Before we get into the books on Sparta you’re recommending, I’d like to ask a couple of preliminary questions. I realised, when I started thinking about this interview, that I know very little about Sparta—beyond the clichés about the austerity of its cultural life and its militarism. When was the period of classical Sparta’s greatness and did it overlap with that of Athens?
The classical period is 500 BC to 323 BC. In that sense, Sparta exists at the same time as classical Athens, but the period of Spartan greatness is from around 500 BC through to 370 BC. It’s overlapping with that period of Athenian greatness, but Spartan power peters out while Athens keeps going strong for another fifty years.
Given Sparta’s reputation as this brutally harsh martial society: were there very obvious social, political, economic or even geographical factors that produced that society?
That’s a thesis-worthy question. The standard answer, until quite recently, was that the Spartans conquered the Helots and then turned themselves into a militarized society to protect themselves against the threat from the Helots. But the latest scholarly agreement is actually pushing the date for this austere (for want of a better word) Spartan regime down to only a generation before the Persian Wars—which is several generations after the conquest of the Helots. So, that older explanation cannot work in the way that it used to be thought to work.
At some point in time, the Spartans made a decision to behave the way they did, but it doesn’t seem to be anything to do with the Helot threat, unless they suddenly experienced a threat that is not recorded anywhere. It’s not geographical, in the sense that no one else in the Peloponnese develops a reputation for that type of behaviour. The closest I can think of were the Argives, who had a similar reputation for brevity of speech, which could be some sort of geographical-cultural thing—they’re both Dorian Greeks. But the Spartans seem to be what has been called a ‘hyper-version’ of other Greek city states, where certain behavioural patterns were amplified.
So, it’s a question of degree, rather than Spartans being total outliers, culturally.
Yes, and something that’s increasingly unravelling in modern scholarship is the idea of the Spartans as the ‘radical other’. All the cornerstones of Spartan ‘otherness’ are being chipped away at and taken down. There’s not much holding that together anymore. That’s where I think the word ‘hyper’ is coming from, instead of ‘other’. Spartan society is an overblown version of what was somewhat normal elsewhere in Greece. They’re being ‘normalized’, to an extent, in some modern scholarship.
One more question before we get to the books, which will lead us into Herodotus: Athens has lots of very well-known sources: poets, philosophers, historians and playwrights whom the historian can consult and mine for information. Some of those Athenians deal with Sparta, too. But is there any homegrown literature or documents from which you can understand the history of Sparta? As a historian, how do you gather your raw material?
You have to follow a methodological approach that most modern historians don’t like. You can’t just say, ‘All right, we’ll find the Spartan narrative about the Spartans’ because there isn’t one. We’ve got 7th century poetry in fragmentary form written by Spartans—Alcman and Tyrtaeus. But there were question marks even in Antiquity as to whether those two poets were actually Spartan. Later legend had it that Alcman was from Lydia in Asia Minor and an increasingly elaborate legend grew up that Tyrtaeus was actually an Athenian schoolmaster who went to Sparta. Some of the sources are bizarre. In later ones, Tyrtaeus becomes blind or one-eyed, and mad with a limp. He becomes less and less like an ideal Spartan, because later writers couldn’t believe that the Spartans could have produced quality poets.
Beyond those 7th century sources, you don’t really have anything surviving until the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. And again, those are fragmentary sources being quoted three centuries after the fact, so there isn’t a nice Spartan narrative there.
“Sparta seems quite unusual in just how stratified a society it is”
They were famously averse to writing things down. They would have hated me because I use way too many words. Isocrates, the Athenian writer, said that they didn’t know their numbers. The stereotype about the Spartans is that they’re innumerate and illiterate. So, we can’t go to Spartan sources and because Spartans don’t produce works of art there isn’t much archaeological evidence to play with either.
There’s that wonderful statement at the beginning of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War where he says that if, in the future, anyone went to Sparta, and only the foundations of temples and public buildings survived, they’d never believe that Sparta was in any way important; but that, if they went to Athens, they’d think Athens had been twice as powerful as it was. In Sparta we’re dealing with very ‘spartan’ people and a dearth of sources.
That’s a very un-Spartan answer, in terms of its wordiness.
Is there an obvious reason why they had this aversion to art and writing? You seem to suggest that not writing things down was a choice.
Yes. They’re very secretive. The idea often put forward is that they deliberately didn’t write things down. They hid the way they did things so that outsiders couldn’t know what they were like. As a result, the sources we’re reading, because they’re written by outsiders, have that big question mark about them. Are they telling us what the Spartans were really like? Or what the Spartans wanted them to think they were like? Or what they wanted the Spartans to be like because they were this romantic other?
