Reviews: Sparta. New Perspectives

Review, The Classical Review, Vol 52, No1, 2002, pp93-95
by Nino Luranghi, Harvard University

Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell bad already put Laconophiks in their debt by two excellent cohective volumes, The Shadow of Sparta (London, 1994) and Classical Sparta: Techniques behind her Success (London, 1989, edited by P. alone). This new book is different in many ways from its two predecessors. Thematic cohesiveness has been somewhat neglected, but the range of topics and scholars brought together in the volume more than compensates for that losa For the first time, work by scholars such as Jean Ducat, Massimo Nafissi, and Nicolas Richer, all authors of major monographs on Sparta in the past decade, is available to the English reader. Perhaps even more importantly, at the congress from which this volume derives, research on Sparta has been pursued in a really international framework for the first time. One suspects that the exchange of ideas and the links forged by the congress may in the long run prove even more fruitful than this very remarkable volume...Every ancient historian should be grateful to H & P for this interesting and engaging book.

Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 36
by Michael Whitby, University of Warwick

The scholarly industry on Sparta is regularly criticised for generating new publications in inverse proportion to its progenitors' laconic reputation. There is justification, hence the importance of welcoming an initiative which has stimulated some of the best writing on Sparta over the past dozen years. Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell have, between them, organised three conferences on Sparta, originally under the auspices of the London Classical Society and now jointly through the University of Wales Institute of Classics and Ancient History and Manchester's Ancient History Seminar. Powell edited the first conference,[[1]] Powell and Hodkinson the second,[[2]] while in the third the balance has shifted to give Hodkinson priority with Duckworth rising to the challenge of matching the excellent service provided by Routledge for the first two volumes. The last conference, held in Hay-on-Wye in 1997, was conceived as a tribute to Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, the scholar who had done most over the past generation to revitalise the study of Sparta by insisting on rigorous regard for the evidence; poor health prevented de Ste. Croix's attendance, and it is a greater sadness that publication of the proceedings was followed so soon by his death. New Perspectives contains fourteen contributions, grouped into three main themes: Spartiate institutions and society, Sparta and the outside world, and representations of Spartan society, together with an introduction in which Hodkinson undertakes the difficult task of pulling threads together. Hereafter, comments on the individual offerings.

The Great Rhetra is one of the oldest of Spartan chestnuts, symbolic of the futility of traditional scholarship, and it is to Hans van Wees' credit that he suggests new ideas by approaching the Rhetra through the medium of Tyrtaeus ('Tyrtaeus' Eunomia: Nothing to do with the Great Rhetra', pp. 1-41). Van Wees argues that Tyrtaeus' poem Eunomia preceded the Rhetra, and that his eunomia which envisaged obedience to Kings and Gerousia was different from the Rhetra's eunomia which was based on limited powers for a people's assembly. I find this speculation unconvincing: Tyrtaeus upheld royal authority,[[3]] which was the position expounded in the Rhetra as modified by the so-called rider (whether, with Ogden's interesting speculation, one believes that the 'rider' is an archaic antecedent to the main Rhetra which was preserved because it contained a useful modification to the latter's espousal of popular power,[[4]] or accepts the traditional view of the rider as a qualification contemporary with or subsequent to the Rhetra). But van Wees makes several interesting observations, on Sparta's reputation for acquisitiveness even in archaic times (pp. 2f.), on the text of Tyrtaeus as preserved by Diodorus and Plutarch (pp. 7f.), or (speculatively) on the contents of the political pamphlet attributed to the exiled King Pausanias (pp. 14-22). Van Wees also suggests a new interpretation for the oracle embedded in Tyrtaeus' Eunomia, where lines 3-6 are ambiguous and corrupt: eu)qei/ais r(h/trais a)ntapameibome/nous // Muqei=sqai/ te ta\ kala\ kai\ e)/rdein pa/nta di/kaia, // mhde/ ti bouleu/ein th=ide po/lei [2skolio/n]2: // Dh/mou te plh/qei ni/khn kai\ ka/rtos e(/pesqai. He argues that the dative in line 3 (r(h/trais) is a true dative ('to the straight utterances' [of the kings]) as opposed to instrumental (the people responding 'with straight utterances'); that the common supplement of skolio/n at the end of line 5 is implausible; and that line 5 should be split, with the first half, however reconstructed, attached to the preceding line and amplifying its injunction (not to carry on offering opinions, or the like), with the second half attached to the following line (a promise of victory to city and people). Of these, only the second seems plausible, albeit on the argument from silence that Plutarch should have cited a line which contained such a key term. On the first, the argument that it would be redundant for the oracle to state that the people should respond with straight decisions (p. 10) is inconclusive, since redundancy is accepted in the next lines; also the oracle is more concerned to prescribe the people's actions than to describe those of the rulers. For the third, van Wees' endnotes 36-39 contain sufficient objections to the overall interpretation, that enjambment is rare in early elegy, that clauses rarely start in mid verse, and that te . . . te would make the link of city and people more acceptable.

