THERMOPYLAE: TURNING-POINT IN WORLD HISTORY?! Part I

The 300 Spartans takes us back a few thousand years to the invasion of the Persians. This film was a 1962 masterpiece that was shot near the Corinth canal, unlike the Frank Miller-inspired 300 which was made elsewhere.

It is an ill wind, proverbially, that blows nobody any good. Terrible and ghastly as were the tragic events of 9/11, they have also, I believe, provoked a salutary spate of Western reflection on just what it is to be ‘Western’, on what ‘Western civilization’ is or might be. The process of re-examining and rethinking what is distinctive and admirable – or at any rate defensible – about Western civilization, values and culture seems to me both to have been in itself a wholly good thing, and to have had some notably positive outcomes. One ancient Greek exemplar of that civilization, Socrates of Athens, is famously reported by Plato to have said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’. Rarely has the need for such cultural self-examination been more compelling.

For instance, it makes us realize that we in the West do not necessarily have all the best tunes. Concepts and practices often imagined to be uniquely ‘Western’, such as reason, freedom and democracy, have had, and still do have, their active counterparts within Eastern cultures as well. Indeed, the tradition of Western civilization has been decisively shaped or enriched by Eastern – including, not least, Islamic – contributions. Had it not been for Arabic scholars, in both East (especially Baghdad) and West (Moorish Spain), in what we conventionally call the Middle Ages, a number of key works of Aristotle would have been lost to us, and Aristotle is about as central to any construction of the Western cultural tradition as it is possible to get.

Some of us Westerners, post 9/11, were provoked specifically into wondering aloud whether any definition of our civilization and its cultural values would justify our dying for them, or even maybe killing for them – as the suicide hijackers of September 11th, or the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza, clearly were and are prepared to die for their brands of Islam and freedom. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece pondered that question with especial intensity. For the world of ancient – or Classical – Greece is one of the principal taproots of our Western civilization, as I have already implied in quoting Socrates’s famous aphorism, and the Spartans’ behaviour at Thermopylae in 480 raises sharply the contested issue of ideologically motivated suicide.

The connection between the ancient Greeks and Us was forcefully expressed by John Stuart Mill, in a review of the first volumes of George Grote’s pioneering, liberal-democratic history of ancient Greece (originally published in twelve volumes, 1846–56). As Mill put it, with conscious paradox, the Battle of Marathon – which was fought in 490 BCE by the Athenians, with support only from the neighbouring small city of Plataea, against the invading Persians – was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. So too, arguably, or so at least I should want to argue, was the Battle of Thermopylae. Unlike Marathon, of course, Thermopylae was formally a defeat for the Greeks, a ‘wound’ (trôma), as Herodotus called it.1 Yet it was none the less glorious or culturally significant for that, since it was soon converted into a moral, that is a morale, victory. And as Napoleon once colourfully put it, in war the morale factor is three times as important as all the other factors put together.

Indeed, some would even say – and I am tempted to include myself in their number – that Thermopylae was Sparta’s finest hour. In any case, it’s Sparta’s Thermopylae experience that provides me with my starting-point and constant point of reference in trying to answer the question posed in this epilogue: what have the Spartans done for us? Perhaps we might begin by asking – as Great King Cyrus II, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, was supposed once to have asked, in about 550 BCE – who are these Spartans?

One answer is that they were the Dorian (Doric-speaking) inhabitants of a Greek citizen-state in the Peloponnese that for many centuries was one of the greatest of ancient Greek powers. Another answer, as one of Cyrus’s successors, Xerxes, found out all too painfully, is that they were a fighting machine strong enough, skilful enough and sufficiently iron-willed to play the key role in resisting and eventually repelling even his vast hordes – and so frustrating his attempt to incorporate the mainland Greeks in an oriental empire that already stretched from the Aegean in the west to beyond the Hindu Kush. Xerxes discovered these facts about Sparta in person, at Thermopylae, and his appointed commander-in-chief Mardonius discovered them again, fatally, at Plataea the following year, when it was the Spartans under Regent Pausanias who played the lead role in that famous and decisive Greek victory.

That in turn is one, not insignificant, answer to the question why today we should care who the ancient Spartans were. For they enabled the development of the civilization that we have chosen in crucial ways to inherit and learn from. What if the Persians had won in 480–479? Either that Greek civilization would have been significantly different thereafter, or/and we should not have been its legatees in the same ways or to the same degree. Another answer to the question why the ancient Spartans matter to us today concerns the impact of what has been variously labelled the Spartan myth, mirage or tradition. To put this differently: the variety of ways in which Sparta and the Spartans have been represented in mainly non-Spartan discourses, both written and visual, since the late fifth century BCE has left a deep mark on the Western tradition, on the understanding of what it is to belong to a Western culture.

To begin with, Sparta, like some other ancient Greek places, impinges upon our everyday consciousness through enriching our English vocabulary. The island of Lesbos, for conspicuous example, has given us ‘lesbian’, the city of Corinth ‘corinthian’, the city of Athens … ‘attic’. But ancient Sparta, prodigally, has given us ‘spartan’, of course, and ‘laconic’.