And would Spartan Greek and Athenian Greek have been mutually intelligible?
Yes. They’re different dialects, but they wouldn’t have struggled to understand each other. And most of their near neighbours were speaking the same dialect as them. There wasn’t a linguistic barrier, it’s more of a behavioural one.
Let’s move on to the books you’ve chosen about Sparta. First up is Herodotus’s Histories. They cover the Greek struggle against the Persians, but they’re much wider than that. Can you give us a sense of the general context of the Histories and how he talks about Sparta within that?
All Greek history starts with Herodotus and more than that, all history starts with Herodotus. He’s the first extant, intact historian of any kind and our word ‘history’ comes from his word for ‘inquiry’— historia. Herodotus is the beginning of history and he set out to record what he called the ‘great achievements’ of Greeks and non-Greeks. He decided he would describe the Persian Wars, from the conquest of the Greeks of Asia Minor by the Persians in about 540 BC through to the Greek victory over Xerxes in 479 BC.
But he goes off on all sorts of geographical and chronological tangents, so that there’s so much more going on than the narrative of the war. He has an interesting reputation in terms of reliability. He is sometimes called the ‘father of history’, but Cicero called him the ‘father of lies’ because there are just so many weird and wonderful stories. My personal favourite is in Book Three. He’s talking about the Persians and he describes how, at the court of the Persian king, there are giant gold-digging ants. Obviously, there are no giant gold-digging ants. One possible explanation for this is that he mixed up the Persian words for ants and marmots. There’s a French ethnographer who was doing work in the Himalayas and discovered that the marmots there, while digging into the ground, dug up gold dust and the locals harvested the gold afterwards. It’s a really weird story, but it’s possible that Herodotus was slightly right. But I think that puts Herodotus in perspective for you.
The reason I’ve chosen him for Sparta and the Spartans is because he’s the first surviving author who describes the Spartans for us. He doesn’t just talk about them in the Persian Wars, he actually introduces us to the Spartans and tells us about their practices, the different ways their society works and its historical origins. He travelled to Sparta, as well, probably around 450 BC, which makes him quite special for us as a primary source. That’s a generation after the Battle of Thermopylae, but he talked to people who were around at the time and, obviously, when it comes to the Spartans, the first thing anyone really thinks of is the Battle of Thermopylae. Herodotus is our first proper narrative account of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Is he the founder of the story of Sparta as this tremendously austere martial race, or does he have a slightly more nuanced view of them?
His vision of the Spartans is very much of that austere, militarized society that has made its way into popular culture. He’s the one who gives us that wonderful line, that when the Spartans were told there were so many Persian archers that the sky would go dark Dienekes said, ‘Good, we’ll fight in the shade’. There are a lot of other wonderful one-liners from Spartans, illustrating their blunt dislike of foreigners, their pushy women and their strange practices. That’s all quite prominent in Herodotus’s account of the Spartans.
He’s a wonderful source for Sparta because he talks about the Spartans when he’s just talking about events in Sparta itself and, as well as the Battle of Thermopylae, he also describes the Spartans at the Battle of Plataea, the following summer, when they defeat the Persians. There are a lot of snippets about Sparta in Herodotus’s account.
Presumably, in the fight against the Persians, the Athenians and the Spartans were in an alliance, along with all the other Greek cities. Don’t they have to fight alongside each other? Thermopylae was just the Spartans, but most of the time they were having to organize themselves collectively, right?
Yes. Thermopylae was fought by the Spartans plus the Peloponnesian and some Central Greeks as well. The Athenians were, at that stage, occupied with the fleet at the Battle of Artemisium, which popular culture versions of the story tend to leave out.
There are a lot of interesting exchanges between the Spartans and the Athenians in Herodotus’s account. In the summer after the Athenian-led naval victory at Salamis, which was a few months after the Battle of Thermopylae, the Athenians send an embassy to Sparta saying, ‘You’re going to come and lead us to war against the Persians now, aren’t you?’ And the Spartans are spectacularly rude to them, to the point where the Athenians started to really get unhappy with them. And then, finally, the Spartans get their act together and send out a massive army, but they do so in a peculiarly secret way: they send 40,000 men out after dark. And then, when the Athenian ambassador makes one last attempt to encourage the Spartans to fight and lead them in the war, they say, ‘Our army’s already gone, as far as we know’, and the Athenians are left completely confused by this reply.
Herodotus gives us a lot of messages about the weirdness of the Spartans and the tension of their relationship with the Athenians, even though they are allies against the Persians. There is a sense that the Spartans are being very self-interested.
