This month I’m pleased to have W. Lindsey Wheeler as a guest blogger. He brings a refreshing perspective through meticulous analysis that contradicts the conventional sophistry that has been taught about Sparta over the last 400 years. He is the author of numerous articles and a book on Sparta. For us he simply compares ancient with modern commentary on Sparta and the Spartan culture.
The magisterial scholar of the Doric Greeks, Prof, Karl Otfried Mueller, in the 1820s, wrote that the academics of his day considered the Spartans “a horde of half-savages”. In the Twentieth century, it is much of the same. The renowned American classicist Edith Hamilton described Sparta as a backwater and writes, “The Spartans have left the world nothing in the way of art or literature or science.”
On the other hand, Herodotus records that Anacharsis the Scythian had visited the different states of Greece, and lived among them all, quipped that ‘all wanted leisure and tranquility for wisdom, except the Lacedæmonians, for these were the only persons with whom it was possible to hold a rational conversation’.”
One of the leading modern experts on Sparta, Paul Cartledge notes their lack of “high cultural achievement”.
But Socrates said: “…namely that to be Spartan implies a taste for intellectual rather than physical exercise, for they realize that to frame such utterances is of the highest culture”. In other words, Socrates, who the Delphic Oracle said was “the wisest man in Greece,” notices that the Spartans had “the highest culture”.
Elizabeth Rawson condemns the heritage of Sparta in her very first line of her work as “a militaristic and totalitarian state, holding down an enslaved population, the helots, by terror and violence.”
Yet in the Protagoras (§347e-§348a), Plato writes “The best people avoid such discussions and entertain each other with their own resources…These are the people, in my opinion, whom you and I should follow”. These “best people” are the Spartans that he is alluding to.
Xenophon puts this speech in Socrates’ mouth:
“Lycurgus the Lacedæmonian now—have you realized that he would not have made Sparta to differ from other cities in any respect, had he not established obedience to the laws most securely in her? Among rulers in cities, are you not aware that those who do most to make the citizens obey the laws are the best….For those cities whose citizens abide by them prove strongest and enjoy [the] most happiness” (Mem., IV, iv, 15-16; Loeb 317 ª; Laced., viii, 1.)
The Bible states that whenever two or more witnesses speak on a condition as the same, we are to accept the statement as true. Plato and Xenophon are two different witnesses to Spartan culture and both use the adjective “the best” to describe the Spartans on two different occasions; one on their intellectual system and on their law-abiding.
The classical scholar, A. H. M. Jones writes that: “Sparta produced no art and no literature and played no part in the intellectual life of Greece” and notes Sparta’s “cultural sterility.”
On the other hand, Socrates had this to say in the Protagoras: “The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are to be found more sophists than anywhere on earth.”
Plutarch, in his biography of Lycurgus, writes that Lycurgus formed a “complete philosophic state”.
Paul Cartledge compares Lycurgus as “a mixture of George Washington – and Pol Pot”
This is what Polybius said of Lycurgus: “…for securing unity among the citizens, for safeguarding the Laconian territory and preserving the liberty of Sparta inviolate, the legislation and provisions of Lycurgus were so excellent that I am forced to regard his wisdom as something superhuman” (Polibius 1959: 493).
Cicero admired the Spartans and as a young man visited their city. The ancient Romans had high regard for the Spartans.
As one can see there is a major disconnect between the ancient perception of Sparta and the modern perception of Sparta. All the ancients had a great respect and admiration for Sparta. Socrates, Pythagoras and the Seven Sages of Greece were all emulators, disciples and admirers of Sparta. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The sign of imitation of these people along with the admiration of Plato, Xenophon and Cicero show that Sparta was recognized in ancient times for having the highest, most vibrant and most authentic Greek spirit in the Classical world.
Could all the ancients have been wrong? Does modern academia know more about Ancient Greek Culture and standards than the Ancient Greeks themselves? I call that hybris!
To explore the topic more fully and for the references of the above quotes please read Part I, The Case of the Barefoot Socrates at: