter’s argument relies on the fact that a tradition (in Tyrtaios and Hellanikos) held that Sparta’s eunomia resulted from the labors not of Lykourgos but of Archaic Spartan kings; the Great Rhetra itself calls the Spartan kings archagetai. Thus the Spartan kings—honored as descendants of the original oikistai who established Sparta with Apollo’s blessing as a Dorian colony of sorts—could themselves be thought of as colonists. The supposed founders (many Dorian, some Akhaian) of many Greek cities, particularly in the Peloponnese, enjoyed this sort of status: the earliest Spartan kings were only one example of a larger set of putative oikistai or archagetai, often thought to be Herakleidai as well.

Hence, the privilege given to Lykourgos as founder of the Spartan politeia represented a victory for somewhat egalitarian factions seeking to delegitimize the royals as symbolic city-founders. This attractive and plausible explanation struck me as a kind of Spartan version of the ideological contention between middling and aristocratic citizens of the polis as seen in the works of Ian Morris and Leslie Kurke, specifically the latter’s notion of Archaic poetry as the site where these tensions are visible. The author uses the fascinating legends of the Partheniai to argue that anything resembling colonization outside Lakonia, such as the honors received by Brasidas, could be perceived as a potential threat to the patrilineal rights of the Spartan royal families (130). Finally Beck-Schachter discusses the Samian Heraia and the Karneia in an impressively learned section demonstrating the complex and layered political resonances of Samos’ aetiological mythology.

Aaron Hershkowitz’s “Getting Carried Away with Theseus: the Evolution and Partisan Use of the Athenian Abduction of Spartan Helen” closes the collection, examining this little-studied myth for political associations: “although quite appropriate for Bronze Age and Homeric heroes, [it] was an embarrassment in the Classical period, especially for the populist king of a civilized polis” (172). At least Romulus’ Sabine-abduction had a demographic excuse: averting population-collapse for Rome. Theseus’ abduction of Helen had none.

The essay reads as a direct response to an article by E. Irwin in 2013, who sees in the abduction myth many elements conditioned by the horrific events of late fifth-century Athens.4 Instead, Hershkowitz analyzes the myth in the context of late sixth-/early fifth-century propaganda amongst the Peisistratidai, Isagoras, Kleisthenes, and Kimon. To frame his arguments, Hershkowitz uses Jonathan Hall’s 2007 article demonstrating Spartan and Argive exploitation of mythology to justify alliance-making plans (234) .5 For Kleomenes, invading Attike, an act inspired by worry over Peisistratid medizing (232), had a mythical precedent in the story of the Dioskouroi rescuing Helen from Theseus’ Attike: in both cases, the Spartans did not seek conquest but justice, and “the goal of punishing a political leader and effecting regime-change rather than destroying Athens” (235). Kleomenes’ mustering of support in the Peloponnese also echoed myths involving the Dioskouri gaining allies (232-4). The law enacted in the late sixth century that only one Spartan king might go out with the army, however, hampered future exploitation of a Spartan-kings-as-contemporary- Dioskouroi motif. However, the Theseus and Helen myth’s unpleasant association with Athenian stasis thus explains its poor representation in fifth-century Athenian public art and tragedy.

Foregrounding these fascinating arguments, rather than subjecting the reader to many pages of swordplay against Irwin’s article, might have been preferable. Otherwise, this essay will be essential for anyone handling any aspect of this myth. The essay closes with four thorough appendices listing all surviving literary attestations to the myth in chronological order and who wrote them. Appendix B shows how we can reverse-engineer Hellanikos’ key account. Appendix C gives translations and full texts of those accounts; Appendix D lists artistic evidence for the myths from ~700 BC to the early Hellenistic period.

A polite criticism of the book as a whole is apropos. Clearly, brilliant intellects produced it: nearly each sentence in each essay brims with insight. However, even someone reasonably well-read in Spartan matters like me found difficulty getting through each essay’s dense prose and denser sequencing. If an editor had streamlined some sentences, re- sequenced each essay’s steps in logic and argument to facilitate comprehension, and signposted more, then we mortals could better have profited. Otherwise there is little to criticize in these fine contributions to Spartan mythology and history.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents: v
Acknowledgements: vii
Introduction by Thomas Figueira: 1
“Politeia and Lakonika in Spartan Historiography” by Thomas Figueira: 7
“The Lysandreia” by Aaron J. Beck-Schachter: 105
“Getting Carried Away With Theseus: The Evolution And Partisan Use Of The Athenian Abduction Of Spartan Helen” by Aaron Hershkowitz: 169
General Index: 325
Index Locorum: 337


1.   A full edition of all of these fragments in Greek with translations in English and extensive editorial notes is a desideratum.
2.   A basic introduction to Sosibios is provided in E. N.Tigerstedt, The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity, Uppsala, 1974.
3.   D. Tober, “Politeiai and Spartan Local History”, Historia 59 (2010): 412-431.
4.   E. Irwin, “‘The hybris of Theseus’ and the date of the Histories” in B. Dunsch and K. Ruffing (eds), Herodots Quellen – die Quellen Herodots, Wiesbaden 2013.
5.   J. Hall, “Politics and Greek Myth” in R. Woodward (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge 2007, 331-354.

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