BMCR 2015.09.29

Die Wirtschaft Spartas

, Die Wirtschaft Spartas. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014. 191. ISBN 9783515106757. €39.00.

Table of Contents

Scholarship on Sparta over the past generation or so has been frustrated by the notion that our sources are vitiated by a “Spartan Mirage”. This concept, originating in Ollier’s 1933 and 1943 works,1 has expanded to severely criticize our sources as too late, admiring, or foreign to preserve information accurately. This posture can be taken quite far.2 Admittedly, our sources are not as complete or reliable as we might like. However, this is always the case in ancient history, and is arguably much worse for, say, the Maya or the Akkadians than for the Spartans. Yet a shift in scholarly consensus is now visible. A half-empty glass is beginning to be seen as half-full. It is no longer unfashionable to believe that our sources may accurately preserve (kernels of) veracity about actual events.3 Reconstructions of past events and processes rather than past ideologies are back on the docket. Thus a book like this.

In this book, Thommen combines years of study of Sparta4 with the flourishing interest in the economy, demography, and ecology of the ancient Greco-Roman world to create an economic analysis of the ancient Spartan state from its obscure beginnings up through the Roman period. In a 6-page introduction, Thommen justifies a book on the Spartan economy and positions himself as opposing several trends in Spartan research, including those who see Sparta as a totalitarian state with a simple, autarkic economy, by stating that Sparta’s idiosyncrasies are insufficient, even in the economic sphere, to flatly dismiss it as a “special case” (p. 17).

Chapters follow on the territory, road-networks, harbors, farm animals, farm produce, and crafts products of Lakedaimon and Messenia (1, 3, and 4): dry, yet essential, for the physical bases of agricultural economies require thorough discussion. Thommen’s close, careful attention to these matters programmatically demonstrates his focus on reasonably verifiable facts in preference to ideology and mirage.

Considerably livelier, the second chapter concerns the economic contribution of different Lakonian social groups. Thommen sees Spartiate citizen egalitarianism occurring only after the 464 BC earthquake: an adventurous, but possible, down-dating.5 He supports both an archaic division of land after the Second Messenian War and private property existing alongside it, treating the vexed issue of the “Rhetra of Epitadeus” by arguing that this law is unnecessary for a free right of disposal to have existed (30). Although recognizing Spartiate wives’ power in the sphere of estate management, Thommen argues that Spartiate males’ direct economic interest in their estates entailed their own involvement as well. He argues that handicrafts cannot have been banned amongst the Spartiates until the fifth century BC, and that cavalry and infantry were serviced by craftsmen who possibly came from among the Spartiates, for which we would like more evidence: some of the examples he cites cannot be securely known to be Spartiates (33-34).

The fifth chapter, “Finanzwirtschaft”, (82 – 114) may be the heart of the book. Here Thommen records and comments on Spartan monetary transactions methodically, cross-referencing Hodkinson 2000 throughout, with excellent dated appendices of (1) monies reported in conjunction with Sparta from 499 BC until 8/7 BC; (2) attestations of bribery; and (3) booty, and a section on the vexed Spartan War Fund. Thommen excels at such close, technical scrutiny of evidence.

Chapter 6 concerns the archaic Spartan economy, refreshingly taking Alkman and Tyrtaios seriously as describers of actual events in the Archaic period and discussing land-distribution, sumptuary laws, wealth, and financial resources.

Chapter 7, “Klassische Wirtschaft”, alongside sections on wealth, poverty, war production, and trade, argues strangely that the earthquake of the 460s was recovered from quickly (125; cf. 169). Yet this seems to have been the moment when the drastic Spartiate population decline began (or became severe). Unless many of our sources simply deserve dismissal, Thommen’s neglect of this is problematic. In a normal population regime, this kind of population loss would indeed be recovered from quickly, but several of Sparta’s customs seem to have not been conducive to demographic recovery, such as high female status (universally linked by demographers to low rates of reproduction), Spartan culture’s downplaying of fatherhood as seen in allo-parenting and reduction of male authority over offspring, and non-traditional reproduction arrangements that probably weakened the patriarchal structure that favors high birthrates in pre-industrial societies. The Spartiate caste’s waning and (through enfranchisement of various sorts) waxing surely integrally structured the Spartan economic experience. These factors must have influenced Sparta’s economic performance strongly and should not be neglected.

Chapters 8 and 9 concern the Hellenistic and Roman periods of the Spartan economy. Chapter 8 proceeds chronologically, with sections on Areus I, Agis IV, Kleomenes III, a particularly thorough section on the fascinating and obscure Nabis, and a section on Sparta’s relations with the Achaean League, with another excellent Appendix on proxenoi and related issues. Chapter 9 begins with Eurykles and his dynasty and then gives excellent short sections on magistrates in Roman Sparta, infrastructure, and changes in Spartan economy and society in the Roman period.

A summary, a pair of maps, a bibliography, and an index finish the book.

This book is long on facts and short on theory. This will attract some scholars but not others. Personally, in addition to more on demography, I wish it had engaged more directly with some of the more recent research on economics and social science approaches to antiquity, such as The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World.

