BMCR 2005.05.52

Contro le ‘leggi immutabili’. Gli Spartani fra tradizione e innovazione. Contributi di Storia Antica 2

, , Contro le "leggi immutabili" : gli Spartani fra tradizione e innovazione. Contributi di storia antica ; 2. Milano: V & P università, 2004. viii, 207 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8834319850 €18.00.

The present volume is a collection of eight essays devoted to exploring the extent to which internal debate on tradition and innovation within the Spartan community and non-Spartan contemporary reflections on Spartan ‘national’ identity actively contributed to shaping Sparta’s self-perception and political positioning within a broader pan-Hellenic horizon in the classical and post-classical period. This volume joins the most up-to-date strands of Spartan scholarship engaged in exploring the inner dynamics of continuity and change that have co-operated in ‘inventing’ the Spartan tradition.1 As acknowledged by the editors in the preface, the essays follow a basically biographical approach, which nevertheless often succeeds in sketching out the broader historical and social background underlying the single issue addressed (see in particular Bearzot and Landucci-Gattinoni’s contributions below). This biographical perspective, the limit and strength of the volume, leads the reader through a wide-ranging overview of Spartan history from the sixth century BC (Carlier on Cleomenes I) down to the reformer kings of the third century BC (e.g. Marasco on Cleomenes III). The reader is provided with a brief introduction by the editors, and every essay is followed by an English abstract. Essential cross-references between the contributions are recorded. One might regret the lack of a general bibliography at the end of the volume and of an analytical index of the passages quoted and topics discussed. Here at a glance is a sketch of each paper.

Bearzot’s paper (“Spartani ‘ideali’ e Spartani ‘anomali'”) rightly heads the contributions, inasmuch as its broader spectrum (Sparta’s foreign policy during the fifth and fourth century as the privileged test-bed for assessing Spartans’ attitude towards innovation) provides a useful introduction to a large number of the issues further developed in the volume. B.’s analysis of the pairs Archidamus / Sthenelaidas, Lysander / Callicratidas, Agesilaus / Agesipolis as paradigmatic models of the contrasting dynamics between tradition and change animating Spartan fifth- and fourth-century political debate fulfils at its best the proposed aim of the collected volume by projecting from the very outset the biographical approach onto a broader historical scenario aiming at reconstructing the underlying debate on Sparta’s hegemonic role in Greece. B. persuasively argues that the oppositions between these different personalities (the pacifistic and pan-Hellenic foreign policy supported by Archidamus, Callicratidas and Agesipolis vs. the more imperialistic and aggressive approaches of Sthenelaidas, Lysander and Agesilaus) are to be understood as the broader product of contemporary reflections on Sparta’s political identity and struggle for survival within the new surrounding imperialistic reality. From this perspective, B.’s discussion of Xen. Hell. 5.2.32 (Agesilaus’ claim to the ancient Spartan custom, ἀρχαῖον νόμιμον, which allowed commanders to act on their own initiative) is especially insightful. Agesilaus’ defence of Phoebidas’ behaviour at Thebes makes explicit the degree of self-aware anxiety and uneasiness that the Spartan community experienced in the ongoing construction of its own past tradition.

Carlier’s paper (“Cleomene I, re di Sparta”2) investigates the Herodotean account of Cleomenes I (Hdt. 5. 38-97 and 6. 48-85) by questioning the constitutional basis of the γέρεα granted to the Spartan kings in matters of foreign policy before and after the reform of 506 BC caused by Demaratus’ defection on the battlefield at Eleusis. C. recognizes that in the archaic period Spartan kings could well have exercised the absolute right of ‘waging war against whatever country they wish’ without further restraints (the fifth-century practice requiring instead that the assembly declare war and determine the commander of the army), and eventually leaves open the possibility that by Cleomenes’ time war could still be decided by the kings alone, provided that (1) they agreed or (2) if any disagreement between the two kings arose, the leading one could rely on the implicit support of the demos. C. points out that even after the reform of 506 BC (which established that only one king should command an expedition and that the assembly had to determine who the commander would be) the constitutional profile of Sparta did not rule out the possibility of an influential leading role for a king endowed with personal authority and charisma. The excessive emphasis on the account of Cleomenes’ madness (pp. 36-7) could perhaps have been avoided,3 but C.’s conclusions are sound and well-documented. Especially convincing is the treatment of the Aegina ‘affair’ of 491 BC recorded in Hdt. 6.50: the Aeginetans’ accusation that Cleomenes acted without the authority of the Spartan civic body is explained by C. as motivated by Demaratus.

Nafissi’s stimulating paper (“Pausania, il vincitore di Platea”) provides a challenging interpretation of the behaviour of the Regent Pausanias (his arrogant conduct towards the allies, the allegation of cultural and political Medism, the conspiracy with the helots), arguing that his conduct is to be interpreted as deeply encoded within (and in response to) the social, political and cultural values of contemporary Spartan society. Pausanias’ actions are read as an exemplary case of the conflict between individual aspirations and the collective body of the polis and its inner stability (pp. 59-60). One of the most welcome features of N.’s essay is his constant attempt to go beyond a merely biographical approach by claiming that Pausanias’ contrasting behaviour is not to be regarded as an isolated case of individual perverseness but must be projected onto the political and moral values and anxieties animating fifth-century Spartan aristocratic culture, which was a highly competitive economy of τιμή, family honour, and τιμωρία, vengeance. In doing so N. argues that the charges traditionally made against Pausanias according to Thucydides’ account (Medism, aiming at a Panhellenic tyranny and conspiracy with the helots) must mainly be traced back to a hostile tradition probably ‘invented’ immediately after his death by the Spartans themselves in order to legitimize his savage death (p. 57, pp. 89-90). It is within this perspective that N. (pp. 69-70) suggests interpreting Pausanias’ ‘cultural’ Medism during his year as general (478/7) at Byzantium (cf. Thuc. 1.130.1-2) as “l’esibizione del γέρας che è stato riconosciuto allo stratego, e che manifesta a tutti la superiorit del vincitore sul vinto” (p. 69). This view can certainly help us to grasp part of the truth lurking behind Pausanias’ behaviour.4 Yet, if it is true that according to Hdt. 9.81.2 “Pausania faceva buon uso del suo bottino personale, quello riconosciutogli a Platea” (p. 71), we must not forget that immediately after the victory at Plataea (Hdt. 9. 82), Pausanias “had drawn a lively contrast between Greek frugality and Asiatic luxury.”5. On the whole I am still inclined to side with Dover, who claimsthat “thus the Greek victor yielded to the temptation to adopt the manners which Asiatics regarded as appropriate to a person of his status”. Later on (pp. 83-5), N. makes a strong point in linking the outstandingly cruel reprisals taken by Sparta against Pausanias to the inner conflicts animating the Peloponnese in those years (late 470s/early 460s), and particularly to the increasing hostility of Tegea and other Arcadian communities against Sparta and the resurgence of Argos (and consequently the threat of a new alliance between Argos and Athens).

Prandi (“Sintonia e distonia fra Brasida e Sparta”) focuses on Thucydides’ idiosyncratic and personal account of Brasidas’ role during the Peloponnesian War (especially the Thracian campaign in 424 BC: see Thuc. 4.81 and 4.108), paying detailed attention to Brasidas’ own relations with the Spartan leadership. P. discusses the apparently contrasting nature of these relations (a general climate of confidence in Brasidas’ capability but at the same time, at least according to the Thucydidean account, the envy of the leading Spartans in refusing to send a military force to Brasidas at the Strymon in the winter of 424/3 BC and the willingness of the Spartan government to forestall the Thracian campaign in 423 BC in order to recover the hostages of Pylos). P. concludes by arguing that Brasidas’ portrait, at least as recoverable through the Thucydidean filter, does not depict an ‘unusual’ Spartan but that Brasidas became the very icon of the loyal Spartan commander simply because he was not different from the expected stereotype of the Spartan soldier. Furthermore, his premature death at Amphipolis prevented him from becoming a ‘dissident’ Spartan.

