If I hate the courtesy of the Spartans, i am not blind come the greatness that a cost-free people …

Chateaubriand, Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt and Barbary, 1806

It is one ill wind, proverbially, that blows nobody any kind of good. Terrible and also ghastly as were the tragic occasions of 9/11, they have also, ns believe, provoked a salutary spate of western reflection on just what the is to be ‘Western’, top top what ‘Western civilization’ is or might be. The process of re-examining and rethinking what is distinctive and admirable – or at any type of rate defensible – about Western civilization, values and society seems to me both to have been in itself a wholly good thing, and to have had some significantly positive outcomes. One old Greek exemplar of that civilization, Socrates the Athens, is famously reported by Plato to have said that ‘the unexamined life is no worth living for a human being’. Rarely has the need for such social self-examination been much more compelling.

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This moulded head-vase, dated to the last 4 minutes 1 of the 5th century, depicts a moustache Persian, and on its red-figure rim-frieze mirrors a Persian servant through a Greek mistress; a an excellent example that the continuing cultural interconnections between Greeks, especially Athenians, and also Persia throughout the fifth century and also beyond.

For instance, it makes us realize that we in the West execute not necessarily have all the finest tunes. Concepts and practices frequently imagined to be unique ‘Western’, such together reason, freedom and also democracy, have actually had, and still perform have, their active counterparts in ~ Eastern cultures as well. Indeed, the tradition of Western human being has to be decisively shame or enriched by eastern – including, not least, Islamic – contributions. Had actually it not been because that Arabic scholars, in both eastern (especially Baghdad) and also West (Moorish Spain), in what us conventionally call the center Ages, a number of key works that Aristotle would have actually been shed to us, and also Aristotle is about as main to any kind of construction of the Western cultural tradition together it is feasible to get.

Some of us Westerners, write-up 9/11, were provoked specifically right into wondering aloud whether any meaning of our civilization and also its social values would justify ours dying because that them, or also maybe killing for them – as the self-destruction hijackers the September 11th, or the suicide bombers that the West Bank and also Gaza, plainly were and are all set to die for your brands that Islam and also freedom. Those of us who are chroniclers of ancient Greece pondered that question with especial intensity. For the world of ancient – or classic – Greece is among the major taproots the our western civilization, together I have currently implied in quoting Socrates’s well known aphorism, and the Spartans’ behaviour in ~ Thermopylae in 480 raises high solution the contested worry of ideologically urged suicide.

The connection in between the old Greeks and also Us was forcefully to express by john Stuart Mill, in a testimonial of the an initial volumes the George Grote’s pioneering, liberal-democratic background of ancient Greece (originally released in twelve volumes, 1846–56). As Mill placed it, with conscious paradox, the fight of Marathon – which was battled in 490 BCE by the Athenians, through support just from the neighbouring tiny city that Plataea, versus the invading Persians – was an ext important than the battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. For this reason too, arguably, or so at least I need to want to argue, was the battle of Thermopylae. Unlike Marathon, that course, Thermopylae was formally a loss for the Greeks, a ‘wound’ (trôma), together Herodotus dubbed it.1 however it was none the less glorious or culturally far-ranging for that, since it was shortly converted into a moral, the is a morale, victory. And as Napoleon once colourfully placed it, in war the morale element is 3 times as crucial as all the other factors put together.

Indeed, some would also say – and also I am tempted to encompass myself in their number – that Thermopylae was Sparta’s finest hour. In any kind of case, it’s Sparta’s Thermopylae experience that gives me v my starting-point and constant point of reference in trying to answer the inquiry posed in this epilogue: what have the Spartans done because that us? perhaps we might begin by questioning – as great King Cyrus II, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, was supposed once to have actually asked, in around 550 BCE – who room these Spartans?