But the Athenians also naturally assume they will take the leadership in military campaigns, is that right?
It was part of the deal that the Spartans were chosen by the rest of the Greeks to be the leaders on land and sea. So, even though the Athenians effectively won the Battle of Salamis at sea, there was a Spartan admiral in overall command of the fleet. Herodotus says the other Greeks refused to serve under Athenian leadership, which is an interesting statement.
I have it in my head that Herodotus was an Athenian, but he was born in Halicarnassus, what is now Bodrum. Would he have thought of himself as an Athenian?
Not an Athenian, but he spent time in Athens and knew Athens well. There is a scholarly line of thought that Herodotus’s story of the Persian Wars is quite Athenian-leaning. For instance, he tells dodgy stories about the Corinthians at the Battle of Salamis—that there was scuttlebutt, according to the Athenians, that the Corinthians ran away. Herodotus says that no one else agrees with the story and it’s not true, but he still tells it.
You mentioned earlier that he was the origin of stories about Spartan women being pushy. What did he mean by that?
Herodotus tells us a series of stories about Leonidas’s wife, Gorgo, and how she’s politically active, even when she’s only eight or nine years old, advising her father, King Cleomenes—Leonidas’s half-brother whom Leonidas succeeded when Cleomenes went mad. There’s one episode where a Greek from Asia Minor goes to Sparta to ask for help against the Persians. Once he realizes how far Persia is away from Sparta, Cleomenes is not interested. The next day the same man comes back as a suppliant and says, ‘Can you get rid of your daughter, I want to talk to you properly’. Cleomenes says, ‘No’, and leaves his eight or nine-year-old daughter there. The Greek from Asia Minor starts trying to bribe Cleomenes and keeps offering him larger and larger sums of money until Gorgo says, ‘Daddy, get rid of this foreigner. He’s going to corrupt you.’
Herodotus says that Cleomenes was delighted with her response and then ran out of the room. So Gorgo is quite prominent in Herodotus’s account, and at least one modern scholar suggests that Gorgo might have been one of the lost sources for Sparta because he’s got so many Gorgo stories. She would have been alive in Sparta when he visited the city. It would be nice if that was the case, but I wouldn’t want to stake my reputation on it.
What does Herodotus say about the city of Sparta, when he actually visits the place?
He doesn’t describe it in a way that we’d like him to describe it. Thucydides describes it as unimpressive physically, but Herodotus doesn’t go into those sorts of details. He’s more focused on telling you about what’s going on in Sparta and who talks to who—that kind of thing. He doesn’t even say he saw the monument with the names of the 300 on it. He says he learned their names and a later travel writer says that the Spartans had a monument set up with the names of the 300 on it. So it would make sense that that’s what Herodotus saw, but he doesn’t say, ‘I stood there and looked at the monument’. He’s a bit vague on some of those details.
I suppose that supports Thucydides’s case. If he didn’t bother to mention anything about the physical characteristics of the place, perhaps they really were that unimpressive.
Yes. Maybe there wasn’t much to see.
Let’s move on to Paul Cartledge’s Spartan Reflections. This is a considerably more contemporary book about Sparta. Why have you chosen this one?
For starters, I couldn’t really talk about five books about Sparta and not mention something by Paul Cartledge, because he is the doyen of the discipline. I could have chosen his Sparta and Lakonia: a Regional History 1300-362 BC, which came out in 1979 and was reprinted in 2002. I could have talked about Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, which came out in 1987. I could have talked about one of his popular books, The Spartans: an Epic History or Thermopylae: the Battle that Changed the World. I went for this one because it’s one that has been put together based on book chapters and journal articles written over the course of his career, but with some tweaks and additions. It’s written by someone who began their career in the late 70s, and who, by the time this volume was put together, had really had a chance to have his say and then start to respond to some of the reactions his work had produced over the years.
Every important topic is covered in this volume. You’ve got women, you’ve got Spartan literacy, government, archaeology, Hoplites, warfare, education, pederasty—a notorious topic. They’re all in manageable portions. So, if someone wants a book that will give them a detailed expert discussion of different aspects of Spartan society, this is it.
What does it do for the Spartan cliché? I’m assuming it nuances it in some interesting ways or in particular areas, perhaps?
Yes, definitely. And I think because the chapters have their origins right back in the 1970s, you can see how much things have changed over time. He’s been able to reflect on changes in attitudes that we, as academics, have had towards Sparta over the years. There’s been a real sea change in Spartan studies since the late 1980s, and you can see his response to that in different ways.
