BMCR 2016.12.13

The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge. The Yale library of military history

, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge. The Yale library of military history. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2015. xvi, 408. ISBN 9780300116427. $38.00.


Paul Rahe is a professor at Hillsdale College whose credits include a biography of Lysander (his 1977 dissertation),1 his huge Republics Ancient and Modern which demonstrates his erudition as a historian of political philosophy,2 and many other works. The book reviewed here essentially gives a fulsome analytical retelling of Archaic Greek history, up to and including the Persian Wars, from a more Spartan and Persian viewpoint than an Athenian one. It appears in the “Yale Library of Military History,” and it seems to fill the niche of a well-researched popularizing work for non-specialists.

The Prologue is the book’s most interesting and successful section. Here Rahe gives at times startlingly original insights into the Spartan regime, arguing with perspicacity that this regime’s great strength was its system of checks and balances. The Spartiate system, he argues convincingly embodied a “revolutionary new morality” with Tyrtaios as spokesperson (14). The “Grand Strategy” of the book’s title is hence not a military strategy (à la Luttwak)3 but a strategy of life and living, i.e., a constitution of customs and laws ( nomoi), (26-28) or a kosmos. This strategy carefully balances domestic needs (notably, the need to guard against Helot revolt) with external policy, producing the famed Spartan reluctance to campaign overseas. Can this intelligibly be labeled a “strategy” without twisting the English term? Perhaps. Having praised this section, I might have been happier, however, if Rahe had engaged better with scholars who are more doubtful of how far back the agoge went: for example, if he had demonstrated more understanding of the debate between Nigel Kennell and Jean Ducat.4

Next are two long parts. First is Part I, “The Crisis of Sparta’s Grand Strategy” containing four chapters and ending with the Battle of Marathon. It contains a very lengthy, detailed, but ultimately successful reassessment of, for example, the Ionian Revolt and the motivations of the persons behind it. In Rahe’s view, Persia’s expansion looms large in the calculations of late Archaic Greek tyrants, just as it does in the calculations of the Spartans. Good attention is paid to the Peisistratidai, Aristagoras, Cleomenes, Demaratos, and the ethnic ties between Athenians and Ionians. His careful combing through evidence brings up points that are sometimes surprising, and often convincing. Rahe argues, for example, that the evidence tilts in favor of that extra Messenian War that supposedly occurred in the early fifth century. He retells a familiar story well, nicely unlocking passages of Herodotos with additional information and his own insights.

Part II, “The Crisis Comes to a Head,” also contains four chapters. Here are chapters on the creation of the anti-Persian league of Greeks, Thermopylai and Artemision, Salamis, and Plataia and Mykale. There are good sections on the Themistocles Decree (Rahe supports its authenticity) and the Oath of Plataia. As with Part I, Rahe is strong on prosopography and topography. The rest is mostly a detailed retelling of the military events of these years. Curiously, Rahe uses the term “jihadism” and “jihad” (xii, 164, 332) to describe the Persians’ territorial ambitions. This may raise hackles at the term’s recent overtones and political shadows. However, to be fair, the term also may contribute to understanding Persian motives in the Late Archaic period, and its potential intersection with Zoroastrian ideas is not implausible.5

The Epilogue is strong as well, and discusses methodology and assumptions. This is meant to be the first part of a trilogy. A companion entitled The Spartan Regime has been released which expands the successful argument of the Prologue into a book.

This work has features that some may see as strengths and others as weaknesses. Methodologically, Rahe is an optimist in terms of his attitude toward sources, rejecting the pessimism about the general veracity of our sources that came into style in the postmodern 1990s and still is prevalent in some areas of the field of the Classics, particularly with respect to academic treatments of Herodotos. To Rahe, Herodotos’ story about about Amestris is “bizarre, to be sure” but “this does not mean that it is wholly or even largely false” (330). In my view, this stance is praiseworthy as a salutary reaction to the sort of hypercritical source-rejection that has been popular for the past few decades, particularly in Spartan studies. However, other scholars may criticize this stance too convenient for an author wishing to write an extensive narrative rather than focusing on specific problems. While Rahe has an admirable command of the evidence and of much scholarship, this book (again) nevertheless may be thought to ignore the questionable and at times contradictory nature of our evidence for Spartan customs and history. Then again, it is not Rahe’s fault that a cottage industry of its own has blossomed from scholarship emphasizing (and at times exaggerating) the tenuousness of our ancient sources on Sparta.

