BMCR 2000.11.16

Sparta: New Perspectives

, , Sparta : new perspectives. London: Duckworth, 1999. 427 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715629085. £48.00.

This impressive volume, the third set of papers which Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell have edited separately or together, contains papers mostly deriving from a symposium at Hay-on-Wye in 1997. In quality and range it surpasses even the editors’ earlier output. (I give page numbers for the notes and bibliography to each paper separately, so that the lengths of papers will not appear so great as to deter students and non-specialists.)

Stephen Hodkinson’s introduction (pp.ix-xxvi) provides a full and even-handed overview. He begins with perceptive remarks about earlier developments in Spartan scholarship and the recent upsurge in work. The international character of that revival is well represented here; the absence of papers by Greek nationals, including archaeologists ‘on the ground,’ is notable but should be remedied in the editors’ next offering, based on papers delivered at Maynooth in September 2000.1

Hans van Wees (text pp.1-26, notes and bibliography pp.26-41) makes a strong case that the Great Rhetra (Sparta’s early constitutional document, possibly preserved in Plutarch’s Lykourgos) was not paraphrased in Tyrtaios’s poem Eunomia, fragments of which survive. Tyrtaios, purporting to give a version of a Delphic oracle, simply calls on the people to obey its leaders. The Rhetra, W. argues, is a later document embodying a more democratic political process. Although the precise details of his argument, chiefly the translation of key words in the Greek texts, are sometimes open to question, the main thesis deserves serious consideration.2 W. follows up by arguing that the supposed recipients of the oracle were the Herakleidai rather than the kings Theopompos and Polydoros. The notion that the recipient was Lykourgos may derive from the polemics of the exiled king Pausanias who made Lykourgos a Eurypontid instead of an Agiad and may have denied that Lykourgos had oracular support for introducing the ephorate. Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle (as used by Plutarch) reacted to the problem of the alleged Lykourgan ephorate with logical but flawed analyses which are responsible for the ideas that the Rhetra had a rider added later and that Tyrtaios paraphrased the Rhetra (W. provides evidence that rhetra cannot mean ‘oracle’). W.’s provocative paper offers a potentially illuminating reinterpretation of a key period and has fundamental implications for early Spartan history.

Jean Ducat (pp.43-62, 62-6) moderates the harshness of Spartan education and finds points of contact between it and Greek educational systems elsewhere, notably in the pursuit of music and rhetorical excellence (being ‘laconic’ did not mean being inarticulate). He examines the case for using anthropological parallels to illuminate Spartan institutions that some have seen as archaic ‘survivals.’ While anthropological analogy can usefully suggest lines of interpretation, he argues, Spartan customs can equally well be interpreted as elements in a ‘civic’ programme — one designed to shape citizens. Seemingly archaic rituals are unlikely to have survived from the Bronze Age but probably evolved piecemeal in the geometric period.

H. W. Singor (pp.67-83, 83-9) examines how the subdivisions of the Spartan army were constituted in practice. In his reconstruction, a syssition contained about fifteen men with ages spanning the whole range from 20 upwards. They came from a single civic tribe but were not close relatives. Three syssitia, one from each tribe, made up an enomotion. Each lochos drew most of its members from one oba (constituent village of Sparta). Every two years on average, the syssition gained a new candidate member, when a 22-year-old adopted a 12-year-old as his eromenos (beloved). The boy would become a full member of the same syssition at 20 years of age. To my mind, S. does not clarify this fully. Admission every two years would produce a syssition of about 21 members rather than 15 — provided all survived. I take him to mean, therefore, that losses in battle and natural deaths necessitated more frequent recruitment. He might also have discussed the chains of patronage and loyalty which, as his reconstruction implies, must have existed inside syssitia. Not only would a new member normally have his 30-year-old former erastes on hand to help and inspire him, but that 30-year-old might have his 40-year-old ex-erastes, he his, and so on right up the age scale. Each syssition would thus comprise about three to five groups of about five to three men who were particularly closely bonded. The implications for the supervision of juniors by elders, for the way in which cohesiveness was created within the army, and even for high politics may be worth exploring. While other reconstructions are possible, Singor’s meticulous modelling has brought the syssition to life.

