Nigel Kennell has produced a good, readable history of Sparta in his latest release Spartans: A New History (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010) It is the kind of work that provides readers, who are not specialists in ancient history, with a solid understanding of the fundamental characteristics of Spartan society and the bare-bones of Spartan history. This is a good book for non-experts to buy and keep as a reference on things Spartan.
For readers already familiar with the subject matter, Kennell provides a concise summary that can be used for reference, but fails to break new ground that I could detect. Maybe I was expecting too much after finding his The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta such a brilliant foray of common-sense in a field of discourse dominated by so much nonsense. Certainly, in this new work I found his discussion of topics – whether the Spartan constitution or the Spartan army – more gripping than his chronological narrative.
For me personally, the most exiting section of this book was the chapter on the Spartan army. Here, for example, I learned that the Spartan army buried its dead in the lands where they fell, according to Kennell as “a matter of pride, for Spartiate graves served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project power.” (p. 157). Thus, the familiar admonishment allegedly given each Spartan soldier by his mother “with your shield or upon it” could not have come from a Spartan source! This is a revolutionary insight – fully in line with my own speculations about “unnatural mothers.” (See my earlier blog entry.) The rest of the discussion on the army was equally logical and useful.
Kennel is in his element when focusing on a topic rather than trying to cover the whole universe of things Spartan from Lycurgus to the Romans. I hope that in his next book he will return to the format of The Gymnasium of Virtue and enable readers to benefit from his meticulous research combined with his refreshingly sensible and insightful perspective.