BMCR 2012.09.51

Sparta in Modern Thought: Politics, History and Culture

, , Sparta in Modern Thought: Politics, History and Culture. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2012. xxvi, 462. ISBN 9781905125470. $120.00.

The perception of Sparta throughout history has been the subject of important work in the last eighty years or so. François Ollier’s pioneering study, focused on Sparta’s idealization in Ancient Greece,1 was followed by E.N. Tigerstedt’s magnum opus, which broadened the scope of the research to the whole classical antiquity.2 Then, in a panoramic tour de force Elizabeth Rawson expanded the perspective ambitiously to the mid- twentieth century.3 Recently the subject has been much in vogue, but only now, more than forty years after the publication of Rawson’s book, are we faced with a similarly ambitious, though significantly different, enterprise, this time a collective one: eleven essays exploring various aspects of Sparta’s presence in Western thought from the Middle Ages to our day, with special emphasis on Enlightenment France, Nazi Germany and contemporary America. Like its earlier counterpart devoted to ‘Sparta in Comparative Perspective’,4 this volume is based on papers originally delivered at a Nottingham conference (September 2007).

It contains an introduction and four sections. The introduction explains the volume’s conceptual framework and outlines Sparta’s role in modern thought, stressing its relation to ancient approaches to the Spartan tradition on the one hand and the ever-changing historical context of the modern ‘receiving’ societies on the other. The editors complain that the ‘Spartan mirage’ has too often been explored in its positive sense, that of glorification (in the footsteps of Ollier, who coined the term), while the negative sense, that of deprecation, has been neglected or overlooked. Under the impact of political and cultural factors, they argue, Sparta’s image as an anti-Athens (a backward, agrarian, authoritarian and militaristic polis) gained increasing preponderance in modern consciousness, both popular and academic.5 But, then, through its selectivity this volume also appears to prioritize the positive reception. The editors explain that they had no intention of competing with Rawson’s synoptic coverage; instead, they preferred to provide diverse approaches to certain subjects of major importance. Hence some areas are privileged with two or even three essays, with some inevitable (at times slightly irritating) reiterations, at the expense of others, left completely outside the narrative. One may also experience a sense of imbalance as the Introduction omits to mention Tigerstedt’s work while adducing far less significant studies. Another concern is occasional vagueness, e.g.: ‘There remains an intellectual attitude which regards admiration of Sparta by modern thinkers as politically suspect’ (p. x).

Part I, ‘Medieval and Early-Modern Europe’, opens with Macgregor Morris’ treatment of Lycurgus’ scholastic metamorphosis. Between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries the legendary lawgiver was given by John of Salisbury and subsequent writers an exemplary dimension, flexibly conditioned by their interpretation of some late- classical authors in the light of Christian values, the didactic-exemplum tradition and contemporary problems (e.g. the conflict between Church and monarchy). This ‘baptized’ Lycurgus, piously (and wisely) duplicitous, contributed to shaping the Renaissance idea of Sparta. While providing illuminating reflections on Lycurgus’ medieval shadow, Macgregor Morris is not always sufficiently aware of its relation to classical sources. One example: à propos the leitmotif of Lycurgus’ Christ-like self-sacrifice, he should have noted that medieval writers referring to Lycurgus’ self-imposed exile ignored his self-starvation; was this due merely to their close dependence on Justin or to the incompatibility of suicide with Christian values?

Kostas Vlassopoulos (Chapter 2) successfully explores a significant shift in comparative approaches to Sparta in early modern thought: the Athenian antithesis, dominant in antiquity (and later modern thought), was replaced by more nuanced comparisons with the Roman Republic. Under Polybius’ influence both regimes came to be viewed as mixed-constitution models. Following Machiavelli, prominent thinkers considered the aristocratic element as predominant in the Spartan polity, until Bodin’s concept of indivisible sovereignty pushed this view to its extreme by classifying Sparta as basically an aristocracy ( vis-à-vis Rome, allegedly a democracy). This also helped explain her stability and non-expansionism versus Rome’s opposite traits. Harrington viewed Sparta as a model of meritocracy, but preferred Rome’s strategy of enlightened imperialism. The intellectual radicalization of eighteenth- century France transformed Sparta into an egalitarian democracy, not least owing to her land-ownership system as depicted by Mably. One may wonder whether our current obsession with democracy, which left its imprint on the research of the Roman Republic, will also affect Spartan studies.