Nicolas Richer (pp.91-100, 101-15) examines the role of Aidos (Reserve) in Spartan culture. Building on Ephraim David’s earlier work on the religious cults of abstractions at Sparta (Fear, Sleep, Death, Laughter, Desire, and Hunger), he observes that only in the case of Phobos (Fear) can we be sure there was a temple building, suggesting that Phobos was particularly important to Spartan thinking. Since Aidos is closely related, the same may be true of it. These may be the only abstractions that had actual temples and may have been particularly important. Aidos, however, probably governed the behaviour of women as well as men and boys.

Ephraim David (pp.117-36, 136-46) examines silence as a form of non-verbal communication at Sparta. Xenophon depicts ways in which group silence contributed to the training of Spartans. For Plato, Spartan silence operates as a marker of deference to seniors and elders. The ability to keep silent differentiated Spartiates from helots, who were prevented from using it as an expression of resistance. The shaming of Spartan cowards, the keeping of secrets within the syssition, public secrecy and censorship, reluctance to engage in full debate with foreigners, and silence on the part of the citizens during debates were all ways of reinforcing the system. Although Spartan taciturnity is exaggerated in Athenian sources, Sparta did control verbal expression closely.

Stephen Hodkinson (pp.147-77, 177-87) examines the commemoration of individual athletic victory, reviewing much epigraphic and archaeological evidence afresh. The aspect of control is again visible, but Spartans took part in international festivals and celebrated their victories. H. interprets the numbers of Spartan victors at the Olympics cautiously. There was a decline in Spartan athletic victories at Olympia in the early sixth century and a peak of chariot victories in the later fifth and fourth. While this may indicate a change in values, other factors may have been at work, for example a ‘levelling up’ between different city-states. As elsewhere, Spartan Olympic victors were turned into living heroes and honoured in death. In the tomb of the Spartans at the Athenian Kerameikos, for example, one of the three skeletons placed in a prominent position may be that of the Olympic victor Lakrates. There were, however, limits on how far they were publicly lauded; there appear to be few or no epinikian odes. Overall, reactions to athletic success are unexpectedly similar to those in other Greek states.

Nigel Kennell (pp.189-205, 206-10) gives a convincing and level-headed reconstruction of the evolution of the former Spartan Perioikoi (citizens of dependent towns around Laconia) after their ‘liberation’ at the start of the second century BC. (His first footnote, though, is misleading about the results of the Laconia Survey,3 and it is an exaggeration to say that ‘Before the second century BC no perioecic history can be recovered,’ p.189.) Their ‘Lakedaimonian league’ was probably founded not long after Flamininus’s defeat of Nabis in 195. Sparta was not a member, but there was close interaction with the former ruler. The towns retained the same calendar as Sparta and had similar coins and institutions, but the league had a limited administrative structure and was less a federation than a loose ‘religious league.’ K. gives a useful overview of the career of Eurykles, dictator at Sparta in the late first century BC, who briefly reimposed Spartan rule over the former Perioikoi. Apart from underplaying the archaeological evidence for the perioikic towns, K. gives a convincing reconstruction of the league and, like Singor, has breathed life into a little-known but important corner of Laconian history.4

