OUP (2020) h/b 192pp £10.99 (ISBN 9780198853084)
Even in their heyday (c. 550–371 BC, the focus of this book) to fellow Greeks the Spartans presented an enigma. Lacking a literature of their own (save for Tyrtaeus and Alcman), considered by Herodotus to be almost on a par with exotic foreigners, used to fit a specific agenda by authors such as Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle, and viewed through the distorting lens of legend by Plutarch (writing under the Roman Empire, when their city had become a ‘theme park’), it is perhaps no wonder that the Spartans shimmer tantalizingly in their own ‘mirage’. Today many people, especially aficionados of the film, 300, are familiar with just one aspect of Sparta’s history, her heroic defeat at the Battle of Thermopylae, and it is with this that B. begins. Pedants might quibble at some of the details, not least the seemingly unquestioning acceptance of Dieneces’ apophthegm when told of the multitude of Persian arrows, ‘good, we’ll fight in the shade’, but this book is not written for them. Instead, with its clear prose and incisive approach, it furnishes an admirable introduction to an overview of ‘the best and worst’ of Spartan society, approaching the material not as a narrative history but in themed chapters examining the Spartans’ constitution, lifestyle and education, Spartan women, helots and (briefly, but intriguingly) the later reception of Sparta.
With deceptive ease, B. guides his readers not just across well-trodden ground but sometimes to unexpected vantage points from where he can challenge orthodox views. Thus, for example, he questions accepted wisdom regarding the helots, the origin of their enslavement and the nature of their relationship with their masters; regarding Spartan military training and the role of the Perioikoi in the army (did they wear the Spartan ‘uniform’ of red cloaks to make them indistinguishable from the homoioi?); and regarding Sparta’s relationship with coined money (certainly not banned by Lycurgus, who lived well before it was invented). He raises tantalising possibilities, such as that the lack of impressive public buildings, well known from Thucydides’ comparison of Spartan architecture with that of Athens, might be because they were destroyed in the earthquake of 464 BC and not subsequently rebuilt. And he furnishes intriguing statistics, not least for the average calorie intake of both men (perhaps 6,429 per day, as many as modern Olympians in training) and women (possibly ‘as much as 3,446 calories daily, considerably more than the 2,434 calories considered appropriate for a “very active” female today’). Equally of interest is his ‘snapshot’ of Sparta’s enduring legacy from Roman times to today, when Leonidas’ famous response to Xerxes’ demand that he surrender his weapons (molon labe, ‘come and get ‘em’) has become the unofficial slogan of the US National Rifle Association, and the insult ‘oik’ may be an ‘adaption of perioikoi by wealthy boys at English fee-paying public schools to describe the locals who lived around them’.
Of course, one can always quibble. Given its use on the poster for 300, B. is not afraid to gloss Hades as ‘hell’ (‘Tonight we dine in hell’), but for many of the intended readership this might be misleading, while others more familiar with Sparta might wish for more on her place in geo-politics—the reasons for her intervention in Samos and her non–intervention in Ionian Revolt, her relationship with the Peloponnesian League or Persia (during and after the Peloponnesian War), or her determination to atone at Thermopylae for her humiliation in not making it to Marathon. But to do so would simply be to cavil. At 18.5 by 13 cm (the perfect size for the pocket or military haversack) The Spartans punches above its weight, and with 14 black-and-white illustrations (including two maps), references, suggestions for further reading and an index, it’s a knockout. Anyone interested in Sparta should read it, and every school library should own it.