Was Spartan culture or political organization influential beyond Sparta in the way that Athenian culture was?
Yes, it was. One of the things that always fascinates me in the early modern period is that Sparta was often put forward by thinkers of the day as a model for democracy. Athens was, for some thinkers, too radical a role model, whereas in Sparta citizenship was linked to owning quite a serious amount of land and being men of substance. Yes, Sparta had kings and a citizens’ assembly, but ultimately there was a ruling aristocracy that kept them both in check. Because of that system of checks and balances, Sparta was a role model for a type of moderate democracy. That was very much the case in the ancient world, as well. For every thinker in Athens who thought democracy was great, there was another one who thought that Athens should be more like Sparta. Over time that debate has continued, although I don’t think many people today would dare to advocate Sparta as a model for modern democracy.
One of the areas where the reputation of Athenian democracy has been rather tainted recently is that, although it boasted quite a radical form of democracy, Athenian society also used slavery, which—quite rightly—makes it unpopular these days. Was Sparta a slave society as well?
Absolutely, yes. Popular culture constantly leaves out the Helots. They are not actually very often referred to as slaves in the primary sources, but they were servile labourers and that was why Sparta could produce the type of men whom Herodotus describes at the Battle of Thermopylae. Spartan citizens were landowning gentlemen who had the leisure time to devote to the types of practices that would enable them to be elite warriors because they had other people doing the work for them. Sparta is not a great role model in that regard, to say the least.
And were the Helots a conquered people who were enslaved, so they weren’t part of the Spartan ‘race’?
The tradition was that the first Helots were the local indigenous population of Lakonia, who were conquered by the Spartans. The Spartans then conquered their neighbours in Messenia and enslaved them too. The Messenians were said to be the Spartans’ Dorian cousins, who had come with them to the Peloponnese with the returning children of Heracles—that was the myth. The Helots are often referred to as serfs. They are unfree labour and there’s no way of getting around that. There have been some suggestions recently that the helots may not have been conquered pre-Spartan populations, but that’s something that’s going to be debated for some time.
But the tradition in the primary sources is that the Spartans had enslaved their neighbours and Herodotus actually tells us that they tried to enslave their nearest neighbours, the Tegeans, about 100 years before the Persian Wars and they failed to do so. The fact that they were thought likely to have tried it again suggests that no one in ancient Greece thought that it was implausible that they’d done this already with the Lakonian and Messenian Helots.
Was there much societal or economic development over this period of Sparta’s greatness? Do they fundamentally remain the same sort of societies in terms of their social and economic basis throughout this period?
Sparta doesn’t change much in the Classical period. The rules are that to be a citizen you have to have a certain amount of land and you need the Helots to work that for you. They were all members of a common mess and they required to bring in a certain amount of food to that mess each year. If they defaulted on that, they would be effectively relegated from citizenship. There’s a status of ‘inferior’ that we suddenly hear about in the early 4th century, and it’s obvious that it’s been a problem at some point in time in the 5th century, as well.
“These days, the standard line of thought in Spartan scholarship is that if something is only in one of the later sources, we worry about its reliability”
Athens is different in how it works. In Athens citizens can be staggeringly wealthy or dirt poor. In Sparta only wealthy men can be citizens. Sparta seems quite unusual in just how stratified a society it is. There are other societies where there are servile workers, and Athens is no different in that way. But the idea that there’s a citizen class, ruling over this ethnic slave class makes Sparta quite unusual. The only obvious comparatives are Thessaly in central Greece and Heraclia Pontica, a Greek city on the Black Sea. Sparta is not entirely unique but it’s very different from the norm.
And would the Spartan citizens have been a minority?
Absolutely. The highest figure we’re ever given for Spartan citizens is 9,000 or 10,000. The latest suggestion from modern experts has been that, even as far back as the Persian Wars, there may have been only 6,000 or 7,000 Spartan citizens. As for the Helot population, we’re never told enough for anyone to be really confident about it, but the modern estimates range from 75,000 to 150,000, so they massively outnumber their masters. One number that is either really useful or just completely made up is given by Herodotus, who says that at the battle of Plataea the Spartans sent 5,000 citizens and seven Helots to accompany every one of their citizens. If nothing else, that tells you that the Helots were definitely perceived as massively outnumbering their masters.
That’s a huge percentage of the entire population going to war.
Yes, if there were only 6,500 or 7,000 Spartan citizens, that 5,000 is pretty much all men of military age. The lowest modern estimates of adult male Helots come out at about 45,000. So 35,000 is almost all of them. If these figures are right, then this is significant, to say the least.
