Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Friday, August 3, 2012

Leonidas Twice

Leonidas! The Hero of Thermopylae. In 480 BC he would defy an army half a million strong. 

But who was he?

The Leonidas Trilogy tells his story in three novels. From his boyhood in the infamous Spartan agoge to the final stand of the 300 at Thermopylae, I have sought to bring Leonidas and his wife Gorgo to life. To explain them. To understand them. To give them substance and spirit.

This is Sparta! As you've never seen it before. The Leonidas Trilogy - A Video Teaser.

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom by Alfred S. Bradford is in contrast about the history of Sparta from its founding to its ignominious end. Here's my commentary:

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta by Alfred S. Bradford – A Review
It is human nature that reactions are often governed by expectations, so my disappointment with Alfred S. Bradford’s history of Sparta, Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom, was largely my own fault.  The title and jacket description, not to mention Bradford’s qualifications as a professor of ancient history at the University of Oklahoma, led me to expect too much. I had hoped for a work that provided insight on the role of Sparta’s kings in Sparta’s long history, perhaps an analysis of evolving constitutional conflict between the kings, the Gerousia, Assembly, and Ephors.  Certainly, I hoped for some new, unfamiliar descriptions and details about the personalities of Sparta’s most famous kings.

Instead, Bradford has done little more than collect the familiar stories told about Sparta from a wide range of sources and line them up in chronological order.  Even this is a tall order, and Bradford is to be commended for having covered nearly a thousand years of history in just 226 pages without for a moment dropping the pace or losing direction. Also to be applauded is Bradford’s care to mention Sparta’s literary and artistic achievements, and his even-handed treatment of the Peloponnesian War.  Altogether, his commentary improved in quality with the quality of his (later) sources.

Equally important, Bradford appears to pride himself on his accessibility, and this book is written in an easy modern style that will certainly make it just that to readers looking for an easy introduction to Spartan history. In fact, I suspect that Bradford’s intended audience was not fellow scholars, but rather young people coming to the topic of Sparta for the first time.  If this is correct, then his book is a valuable contribution to Spartan history as a transition from comic books and fantasy to serious scholarly works on Sparta.

In this context, I found Bradford’s occasional personal comments perfectly appropriate and engaging. Throughout the book, I sensed his genuine interest in his topic and respect for his subjects. That in itself is very refreshing, and I came away feeling like I’d like to meet Bradford one day and spend an afternoon talking in an outdoor café on the main street of modern Sparti – exchanging views, arguing, laughing – and toasting the memory of the dead.

If am correct and Bradford was writing for an audience without previous knowledge and only superficial interest in Sparta, I image he did not want to “bore” his reader with conflicting theories. Nevertheless, I must admit I was put off by Bradford’s blithe disregard for differing opinions and his failure to admit any uncertainty about interpretation of evidence.  Although much of the information Bradford presents is highly controversial, Bradford rarely even mentions alternative theories, much less conflicting opinions.  

Equally disturbing, Bradford boldly states his opinions as if they are indisputable fact.  For example, he states on page 70 that “Ariston was extremely popular….” Interesting.  I’d like to know how he knows that as I’ve never read this in any other source. It might be true, of course, I don’t claim to have seen every source on Sparta, and, if true, it would be very significant. Unfortunately, Bradford tells me neither his ancient source for this information, nor does he explain his assessment by describing things Ariston did to win the love of his subjects. In fact, what he does tell us about Ariston is that he tricked his best friend into giving up his wife. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would endear Ariston to his subjects. (Herodotus, who is the source for this tale, by the way, makes it clear that it was against the will of both the husband – and erstwhile friend of Ariston – and his wife.) In short, Bradford makes statements that are not supported either sources or by his own argumentation.  

I was also disappointed by the near absence of analysis, at least in the early parts of the book. Again, let me take a couple of examples.  On page 46, when describing the krypteia, he claims members “killed any helots they found.” Now, finding helots was not very difficult since by all accounts they vastly outnumbered the Spartiates, and they provided all menial labor to the Spartan state.  All the krypteia had to do to “find” helots was sit down in the middle of any square or on the side of any country road and wait for the helots to come by. Since, according to Bradford’s account, they killed all the helots they “found,” the kypteia must have slaughtered endlessly, year in and year out, generation for generation.  So how did any helots survive to be the servants and agricultural workers that Sparta needed? And who was left to work the estates of the Spartiates dependent on their labor in order to be professional soldiers? Or, turning to another example, on page 47 Bradford writes: “The Spartans were magnificent specimens, men and women both, the most handsome people in Greece, with the best-behaved children.” Really?  All of them? That’s hard to believe, but I suppose it is theoretically possible.  But then Bradford continues: “They knew right from wrong and they practiced honor without compromise.” That is little short of amazing, but OK -- except that nine pages later Bradford writes that “Chilon’s world was a world of injustice.” Hm.  So suddenly, within a hundred years or so, by Bradford’s own account, the Spartans have gone from being men who without exception practiced honor without compromise and all knew right from wrong, to a society full of injustice. How did that happen? Why? Again, I’m not saying this is impossible, but I expect a historian who makes assertions such as these to marshal his arguments and set them out coherently so the reader can follow his logic and come to the same conclusion.

Finally, I found it disconcerting that sources were not readily or consistently identified, even when direct quotes were made. With all due understanding for the desire to avoid cluttering a popular history with a lot of footnotes, I find the use of quotation marks or italics to indicate direct speech without providing a reference on the source improper.  Just to give one random example, in Chapter 16, Bradford uses quotation marks to indicate verbatim citation of a speaker in no less than eight places, but provides sources for only two quotes in his “Notes.” What about the others? Where did they come from and why didn’t they rate a proper citation? 

For all my complaints, I confess I liked the book, particularly the conclusion, and for young adults it may be a good introduction to Sparta. However, I would recommend W. G. Forrest's classic work "A History of Sparta: 950 - 192 BC" or Nigel Kennel's "Spartans: A New History" before Bradford to anyone with a serious interest in Spartan history.

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