Part II, ‘Enlightenment to Post-Revolutionary France’: Chapter 3 consists of Haydn Mason’s extensive exploration of attitudes towards Sparta during the French Enlightenment, ranging from various degrees of admiration, the dominant outlook (represented by Montesquieu, Rollin, Mably, Jaucourt, Helvétius and Rousseau), at times culminating in idolatry, to indifference or hostile rejection (Diderot, Voltaire, Chastellux). Mason elucidates the interaction between these attitudes and shows how the myth of Lycurgus, largely inspired by Plutarch (and, I would add, Xenophon), continued to pervade the Spartan legend and stir reverence, occasionally tempered by reservations stemming from Christian or modernist perspectives.

Much of the same ground is covered by Michael Winston (Chapter 4: ‘Spartans and savages…’), who examines additional cases of Spartophiles and Spartophobes, notably Sparta’s idealization by Gourcy and Barthélemy versus the ‘deconstruction of the mirage’ by the Physiocrat Vauvilliers and the Dutch scholar Cornelius de Pauw. The analogy implied in the title derives from an ethnographic treatise (1724) by Joseph-François Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary who credited the ‘noble savages’ of indigenous American cultures with a Peloponnesian origin: literally Spartan Americans. Winston properly contextualizes this wild fantasy in a European tradition of utopian nostalgia for a lost aristocratic-bellicose ethos, and finally shows how de Pauw reinterpreted the Spartans-savages analogy from a modernist viewpoint in his devastatingly dystopian depiction of Sparta. Comparative references to classical sources, e.g. Herodotus’ ethnographic approach to certain aspects of Sparta’s barbarian alterity and Aristotle’s criticism of Sparta, would have been beneficial.

Paul Christesen (Chapter 5) analyses in depth a topic mentioned in the preceding chapters: the appropriation of Sparta’s system of land tenure in the service of political ideas. Focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the discussion takes us i.a. from the polemic of Mably and Vauvilliers, through the French revolution and its aftermath (Babeuf’s use of Sparta and his impact on early socialism), to the academic debate between the conservative Fustel de Coulanges and the Belgian socialist de Laveleye over the question whether land ownership in Sparta had been private or communal. Christesen argues that for all his claims to historic objectivity, Fustel could not suppress his anti-socialist bias, which affected his students as well, especially Paul Guiraud. As Spartan land tenure remained a controversial topic in twentieth-century research, scholars often relied on those predecessors without sufficient awareness of their ideological motivation. Christesen’s scrutiny of modern reception is duly sensitive to the classical evidence.

Part III, ‘Germany: From Literary Hellenism to National Socialism’: Uta Degner (Chapter 6) offers a case-study of literary Hellenism around 1800 through Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion, centred around a young Greek’s involvement in the revolt of 1770. Degner subtly analyses Sparta’s magic spell on Hyperion’s imagination and his romantic (albeit failed) attempt to combine Athenian spirit with Spartan heroism, thereby coping with a major concern in contemporary German consciousness – how to bridge the gap between words and actions.

Volker Losemann (Chapter 7) meticulously surveys the cult of Sparta in Germany from the emergence of German nationalism and the State foundation to National Socialism, the Second World War and its aftermath. He depicts various attitudes to Sparta among highly reputed scholars and traces her invocation in different environments, both popular (e.g. the nudist movement and commercial advertisements) and elitist (e.g. the philosophical-homoerotic George-Kreis). Losemann shows how the Dorian-ethnicity thesis gradually became the theoretical basis of the alleged racial identity between ancient Spartans and modern Germans; despite isolated cases of resistance, this dogmatic myth, along with selective Spartan traits, would serve the political aims of the Third Reich, sadly with the close collaboration of academics.

Helen Roche (Chapter 8) discusses the educational aspect of Nazi laconomania, focusing on a (pseudo-)history textbook devised to indoctrinate the Party’s and country’s future leaders during their ‘Spartan’ upbringing in the Adolf-Hitler-Schulen. Her lucid analysis reveals the manipulative ways in which this manual distorted Spartan history as an inspiring (but also warning) lesson in the service of propaganda. The author stresses the total self-identification of the elite youth with Nazified Sparta.

