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How Sparta differed from traditional Greek norms

As for the general Greek passion for freedom, it was said by a contemporary ancient writer that in Sparta there were to be found both the most free people in Greece and the most unfree. By the most free, he meant the Spartans themselves or, more precisely, the Spartan master class, who were freed by the compulsory labor of their enslaved work force from the necessity of performing any productive labor whatsoever, apart from warfare. By the most unfree he meant the Helots. These Greek people, as noted earlier, were treated with unusual severity as a conquered population. This treatment at first puzzled and later deeply disturbed the more sensitive Greek observers of the Spartan scene. Plato, for example, remarked that the Helot system was the most controversial example of servitude in all Greece. This controversy was heightened in Plato’s adult lifetime, when, in the aftermath of a decisive defeat of Sparta by the Boeotians at Leuktra in 371, the larger portion of the Helots, the Messenians, finally achieved their longed-for collective freedom and established themselves as free Greek citizens of the restored (as they saw it) free city of Messene. Yet the Spartans were by no means untypical, let alone unique, among the ancient Greeks in seeing no incompatibility between their freedom and the un-freedom of their servile class. Competitiveness, freedom Those two aspects of Spartan culture and society – competitiveness and contested notions of freedom – almost by themselves make Sparta worthy of our continued cultural interest and historical study, but they far from exhaust Sparta’s fascination. Consider further the following, more or less well-attested Spartan social customs or practices: institutionalized pederasty between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the framework of the compulsory state-run educational cycle; athletic sports, including wrestling, practiced officially – and allegedly in the nude – by teenage girls; the public insulting and humiliation of bachelors by married women at an annual religious festival; polyandry (wives with more than one husband each); and wife-sharing without incurring the opprobrium or legal guilt of adultery. One common factor runs through much of this: the unusual (indeed, by Greek and indeed most pre-modern standards, unique) functions, status and behavior of the female half of the Spartan citizen population, the women of Sparta, evidence for whom is sufficiently plentiful, but also sufficiently controversial, to have provoked an entire recent book on them – one of many modern studies prepared to speak of «feminism» there. We should, I think, take at least some of this evidence, especially where the ideological or propagandistic intention is blatant, with a dose of salt. Our written sources, besides, are exclusively male and almost entirely non-Spartan. Nevertheless, we may safely infer that Sparta really was, in certain vital respects, seriously different, even alien, from the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse. And that really does make Sparta perpetually worth studying not only by historians but also by comparative cultural anthropologists and sociologists, among others. Herodotus, the Father of Anthropology as well as of History, declared famously that he agreed with the Theban lyric poet Pindar that «custom was king,» in the sense that every human group believes that its own customs are not only relatively better than those of others but absolutely the best possible. With the customs of Sparta, in which he took a special interest, Herodotus was on to a winner. Here is just one illustration, taken from the seventh book of his «Histories.» Shortly before the epic conflict at Thermopylae, it was reported to Great King Xerxes by his spies that the Spartans were combing and styling their – exceptionally – long hair. He simply refused to believe that men who coiffed their tresses like women before fighting would make serious opponents in the field. Or rather, in the case of Thermopylae, would put their lives on the line in the certain knowledge that they were going to be killed. Yet that that was indeed what lay behind the Spartans’ decision to send a specially selected task force of 300 Spartans under King Leonidas to Thermopylae in 480 is proven, both by the way they in fact fought and died but also by the fact that the men chosen all had to have a living son, so as to prevent their family lines from dying out – in other words, after their own assured deaths. Self-sacrificial spirit That interpretation of their mission as suicidal self-sacrifice is supported further by another story in Herodotus, related significantly not long before he tells the story of Thermopylae. In the runup to the Persian invasion of 480, the Spartans considered how they might try to persuade Xerxes to call it off. Some years earlier, they had killed a herald sent to them by Xerxes’ father, Darius. Being a very pious people, they thought that Xerxes’ invasion was at least in part heaven’s way of punishing them for this sacrilege of killing a person whose office invested him with sacrosanctity. So they conceived the idea of making atonement to Xerxes, and of sending two Spartans to be killed by him as twofold restitution and compensation for the murder of the single Persian emissary. (This notion of double restitution was a well-established part of Greek judicial thinking and practice.) The two noble (in more senses than one) Spartan citizens they sent were volunteers, who had come forward after the Spartans had, exceptionally, held a string of public assemblies precisely for the purpose of discovering who would be willing to die for the cause. Call the Spartans naive – certainly, that was what Xerxes thought them. But the spirit of self-sacrifice for a larger cause, in this case, the good of all Greece, not just of Sparta, shines out from the episode. ‘Go, tell the Spartans’ Xerxes did of course invade and eventually, after stiff resistance, force the pass of Thermopylae. The epigram written by Simonides to hymn the heroic Spartan dead begins, famously, «Go, tell the Spartans…» That phrase was borrowed, aptly enough, for the title of a Vietnam War movie, and the mark Thermopylae has made on popular culture is attested also by the correspondence generated by Steven Pressfield’s epic novel of Thermopylae, «Gates of Fire,» readable on amazon.com (including messages from Korean War as well as Vietnam War veterans). As if we needed it, that evidence is enough by itself to confirm that the heroic ideal of military self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s country is still alive and well, in the States, at least. The Simonides epigram continues: «… stranger passing by / That here obedient to their laws we lie.» The laws of Sparta were unusually rigorous and rigid. But another emblematic passage of Herodotus, I think, makes clear how that last clause of the epigram is supposed to be read – that is, as illustrating how obedience to the laws was a characteristically Greek civic quality and, moreover, a quality that the Spartans embodied and acted upon to the full. The passage in question purports to relate one of the several conversations between Great King Xerxes of Persia and one of his advisers, a Greek, and so formally a traitor, and yet more relevantly a Spartan, and, most relevantly of all, a deposed Spartan king, ex-King Demaratus. Of course, the conversation is entirely fictional, which makes it all the more significant as propaganda or as value-judgment. Xerxes, as we have seen, cannot believe that the Spartans will actually stand up to him when put to the test. Demaratus reassures him that they will, for this reason: that they fear the Law more even than Xerxes’ subjects fear him. But there is this key difference in kind between the two fears: The Spartans had a choice, a free choice. They made their laws and they chose to obey them – they were not compelled by sheer terror or force to obey the arbitrary and lawless whim of a human despot or autocrat. That, certainly, was a biased, ethnocentric judgment on the part of Herodotus. But it also, I would argue, contains an essential truth about the ancient Greeks as a whole and not least the Spartans. To conclude: The ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae still resonates today. It is the ideal concept that there are some values that are worth dying for, as well as living for. That notion, however, to return to my starting point, can be a two-edged sword. When taken in a destructive and self-destructive direction, as by fundamentalist suicide-bombers, it can be wholly repellent. But when developed in the direction taken by the Spartans and their founder-lawgiver Lycurgus, it can generate ideals of communal cooperation and self-sacrifice that qualify properly and justly for the honorific label of utopia. Utopia Utopia, as the coiner of the word, Thomas More, knew full well, is formally ambiguous. It can mean either «No-Where» or «Place of Well-Faring.» Now, I confess that the news from the Spartan Nowhere is not necessarily all good: A recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, featuring my recent Sparta book and TV series, was introduced editorially as follows: «They hurled babies into ravines and culled their work force yearly. Historian Paul Cartledge thinks we could learn a thing or two from those Spartans.» Yes, well… Even so: I’d still like to think, and like you to think, that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be too bad a place to be – minus, of course, the exposure of infants and the existence of Helots.