Overall, although I found Rahe’s narrative rambling and prolix at times, it also frequently contains deep analysis and considerations of how things could have turned out differently, and intelligent reconstructions of Persian and Spartan motives that are clearly based on long years of research and thought. One of Rahe’s strengths is the plausibility of his surmises about how much information individual actors knew in a situation. Rahe argues well, for example, that the decision-makers at Sparta throughout the second half of the sixth century BC were closely watching Persian affairs and often arranged Spartan foreign policy in response to Persia. Is that too much hindsight, too teleological? Some readers may think so, but Rahe puts forth a plausible and persuasive argument that illuminates some of the Spartan leadership’s more cryptic decisions in the late Archaic period.

However, at times Rahe will mention something that seems breathtakingly important, but then drop it. For example, he throws out a supremely significant argument that different regimes have different “moral imperatives” and cannot be thought of as interchangeable “state actors” practicing brutal Realpolitik (xiii – xiv) and then leaves it. This bracing and potentially powerful challenge to the Realism and Neo-Realism as articulated so successfully by Arthur Eckstein should have been developed.6 And this argument provides what is represented as the book’s central argument: “in thinking about foreign affairs and in pondering diplomacy, intelligence, military strength, and its economic foundations, one must always acknowledge the primacy of domestic policy.” Professional scholars might have wished this argument had been adhered to more closely throughout, giving this work more argumentative structure and less narration; but again, such an angle might have displeased the interested non-specialists who seem to be the book’s target.

Another potentially interesting avenue not trodden by Rahe: he emphasizes nicely the importance of the Spartiate trait of solidarity (25), but does not do much with it. This could have been pushed into a new and interesting direction by (for example) attending to social-science models of social cohesiveness. I would suggest the Asabiya model found in Ibn Khaldun as distilled through the population biologist Peter Turchin’s work.7

The fact that Rahe seems to be writing for a popular audience may explain why he does not always make it clear which of his ideas are new or controversial and which restate theses already articulated by e.g. George Cawkwell.8 The work’s lack of footnotes exacerbates this infelicity: one must page back to the endnotes to check whether Rahe’s assertions about the sixth century BC come from Herodotos or e.g. Saint Augustine. Perhaps this was the press’s choice, and not Rahe’s. And there is no separate bibliography, making it a laborious task to quickly check whether Rahe has indeed digested Stephen Hodkinson, for example, or other crucial scholars.

Yet a book should be reviewed for what it is, rather than for what it is not: one supreme task of a book reviewer is to look at a work sympathetically, keeping in mind what the author intended. A good popularizing book written by a scholar can be a joy to read, like Kara Cooney’s fascinating The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt. Overall, this book is successful if its goal is to provide a mostly narrative history (with some fine analysis) of Spartan and Persian actions up to and including the Persian Wars. I cannot guarantee that professors or graduate students will want to do more than consult some sections. However, it will serve its purpose for its intended audience.


1.] Rahe, Paul. Lysander and the Spartan Settlement. Diss. Yale University, 1977.

2. Rahe, Paul. Republics Ancient & Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). For a sample review, see Sellers, Mortimer, International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall, 1996), 232 – 237.

3. Luttwak, Edward. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

4. Kennell, Nigel. The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995) and the review by Stephen Hodkinson in Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 117 (1997), 240 – 242. Ducat, Jean. Spartan Education: Youth and Society in the Classical Period. (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006) and the review by Nigel Kennell in Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 128 (2008), 228 – 229.

5. Jihadism is mentioned at 67-70, 85, 164f, and various other places. Rahe’s terminology may cause discomfort to some, but his essential point is not unfair. Cf. Briant’s description of Xerxes’ “robust policy of colonization” in From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 567. Zoroastrianism could also provide a convenient ideological motive for world conquest. Generally, Kuhrt, Amélie, The Ancient Near East. Volume II (London and New York: Routledge 1995), 676 – 682. For how the Achaemenid dynasty appropriated Zoroastrianism, see Soudavar, Abolala, “The Formation of Achaemenid Imperial Ideology and its Impact on the Avesta in Curtis, John and St. John Simpson (ed.). The World of Achaemenid Persia: History, Art and Society in Iran and the Ancient Near East. (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 111 – 138, and other essays in that volume.

6. Eckstein, Arthur. Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006).

7. Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War. (New York: Penguin, 2006).

8. Cawkwell, George. The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).