One prize is that they were the Dorian (Doric-speaking) inhabitants of a Greek citizen-state in the Peloponnese that for countless centuries was among the best of old Greek powers. Another answer, as one of Cyrus’s successors, Xerxes, discovered out all also painfully, is the they to be a fighting an equipment strong enough, skilful enough and also sufficiently iron-willed to play the crucial role in resisting and also eventually repelling also his large hordes – and so frustrating his attempt to incorporate the mainland Greeks in an asian empire that already stretched from the Aegean in the west to beyond the Hindu Kush. Xerxes uncovered these facts around Sparta in person, in ~ Thermopylae, and his appointed commander-in-chief Mardonius found them again, fatally, at Plataea the following year, once it to be the Spartans under Regent Pausanias that played the lead function in the famous and decisive Greek victory.

That consequently is one, no insignificant, answer to the inquiry why today we should care who the ancient Spartans were. Because that they permitted the development of the people that we have chosen in crucial ways to inherit and learn from. What if the Persians had actually won in 480–479? Either the Greek civilization would have been substantially different thereafter, or/and we need to not have been its legatees in the same methods or to the exact same degree. Another answer come the concern why the old Spartans issue to united state today comes to the influence of what has actually been otherwise labelled the Spartan myth, mirage or tradition. To put this differently: the selection of ways in i m sorry Sparta and also the Spartans have been represented in greatly non-Spartan discourses, both written and also visual, due to the fact that the late 5th century BCE has actually left a deep note on the western tradition, on the understanding of what the is to belong come a western culture.

To begin with, Sparta, favor some other ancient Greek places, impinges upon our daily consciousness v enriching ours English vocabulary. The island of Lesbos, for conspicuous example, has provided us ‘lesbian’, the city the Corinth ‘corinthian’, the city the Athens … ‘attic’. But ancient Sparta, prodigally, has given us ‘spartan’, of course, and ‘laconic’.



Official Persian records were sealed through incised seal-stones favor this example made that chalcedony; right here the good King himself is portrayed demonstrating his manly martial prowess through spearing singlehanded a fearsome wild boar. Over them floats the familiar spiritual symbol the royalty.

To select an illustration almost at random, a newspaper file of Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Opposition, advert casually come his marine public college as being ‘spartan’ – and aptly so, in this sense: the british public institution system, as invented virtually by cutting board Arnold of Rugby in the nineteenth century, was consciously modelled on one idea, or even a utopian vision, of old Sparta’s military-style communal education.

The Spartan etymology the ‘laconic’ is no so immediately transparent. It comes from one of the old adjectival forms acquired from the name by which the Spartans much more often described themselves: Lacedaemonians, or Lakones. As detailed earlier, the Spartans were the past masters the the curt, clipped, armed forces mode the utterance, i beg your pardon they offered alike in sending written or dental dispatches indigenous the front heat or at home in snappy repartee to an insistent teacher, for instance – so lot so the the ancients kept collections of what they thought to be genuine Spartan ‘apophthegms’ (I have actually quoted a well known one of Leonidas’s), while we still call that way of utterance ‘laconic’ in their honour.

Even much less obviously, and much much less happily, the Spartans have bequeathed us additionally a third English word: the noun ‘helot’. This is used today to describe a member of an especially deprived or exploited country or economic underclass. It thus reflects, accurately, the dark underside that the Spartans’ more positive achievements. The Greek native heilôtês more than likely originally supposed ‘captive’, and also certainly the was as captives and enemies the the Spartans treated the unfree subordinate population of Helots: more exactly, together if lock were detainees of war whose death sentence the Spartans had actually merely exposed so as to force them to labour under continuous threat the extinction, in order to carry out the financial basis that the Spartan way of life. Various other Greek cities, not the very least Athens, were also of course crucially dependent on unfree labour for creating and maintaining a distinctively politicized and cultured style of communal life. However the slaves organized by the Athenians collectively and also individually were usual of the Greek human being as a whole in the they were mainly ‘barbarians’, or non-Greek foreigners, a polyglot, heterogeneous bunch – in fact, castle were largely owned on one individual, no a collective, basis. The Helots that Sparta, through contrast, were whole Greek people, or maybe (if we identify the Laconian Helots from the Messenian) 2 separate peoples united by a typical yoke of servitude.

