Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ancient vs. Modern Perspectives on Sparta

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:




W.LindsayWheeler said...

It surely is an uphill battle. Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at King's College, London and in Germany. He runs a very influential blog called "History of Philosophy without any gaps". On the website he made podcasts dealing with all classical, late antiquity and Islamic philosophers and hopes to cover the whole scope.

When he was done with the Classical philosopher podcasts, he wrote a book Classical Philosophy. I asked if he included the Cretans and the Spartans and his reply was that he never heard this. I sent him my work and someone else published the link to the first paper.

Prof. Adamson published that he was going to be at Notre Dame University at South Bend, Indianna to give a lecture on Islamic philosophy and time. I went down to meet him there. In the reception that followed, I had an opportunity to meet and ask him if he was going to include them or accept the research. His comment was that Socrates was speaking sarcastically and that the Spartans had no culture. I pointed out my other proofs. To no avail. Because they wrote nothing down, they weren't philosophers was one reason. There is too much invested interest and weight to the status quo. Sparta engenders so much anger and hate, that it just might be too impossible for modern man to grasp. Prof. Adamson was not impressed nor convinced.

I did have the opportunity to talk to a couple of professors and some grad students and passed out a paper on the link to the book. Some threw it away. I even went to the Provost office with the book link so someone with authority can decide what is going on.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Another professor, an Edith Hall, who works at King's College, London, "a premier classicist", just published a book Introducing Ancient Greece. I checked it out.

In it the Spartans are "brutal", and talks of Sparta as a "Gerontacracy" while Socrates, in the Athenian section, was for democracy.

I really do think that all British academics be forbidden by law to say or write anything on Sparta. I used to have a huge respect for British Scholarship because I thought they did so much for Classical Studies.

Now, my opinion is the complete opposite. From Cartledge at Cambridge, Oxford with its sh*tty article on Sparta in their Classical Dictionary and with King's College, the whole aspect of Spartan studies is despicable.

They don't care for Sparta one bit. Okay. THEN DON'T WRITE ON THEM. If you have nothing good to say---don't say it.

Just as the Pope but whole countries under interdict, the whole British Isles need to be put on Interdict--forbidden to write or publish anything on Sparta because they can't do nothing right by her.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Ohh, it gets much worse.

I had a window of opportunity to visit a college library this past Friday, which is quite well stocked, 30 miles away.

While researching articles and a book, I perused the shelves. I stumbled upon Clifford A. Bates, Ph.D., Aristotle's "Best Regime" from Louisiana State University Press.

Do you know WHAT IS NOT mentioned?


This man does a dissertation on the word 'politiea', on 'mixed government' and on Aristotle's work---yet he NEVER mentions Sparta?


I just discovered the Ten Commandments of Academia:

"Thou Shalt NOT mention the Forbidden Name" (shhh...Sparta)

Now repeat that ten times. There is your ten commandments. Do you know how this ends? He concludes with Aristotle's best regime is democracy.

This is not even malpractice but evil. You can't discuss Aristotle's Politics without mentioning Sparta but totally miss that Aristotle's kali poli is mixed government. This man has a 14 page bibliography! He references some 171 academics and their works! And in all that---he doesn't mention Sparta? nor the reality of mixed government!

This is cultural/intellectual genocide. How do you reference 171 academics, and not mention Sparta in a work on 'politiea' and Aristotle's best government? It is IMPOSSIBLE. The book is a total sham. It is unbelievable. It is disgusting.