Sordi’s analysis of the political agenda of the Spartan king Pausanias II (“Pausania II, Spartano atipico?”) focuses on the two trials of 403 BC (i.e., after his armed intervention at the Piraeus and the indirect support given to the Athenian democrats) and 395 BC (after his retreat from Haliartus in Boeotia) as variously recorded by Paus. 3.5.1-6, Xen. Hell. 3.5.17ff and Theopompus in Plut. Lys. 30.28ff. In analyzing the different versions transmitted by ancient sources S. argues that Pausanias the Periegetes’ account of the events must have drawn on a source contemporary with Pausanias and hostile to Lysander (a version of the events which must have been known to Ephorus: cf. Strabo 8.5.5 and Diod. 14.89), whereas Theopompus clearly drew on pro-Theban sources by emphasizing the Spartans’ alleged objections to Pausanias’ decisions (Plut. Lys. 29.1). After a comparison of the literary sources, S. concludes that the accusations against Pausanias were basically the local product of his Spartan enemies, that is, Lysander’s friends and the Agiad king. More to the point, S. persuasively argues that Pausanias’ behaviour in 403 BC, even if in keeping with Sparta’s traditional foreign policy (to avoid shame before Greeks), was subsequently interpreted as a betrayal because Athens was siding at that time with the Spartans’ enemies. S. therefore sees in Pausanias a Spartan traditionalist paradoxically judged as a revolutionary as well as a victim of the new political guidelines introduced by Lysander and Agesilaus.

Bearzot’s second essay (“Lisandro tra due modelli: Pausania l’aspirante tiranno, Brasida il generale”) is a detailed survey of Lysander’s imperialistic politics which addresses the question of what possible model(s) may have inspired Lysander’s agenda and investigates his self-positioning within Spartan history. In analyzing Lysander’s attempt to colonize Sestos by distributing its territory among his pilots (Plut. Lys. 14.3; ca. 404 BC the author compellingly argues that neither the Spartan foundation of Heracleia Trachinia (426 BC) nor an allegedly reversed ‘Herodotean inspiration’ (Herodotus’ histories ending with Sestos being seized by the Athenians) as suggested by previous scholarship can reasonably be adduced as relevant parallels to Lysander’s initiative. Equally persuasive is her argumentation about the inappropriateness of the model given by Plutarch in Lys. 8.4-5 of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos. Plutarch is here probably drawing on a contemporary tradition hostile towards Lysander and inclined to cast a suspicious light on the relations between Lysander and Samos. More to the point, B. suggests that the key for understanding Lysander’s policy must be sought in the precedents of Brasidas (personal charisma, military skill, recruit of non-Spartan, helotic soldiers) and the Regent Pausanias. As regards the former, the author cogently argues that the gift of the ivory and golden trireme and the placement of a statue of him in the treasury of Brasidas and the Acanthians ( Lys. 18.2-3) must be read as a clear sign of Lysander’s willingness to highlight explicitly the continuity between Brasidas’ deeds and his own. In this regard, the image of Brasidas as οἰκιστής of Amphipolis and personal patron of mercenary forces could well have served as a model for the Sestos episode. On the other hand Lysander’s contemporaries themselves perceived a strong analogy between the behaviour of Pausanias the Regent and Lysander (personal ambition, cult of the public image and non-Spartan way of life) notwithstanding his attempt to avoid such a resemblance. In sketching these two different traditions B. masterfully reconstructs the political debate on Lysander as a ‘new Pausanias’ recoverable from the contrasting evidence of Ephorus (hostile) and Theopompus. A strong point is made by the author in reevaluating the passage of Justin 9.1.3 referring to Pausanias as the founder of Byzantium. B. successfully suggests that we see in Pausanias’ foundation of Byzantium an even more direct antecedent to Lysander’s attempt to colonize Sestos than Brasidas’, at least in its impact in shaping and orienting contemporary Spartan opinions on Lysander.

