History – the Greek word means ‘explanation’ rather than the more obvious ‘story’ – tends to be written by the winners, real or perceived, and the reasons for Greek pre-eminence which persist derive, largely, from Athenian sources. Their collective brilliance – in architecture, literature (notably the startling innovation of Tragic drama), philosophy and democratic politics which came to the fore in the climactic fifth century BC is undeniable and its influence permanent. Athens led the charge against the incursion of the mighty Persian Empire, first at the battle of Marathon 490 BC, the first time, their great historian Thucydides writes, that Greeks faced, on Greek soil, the barbarians – so-called because they spoke an impenetrable bah-bah-bah babble - and again at the great victory of their triremes in the Bay of Salamis ten years later; the great tragedian Aeschylus fought in both. Their bravery and fortitude undoubtedly laid a base for other Greek states, some most recalcitrant, to lend support of the mainland opposition and from that, one may conclude that Greek cultural hegemony followed.
However, it was the Spartans, by any register a strange but vital people, to whom the eventual victory of Greek states, large and small, against the formidable Persian invasion may be attributed. First their unparalleled courage and determination displayed at the narrow Pass of Thermopylae in 480, before Salamis, may have done no more than dent Persian might, but as moral victories go it rests supreme, bred out of the depth of Spartan character. Famously Simonides celebrates it: ‘Go and tell the Spartans, passer-by/ That here, obedient to their laws we lie.’ Three hundred of them against uncounted thousands, sent under a king, no less, Leonidas, to show the Persians that Greece was going to be no pushover. For three days they held out, until, betrayed, they were encircled and, as Leonidas told them: ‘Tonight we dine in Hades.’ They had always known it was a suicide mission but strict discipline, rigid complicity to custom and law, firmness of spirit were the very thread of their being. When the Persian king, Xerxes, told the doomed Spartan king: ‘Hand over your weapons, the Laconian replied: molon labe (literally ‘having come, take them’). ‘Yours to take’ centuries before the famous ‘Nuts’ of the American general near Bastogne.
Spartan society was geared, obsessively so, to martial power, and there are many reasons for that – here explained – and their social structure, repressive in some ways, nevertheless gave much greater autonomy to women than many more so-called enlightened societies. Their devotion to Greece cannot be challenged, even if their sole contribution to its material culture may be the work of its lyric poets. The final victory over the Persian invasion at Plataea was masterminded and headed by the Spartan army and for that, if nothing else, we may assume that matters and things Greek came to infuse culture and civilisation across the Mediterranean and, thence, western Europe, for centuries thereafter.
If the Spartans were odd the Athenians were a dodgy bunch, described at the time as polypragmatist, ‘busybody’; argumentative, litigious, intellectually remarkable, culturally admirable, exemplary in so many fields. But their Socrates, described as most wise – because, he said, he knew nothing - was executed on a trumped-up charge after a show trial, the gadfly who, irritated by Athenian duplicity, hypocrisy and mealy-mouthed pliability, was, by speaking out, accused of corrupting the morals of the youth. But those very traits he deplored were roundly pilloried by the contemporary comic playwright Aristophanes. There was much to ridicule about the self-preening Athenians of their late decline. The Spartans, peculiar in their ways and beliefs, somehow forestalled their own decline by an example of social cohesion they perhaps did not intend to make a template for broader human behaviour as did the Athenians, more inclined to promote their own astonishing singularity, but Sparta lives on in so many ways and its very oddity, its eccentricity, influences western thought in a way as powerfully as do Athenian examples of artistic brilliance rooted in what by any calculation was a time of exceptional creativity and devotion to moral cause as fifth Century Greece through both its obvious leaders as well as lesser-known satellites.
Paul Cartledge’s The Spartans, a compelling and, I contend, most necessary book, is a superb study; his account of a fascinating – and puzzling – people always deft and well-managed, the scholarly rigour never lacking or oppressive, quite the opposite, in fact, an example to follow. He deals generously with disputed opinion, an outstanding merit in a historian. A melancholy conclusion, as must be, and hard to write, surely, but it cannot detract from penetrating and sympathetic analysis and celebration of a unique spirit and ethos.
The Spartans is published by Pan.