Part IV, ‘Cold-War Politics and Contemporary Popular Culture’, is the most innovative on the chronological, regional and thematic levels in relation to Rawson. Hodkinson (Chapter 9) investigates the analogy between Sparta and the Soviet Union from an American angle. This analogy, he argues, emerged in the 1970s in three contexts: a sort of succès de scandale following its alleged use by Kissinger and subsequent repercussions in political rhetoric; Donald Kagan’s influential reflections on ‘the ancient world and us’; a CIA analyst’s estimate of the Soviet ‘defense- burden’ through a comparison to Sparta’s system of separating between military investment and civilian welfare. During the Reagan administration, an increasingly suspicious and hawkish policy towards the USSR made the analogy with its ancient communal, closed and ‘totalitarian’ forerunner particularly pertinent in intelligence assessments, with a special view to the paradigm of militaristic super-powers impaired by economic vulnerability. The comparative approach to the perceptions of the Spartan-Soviet analogy in intelligence reports and academic discussions is among the most stimulating aspects of this essay. I would add, for what it is worth, that as early as 1941 Lycurgus starred as a socialist gangster in an American scholarly publication.6

Lynn Fotheringham (Chapter 10) analyses from a cultural-studies perspective the sympathetic representation of Sparta in two exemplars of late-1990s popular American fiction about Thermopylae: Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire and Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. She pays special attention to their generic and medium- specific context, deemed as more significant than their post Cold-War date; their production was conditioned by martial fiction, epic films, graphic-novel conventions and audience expectations. Fotheringham explains how the authors managed to bypass the incompatibility between Sparta’s essentially positive portrayal and elements, such as helotage and infanticide, hardly defensible to a modern audience.

To digest this copious meal of Sparta’s reception we are served a surprisingly refreshing, if rather odd, dessert: ‘This is Cake-Town!’– Gideon Nisbet’s scrutiny of participatory mass culture as expressed by fan-made YouTube video clips parodying Snyder’s 2006 film 300 (based on Miller’s graphic novel). Nisbet argues that unlike their antecedents in the fandom digital realm, exemplified by responses to an earlier film, Troy (2004), these demographically more widespread, more diversified and mimetically-interactive clips, devoid of allegoric stability, are no longer rooted in the classical tradition and its cinematic representations. Is then anything left of Lacedaemon in these comic shadows of a shadow’s shadow animating a subculture predisposed to associate Sparta with Spartacus? Nisbet is somewhat optimistic: aggressive Laconic terseness, preferring actions over words, has triumphed and is likely to dominate this channel of global-demotic discourse. A sense of humour usually helps to contemplate the complex saga of Sparta’s contrasting images, anachronistic projections and capricious appropriations, as Lycurgus must have foreseen when erecting a statue to Laughter. In this case it is indispensable in more ways than one.

The illustrations throughout are amusingly eloquent. Significant typos are quite rare, e.g. ‘the final years of the Cold War (1947-1991)’(p. xviii). The English translation of relevant texts makes the book accessible to a worldwide academic audience interested in Sparta, the history of ideas, classical reception and related areas. My reservations apart, on the whole this is a product of competent scholarship, providing many useful insights – a worthy companion of (and supplement to) Rawson’s irreplaceable work.


1. Le mirage spartiate, I-II, Lyon-Paris 1933-1943.

2. The Legend of Sparta in Classical Antiquity, I-III, Lund-Uppsala 1965-1974-1978.

3. The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, Oxford 1969.

4. S. Hodkinson (ed.), Sparta: Comparative Approaches, Swansea 2009.

5. This admittedly often too simplistic representation of Sparta has been challenged in recent research. But when prudently avoiding that platitudinous Charybdis, may one not incur the risk of approaching a distortive Scylla (e.g. through excessive denial of Sparta’s exceptionalism)? See ibid., 383-498 for the debate between M.H. Hansen and Hodkinson.

6. P.R. Coleman-Norton, ‘Socialism at Sparta’, The Greek Political Experience. Studies in Honor of W.K. Prentice, Princeton 1941, 61-77.