These three small words – spartan, laconic, helot – are just a tiny linguistic token the the truth that English or brother culture, indeed Western culture as a whole, has been deeply marked by what the French scholar François Ollier neatly referred to as ‘le mirage spartiate’. As soon as he coined that expression in the 1930s, Sparta – or rather concepts of exactly how Sparta had supposedly functioned as a culture – exercised a particular fascination, as noted earlier, for totalitarian or authoritarian rulers, many notoriously because that Adolf Hitler and pseudo-scholarly members that his Nazi entourage such as Alfred Rosenberg. Discipline, orderliness, soldierly hierarchy and subordination of individual endeavour come the overriding great of the state were amongst the Spartan virtues the the Nazis and also other Fascists were many attracted through – just to put them come the many perverted uses. There room still neo-Fascist establishments (one, disturbingly, in France) that space proud come follow along this exact same shining path.

It is this modern-day totalitarian or authoritarian reception of ancient Sparta that has tarnished, more than likely irreparably, Sparta’s reputation together a political best or design in contemporary Western liberal-democratic societies. However Sparta’s idealized image had actually not constantly served together sinister or heinous purposes. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau to be a large fan that ‘the wisdom the Sparta’s laws’, and if noþeles an also greater pan of its legend lawgiver Lycurgus. In Lycurgus’s right Sparta, Rousseau saw a society that was dedicated to implementing the general will in a collective, self-effacing, law-abiding and above all extensively virtuous way. Rousseau assisted to certain a vital role for old Greece (as well as ancient Rome) in the making of the contemporary world, and also for Sparta no less than for Athens.

Rousseau was by no way the very first intellectual to deploy photo or vision the Sparta as an integral component and driving force of whole programme the social and political reforms. Among the very an initial on record was Plato, and it is through Plato that Sparta can insurance claim to it is in the fount and also origin that the entire tradition that utopian thinking and also writing (utopiography). Utopia, too, got a bad name in the twenty century; however in principle – the principle of hope that things have the right to be and also will be made far better – it is no as bad a ar as all that. In any kind of case, that is not only for what intellectuals and others have actually made of Sparta, native the Classical period of ancient Greece down to our own century, that Sparta stays a selection subject the study. That is also for what the Spartans really did achieve, most conspicuously and effectively top top the battlefield during the Graeco-Persian wars of 480–479 BCE.

The battle of Thermopylae, though a defeat, quickly came to be a morale victory. As such, it created a vital and integral component of the eventual complete Greek success over the Persians. That victory, moreover, would certainly not have been attained had actually it not been because that the indispensable contribution made through the Spartans. The remarkable successful organization of their culture into a well oiled army machine, and also their breakthrough of a rudimentary multistate Greek alliance well prior to the Persians got into mainland Greece, detailed the indispensable core of armed forces leadership about which a Greek resistance could coalesce. The Spartans’ heroically suicidal stand at Thermopylae confirmed that the Persians both should and also could usefully be resisted, and gave the small, wavering and uncohesive pressure of patriotic Greeks the nerve to imagine that they can one day defeat the invaders. The charismatic leadership of Spartan leaders of the character and calibre that King Leonidas and Regent Pausanias crucially unified and inspired the Greeks’ land forces.

But what, if anything, go the Spartans lug to the feast of ancient Greek culture, the resource of the western legacy, beyond making the feast feasible at all? Different modern-day interpreters emphasize different elements of the timeless Greek social achievement. I myself would privilege three distinguishing attributes or characteristics, over all: first, a devotion to competition in all its forms, nearly for its own sake; second, a devotion come a concept and also ideal the freedom; and, third, a capacity for virtually limitless self-criticism as well as unstinting criticism of rather (not the very least other Greeks).