Let’s move on to the next of the books you’ve picked about Sparta which is Sarah Pomeroy’s Spartan Women. Again, the old cliché is that they used to expose their children on the hillside, which I’m pretty sure is nonsense. What was the reality?
There seems to be a very big difference in the lifestyles of Spartan girls and mature Spartan women. The stereotype of the girls is that they were outside a lot, which is very unlike most other Greek women. The Athenian sources that spend so much time telling us about them say they were scantily clad, muscular and tanned. They were basically everything that an Athenian girl wasn’t.
There’s a strong emphasis on their visual appeal to men. There’s lots of mention in the primary sources of men ogling the Spartan girls when they’re out. There is a culture of fat-shaming. It cuts both ways, because the girls get to sing songs teasing the boys who aren’t brave or manly enough. So, the girls are very visible and audible.
For women, some of our sources suggest their lifestyle was much more constrained. They weren’t allowed to wear jewellery or their hair long. Some sources suggest that when they were married their hair was shaved off. They were veiled, like their Athenian counterparts. There are recorded sayings about Spartan women being veiled and girls unveiled. And the response to the question why this was the case was that girls need to find a husband, but wives need to keep one. The suggestion is that Spartan women were not necessarily as free and liberated as the behaviour of the girls might suggest.
And that’s why I chose Sarah Pomeroy’s book, because Spartan women are so important and this is the only full-scale monograph devoted to them. It was an obvious choice.
And are there any archaeological or Spartan sources—among the few Spartan sources you mentioned—that deal with the topic of women, or is it is all outside in?
There’s a little bit. The surviving fragments from the poet Alcman, who I mentioned earlier, include choral songs that would have been sung by girls, unmarried maidens. There are lots of descriptions of the beauty of the Spartan girls and lots of horsey metaphors and also lots of references to gold and silver, which clash with the idea of Spartan austerity. One of the old solutions to that was that Alcman predates Spartan austerity, but that doesn’t necessarily work in terms of chronology. There are some archaeological materials—quite a few bronze figurines of Spartan girls dancing or running and bronze mirrors and other artefacts.
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
But most of the sources are outsiders and often quite late. There are the sayings of the Spartan women recorded by Plutarch, a writer of the Roman period. They are a wonderful source of information about Spartan women, but they’re so late that there is a big question mark hanging over their word-for-word reliability. It’s more a case of being able to take the tone of the sayings, rather than their actual wording.
How were Spartan mothers involved in the education of their children? I’m particularly wondering about the creation of this very martial race. To what extent were women seen as having a crucial role in developing that martial spirit? Or was it considered important to get the boys away from female influence in case they became a bit soft?
The sayings reveal mothers who would not have made their boys soft. Many of the sayings of Spartan women are coercing their sons, telling them off for having behaved badly. Several of them relate to mothers actually killing their sons for having shown cowardice. In one story a Spartan boy comes home from the wars and his mother asks, ‘How did the Spartans fare?’ He says, ‘Everyone was killed.’ She says, ‘Everyone?’, and then kills him by beating him with a roof tile.
Plutarch records an epigram he’d seen, which said that a boy had been justly killed by his mother for being a coward and not following Spartan laws. And my personal favourite, scary Spartan mother is the one who lifts up her dress and asks her cowardly son, ‘Do you want to crawl back in here where you came from?’ There are a bunch of these stories and they’re not just directed against their sons. There’s a Spartan woman who rebukes her brother for not being manly enough. There is a sense that Spartan women were policing male behaviour.
Helen of Troy was Spartan, wasn’t she?
Yes. She is Helen of Sparta really. She’s the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, who was abducted, or chooses to go to Troy, depending which version of the story you follow. Helen is worshipped as a goddess in Sparta. She has a sanctuary in Sparta. Herodotus tells us a wonderful story of a girl who grew up to be the most beautiful woman in all of Sparta, but she was born very very, ugly, so much so that her parents were ashamed of her appearance. Her nursemaid took her to the sanctuary of Helen every day and then, one day, this mysterious woman appeared and touched the girl’s face and she turned into the most beautiful woman in all Sparta. This was obviously the goddess Helen touching her and transforming her into a Helen-like beauty.
And is this story about them exposing their children nonsense?
Probably. There are a few experts who would still say they were happy with that story. But these days most would argue that it’s unlikely. There are a couple of places in Lakonia that have been identified as possible places for the site where children were exposed. There’s this really weird cave on the road between Sparta and Kalamata. The road sign calls it ‘the place of rejection’, and human remains have been found at the bottom. But they were random human remains, not just those of babies.