Thomas J. Figueira (pp.211-35, 235-44) examines the evolution of the ethnic identity of Messenians. Thucydides’ seemingly indiscriminate use of ‘Messenians’ and ‘helots’ conceals a more interesting reality. While Spartans continued to refer to Messenian exiles as helots — a terminology accepted by Athens in official dealings with Sparta — fifth-century Attic writers accepted the exiles’ self-designation as Messenians, connoting a distinct ethnic group belonging to an occupied Greek polis. Only in the early fourth century, encouraged to believe that social transformation within Laconia was possible, do Attic sources present the helots as an oppressed Laconian demos; this helps account for the distorted presentation of Perioikoi in Isokrates and Ephoros. The commonality of helot and Spartan culture is confirmed when liberated helots adopt a perioikic, or retain a Lakedaimonian, identity. There are no reported differences between Laconian and Messenian helots, who had no doubt internalized the values of a system which was geared, in F.’s memorable phrase, to ‘homogenizing the Helots’ (p.224). Some, however, adopted a Messenian identity to denote non-compliance. Others found patrons among disaffected Spartiates and Inferiors (Pausanias, Kinadon) who wanted political change. The helots of Laconia and Messenia had been socialized to think of themselves as Lakedaimonians. After Leuktra, older Laconian and Arkadian traditions were quarried and reworked into a distinct Messenian identity.

Massimo Nafissi (pp.244-58, 258-72) examines Sparta’s colony Taras (Tarentum). Early archaic imports of Laconian pottery, the iconography of early Tarentine coins, and other evidence all point to close contact, and the cities had many cults in common; but N. warns against assuming that cultural similarities go back to a colony’s foundation. Some differences are equally striking, such as the absence of Spartan-style messes and education. Comparison of alternative foundation legends reveals a contested history. N. cogently remarks that any colonizing venture is ambivalent, posing as it does the question why anyone has to go away, why it is necessary to disturb the existing social order. Parentage and filiation are natural metaphors for accounts of such events. Surviving foundation stories may have been intended to promote good relations with the mother-city and cannot be taken as historical documents about early Taras or Sparta.

On the basis of the editor’s introduction, I approached P.-J. Shaw’s paper on Olympiad and Spartan chronology (pp.273-91, appendix and endmatter pp. 291-309) with some apprehension. I finished it with a sense of revelation. Using a combination of research on medieval manuscripts and early editions of Greek texts, and an acute eye for numerical patterns, S. proposes — with all due caution — that some early Olympic dates are doublets reflecting an as yet unknown dichotomy between two systems of reckoning Olympiads. She finds convincing grounds for a systematic downdating of some (not all) events in early Spartan history by 172 years. The results are presented in a table which all those interested in Greek history should consult (pp.280-1). Discrepant traditions about Thales, Hipponax, Polydoros, and the fall of Messenian Hira are easily reconciled. More radical implications include dating the end of the first Messenian war to 551, the war with Argos over Thyrea to 547, and the battle of Hysiai to 497. Not one source links Pheidon to Hysiai, yet the connection has become commonplace. S. seems to be on less firm ground in attempting to explain Hysiai on the basis of its geographical and archaeological context, but her suggestion that the battle was not a formal frontier dispute or an attempt at conquest but resulted from a punitive expedition — a Lakedaimonian intervention in Argive internal affairs — is sensible. In an appendix, she considers a possible early fifth-century date for the introduction of the Gymnopaidiai and perhaps for Tyrtaios. I am not qualified to test her main propositions, and the paper is only a taste of work yet to come, but it deserves to be taken seriously as a more balanced, scholarly, and sober set of proposals than those often advanced by chronological revisionists.

Paul Cartledge (pp.311-29, 329-37) explores Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s paradoxical position, that of an Enlightenment democrat who admired Sparta, and compares it with Plato and Xenophon’s equally paradoxical views as anti-democrats who were nevertheless critical of Sparta. He argues that Sokrates did more than just admire Sparta from afar but at one time espoused a Sparta-like model of a remade Athenian polity. Xenophon reflects this Sokrates, and Plato’s ideal states have more points of contact with Sparta than some have thought. Rousseau’s ardent admiration for Sparta reflects chiefly his concern with moral corruption (his Spartans lived in ‘happy ignorance’), his beliefs that individuals should serve the collectivity and that the private should be subordinate to the public, and his admiration for ‘lawgivers.’ He did not yet have before him the ideal of democratic Athens formulated by later scholars.

