The Spartan Version

Review: Paul A. Rahe, 'The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge'

Screenshot from the trailer for '300'


In his brief satire, "The Persian Version," written around the time of the Second World War, Robert Graves speculatively lampooned how he imagined Achaemenid elites must have rationalized their defeat at the hands of some quarrelsome, backwards Greeks located at the very western extreme of their magnificent empire. You can get the sense from the first two lines: "Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon / The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon…"

As it happens, there is evidence that something more or less just like Graves’ joke was the attitude of the ancient Persians. The Roman historian Dio Chrysostom reports (as Paul Rahe relates in this, his most recent book) that Medes alive in his own era understood the expeditions sponsored by Darius and Xerxes to have gone off pretty well, all things considered. As for the attitude of the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran, about a decade ago I visited an exhibition on ancient Persia at the British Museum, sponsored by that country’s government, in which all material dealing with the Greco-Persian wars was relegated to a corner and adorned with a plaque that essentially took Graves’ line, minus the irony. The phrase "border dispute" sticks in my mind.

Rahe, the polymathic and ever-ambitious student of Donald Kagan and Allan Bloom (among others) disagrees, as have most literary partisans of the West over the centuries. He detects in the Persian defeat a pivot in history, the mid-term consequence of which was the Achaemenids’ later defeat at the hands of Alexander and, with that, the decisive spread of Hellenic culture across the world. But he would also pick a bone with Graves (as he does in the same vein with John Stuart Mill) for selecting Marathon as the spot to fasten the hinge.

The Athenian victory there was "important," but only "a mere skirmish in comparison to the series of battles that took place a decade or more thereafter—in places such as Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale." And while the Athenian contribution to those later campaigns was important, "If, in their hour of need, the Greeks managed to rally against the Mede, it was first and foremost because the Spartans were stalwart in defense of the liberty exemplified by their regime." The Spartans, and the Spartans alone, "possessed the prestige required for instilling confidence in the Hellenes … They and they alone could take the lead…"

Rahe’s Spartanism is longstanding. In the preface to the three-volume Republics Ancient and Modern, he describes that work as having its origin as a modest attempt at an article outlining the differences between the Spartan and American constitutions that simply got out of hand. He also suggested that Greek republicanism could be better understood in contrast to our own by a focus on Sparta rather than on Athens. We like to think of ourselves as democrats, and as such when we look at the Athenians, it is a little too easy to believe that we are simply looking at something like ourselves, and to miss differences that the Spartans throw into clearer relief.

Both this pedagogical preference, and the belief that socially and politically Sparta had aspects that recommended themselves over their Athenian counterparts, are unfashionable, even if he shares the latter with some notable ancient Athenian writers. Indeed, much of Rahe’s approach is unfashionable—so it should be no surprise that more conventional academics don’t seem to care much for the book. Rahe emphasizes the importance of religion and ideology, and how these aspects of culture form individuals who go on to make decisions of grave consequence. He is respectful (though not wholly uncritical) of classical literary sources. Most strikingly, he is comfortable with the strangeness of ancient cultures, laboring to understand their citizens, subjects, and kings as they understood themselves, rather than as early versions of homo economicus.

It will be interesting to read the rest of the project when it is complete. Rahe projects a trilogy, including a sequel examining "the Athenian challenge," and another volume expanding his political analysis of the Spartan regime. The volume just published opens by reprinting the chapter dealing with the Spartan constitution first published in Republics Ancient and Modern, and then proceeds through a narrative account of the major incidents of the Greco-Persian Wars, heavily dependent on a source-critical reading of Herodotus, with emphasis given to the evolution of Sparta’s strategy.

That strategy was a function, Rahe argues, of Sparta’s domestic policies, its fears, and the desire of its ruling coalition to preserve their precarious rule in the Peloponnesus: "keeping the Messenians down, the Arcadians close, and the Argives out." The Spartans understood themselves to be foreigners who had been promised Lacedaemonia by the gods—Dorian colonists from the north who had subjugated and helotized the unworthy locals.

Their form of republican government was a sort of constitutional dual monarchy, complete with two royal families that were both understood to be descended from Heracles, who bore the original right to the land controlled by the Spartans. (It was therefore of some concern that, as the crisis with Persia came to a head, the oracle at Delphi spoke of the Persian royal dynasty as having descended from Perseus—in other words, from Heracles’ great-great-grandfather. The priests of Delphi were loath to pick a loser.) The famously brutal, warlike Spartan regime was a function of domestic necessity, as was Sparta’s caution when it came to deploying to meet yet-distant threats. Foreign adventure could easily result in a helot revolt.

Despite his title and express purpose, Rahe spends a great deal of time examining the actions of the Athenians and the Persians as well. With regard to the latter, he is amusingly provocative, drawing explicit comparisons between the political theology of Ahura Mazda-ism instituted by Darius, and the concurrent sacralization of Iranian world conquest, with more recent manifestations of Middle Eastern calls for holy war. (Distractingly, if consistently, the word jihad is misspelled throughout the book. If the Yale University Press is going to bother with this level of detail, it is jihād, not jīhad—a spelling that makes it sound like the word is being pronounced by George W. Bush.) And how many books published today unironically use the phrase "oriental despotism"?

Whether or not Rahe has succeeded in demonstrating the bold thesis that the Greeks succeeded "first and foremost" because of Sparta, he ably prosecutes a case for that city's importance, in the face of more fashionable efforts which seem first to mistake Athens as some sort of proto-liberal state, and then to mistake all of Greece as some sort of variation on Athens. Rahe’s examination of Sparta’s mixed regime makes it perfectly clear how the freedom of a Greek citizen—which consisted in his ability to participate in deliberation and war according to his city’s customs—was profoundly different from our more private freedoms in the modern West.

Rahe also suggests a case for the necessity of something Spartan in successful self-rule—for the necessity of an element that is closed and hard in the defense of societies that are open and soft. It would be useful for contemporary elites to pay attention to this necessity, inasmuch as we tend to be persuaded these days that History has eliminated any viable alternatives to the soft openness of liberal self-rule. There are societies out there that disagree—including, in either a pattern or a joke of history, the Persian one.

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