“Go, Tell the Spartans!”

Recently, I finished reading Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Vintage) and The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Cambridge professor and historian of classical Greece, Paul Cartledge. Scholars of the classical period have to be artists among historians for it is in this subfield that the historian’s craft matters most. While modern historians are literally drowning in documents, classical sources are, for the most part, fragmentary and/or exceedingly well-known, some texts having been continuously read in the West for well over twenty centuries. The ability to “get the story right” depend’s heavily upon the historian’s ability to elicit an elusive but complicated context in order to interpret for the reader or student. Dr. Cartledge acquits himself admirably in this regard.

Thermopylae and The Spartans can be profitably read by specialists yet also serve as an enjoyable introduction to the world of ancient Sparta to the general reader. Cartledge concisely explains the paradox of Sparta, at once the “most Greek” polis among the Greeks yet also, the most alien and distinct from the rest of the far-flung Greek world:

“Again, when Xenophon described the Spartans as ‘craftsmen of war’ he was referring specifically to military manifestations of their religious zeal, such as animal sacrifices performed on crossing a river frontier or even the battlefield as battle was about to be joined. The Spartans were particularly keen on such military divination. If the signs (of a acrificed animal’s entrails) were not ‘right’, then even an imperatively necessary military action might be delayed, aborted or avoided altogether” (1)

“Plutarch in his ‘biography’ of Lycurgus says that the lawgiver was concerned to rid Spartans of any unnecessary fear of death and dying. To that end, he permitted the corpses of all Spartans, adults no less than infants, to be buried among the habitations of the living, within the regular settlement area-and not, as was the norm elsewhere in the entire Greek world from at the latest 700 BCE, carefully segregated in separately demarcated cemetaries away from the living spaces. The Spartans did not share the normal Greek view that burial automatically brought pollution (miasma).”(2)

The quasi-Greeks of Syracuse probably had more in common in terms of customs with their Athenian enemies under Nicias than they did with the Spartans of Gylippus. Cartledge details the unique passage of the agoge and the boldness of Spartan women that amazed and disturbed other Greeks as well as tracing the evolution of “the Spartan myth”. In Cartledge’s work the mysterious Spartans become, from glorious rise to ignominious fall, a comprehensible people.

1. The Spartans, P. 176.

2. Thermopylae, P. 78.

Crossposted at Zenpundit


“Then we shall fight in the shade.”

3 thoughts on ““Go, Tell the Spartans!””

  1. Tangential. Google an image of Thermopylae today. Look well. Now calculate how many warriors stood in the pass, not shoulder to shoulder in a single file, but in a phalanx with depth of ranks*. The images suggests,

    a) The battle was a greatly exaggerated incident evolved for social and/or political purposes. We are dealing with more of a myth than fact.
    b) Massive erosion of the cliff faces have extended to shore line a great distance from the original smaller position that the Spartans stood upon.
    c) Sea level where significantly higher in the time of Leonidas.

    *giving a very generous width of 1 yard per individual with a 4 rank depth [though my reading is that 8 is the standard and Alexander’s Macedonians were 16 in depth], that’s less than length of a football field. There appears to be a significant gap greater than 100 yards between the cliff and the shoreline. If b) is not a significant factor in this then that leaves another alternative which is

    d) The Thespians who don’t get the press the Spartans did actually covered the bulk of the front and the fighting which sort of gets us back to a).

    or the world was a lot warmer back in those days.

  2. hi Don,

    According to Cartledge, there has been significant changes to the topography of Thermopylae and the location of the shoreline.

    The world was much, much warmer then -lions roamed Southern Europe; by contrast, the Middle-Ages and early modern period were cooler than now

  3. Don, further to what zenpundit said, the Spercheios river has deposited lots of alluvium into the sea over the last 25 centuries, and what was once a 14 meter wide pass near cliffs on the shoreline is now about two to five kilometers inland.

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