‘A passionate, almost fanatical attachment to competition’

Utopia, too, acquired a bad name in the 20th century, but in principle, the principle of hope that things can be and will be made to be better, it’s not in my opinion as bad a place as all that. In any case, it’s not only for what intellectuals and others have made of Sparta that Sparta remains a choice subject of study. It is also for what the Spartans really did achieve, most conspicuously and effectively on the battlefield during the Persian Wars of 480-479 BC. One of the most polemical of polemicists among my fellow historians of ancient Greece is the Californian Victor Davis Hanso – appropriately enough, since he’s also a leading polemologist, a historian of warfare in its total social setting. One of his most recent books came out, with uncanny prescience, shortly before the September 11 catastrophe. Its title, in its US incarnation, was in every sense striking enough: «Carnage and Culture.» But the title that Hanson himself had wanted was suppressed for the original US edition, though it was permitted for the British publication that followed, almost immediately after Sept 11: «Why the West Has Won.» For some readers and reviewers, that was simply too triumphalist, not to mention implicitly ethnocentric, if not even racist. But on his own terms Hanson, in my view, did a pretty good job of setting out not only why and how the victors won the various climactic battles he studies, from antiquity to modern times, but also why and how it matters, culturally and spiritually, that they did so. Suicidal but heroic Hanson began with the Greeks and the Persian Wars, though Thermopylae was not one of his examples, because it was a defeat for the West. Against that omission I would argue that Thermopylae was a vital and integral part of the eventual total Greek victory, a victory that would not have been attained but for the Spartans. Had it not been for the remarkably successful organization of their society into a well-oiled military machine, and their diplomatic development of a rudimentary multi-state Greek alliance, well before the Persians came to Greece, there would have been no core of military leadership around which any Greek resistance could coalesce. Had it not been for the Spartans’ suicidal but heroic stand at Thermopylae, which showed that the Persians could be resisted, it is unlikely that the small, wavering and incohesive force of patriotic Greeks would have had the nerve to imagine that they might one day win. And, thirdly, but for charismatic Spartan commanders of the character and caliber of King Leonidas and Regent Pausanias, behind whom they could unite, the Greek land forces would have been critically weakened. Had the Greek resisters lost in 480-479, and if the Persians had absorbed the Greeks of the mainland as well as of the Aegean islands and the western Asiatic seaboard into their far-flung empire, the ensuing Greek civilization would have been immeasurably different from and, most would say, inferior to what actually did evolve in the fifth and fourth centuries. What, then, was it that the Spartans brought to the Greek cultural feast, beyond playing a vital role in winning the war that made it possible at all? Is it possible, plausibly, to defend the claim that Sparta was anything more than a society dedicated to the infliction of terror and violence? I think it is, and I shall try to convince you of that too. Different interpreters stress different aspects of the classical Greek cultural achievement, in order to emphasize either those aspects that they find most admirable and imitable, or the ones that they personally consider to have been the most influential on subsequent cultures of the European, or more broadly Western, tradition. I myself would privilege three qualities or characteristics above all as characterizing the civilization of ancient Greece: first, a devotion to competition in all its forms, almost for its own sake; second, a devotion to a concept and ideal of freedom; and, third, a capacity for almost limitless self-criticism. The first two qualities or characteristics might be identified equally strongly in either of the two main exemplars of ancient Greek civilization, Sparta and Athens. The third, however, self-criticism, was a distinctively, indeed peculiarly Athenian cultural trait and apparently not a Spartan trait at all – or so contemporary Athenians liked to claim, and many have subsequently agreed. Pericles, for example, in Thucydides’s version of his Funeral Speech, sneered at Sparta’s merely state-imposed courage; Demosthenes asserted that it was forbidden to Spartans even to criticize their laws, and it is undoubtedly the case that there was no Spartan equivalent of either the tragic or the comic drama competitions which provided the Athenians with two annual state-sponsored opportunities for self-examination and self-criticism. On the other hand, the Spartans were not quite the unhesitatingly obedient automatons that Athenian patriotic propaganda made them out to be. On occasion, grumbling might turn into open defiance of authority, both individually and collectively. Even Spartan kings, who were perched at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of birth, wealth and prestige, might be brought low, by being tried and fined – or, worse, exiled under sentence of death. It would therefore be fairer and more accurate, I think, to say that the Spartans’ culture was not one that favored, let alone encouraged, open dissent or intellectual argument in the Agora or any other place of public assembly. All Greeks, probably, were passionately keen on a good contest. Their word for competitiveness, agônia, has given us our word «agony,» and that etymological connection well suggests the intense, driven quality of ancient Greek competition. A war was a contest for them, obviously enough, as was a public debate. But so also was a lawsuit, and so too was any religious festival that involved, centrally or otherwise, athletic or other sorts of competition – a festival such as the Olympics, for example. It was in fact the Greeks ultimately who invented our idea of athletic sports, just as they invented the prototype of our idea of the theater, and both of them within a context of religiously based competition. The Spartans yielded to no other Greeks in their passionate, almost fanatical attachment to competition: They even made the very act of survival at birth a matter of public competition. Likewise, adult status for Spartan males could be achieved only as the outcome of the series of largely physical competitive tests that constituted the unique education or group socialization known as the Agoge or Upbringing. Finally, to become a full adult Spartan in terms of political standing and participation, the attainment of citizenship status was made dependent on passing a final acceptance test: admission by competitive election to a communal dining group or mess, at the age of 20. Those who failed any of those educational or citizenship tests were consigned to a limbo of exclusion, of non-belonging, to permanent outsider status. (1) Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, former chairman of the Faculty of Classics in the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Clare College. Above are excerpts from the Runciman Lecture he gave in London on February 6, 2003.