BMCR 2005.02.07

Spartan Society

, , Spartan society. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2004. xv, 389 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0954384571. $79.50.

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

The sixteen essays contained within this volume were initially papers presented at the International Sparta Seminar.1 As one might expect from a series of works tested at, and in some cases honed by, such an event, they offer a first class discussion of a wide variety of issues pertaining to Spartan culture.

Obviously this kind of book, which collects essays bound together by an event rather than a theme (other than the rather broad theme of Sparta, of course), is not designed to be read from cover to cover by the average reader. Instead its various contents will be of value to different people looking for information on different subjects. Thus it is perhaps worth approaching it from that angle, rather than trying to judge the book as if it were a homogenous entity.

Some of the essays would certainly be of interest to a variety of scholars or even general readers, for example Morris’ discussion on how Spartan democracy was seen during the Enlightenment. The author takes the reader through the different camps of thought, using generous quotations to reveal how pro-Spartan and anti-Spartan sources retrospectively viewed the ancient state and evaluated its culture and form of government, especially in contrast with Athens. This insight into the roots of modern democratic thought, and the perhaps slightly surprising supremacy of Sparta over Athens in the progression towards the modern form, was a most welcome encounter. A devotee of either ancient history or political thought in general would find something to ponder here.

Clough’s Loyalty and liberty: Thermopylae in western imagination would likewise be of broad appeal. Whilst some historians might be somewhat sick of hearing about the battle, given the perhaps excessive (albeit understandable) emphasis it is given by laymen, this essay provides a rather refreshing change by illuminating how the battle was depicted in later art — ranging from the 18th Century epic Leonidas to the 20th Century movie 300 Spartans. Many works talk ad nauseum about how impressive and noble the Spartan stand at Thermopylae was, but few allow the reader to really appreciate just how influential it has been over the last few centuries and how artists during this period used the image of the battle to reflect issues in their own times. Given the current popularity of Thermopylae due to novels like Gates of Fire, this essay’s ability to draw attention to older works (not to mention their historical contexts) whose existence might be unknown to many readers is quite laudable.

Whilst the other essays in the collection might not have quite so broad an appeal as the aforementioned pair, many of them certainly help elucidate larger issues in the Greek world, making them valuable reading even to those whose sphere of interest does not prominently include Sparta. Christesen’s Utopia on the Eurotas: Economic aspects of the Spartan mirage is a prime example of this. The author examines what ideals the Greeks held when it came to the economic structure of the polis. Using sources such as Plato and Homer, he creates a scale to evaluate how close to the ultimate utopian ideal different systems used by Greek settlements came. This is then used to examine Sparta and the extent to which her economic system qualified or was at least thought to qualify from the point of view of outside observers. There is a clear value in examining a culture’s idea of what a utopia might be, since this to some degree could be said to permeate all aspects of their philosophy. Hence Christesen’s essay could be of use to most readers.

Though perhaps this betrays a personal bias towards issues of military history, I find it tempting to see Anton Powell’s essay on the role of Greek women in combat situations as being the jewel in this collection. The image of the Spartan woman engaging in athletic training is something that popular documentaries and people with a casual interest in ancient history tend to make a great deal out of. And this is understandable, since it seems to indicate that Spartan women would be especially martial, ready for combat should the situation ever arise — unlike the women of other poleis, who would spent their days indoors shunning such manly pursuits. However, Powell draws attention to the curious fact that when Sparta was attacked her women simply flew into a blind panic. Far from doing anything constructive, they ran around shrieking and disrupted the defence of their polis. Beginning with Aristotle’s commentary on the event, Powell illustrates that, unexpected though this may be, other Greek women tended to conduct themselves in a much better fashion during combat situations, actually aiding their side by hurling missiles from rooftops or raising their voices in an inspiring ululation. This is surely an issue of importance to any student of ancient military history. But naturally the role of women in combat would not have been a major factor in ancient warfare (with the exception of urban warfare), it is still something which deserves examination. Powell convincingly argues that this disparity between Spartan women and other Greek women was due to certain aspects of Spartan culture, which made an attack on their polis seem especially traumatic.