It should also be noted that Thommen’s book is infused with the spirit of Sparta-normalization, a trend in contemporary research that downplays notions of Sparta’s unusual nature, (over)reacting to centuries of popular (and scholarly) desire to present Sparta as freakish or unique.6 Thommen is correct to point out that Sparta’s long refusal to mint coins was not a bizarre characteristic: although indicating a long pre-monetary economy, it did not prevent trade nor the accumulation of resources. But other characteristics of Spartan culture seem less susceptible to downplaying their uncommon nature. For example, Thommen argues that xenelasiai or periodic expulsion of strangers, usually considered an unusual Spartan custom connected to ideas of purity and freedom from foreign influence, only began in the fifth century, a tiny practice best contextualized to the war against Athens: temporary, localized, with no evidence for systematic deportations (126). Thommen may be right in believing that systematic deportations did not exist in the Archaic period, but the deportations that Perikles mentions in Thoukydides 1.144 do not seem tiny: they seem large enough to “trade” a cessation of them for the (also very large) potential Athenian concession of allowing Megarians to use agorai and harbors of Athens and her allies. Xenelasia thus sounds bigger than Thommen describes, and also seems systematic in Aristophanes Birds 1010-1020.

Up to a point, normalization can correct “theme park” views of Sparta.7 But eventually the pendulum may swing back. Unusual aspects of Spartan history and culture may again fascinate us. And alongside this, the hypercritical attitude toward the veracity of our sources on Sparta may relax somewhat, and we may again entertain the idea of an early Archaic-era package of reforms (including an archaic land division into kleroi), and perhaps even an actual reformer named Lykourgos (regardless of whether his reforms were later exaggerated). Should Plutarch’s testimonies be rehabilitated, the entire categories of both “retrojection” and “the Spartan mirage” could be severely questioned. This may be salutary. Both of these interpretive schemata, when overused (as often by (post)modern scholars), rely overmuch on increasingly elaborate explanations to dismiss the little ancient evidence that we do have. Despite Thommen’s drive toward normalization, his moderation toward the sources – not hypercritical to the point of discarding potentially valuable data, but not uncritical to the point of promiscuous acceptance of all – will be useful for such a “market correction” of our scholarly approaches to this particular body of evidence.

Overall this is a highly useful contribution to Spartan studies, establishing a factual basis to which theories may be applied. One would be delighted to read more work on Spartan economy incorporating some of the insights found in recent good works on Roman demography and economy.8 My disagreements with some of Thommen’s conclusions should not blind anyone to his good work. He and I simply may presently occupy different places on legitimate spectrums of interpretations about ancient Sparta. Again, given the state of surviving evidence, many reconstructions of Sparta are possible. All should be entertained that do not irreparably break logic and ignore evidence or comparable human societies. Thommen’s book, whether or not everyone agrees with all of it, is still supremely careful, extraordinarily thorough, and demonstrative of a rigorous attention to the surviving evidence. It cannot authoritatively establish unimpeachable reconstructions, because our sources are too polyvalent. But it deserves praise, and complements economic works by Thomas Figueira and Stephen Hodkinson on the shelf of serious scholars of Sparta.


1. F. Ollier, Le Mirage Spartiate: Étude sur l’idéalisation de Sparte dans l’antiquité grecque. 2 Vols. Paris: E. de Boccard, 1933, 1943.

2. This trend climaxed in Michael Flower’s (2002) argument that we should not attribute anything to any earlier period than is attested in literary sources of said earlier period, concluding that “any synthetic history of Spartan institutions is impossible” (192). M. Flower, “The invention of tradition in classical and Hellenistic Sparta” in Powell and Hodkinson, eds. Sparta: Beyond the Mirage. London: The Classical Press of Wales and Duckworth, 2002, 191-218.

3. For example, very recently Josiah Ober has written: “The origin story told by the Roman-era biographer Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus – that new social order was consolidated in the wake of a revolt by the Messenians … is plausible if not demonstrable. Some details of the Lycurgan social order remain debatable … Yet the outlines of the mature Spartan system are tolerably clear.” J. Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015, 15.

4. Cf. Thommen’s Lakedaimonion Politeia. Die Entstehung der spartanischen Verfassung. Historia Einzelschriften 103. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996 (Reviewed in BMCR 98.2.12); Sparta: Verfassungs- und Sozialgeschichte einer griechischen Polis. Stuttgart and Weimar: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 2003; and An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012 (reviewed in BMCR 2013.02.03).

5. Cf. Hans van Wees’ penetrating review of Thommen’s 2003 Sparta: Verfassungs- und Sozialgeschichte einer griechischen Polis : “This radical view relies essentially on an argument from silence …” in Gnomon 81 (2009), 754-756, p. 755.

6. Normalization: E.g. Ellen Millender’s work on Spartiate women, which sees the majority of their ancient “liberated” image as a case of structuralist binaries, with Athenian women in the imaginary opposite pole (“Athenian Ideology and the Empowered Spartan Woman” in Hodkinson and Powell, eds. 1999, 355 – 392) and much of Stephen Hodkinson’s work, e.g. “My own research from the mid-1980s onwards has highlighted ways in which Sparta was less peculiar and exceptional than normally believed” (“Transforming Sparta: New Approaches to Spartan Society”. Ancient History: Resources for Teachers 41-44 (2015): 1-42, 4), and his argument that the Spartiates’ “system of landed property remained a normal Greek system of private ownership and inheritance” (2015, 4), an argument which forces any Lycurgan land-reform to be a retrojection from the Hellenistic period; finally, his summarizing current work by other scholars and himself “reaching a consensus that helotage was not that unusual” (Hodkinson 2015, 13). Mischa Meier’s work also largely normalizes Sparta, e.g. Aristokraten und Damoden. Untersuchungen zur inneren Entwicklung Spartas im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr. und zur politischen Funktion der Dichtung des Tyrtaios. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998. See Hans van Wees’ review thereof, in BMCR 1999.10.15.

7. Theme park: Hodkinson 2015, 3.

8. A particularly fine one being L. de Ligt and S. J. Northwood (eds.), People, Land and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy, 300 BC – AD 14. Mnemosyne Supplement 303. Leiden: Brill, 2008. ​