Jean Ducat ('Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period', pp. 43-66) discusses education at Classical Sparta with opportune reflections on the negative thesis of Kennell that we are virtually ignorant about the educational system in pre-Hellenistic Sparta;[[5]] in particular Ducat urges that Plutarch can be used, cautiously, to reconstruct classical arrangements (p. 44). Ducat accepts that there are large areas of ignorance, especially because the sources have tended to highlight aspects of Spartan education which seemed unusual (p. 46); the agoge (and he rightly rebuts Kennell's argument against using this term for Sparta's educational system [p. 46]) may have been more similar to the paideia of other Greek cities than we will ever know. Ducat revalues the role of the family in Spartan education, so that this study contributes to the arguments of Hodkinson in particular,[[6]] which have aimed to reinstate the importance of family matters within Sparta and its institutions, contrary to the orthodoxy which sees Sparta as a state where collective values triumphed over the personal.

By contrast Henk Singor's discussion of the syssitia ('Admission to the Syssitia in Fifth-century Sparta', pp. 67- 89) accepts the authoritarian orthodoxy of citizens' lives (p. 76). His main concern is recruitment into Spartan armies, which he assumes was ultimately based on three tribal syssitia combining to constitute one military enomotia; for Singor these, in principle, contained one member from each year group. Singor invokes model life tables to sustain complex calculations about how such a regimented system might have worked in practice; he constructs a Sparta in which pederastic relations were determined by public considerations, so that each Spartiate as an erastes aged twenty-two chose an eromenos aged twelve for future admission into his particular syssition (this entails rejection of the Plutarch's evidence [Lycurgus 12.5f.] for admission by the votes of existing members.) The complexities of Singor's reconstruction are too great, and one might object that if homosexual relations were so closely governed by public considerations the same attention would have applied to marriages, especially if family priorities in the latter contributed to a skewed distribution of wealth. This is not, perhaps, a perspective to pursue, but Singor's speculations do usefully highlight our ignorance about such basic aspects of Sparta as its military recruitment and organisation (comparable to our ignorance of Roman arrangements).

Nichlas Richer discusses Spartan cults of various emotive states relevant to the control of individuals, with especial attention to aidos ('Aidos at Sparta', pp. 91-115). To categorise the chapter as descriptive might appear dismissive, but there are virtues in setting out the evidence clearly since respect for pathemata contributed to the social control of Spartan men and women. If Sparta is to be seen as a state in which families, often jealously, preserved influence and wealth, then such religious practices which could unite public and familial mechanisms for control should be of considerable significance. Ephraim David also discusses an aspect of social control, the role of silence which complemented the Spartiates' more famous reputation for brevity ('Sparta's Kosmos of Silence', pp. 117-46). This chapter presents interesting material, but through an intellectual prism which is disappointingly traditional: thus David takes the evidence for scourging at Sparta as proof of the artificial preservation of archaic rituals (p. 122), whereas a more nuanced approach to possible ritual practices and anthropological parallels is demonstrated by Ducat's contribution; he accepts the picture of Spartan sobriety (p. 123), without noting James Davidson's interrogation of this positive image.[[7]] Overall, although silence was important on occasions, it was not the object of cult (p. 135); one wonders about the importance of chat in syssitia, the gossip which bound Agesilaus and Agesipolis in spite of other differences (Xen., Hell. 5.3.20), or the frequency of extended debates in Spartan assemblies (e.g. the Hetoimaridas affair: Diodorus 11.50); I doubt David's hypothesis that Prothous' recommendations to the Assembly before the Leuctra campaign were dismissed in scornful silence (p. 128).