Landucci Gattinoni’s paper (“Sparta dopo Leuttra: storia di una decadenza annunciata”) is a most welcome and stimulating survey of the much-debated issue of the Spartan system of land tenure and inheritance and the increasingly chronic ὀλιγανθρωπία affecting post-classical Spartan society after the defeat of Leuctra. After a useful overview of the different critical stances of modern scholarship on Spartan landholding, L-G sides with Lupi6 in rejecting the existence of a system of inalienable, equally fixed allotments of civic land and in proposing instead a pattern of an at least partially dividable inheritance of landed property, daughters being included among the potential heirs as well as sons (p. 70). L-G’s scepticism about a rigid adoption of the purportedly Lycurgan ‘single-heir system’ (p. 168) is in keeping with the current scholarship on the issue.7 Yet one might wonder whether Lupi’s challenging interpretation of Heraclides Lembus’ ἀρχαία μοῖρα ( Excerpta Politiarum 373.12 Dilts), which has usually been understood as ‘the ancient portion’ deriving from an archaic distribution of land property, as “il lotto di terra che ciascun Spartiata riceveva originariamente, e cioè quello stesso che gli veniva assegnato … alla nascita, senza contare le altre proprietà fondiarie che eventualmente si erano aggiunte in seguito” (Lupi 2000, 148) should necessarily be adopted.8 ( Most importantly, L-G convincingly argues for the need of combining a ‘demographic’ approach to the Spartan shortage of citizens during the fourth-third centuries BC with an economically and socially aware framework. According to the author the ὀλιγανθρωπία has therefore to be mainly explained as the result of the declassing of many Spartiates to inferior status ( ὑπομείνοντες) as a consequence of the loss of their estates after the independence of Messenia. It is within these guidelines that L-G draws a compelling outline of the mercenary activities connected to the Spartan kings Agesilaus, Archidamus, Acrotatus and Agis III as a time-bound policy aimed at counteracting the increasing number of ‘declassed’ Spartans by recruiting them as mercenary forces.9

Marasco’s concluding essay (“Cleomene III fra rivoluzione e reazione”), while providing the reader with a general overview of the constitutional and social innovations introduced by Cleomenes III into third-century BC Spartan society, focuses especially on the blatant discrepancy between Cleomenes’ rhetorical agenda (the unceasing appeal for the restoration of a truly Lycurgan past) and his actual policy strongly inspired by the contemporary practice of absolute power as displayed by Hellenistic kings. It is within this framework that M. interprets Cleomenes’ abolition of the ephorate, allegedly a non-Lycurgan institution (cf. Plut. Cleom. 10.2ff.), as a merely formal act of loyalty towards Sparta’s ancestral customs, and envisages in it, and in the radically diminished power of the γερουσία as well, the sign of an autocratic policy strictly bound to the novel political models represented by Hellenistic reigns. M. convincingly traces some of Cleomenes’ deeds back to the coeval paradigm of the Hellenistic kingship (the elevation of his brother Eucleidas to the throne, the heavy exploitation of mercenary forces and their consequent integration into the Spartan civic body).

In short, the wide-ranging nature of the issues addressed and the constant effort to question the often propagandized immutability of Spartan customs by both Spartan and non-Spartan recipients makes this collected volume a welcome new entry to the body of increasingly stimulating and innovative studies of Spartan society.


1. See, e.g., M.A. Flower, “The Invention of Tradition in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta,” in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (edd.), Sparta Beyond the Mirage, London 2002, 191-217.

2. This is a revised and updated version of an article previously published in Ktema 2 (1977) 65-84; on the same subject see also Carlier, La Royauté en Grèce avant Alexandre, Strasbourg 1984, 257ff.

3. Cf. C.G. Thomas, “On the Role of the Spartan Kings, ” Historia 23 1974 262, who already noticed that the very fact that Cleomenes died as an enemy of the state “does not vitiate his role in initiating and executing Spartan action etc.”

4. The Homeric instance of Il. 17.183-214 (Hector wearing Achilles’ armour) quoted at p. 69 n. 55 is perhaps not the best parallel: Hector displays Achilles’ armour on the battlefield and in any case we must not forget that Zeus strongly condemns Hector’s arrogant donning of Achilles’ armour: see Edwards, The Iliad, A commentary, vol. 5: books 17-20, pp. 80 and 82.

5. As already pointed out by K.J. Dover, Greek and the Greeks, Oxford 1987, 156-7 (quoted by the author at p. 69 n. 54). The context does not exclude some irony: see now the commentary of Flower and J. Marincola, Cambridge 2002, 252 ad loc.

6. M. Lupi, L’ordine delle generazioni. Classi di età e costumi matrimonali nell’antica Sparta, Bari 2000.

7. See most recently T. J. Figueira, “The nature of the Spartan kleros,” in Spartan society, ed. T.J. Figueira, Swansea 2004, 69 n. 38, on the ideological overtones of such a claim).

8. See Figueira in BMCR 2002.07.11 on Lupi 2000 and Figueira 2004, 51-52 on the meaning of ἀρχαία as connoting “a primordial, fundamental division of resources.”

9. A stimulating comparandum, mutatis mutandis, may perhaps be seen in the Cretan response to land shortage as analysed by A. Chaniotis, War in the Hellenistic World, Oxford 2005, 80-2.