It’s a very romantic-sounding story—for want of a better term—but it’s only mentioned by Plutarch, who was writing 500 years after the Persian Wars. If it was true before then, it’s surprising that no one else has mentioned it.
But the reason it was claimed they did this was just because the children were feeble in some way?
Yes. It was alleged that they were bathed in wine and if they behaved poorly in some way, then they were exposed. Plutarch use the words ‘weak and puny’ but then Agesilaus, the 4th century King of Sparta, was famously lame. So, he either disproves the rule, or an exception was made because he was a prince. Or, maybe, they didn’t notice that he was lame. These days, the standard line of thought in Spartan scholarship is that if something is only in one of the later sources, we worry about its reliability. And the exposure of babies is one of the things that’s only mentioned in later sources.
It’s still likely that they would have done it in some way, shape or form. Infanticide was very much the norm in the ancient Greek world. You only have to look at the myth of Oedipus to appreciate that. But whether it was organized by the state in the way that Plutarch suggests is another matter.
Let’s move on to Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. This is a novel about Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae. Why did you choose this book for your list of books about Sparta?
I chose this because I wanted to pick a work of fiction. I could have gone for the graphic novel, Three Hundred—but it’s too clichéd. I could have gone for the graphic novel Three, which is set in the 360s and actually takes the perspective of the Helots, but I thought that was maybe a bit too obscure. So, I went for Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a full-scale novel with a Thermopylae theme, a halfway house between Three Hundred and Three.
Gates of Fire is about the Spartans and the Spartans are the heroes, but Pressfield doesn’t hide the murky part of Spartan society. The Helots are very prominent. One of the main characters is a Helot who is the bastard son of a Spartan citizen. The story is told by a foreign boy who’s made his way to Sparta and voluntarily made himself a slave of Sparta. He ends up being able to tell the story of Thermopylae because he’s at the battle as a servant for Dienekes, the ‘we’ll-fight-in-the-shade’ guy. It’s an imaginative account of the Spartans and the Spartans in Gates of Fire look a lot like US Marines, which is not that surprising when you find out that Steven Pressfield was a marine. His first book was The Legend of Bagger Vance. I saw him talking recently and he said he didn’t really have an idea for his second book and then he read Herodotus. He said that when he got to the line ‘we’ll fight in the shade’ he thought ‘I recognize these guys’, so decided he could tell the story of the Spartans based on his own background.
He did a lot of work reading secondary scholarship. He’s written a series of other books about the ancient world and a series on Alexander the Great‘s conquests of Asia. In one of them, set in Afghanistan, you can see the modern and ancient overlapping. He spent a lot of time researching with classicists. So, there’s a lot of rigour in there, while being a fictional story. And that’s one of the reasons why I chose it. It’s a really good read, but it is a really imaginative recreation of what Spartan society could have been like.
There were 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Would they have been accompanied by a multiple of that number of Helots, or was it just the 300?
Herodotus says there were 300 Spartans and then, every now and then, he mentions Helots. He mentions two Spartans being afflicted by an eye problem. Herodotus is unclear about what the eye problem is, but they’re blind on the final day and one of them decides to go home and the other one asks his Helot to lead him into the battle. His Helot takes him into the battle and then he just plunges into the mêlée and dies and the Helot runs away. So you’ve suddenly got a Helot appearing. Then, after the battle, Herodotus says that the Persian king, Xerxes, was trying to hide how many of his own men had been killed by burying them. But Herodotus then says that the Greeks who visited the site could see that a lot of the dead ‘Spartans’ were actually Helots who died alongside their masters on the final day.
“There’s been a real seachange in Spartan studies since the late 1980s”
So there’s an uncertain number of Helots at Thermopylae. One of our later sources says there were 700 perioikoi with the Spartans at Thermopylae. They are the people who sat between the Helots and the Spartans in Spartan society. Their name literally means ‘the dwellers around’. Sometimes people try and rationalize what Diodorus says and what Herodotus says and say, ‘Oh, there would have been 700 Helots.’ But Herodotus knows who the perioikoi are and it’s odd that he doesn’t mention them, if they were there. His numbers don’t quite add up. There is a gap.
How many Persians were there?
Herodotus says more than two million. An epigram set up after the battle said, ‘Here 4000 stood against three million’. Modern estimates are more like 100,000. The highest figure that no one has had a fit about is about 300,000. There’s no way of really telling. It’s lots, but not nearly as many as Herodotus said.
And some of the Spartans did get away, didn’t they?