Part Two opens with Stephen Hodkinson's study of Spartiate interest in athletics ('An Agonistic Culture? Athletic Competition in Archaic and Classical Spartan Society', pp. 147-87), part of his radical reassessment of Spartan institutions and society argued in a succession of articles which are now consolidated in his monograph.[[8]] Hodkinson is concerned, as often, with the interaction of family and state; he rejects the alleged decline in Spartan Olympic victors, which others have attributed to the state's increasingly authoritarian control on Spartiate lives in the sixth century (p. 161), and uses the continuing interest at Sparta in commemorating athletic victories to argue for the significance of family reputations (p. 152). Sparta, again, has more in common with other Greek states than is usually believed.

Nigel Kennell steps outside the volume's archaic and classical focus to examine the perioecic communities in the second and first centuries BC, when they were loosely grouped into a League of Lacedaemonians ('From Periokoi to Poleis: the Laconian Cities in the Late Hellenistic Period', pp. 189-210). Much description is needed to comprehend the material from this less familiar period. Kennell clearly establishes the looseness of links between Sparta's former associates, for whom religion was probably the main communal activity, while Sparta remained the dominant element in the public lives of individual communities. These patterns probably continued associationships established during the centuries of Spartan domination, and so, with all due caution, this later evidence can be used to speculate about the nature of Spartan control in Classical Laconia. Thomas Figueira discusses the other dependent element in the Spartan state, the helots, or more particularly those who came to categorise themselves, or be categorised, as Messenians ('The Evolution of the Messenian Identity, pp. 211-44). During the construction of the nation, different views were, not surprisingly, adopted by Spartan masters, rebels whether in Messenia or in exile, and the latter's Athenian allies; these differences determined how the events of 370/69 were described, whether as the restoration of exiles or the liberation of enslaved subjects. Figueira focuses on the role of the exiled community at Naupactus in building solid perceptions of Messenian identity; he notes the on-going investigations of Nino Luraghi (p. 239 n. 47), as yet unpublished, who has suggested that the populations of pre-conquest Messenia may not have developed a collective identity but that this gradually emerged through the experience of resistance to Spartan domination. The development of Scottish identity springs to mind; undoubtedly the Messenians would have appreciated 'Flower of Scotland'.

Massimo Nafissi takes an oblique look at Sparta from the perspective of its colony Taras, to see whether our knowledge of the latter's institutions sheds light on the mother city ('From Sparta to Taras: Nomima, Ktiseis and Relationships between Colony and Mother City', pp. 245-72). The project is complicated by the deficiencies in our information about Taras, of which much is preserved by Romans who were not favourably disposed towards this treacherous ally; furthermore, where similarities can be identified, these may have been deliberately constructed at times when it suited the Tarantines to emphasise the colonial link. Nafissi identifies Taras' reputation for alcoholic indulgence as one characteristic which may be traceable to Archaic Sparta, though his belief that a transformation of Spartan dining customs (p. 250) meant that such disreputable behaviour did not persist into the classical polis is undermined by Davidson's reassessment of Spartan drinking habits (n. 7 above).

Part Two concludes with P.-J. Shaw's revisionist investigation of some classic Spartan dating problems ('Olympiad Chronography and "Early" Spartan History', pp. 273-309). Shaw's thesis is that much of the accepted reconstruction of the development of the Peloponnese in the Archaic Age is flawed because the Olympiad dates on which it depends have been displaced by 43 Olympiads, or 172 years. Although there are serious chronological problems, and there is no harm in restating the hypothetical nature of our perceptions of Sparta's early relations with its neighbours, Shaw's argument is ultimately a house of cards: it may stand up, but could do with much more solid buttressing (which may be provided in the longer exposition in her doctoral thesis). At present I remain sceptical, for example, about a date for the battle of Hysiae in the 490s when we might have expected there to be slightly clearer information about it, for example in Herodotus.