In tandem with Powell’s essay, Hodkinson’s paper on female property rights in Sparta tackles the wider issue of the comparative roles of women in the Greek world. Here the author examines the extent to which Spartan women had true control over their property, what exactly this entailed, and how this affected their position within Spartan society. By comparisons with other law codes, most notably that of Gortyn, the author illustrates that Spartan women had greater rights to their property than their counterparts in other poleis. However, he goes on to show that this wealth was in a sense limited by the restrictions on the expenditure of wealth which were hallmarks of Spartan society. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence is used to indicate the use of female wealth for temple offerings, and Hodkinson cites instances of women funding successful chariot teams at athletics festivals to demonstrate that this control of property did allow them to achieve certain things. Furthermore, he draws attention to the fact that, as many Spartiates underwent economic hardship during the later periods, this gave wealthy women the opportunity to gain impressive networks of influence via their purses. The essay provides an interesting look at the dynamics of Spartan society, and the varying opportunities presented to women of different poleis, or different economic classes within a polis.

Most of the essays in the volume by contrast are rather more localised in their subject matter. The opening essay, for example — Link’s paper on the very uniquely Spartan attitudes towards theft. He examines the Spartan use of thievery, making convincing parallels with the Homeric model of heroism, and expands this to include the annual ‘wars’ with the helot population of Laconia — illustrating that the same fundamental mentality lay behind both a young Spartan boy stealing food and Spartan warriors extracting tribute from the helots. Whilst this subject matter is of course of primary appeal to students of Sparta rather than the Greek world in general (unless they happened to be researching thievery in the Hellenic world), the light nature of the essay and the perhaps natural fascination human beings have with crime makes this rather readable and entertaining, and a strong opening to the book. The same could be said of the subsequent chapter, David’s look into Spartan suicide. Though once again we are looking at something narrower than that presented in some of the other chapters, the material is very easily digestible. Even a casual reader would probably be intrigued by the subject matter. The author uses all the relevant source material to look at and characterise each form of suicide, discussing the purpose behind them, the specific method by which death was inflicted, and the attitudes each one evoked in Spartan society.

Other chapters are a little heavier in their specialisation, such as Richer’s paper on the Hyakinthia festival, Brulé and Piolot’s on the hierai, Tuplin’s on Xenophon’s temple to Ephesian Artemis at Scillus, and Figueira’s on the kleros. These are all excellently researched and argued, and are highly detailed examinations into the respective issues. Thus they would certainly be valuable to scholars investigating those topics. Some of these also contain material of wider relevance. Brulé and Piolot, for example, dispel the common misconception that the Spartans offered named burials to men who died in battle, and women who died in childbirth — illustrating that this interpretation is based on a faulty emendation of the Greek text. However, on the whole, given their specialist subject matter and depth, they would perhaps not automatically appeal to a broader audience. Having said that, each one is written (and/or translated) in a manner which certainly makes them as accessible as possible to a wider readership, meaning that they might conceivably be approached by newcomers to those issues.

This book would certainly belong on the shelf of a serious student of Sparta and Spartan culture. Beyond that, it would no doubt be something which most people would dip into rather than read in its entirety. Whilst several of the essays are inherently enthralling and of wide-reaching appeal, most of them are rather specialised and thus targeted at a narrow readership. This is of course to be expected with this kind of collection.


Stefan Link, “Snatching and keeping: The motif of taking in Spartan culture”

Ephraim David, “Suicide in Spartan society”

Thomas J. Figueira, “The nature of the Spartan” kleros

Nicolas Richer, “The Hyakinthia of Sparta”

Stephen Hodkinson, “Female property ownership and empowerment in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta”

Anton Powell, “The women of Sparta — and of other Greek cities — at war”

Pierre Brulé and Laurent Piolot, “Women’s way of death: fatal childbirth or hierai? Commemorative stones at Sparta and Plutarch, Lycurgus 27.3″

Annalisa Paradiso, “The logic of terror: Thucydides, Spartan duplicity and an improbable massacre”

David Harvey, “The clandestine massacre of the helots (Thucydides 4.80)”

Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, “Orestes at Sparta: The political significance of the grave of the hero”

Noreen Humble, “Xenophon’s sons in Sparta?: Perspectives on xenoi in the Spartan upbringing”

Christopher Tuplin, “Xenophon, Artemis and Scillus”

Daniel Ogden, “Aristomenes of Messenia and his talismanic shield”

Paul Christesen, “Utopia on the Eurotas: Economic aspects of the Spartan mirage”

Ian Macgregor Morris, “The paradigm of democracy: Sparta in Enlightenment thought”

Emma Clough, “Loyalty and liberty: Thermopylae in western imagination”


1. Available in the United States from The David Brown Book Co. (Oakville, CT).