Noreen Humble (pp.339-47, 347-53) questions the commonly held view that sophrosyne — variously translated as moderation, prudence, and so on; generally, behaviour guided by reason and self-control — was strongly associated with Sparta in the minds of ancient writers, especially in the fourth century. The Persians in Cyropaideia are not thinly disguised Spartans but counterpoints to Spartans, and it is wrong to take Xenophon’s emphasis on the place of sophrosyne in Persian education as evidence for Spartan beliefs. Nor can aidos, though it was part of the Spartan scheme, be equated fully with sophrosyne. The few cases in which Xenophon links cognates of sophrosyne with Sparta have no general applicability; the main exception is his Agesilaos, where the virtue is perhaps a topos appropriate to an encomium. If late fifth-century oligarchs did habitually credit Spartans with sophrosyne, Xenophon shows he could think for himself.

Ellen Millender (pp.355-78, 378-91) examines the supposed evidence that Spartan women were unusually empowered and liberated. Herodotos portrays independent-minded Spartan females, Aristophanes reinforces the image of ‘feminine sexuality gone awry,’ and Euripides in several plays shows a Menelaos manipulated by women and a Sparta with inverted gender norms. Yet other sources make it clear that in marriage and inheritance the woman, as at Athens, played a passive part and fulfilled a subservient role as child-producer. Women’s semi-nudity in exercise (which had a partly ritual function), the late age of marriage, and other features of the system reflect eugenic aims, not sexual freedom. Spartan women had more power than others did over property, which may have given even those of modest means some influence within their families. But men absent on military duties presumably continued to manage the oikos, as in Athens. Athenian representations, in drama and vase paintings, of citizen women as living a sequestered life owe more to anxiety about the control of reproduction than to social reality. So, too, Athenian depictions of Spartans emphasize gender inversion in order to make Sparta ‘other’ and to justify Athenian imperialism.

Anton Powell (pp.393-415, 415-19) examines Plutarch’s depictions of Spartan women in his Lives of Agis IV and Kleomenes III. Plutarch offers us a string of upper-class women who are influential in public affairs and exemplify Spartan virtues. Given his attitudes elsewhere, however, he probably did not invent these stories. His source Phylarchos, though fictionalizing heavily, may have drawn on a Spartan tradition of storytelling rich in visual detail. P. suggests that it was precisely when Spartan women transcended their gender role that they were seen as a threat. The huge casualties at Sellasia in 222 BC may have left conservative women in a more powerful position; reformist women may have replied with stories lauding recent female victims of repression. Plutarch may thus preserve ‘elements of a dialogue between ancient Greek women.’

As in any co-authored volume on a theme, there are many common threads between the papers, notably the importance of understanding each source in its cultural and historical context (though some papers have a tendency to combine sources of different periods without discussion). Differences of views occur and many points will continue to be debated, such as the extent to which Spartan women received formal education. Generally, the authors assume (reasonably, in my view) that the Lakedaimonion politeia is by Xenophon, though this has often been challenged. (The case for Xenophon is explicitly argued by, among others, Cartledge on pp.319-20 and Humble in a footnote, pp.347-8, who notes problems with stylistic analyses purporting to detach the treatise from Xenophon’s works.) The production is pleasing, though the typography is sometimes inconsistent.5 The index is largely limited to proper names and is disappointingly brief given the number of empty pages at the end of the book. Despite these quibbles, this substantial and generously priced volume is an impressive testimony to the quality and range of research on Sparta being conducted in many different places. It will set important markers for future work and is a vital purchase for any university and college library.


1. See also various papers in W. G. Cavanagh and S. E. C. Walker (eds), Sparta in Laconia (London: British School at Athens, 1999).