Two Spartans got home and the allies got home as well, apart from the Thespians and the Thebans, who fought on with the Spartans on the final day. One of Spartans who got home was Pantites. He was sent away as a messenger and when he got home, he was so shamed by the others that he hanged himself. The other one was Aristodemus—the other guy with an eye problem. He was reviled as a coward. Herodotus says no one would share fire with him or even talk to him. And the next summer he fought at the Battle of Plataea and, according to Herodotus, he charged out from the ranks and died a spectacular death.
Herodotus said that all the other Greeks thought Aristodemus was the bravest, but the Spartans said he wasn’t brave because he wanted to die, which is so harsh, but you can understand their attitude. You should die in spite of wanting to live, rather than because you want to die.
What was the significance of Thermopylae? Was it instrumental in preventing the Persians taking over the Greek peninsula?
It was part of a successful defence of Greece and it certainly had an inspiration factor. Diodorus, who was writing in the first century BC and the first century AD, actually said that the men who fought and died at Thermopylae were more important and had done more for the freedom of Greece than the Greeks who won at Salamis and Plataea, because their incredible bravery in the face of overwhelming odds had inspired the Greeks. He said that every time the Persians remembered the Spartans at Thermopylae it made them quake with fear and anytime the Greeks thought of the Spartans at Thermopylae it inspired them to achieve greater things themselves. So, it’s a spectacular defeat, but a morale-inspiring one, if you want to think about it that way.
And Pressfield’s book is, among other things, a great read?
It’s a really good read. The other reason I chose it was to read it in relation to the Pomeroy book. One of the really interesting parts of his imagining of Spartan society is the prominence he gives to Spartan women and the way they behave. Spartan women know everything that’s going on in Sparta and they are happy to tell their men what to do. There’s a wonderful scene in which Leonidas explains to one of the Spartan women why he’s chosen the 300 he’s taking to Thermopylae. And he hasn’t chosen them because they’re the best men. He’s chosen them because they are husbands or sons of the women who can cope with them dying. So he’s chosen his 300 because their women are going to be strong enough to cope with them having sacrificed their lives in that way. It’s a nice portrayal of Spartan women in all of their freedom.
Was Leonidas just a general or was he the King of Sparta?
He was Agiad King of Sparta. He had come comparatively recently to the throne. His co-King was Leotychidas, whom no one ever mentions in the popular culture versions of events.
Last up of the books you’ve picked we’ve got Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta by Steve Hodkinson.
I began talking about Paul Cartledge’s book and said I couldn’t do a list of five books about Sparta without having one by Paul. I similarly couldn’t have a list of five books about Sparta without having one by Steve Hodkinson. He’s the other doyen of the discipline, if it’s possible to have two. Steve’s written and edited seemingly countless volumes on Spartan society. I chose this one because it’s his big book, but it’s also a real game-changing book.
One of the reasons I’m very happy to have chosen it is that it’s published by the Classical Press of Wales, which was founded by Anton Powell, who was another Sparta expert. Anton died just a few months ago, so it’s nice to be able to remember Anton in this conversation as well.
“Infanticide was very much the norm in the ancient Greek world”
Steve’s book is the crest of a wave that’s been sweeping over studies of Spartan society since the late 1980s, really. All the old stereotypes have been swept away by a series of studies. One of the most enduring stereotypes about Sparta was the idea that every Spartan was assigned a kleros (plot) of land at birth, once he’d survived an inspection. This book definitely debunks that idea. The idea that the Spartans were all very much against displays and wealth is something that is also completely unravelled throughout the book. It makes such a thorough examination of the literary and epigraphical sources, but also uses quantitative analysis, sociological theories and rips everything apart.
The thing I always explain to my students—when I’m talking to them about what they should be finding in this book—is the sheer deluge of evidence about wealth in Sparta. The supposedly austere Spartans don’t have wealth, but there’s wealth everywhere in Sparta and Steve really emphasizes that in this book. It’s a wonderful reappraisal of how Spartan society really operated. It’s one of those works that has just changed how we view Sparta.
When you talk about wealth, you’re not just talking about the agricultural produce of an estate that allowed Spartans to fight. You’re talking about luxury.
Yes, I’m talking about luxury. Things like horse breeding and the sheer number of Spartans—men and women—who were engaged in horse breeding. There’s really obvious evidence—not just gold and silver—for extensive wealth in Sparta. One of the comparatively minor things that comes out is that the Spartan state is levying a lot of cash fines. There’s a wonderful moment in the 360s BC when Sparta is being attacked and one of the Spartans jumps up from exercising naked, grabs his spear and charges into battle and—as reported by Plutarch—the enemy weren’t sure whether he was a god or not and that’s how he survived. But, when he comes back, the Spartan authorities gave him a prize for bravery and then fine him 1,000 drachmas, which is an absolutely staggering amount of money. It’s three years’ labour for an ordinary worker in Greece and so, for a society that supposedly doesn’t have any cash, that man was being asked to pay a lot of money.