Part Three opens with Paul Cartledge's review of some famous laconophiles ('The Socratics' Sparta and Rousseau's', pp. 311-37). The initial paradox that the enthusiasm of Socrates and his followers was qualified by recognition of the defects of contemporary Sparta, whereas Rousseau's adulation was scarcely troubled by such concerns, disappears once the centrality of Plutarch's biographies for Rousseau's conception of Sparta is appreciated. Noreen Humble investigates Xenophon's attitudes towards Sparta, to challenge accepted wisdom that he presented sophrosyne as the characteristic Spartan virtue ('Sophrosyne and the Spartans in Xenophon'; 339-53). Through close attention to linguistic usage, Humble demonstrates that Xenophon distinguished between enkrateia, physical self-control which Spartans strove to achieve, and sophrosyne, a much broader term for intellectual and moral control. The latter was a goal of educational arrangements in the Cyropaedia but not of the system portrayed in the Spartan Constitution. Thus Xenophon may recognise that Spartan education trained its youth to appear to behave well in public, whereas his ideal system encouraged good behaviour in private as well. The convincing analysis contributes to the establishment of the Spartan Constitution as a text to be treated seriously.

The last two chapters concern women. First Ellen Millender challenges the reputation of Spartan women as liberated and influential by asserting the significance of Athenian depictions of Spartan women for these constructions ('Athenian Ideology and the Empowered Spartan Woman', pp. 355-91): in fifth-century Athens Sparta succeeded Persia as the national enemy, and so aspects of its society were portrayed as opposite to normal Athenian practices. It is obvious that Athenian drama distorted Sparta, especially during the Peloponnesian War, but Millender devalues Xenophon's Spartan Constitution (p. 365, stressing disputes over authorship), and Aristotle's analysis of Spartan women in the Politics: Cartledge's classic study of Spartan wives began from Aristotle,[[9]] and that still seems the best approach. The volume concludes with Anton Powell's investigation of some third- century royal women, ('Spartan Women Assertive in Politics? Plutarch's Lives of Agis and Kleomenes', pp. 393-419), which reveals the complex interaction of historical events and their representations. Here the interests of opposed factions in Sparta, the dramatic tendencies of Phylarchus, and Plutarch's own moralising agenda are all relevant to the story which has come down to us. But, whatever distortions may have been introduced en route, there remains the fact that certain prominent Spartan women were sufficiently caught up in the revolutionary fervour to be killed.

All conference volumes have particular strengths and weaknesses, and a collection which claims to offer novelty in such a well-worn area as Spartan studies challenges the critic to puncture the hyperbole. In this case, however, there is more than enough to support the claims: I expect that New Perspectives will join Powell's first edited volume, Classical Sparta: Techniques, as a work that is frequently and respectfully cited. The Spartan academic industry will rumble on, and one must applaud Hodkinson's desire to see closer involvement from specialists in Laconian archaeology in future gatherings (p. xxii): there is realistic hope that detailed survey and selective excavation can cast more light on aspects of Classical Sparta, for example the living conditions of helots and perioeci. Creation of a website (under discussion) would certainly speed the flow of ideas, but will not replace the stimulus of personal interaction which was achieved at Hay-on-Wye and is demonstrated in this most welcome volume.


[[1]] A. Powell (ed.), Classical Sparta: Techniques behind her Success (London 1989).
[[2]] A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (edd.), The Shadow of Sparta (London 1994).
[[3]] W. G. Forrest, A History of Sparta 950-192 BC (London 1968) 67.
[[4]] D. Ogden, 'Crooked speech: the genesis of the Spartan Rhetra', JHS 114 (1994) 85-102.
[[5]] N. M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue (Chapel Hill 1995).
[[6]] S. Hodkinson, 'Social Order and the Conflict of Values in Classical Sparta', Chiron 13 (1983) 239-81.
[[7]] J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes, the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (London 1997).
[[8]] S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London 2000).
[[9]] P. Cartledge, 'Spartan Wives: Liberation or Licence?', CQ 31 (1981) 84-105.