2. Some points of detail may be worth highlighting, though they take us deep into technicalities. The oracles quoted by Diodoros (vii.12.6) and Plutarch (Lykourgos, 6.10) are both presented as deriving from Tyrtaios (fr.4 West). A crucial phrase in the Diodoros oracle describes the men of the people as εὐθείαις ῤήτραις ἀνταπαμειβομένους. W., unlike previous scholars, translates this as ‘responding in turn to (rather than with) straight rhetrai’ — i.e. rhetrai that have been put forward by the kings and elders rather than rhetrai now being advanced by the citizens. This seems to me to strain the Greek. If Tyrtaios wanted us to know that what the king and elders have put forward is ‘straight’ simply by virtue of being put forward by them, he would surely not have introduced the phrase almost allusively, as something needing no explanation. He would have mentioned them in the preceding lines, as something closely connected with the initial taking of counsel by the leaders. Furthermore, although W. later (pp.22-3) adduces evidence that in Homer and early inscriptions ῤήτρα always means one of several kinds of agreement, at this point in his argument he translates it as ‘proposal.’ That begs the question: for how could the people respond to agreements if their agreement had not already been sought? (I confess I do not understand W.’s argument, p.10, that a call for the demos to formulate straight decisions would be redundant in context.) Fortunately, this point is not central to W.’s main thesis. His restoration (p.10) of the corrupt sixth line of the oracle, where he mistrusts the conventional restoration σκολιόν, depends on the argumentum ex silentio — a tactic used several times in the paper — that Plutarch would have quoted this word if he had been able. (Perhaps, however, the text was already corrupt by his day.) W. may well be right to take the line ‘victory and power will attend the multitude of the people’ as referring to anticipated military successes rather than political power, though the precise restoration of the text will, I suspect, remain a subject of discussion.

3. K. refers to the ‘disappointing results of the Laconian [sic] survey regarding the hellenistic and Roman periods,’ but cites only the hellenistic pottery catalogue — which is actually no less than twenty pages long — and the catalogue of sculpture and architectural fragments. See W. Cavanagh, J. Crouwel, R. W. V. Catling, and G. Shipley, Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape: The Laconia Survey, ii: Archaeological Data; London: British School at Athens, 1996 (cited inaccurately, p.209). It is true that the author of the former section, H. Visscher, expresses caution about the identification of vase forms, and that the author of the latter, D. Hibler, stresses that the stone finds are generally out of context. That says nothing, however, about the settlement data, which are plentiful. In the site catalogue (ibid. 315-438), some 170 hellenistic findspots and a similar number of Roman do much to populate the landscape. The project was not designed to illuminate perioikic Laconia as such and included only one short-lived and exceptional polis within its boundaries, Sellasia. (The delayed first volume of the survey, offering interpretations of the data, will appear in 2001.)

4. At p.193 K. misquotes τυραννούμενοι in Strabo, viii.5.5. 366 as τυραννευόμενοι, and the participle is surely middle rather than passive (cf. LSJ s.v.).

5. Italics are sometimes unnecessarily used for anglicized terms (as opposed to transliterations), while titles of works and transliterations are sometimes in roman type. Rhetrai at the top of p.10 appears in a different font from the surrounding text. Unnecessary or omitted hyphens, and confusion between hyphens and dashes (spaced en rules), can be seen. Mistakes in modern accents, and in the spelling and accentuation of Greek ancient and modern, occur relatively often. On p.149 the first Greek word should read οὔτ’ not τ’. Omicrons stand in place of omegas on p. xxvi. Most glaringly, throughout the last chapter final sigma is printed as roman ‘s’. I noticed other errors in Greek (sometimes more than one) on pp. xxvi, 48, 54, 76-7, 287, 299-301, and 307; there may be more (I have not checked notes and bibliographies systematically). Incomplete references appear on pp.210 and 307. Modern Greek authors’ names are sometimes given in Greek(!); when transliterated, both they and modern place-names are treated inconsistently (e.g. Vagiakakos, correctly, on p. xxvi but Belanidia on pp. 285, 287); Vonias (pp. 156, 187), is simply a mistake for Bonias (or, if you prefer, Mponias). For ‘Messapios’ (p. 156) read ‘Messapeus’.