Life Among the Lacedaemonians

Review: Paul Rahe, 'The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy'

'Young Spartans Exercising' by Edgar Degas
January 22, 2017

Paul Rahe combines the chops of a professional historian with a masterly grasp of political philosophy. He is also a shrewd analyst of human character. These talents came together in his splendid studies of Anglo-American republicanism, and how the combustible fusion of Machiavelli and the Reformation exploded in the English civil wars between Parliament and Crown.

Now he has brought the same impressive abilities to a projected three-volume study of ancient Sparta, its rise to power in the repulse of the Persian invasion, and the subsequent long and bloody war with its former ally, Athens. The Spartan Regime serves as a kind of prequel to that grand narrative (whose first volume has been published), setting forth the Spartan constitution and way of life before showing how it responded to the shocks of war.

Rahe's analysis of how the Spartan way of life evolved is in the classic realist perspective of Thucydides and Machiavelli. Although the Spartans tried to blend their past with Bronze Age heroes like Heracles, they "were acutely aware that they were interlopers" who had invaded the Peloponnesus and brutally enslaved its original inhabitants. The existential necessity of guarding against an uprising from this enslaved Helot class led to two responses.

The first was to increase their military efficiency by replacing traditional combat by warlords on horseback or in chariots with massed infantry formations that functioned in complete unity, the famous phalanx. This entailed an accompanying ethos of collective self-sacrifice, replacing the flamboyant, highly individualized style of Homer's heroes with a code of shared and impersonal "stamina, grit, endurance and courage." Pederasty, so difficult for us to assess today when examining the ancients, was a political institution designed to "loosen familial ties" so that the members of Sparta's warrior aristocracy would prefer the lover and beloved they fought alongside in battle to their parents or their wives and children, according to Rahe. The private side of life conveyed by the Greek word oikos, the household, was repressed in Sparta to the absolute degree humanly possible—or at least that was the ideal.

Their other great reform was to create a constitution of checks and balances among a hereditary dual monarchy, an annually elected board of ephors, and a council of elders elected for life in order to prevent factional strife or the tyranny of one group over the others. This arrangement was the first of its kind in history and a distant inspiration for the modern American version. Because of these innovations, Rahe concludes it was Sparta among all the Greek city-states that "came the closest to giving absolute primacy to the common good." Herodotus praised Sparta as a cosmos, meaning a "meticulously, more or less coherently ordered whole—apt to elicit admiration."

Having achieved internal stability by these political and cultural means, the "grand strategy" of Spartan foreign policy was to create a local empire of buffer states, including Laconia and Messenia, to shield the homeland from external attack and foreign incitement of a helot uprising. By the middle of the sixth century, they realized they had insufficient manpower for further expansion and "repositioned themselves as defenders of Arcadian autonomy … the scourge of tyranny … and the heirs of Agamemnon." They no longer dreamt of empire, but settled for a stable sphere of influence. In this way, having begun by abandoning the old Bronze Age code of heroism, Sparta claimed increasingly to be the true heir among the Greeks of the old-fashioned virtues of manliness and duty praised by Homer.

According to Rahe, Spartans were "a great puzzle" to the other Greeks. At the same time, they were "almost universally regarded with awe, just as they are now." Doggedly isolationist, they turned foreigners away at the border and were known for their distrust of flowery speech (hence the term "laconic," from Sparta's original name, Lacedaemon). Thucydides depicts their King Archidamus as stressing the Spartans' trust in collective discipline and distrust of innovation and individual talent in contrast with the bustling, argumentative, and ambitious Athenians. Although always ready for war, they avoided foreign entanglements because they knew that war could destabilize their internal constitution by sparking a slave rebellion or enabling individual Spartans to gain through military glory abroad a personal pre-eminence rigorously suppressed at home.

Down through the ages, political philosophers have held up Sparta as a model for measuring the deficiencies of their societies. Machiavelli extolled its internal stability and warrior virtues in contrast with the weak and feckless Christian states of his era. (Interestingly, Rahe, a Machiavelli scholar, does not share Machiavelli's conviction that the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus really existed—its constitution evolved over many years, he believes, and could not have been the work of a single founder.) Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire invoked classical Athens as an ideal, owing to its high culture, affluence, and individualism. Rousseau, in launching his critique of the selfish materialism and softness that the Enlightenment had in his view promoted, deliberately chose Sparta as a model instead. This may help explain the trend Rahe observes in recent years of viewing Sparta as a forerunner of totalitarianism, an argument also made about Rousseau's doctrine of the General Will.

While evoking Sparta's "allure" then and now, Rahe is keenly aware of the chinks in their outward armor of selfless virtue. They affected a simple life, but privately loved money. Their houses looked outwardly plain, but were luxurious within. These warrior aristocrats, Rahe writes, did not live by "an ethos of grim austerity." They sang, danced, worked out together, competed in sports like boxing and wrestling, hunted, dined, and cracked jokes. There was plenty of time for relaxation between war and contests, and this blend of fellowship and rivalry made other Greeks envy them for their happiness.

I sometimes liken the Spartans to Klingons to my students, because I know they will grasp this comparison immediately. However, Rahe shows that in reality they were less like Klingons and more like rough-and-tumble public school boys from a Trollope novel—fighting, hunting, and carousing their way through the shires. Rahe's ability to reveal the human side beneath their austere exterior is one of many reasons to read this beautifully written, meticulously researched, and deeply engaging book.

Published under: Book reviews