The first two that these could be established equally strong in either of the two main exemplars of ancient Greek civilization, Sparta and also Athens. The third, however, especially self-criticism, was a distinctively Athenian social trait and also apparently no a Spartan characteristics at all – or so modern-day Athenians preferred to claim, and also many have actually subsequently agreed. Pericles, for example, in Thucydides’s version of his Funeral decided of 431/30, sneered in ~ Sparta’s simply state-imposed courage; and also Demosthenes a century later asserted falsely that it was forbidden to Spartans even to slam (let alone alter) their laws.

Undoubtedly there were no Spartan equivalents the the Athenians’ democratic Assembly and popular lawcourts, no one did the Spartans reap the Athenians’ annual tragic and comic drama festivals, which detailed state-sponsored opportunities for self-examination and also self-criticism. Yet the Spartans were not fairly the unhesitatingly obedient automatons that old Athenian and contemporary liberal propaganda have actually made them out to be. On occasion, grumbling at authority can turn right into open defiance, both individually and collectively. Even Spartan kings, that were perched at the an extremely pinnacle the the pecking order of birth, wealth and also prestige, might be lugged low by gift tried and fined – or, worse, exiled favor Demaratus under sentence of death. It would certainly be fairer and an ext accurate, then, come say the the Spartans’ society was no one the favoured intellectual debate or also open dissent one of two people in the agora or in any type of other location of publicly assembly.

All Greeks, probably, were passionately crawl on a an excellent contest. Your word for the heart of competitiveness, agônia, is the source of ours word ‘agony’, and that etymological connection well suggests the intense, pushed quality of ancient Greek competition. A battle was for the Greeks an agôn(contest), obviously enough, as was a publicly debate, whether actual or fictional. So as well was a lawsuit, however so additionally was any spiritual festival that involved, centrally or otherwise, strong or other kinds of competition – a festival such as the Olympic Games, for example. It was in reality the Greeks at some point who created our idea of strong sports, simply as they created the prototype of our idea of the theatre, and both the them within a context of religiously inspired competition and also competitiveness.

The Spartans gave in to no other Greeks in your passionate, virtually fanatical attachments to competition. They even made the an extremely act of survival at birth a matter of public competition, by entrusting elders with the job of supervising the wine-bath tests for neonates. The exercise of consigning infants showing any type of obvious indications of physics deformity or debility to very early death in ~ the foot of a surrounding mountain ravine was not as callous or odd as it possibly seems to us: both Plato and also Aristotle supported such ‘exposure’ of defective newborns in their corresponding Ideal States. Likewise, adult status for Spartan males can be completed only by effectively passing the series of mostly physical competitive tests that constituted the distinct education or team socialization known as theagôgê or ‘upbringing’. Also then, ending up being a full adult Spartan citizens in terms of political standing and also participation was made to count on pass a further and also final acceptance test – join by competitive choice to a communal dining group, or mess, in ~ the period of twenty.

Those unfortunates that failed any kind of of this educational or citizenship tests to be relegated come a limbo the exclusion, the non-belonging, to long-term outsider status. Nor did interior competition because that status finish at the age of twenty because that those who did attain full citizenship status: much from it. Not for one moment did they cease to compete among themselves and against others, both abroad, in war, that course, and also no much less famously and also successfully in ~ the Olympic Games, but likewise at residence – in local equestrian and athletic contests, because that instance, or election to high office, or for membership that the elite royal bodyguard. One disappointed Spartan who had actually failed come be chosen to the bodyguard in his twenties was said to have claimed he was delighted to know there were three hundred Spartans much better than he; and even so, that went on to achieve high public difference in later life.

As for the basic Greek passion for freedom, it was stated by the right-wing Athenian politics writer and activist Critias, that wrote about the Spartan method of life in both prose and verse and thereby started the literary heritage of the Spartan ‘mirage’, that ‘In Lakedaimon room to be uncovered those who space the most enslaved and those who are the most free’. By ‘the many free’ he expected the Spartans themselves, or an ext precisely the Spartan master class, who were freed by the compulsory work of their enslaved workforce from the need of doing any productive work-related whatsoever, except warfare. By ‘the many enslaved’ he supposed of course the Helots. These people, as provided above, to be Greeks who, in spite of their birthright the freedom, were jointly enslaved and also treated through unusual severity by the Spartans, as a conquered yet permanently threatening and subversive population.