It’s just such a thorough study. It digs into everything that we’ve got and picks out all of those pieces of evidence that run counter to the perceived view of Sparta.
The other book we were just going to give a shout-out to is edited by Anton Powell and is the Blackwell Companion to Sparta. This is a useful handbook on Sparta, right?
Yes, the only reason it didn’t make it into my top five is purely size and the finances of it. It’s 500-plus pages, two volumes. It is a snapshot of what this generation of academic experts thinks Spartan society was like. It’s got a chapter by pretty much anyone who’s written anything on Sparta, giving the latest state of play on all aspects of Spartan society. It’s got education, women, lifestyle. It’s got the myth of Lycurgus, who supposedly founded the Spartan regime. It’s got chronological coverage of Spartan history from the Archaic Period right through to the conquest by the Romans. If anyone wants to know more about Sparta and wants to really dig deep and has the time to devote themselves to it, it will have all of the answers.
And is it written like an encyclopaedia with short entries in alphabetical order, or is it more a series of essays?
It’s done in thematic chapters. It goes right through to the reception of ancient Sparta in the modern world—what people thought of the Spartans in the French Revolution, in Nazi Germany, in popular film and television, that kind of thing.
Tell us a bit about Sparta in the French Revolution and Nazi Germany.
Well, several of the leading lights of the French Revolution wanted to recreate Sparta. Robespierre and Saint-Just thought they were going to be able to radically reshape French society to be more like Sparta. They wanted to redistribute the land as Lycurgus was supposed to have done and reconstitute the government in a Spartan style.
As for the Nazis, Hitler was quite partial to Sparta’s eugenics. There was a sense that the Spartan way of doing things could be applied in the modern world. There’s a document from the 1940s that outlines a plan that said that the Germans would be the Spartans, the Poles could be the perioikoi and the Russians could be the Helots. That was how they were going to run the east of Europe. Fortunately, they didn’t get to continue their plans for a new Sparta in 20th century Europe.
When you say ‘Spartan eugenics’, are you referring to their creation of this martial race among the small group of landowners or were they into breeding humans in the way they were into horse breeding?
Hitler was talking in particular about the exposure of disabled children and said this was a wise racial policy. He approved of the brutal schooling, as well. Their idea that Spartan education could be mirrored in Germany was something that did happen. ‘Adolf Hitler schools’ were set up and they actually had a textbook that was about Sparta. It had a chapter on the Spartan war poet Tyrtaeus and his lines about how it was a beautiful thing to fight and die. This chapter was printed in extra-large font. Sparta has a murky modern history, to say the least.
Did Sparta influence British public schools in the 19th century?
There is a suggestion that Sparta influenced them. The Blackwell Companion has a chapter about the English public schools and Sparta. And many English public schools had a motto that had Sparta in it. It’s a line of Cicero—I can’t remember it exactly—but something like ‘Sparta is yours now’. [Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna]
Finally, how did this Spartan society collapse?
There’s a long collapse. The reason I said at the beginning that Spartan greatness ends in the 370s BC is that Thebes invaded Spartan territory and liberated the Messenians. So they cut Spartan territory in half and deprived them of much of their estates and their labour force. There were still Helots working on estates in Lakonia, but they basically shattered the wealth of the Spartan citizens. That reduced Spartan power quite significantly and then it declined more and more over the ensuing generations until the Roman conquest.
Did independent Greece in the 19th century, or at any time since, taken up Sparta as a particular inspiration for the modern state?
Not as an inspiration for how Greece should be. There’s a dark side in modern Greece in the veneration of Sparta by the by the far right party, Golden Dawn. They are effectively defunct as a political party now, but they had very strong Spartan leanings and held torch-lit ceremonies on the anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae and had political party songs about reclaiming Sparta’s great past.
Modern day Spartans are also proud of their past. The current mayor of Sparta has been helping to run a series of events hosted by the University of Nottingham about Sparta over the course of the lockdown. He is keen for us to see Sparta as a forerunner for republican government, which is something that commentators in the 18th century would have been happy with. Even in antiquity Polybius compared Sparta, in terms of government, to Rome and said they were very similar, in that they had a council of elder statesman and two monarchs—consuls in Rome. So, Sparta as a republican role model is not entirely unheard of.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org