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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spartan Hegemony

In his introduction to Persian Fire Tom Holland argues that “Sparta’s greatness…rested upon the merciless exploitation of her neighbors.”  The sentence made me stumble. Is Holland truly unaware that the Peloponnesian League at this point in history gave every city-state an equal vote in the League Council? Is Holland unaware that some city-states in the League chose to march north with Sparta to fight the Persians at Thermopylae and Plataea?

Since Holland goes on to contend that “to people who had suffered under Spartan oppression for generations, Xerxes rule might almost have felt like liberty."  He apparently believes that the helots and perioikoi and other Peloponnesians, who fought with the Spartans at Plataea, were all “mercilessly oppressed” Spartan slaves fighting against their own best interests. One wonders how 5,000 Spartans managed to keep 40,000 oppressed slaves under control and prevented them from defecting to their Persian liberators, while simultaneous defeating the Persians on the battlefield? Spartans must have been truly superhuman indeed to succeed at such a feat!

It is a particularly notable feat when one considers that the mere proximity of a potential liberator induced 20,000 Athenian slaves to defect in 413. The freedom loving, benevolent and ever democratic Athenians apparently didn’t treat their slaves as well as the “merciless oppressors” of Sparta or 20,000 Athenian slaves would not have “voted with their feet” by abandoning Athens for Sparta. 

It also seems incredible that Sparta would have been elected to supreme command of the Greek forces opposing the Persian invasion – including Athens, if at that time it was widely perceived as a brutal oppressor of its neighbors.  Would the United States at any time in its history have elected Nazi Germany to lead a joint coalition? Would we have asked the Soviet Union to assume command of joint NATO and Warsaw Pact forces to fight a common enemy? It tries my imagination.

Whatever else one says about Sparta’s treatment of helots (and I firmly believe they were far better off than chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, not to mention Persian), to suggest that Sparta “mercilessly oppressed” its neighbors  as well is a gross distortion of the historical record. 


  1. Ms. Schrader:

    I just read the first book of your Leonidas trilogy and want to commend you on bringing Ancient Sparta and the Agoge system to life for me! In so many books, the authors paint Spartans with stereotypical broad strokes but you have succeeded in humanizing them and highlighting the necessity of their training in a far harsher world than we live today. As for Holland's opinion on Spartan oppression, I would imagine he has let his distaste for their 'traditional' values cloud his judgment and cause him to ignore the historical record. Anyway, I am beginning the second book and look forward to reading more of this blog. Thank you!

  2. Good points. One thing that bugs me, as a philakone, about many modern authors (who should know better, or at least be more dispassionate) is that they quickly criticize Sparta for things they overlook in Athens (or assume that Athens and the rest of Greek cities are in complete antithesis to Sparta). For example, Athens, while routinely praised for "inventing democracy" (altho' Sparta predates Athens in its evolution of a checks-and-balances system of representative government, at least for the citizen class), is seldom called to account for its slavery, its subjugation of women, or its brutal and exploitative treatment of recalcitrant allies in the Delian league, before it became a mere extension of the Athenian empire. Further, the "militaristic" Spartans engaged in no more aggressive wars than did "cultured" Athens. ALL the Greeks were bellicose and no one had clean hands. Yet the Spartans often showed a deep reluctance to wage war, perhaps because they knew they could not afford to waste their manpower unnecessarily.