This harsh treatment at very first puzzled and also later deeply disturbed the an ext sensitive Greek observers of the Spartan scene. Plato, for example, by no means unfriendly to Sparta in general, remarked: ‘The Helot-system that Sparta is nearly the many discussed and also controversial topic in Greece.’ This conflict reached a top in Plato’s adult lifetime. For, in the after-effects of the decisive loss of Sparta in ~ Leuctra in 371 through the Boeotians led by Thebes, the larger part of the Helots, the Messenians, finally completed their longed-for cumulative freedom and also established themselves as free Greek citizens of the revitalized (as they experienced it) totally free city that Messene. Ns must add that the Spartans to be by no method untypical, permit alone unique, among the ancient Greeks in seeing no incompatibility in between their very own freedom and the unfreedom that a servile class, and indeed in basing the former on the latter.

These two aspects of Spartan society and society – competitiveness and contested notions of flexibility – virtually by themselves make our Spartan ancestors worthy of ours continued social interest and historical study. Yet they very far from exhaust Sparta’s too much fascination. Let’s take a look at those much more or less well attested Spartan social customs or practices that we have concentrated on in thing Four: institutionalized pederasty in between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the compulsory framework of the state-managed education system; athletic sports consisting of wrestling practised officially – and also allegedly in the naked – through teenage girls; the general public insulting and humiliation of bachelors by married females at an annual spiritual festival; polyandry (wives having much more than one husband each); and wife-sharing without either party’s incurring the society opprobrium or legitimate guilt the adultery.

One typical factor runs through lot of this: the unexplained (indeed, through Greek and also even most pre-modern standards, unique) functions, status and also behaviour of one half of the Spartan citizens population, the women. The extant evidence is sufficiently numerous to have actually prompted a recent book on them. This is also one the several contemporary studies prepared to speak of the existence of a details ‘feminism’ in Sparta. Ns think, however, that we need to take at the very least some the this highly controversial evidence with a pinch the (presumably Attic?) salt, especially where the ideological or propagandistic intentionally is blatant. Our written sources are exclusively male, nearly entirely non-Spartan and often heavily Athenocentric. Yet there is sufficient that is trusted to allow us safely come infer that Sparta really was, in such an important areas as marriage and also procreation, seriously different, also alien, native the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse.

And this for sure does do Sparta perpetually precious studying, not only by historians, but additionally by comparative cultural anthropologists and sociologists, amongst others. Herodotus, the dad of (comparative cultural) anthropology and of history, asserted famously that he agreed with the Theban lyric poet Pindar the ‘custom to be king’. He intended that in his view every human team believes that its own personalizeds are not just relatively much better than those the others, yet the finest possible. Not surprisingly, he took a unique interest in Spartan customs, practices and beliefs. Here are simply a couple of related illustrations. All are taken native the seventh publication of his Histories, the Thermopylae book, and all of them go to establish the suggest that the Spartans were not simply willing, however culturally predisposed and also educated, to die for their ideals: that is, come sacrifice your individual lives for the benefits of some greater cumulative goal, whether local or national.

Shortly prior to the epic conflict at Thermopylae, together we saw, it to be reported to great King Xerxes by a mounted spy that the Spartans in the pass were combing and styling their an extremely long hair. He just refused to think that males who coiffed favor women before fighting would make serious enemies in the field. Or rather, in the instance of Thermopylae, not just serious opponents yet men who would of collection purpose placed their lives on the line in the particular knowledge that they to be going to be killed. The this was without doubt what lay behind the Spartans’ decision to send a especially selected taskforce of three hundred under King Leonidas to Thermopylae in 480 is proven not only by the means they fought and died, but additionally by the truth that the men chosen all had to have actually a life son, so regarding prevent their household lines indigenous dying the end – in various other words, ~ their very own assured deaths.

That their mission was suicidal self-sacrifice is supported more by another story in Herodotus publication 7, recounted, significantly, not long before he tells the story the Thermopylae. In the run-up come the Persian intrusion of 480 the Spartans taken into consideration how they might shot to persuade Xerxes to abandon it. Being a an extremely pious people, they thought that the intrusion was at least in part heaven’s way of punishing them because that the sacrilege of having actually killed, some years earlier, the heralds sent out to castle by Xerxes’s father Darius – persons who office invest them v sacrosanctity. Therefore they conceived the idea of making atonement to Xerxes, and of sending out two Spartans to be killed by him as restitution and compensation. Contact the Spartans naive – certainly, the was how their gesture was reportedly concerned by Xerxes (who merely dismissed the would-be patriotic suicides indigenous his visibility with haughty contempt). But the soul of self-sacrifice for a larger cause, in this case the good of every Greece, not simply of Sparta, shines out.

In the occasion Xerxes did invade Greece and, after stubborn Greek resistance, required the happen of Thermopylae. ‘Go tell the Spartans’, the beginning of Simonides’s well known epigram hymning the heroic Spartan dead in this encounter, has actually resonated in recent well-known culture. Together the epigram’s following words, ‘… passerby, / the here, obedient to your laws, we lie’, suggest, the laws of Sparta were unusually rigorous, and rigid. But one more emblematic passage of Herodotus book 7 – a supposed interview in between Xerxes and also the deposed Spartan ex-King Demaratus – makes clear exactly how this last i of the epigram was claimed to be read: as portraying the characteristically Greek public quality the obedience come the laws, a high quality that the Spartans embodied and also acted upon to the full.

Demaratus assures Xerxes that the Spartans will stand as much as him, due to the fact that they fear the Law more even than Xerxes’s subjects are afraid him. More importantly still, the Spartans, uneven them, were able to do a free choice. They created their own regulations for themselves by cumulative agreement, and they made decision to follow them. They were no compelled by thin terror or pressure to follow the arbitrary and lawless whim the a despot or autocrat. That, certainly, was a biased, ethnocentric judgement by Herodotus. Yet it additionally contains an essential truth, both around the ancient Greeks together a whole and not least about the top Greeks that the Persian battle period: the Spartans.

THE SPARTANS and also their unique culture occupy a main place in the utopian tradition. Yet Utopia, as the Greek-derived word’s inventor, cutting board More, was well aware, is official ambiguous. Depending upon how the prefix ‘U’ is taken, it have the right to mean either ‘No-place’ (outopia) or ‘Well-place’ (eutopia). The news from the Spartan nowhere is admittedly not constantly good. An article in the Times greater Education Supplement, special my previously Spartans book and TV series, was introduced editorially as follows: ‘They hurled babies into ravines and culled your workforce yearly. Chronicler Paul Cartledge think we can learn a point or 2 from those Spartans.’ Nevertheless, I must still favor to think, and like my reader to think too, the a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia could not it is in the worst place on earth to discover ourselves – minus, that course, the exposure that infants and the exploitation the Helots.

At any rate, the old ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae quiet resonates today: that is the concept that there room some values that room worth dying for, as well as living for. The notion, however, deserve to be a two-edged sword. As applied by particular suicide bombers, for example, it seems to me come be wholly repellent, but justified their cause. However when occurred in the direction take away by the Spartans and their founder-lawgiver Lycurgus, it deserve to generate ideals of communal co-operation and also self-sacrifice that qualify for the honorific label of (e)utopia.

Traditionally, and also rightly, Sparta is not commemorated as a hot-house that high culture. However there was, ns think, no paradox or irony once William Golding, a future Nobel Laureate because that literature, wrote in 1965 after a visit come the hot Gates:

A little of Leonidas lies in the truth that I can go where I like and write what ns like. He contributed to collection us free.

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It is precious bearing this judgement in mind as one contemplates the Thermopylae memorials on market in Greece and elsewhere today, both in Sparta and, more poignantly if also much more noisily, in ~ Thermopylae itself.