THE GREEK SUPERPOWER: SPARTA IN THE SELF-DEFINITIONS OF ATHENIANS

Edited by Paul Cartledge and Anton Powell

Classical Press of Wales (2018) h/b 280 pp £65.00 (ISBN 9781910589632)

Most of what we know (or think we know) about Classical Sparta has come down to us from a handful of authors born or resident in Athens. Each to a greater or lesser extent inevitably viewed Sparta from an Athenocentric point of view, but, while historical upheavals such as the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, the imposition of the Thirty Tyrants, and Sparta’s defeat at Leuctra caused perceptions to shift, throughout the fifth and fourth centuries BC Sparta and her regime continued to provide Athenian politicians, orators, historians, philosophers and dramatists with a useful mirror to their own society, a model of ‘the Other’ that was ‘good to think with’—with the result that their observations often tell us as much (if not more) about Athens as they do about Sparta. In the modern world the trend has continued, with political thinkers using ‘Sparta’ as a lazy paradigm for contemporary non-democratic regimes and even some scholars accepting what Michael Scott describes here as the ‘literary construct of an eternally austere Sparta’.

This wide-ranging, thought-provoking collection of nine essays edited by arguably the two greatest Sparta experts of our age has its origins in a ‘condisciplinary’ conference held at the Classical Faculty of the University of Cambridge in 2013. It covers three main areas. First: historiography and politics in the fifth century BC. Paula Debnar concludes that Thucydides’ version of Pericles’ funeral speech ‘is, in effect, tacit admission of the role that the Spartans played in shaping the Athenians’ self-definition: who they thought they were and who they wanted to be’; Ellen Millender offers intriguing insights into the importance of visual stimuli in Herodotus’ accounts of Spartan deliberation and ‘the significant role that speech continued to play … in fifth-century sources’ polarization of Sparta and Athens’; and P. himself discusses the extent to which the Thirty intended their constitution to mirror Sparta’s—and whether Spartans agreed). 

Second: late fifth-century BC art, architecture and drama. Michael Scott discusses how Sparta acted ‘as a lightning rod for the shifting process of Athenian self-perception’ in inter-polis rivalry expressed in Athenian buildings, paintings in Athens’ Stoa Poikile and Delphic statue groups; Edith Hall examines how Euripides’ response to Sparta and Spartans illuminates seven ways in which Athenians expressed collective selfhood; and Ralph M. Rosen analyses Aristophanes’ complex response to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War – his ‘mildness’ towards the enemy being not so much a sign of his own pro-Spartan sympathies as evidence that, as fellow Greeks, ‘their mutual sufferings [would be] … painful to endure and talk about’). 

Third: fourth-century orators and philosophers, with Isocrates creating artificial or exaggerated oppositions in Carol Atack’s excellent essay; Plato expecting educated readers of his Republic wrongly to consider Sparta to be the ideal polis in Fritz-Gregor Herrmann’s stimulating discussion; and, in Malcolm Schofield’s tightly-argued analysis, Aristotle engaging with Spartan militarism and ‘imperialism’ in the light of the rise of Macedon.

With abundant footnotes, bibliographies and quotations (usually with English translations where they appear in Greek) this volume (part of The Classical Press of Wales’ series, Sparta and its Influence) is highly recommended to anyone—student, teacher or laconophile—interested not only in Athenian responses to Sparta but in trying to penetrate the Spartan mirage. To adopt laconic brachylogy: read [it].

David Stuttard

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