To choose an illustration almost at random, a newspaper profile of Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Opposition, referred casually to his naval public school as being ‘spartan’ – and aptly so, in this sense: the British public school system, as invented virtually by Thomas Arnold of Rugby in the nineteenth century, was consciously modelled on an idea, or even a utopian vision, of ancient Sparta’s military-style communal education.

The Spartan etymology of ‘laconic’ is not so immediately transparent. It comes from one of the ancient adjectival forms derived from the name by which the Spartans more often referred to themselves: Lacedaemonians, or Lakones. As noted earlier, the Spartans were the past masters of the curt, clipped, military mode of utterance, which they used alike in sending written or oral dispatches from the front line or at home in snappy repartee to an insistent teacher, for instance – so much so that the ancients preserved collections of what they believed to be genuine Spartan ‘apophthegms’ (I have quoted a famous one of Leonidas’s), while we still call that manner of utterance ‘laconic’ in their honour.

Even less obviously, and much less happily, the Spartans have bequeathed us also a third English word: the noun ‘helot’. This is used today to refer to a member of an especially deprived or exploited ethnic or economic underclass. It thus reflects, accurately, the dark underside of the Spartans’ more positive achievements. The Greek word heilôtês probably originally meant ‘captive’, and certainly it was as captives and enemies that the Spartans treated the unfree subordinate population of Helots: more exactly, as if they were prisoners of war whose death sentence the Spartans had merely suspended so as to force them to labour under constant threat of extinction, in order to provide the economic basis of the Spartan way of life. Other Greek cities, not least Athens, were also of course crucially dependent on unfree labour for creating and maintaining a distinctively politicized and cultured style of communal life. But the slaves held by the Athenians collectively and individually were typical of the Greek world as a whole in that they were mainly ‘barbarians’, or non-Greek foreigners, a polyglot, heterogeneous bunch – in fact, they were mostly owned on an individual, not a collective, basis. The Helots of Sparta, by contrast, were an entire Greek people, or perhaps (if we distinguish the Laconian Helots from the Messenian) two separate peoples united by a common yoke of servitude.

These three little words – spartan, laconic, helot – are just a small linguistic token of the fact that English or British culture, indeed Western culture as a whole, has been deeply marked by what the French scholar François Ollier neatly dubbed ‘le mirage spartiate’. When he coined that phrase in the 1930s, Sparta – or rather ideas of how Sparta had supposedly worked as a society – exercised a particular fascination, as noted earlier, for totalitarian or authoritarian rulers, most notoriously for Adolf Hitler and pseudo-scholarly members of his Nazi entourage such as Alfred Rosenberg. Discipline, orderliness, soldierly hierarchy and subordination of individual endeavour to the overriding good of the state were among the Spartan virtues that the Nazis and other Fascists were most attracted by – only to put them to the most perverted uses. There are still neo-Fascist organizations (one, disturbingly, in France) that are proud to follow along this same shining path.

It is this modern totalitarian or authoritarian reception of ancient Sparta that has tarnished, probably irreparably, Sparta’s reputation as a political ideal or model in modern Western liberal-democratic societies. Yet Sparta’s idealized image had not always served such sinister or heinous purposes. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a huge fan of ‘the wisdom of Sparta’s laws’, and if anything an even greater fan of its legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. In Lycurgus’s ideal Sparta, Rousseau saw a society that was devoted to implementing the general will in a collective, self-effacing, law-abiding and above all thoroughly virtuous way. Rousseau helped to ensure a key role for ancient Greece (as well as ancient Rome) in the making of the modern world, and for Sparta no less than for Athens.

Rousseau was by no means the first intellectual to deploy an image or vision of Sparta as an integral component and driving force of an entire programme of social and political reforms. Among the very first on record was Plato, and it is through Plato that Sparta can claim to be the fount and origin of the entire tradition of utopian thinking and writing (utopiography). Utopia, too, acquired a bad name in the twentieth century; but in principle – the principle of hope that things can be and will be made better – it is not as bad a place as all that. In any case, it is not only for what intellectuals and others have made of Sparta, from the Classical period of ancient Greece down to our own century, that Sparta remains a choice subject of study. It is also for what the Spartans really did achieve, most conspicuously and effectively on the battlefield during the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480–479 BCE.

The Battle of Thermopylae, though a defeat, quickly became a morale victory. As such, it formed a vital and integral part of the eventual total Greek victory over the Persians. That victory, moreover, would not have been attained had it not been for the indispensable contribution made by the Spartans. The remarkably successful organization of their society into a well oiled military machine, and their development of a rudimentary multistate Greek alliance well before the Persians invaded mainland Greece, provided the indispensable core of military leadership around which a Greek resistance could coalesce. The Spartans’ heroically suicidal stand at Thermopylae showed that the Persians both should and could usefully be resisted, and gave the small, wavering and uncohesive force of patriotic Greeks the nerve to imagine that they might one day defeat the invaders. The charismatic leadership of Spartan commanders of the character and calibre of King Leonidas and Regent Pausanias crucially unified and inspired the Greeks’ land forces.

But what, if anything, did the Spartans bring to the feast of ancient Greek culture, the source of the Western legacy, beyond making the feast possible at all? Different modern interpreters emphasize different aspects of the classical Greek cultural achievement. I myself would privilege three distinguishing qualities or characteristics, above all: first, a devotion to competition in all its forms, almost for its own sake; second, a devotion to a concept and ideal of freedom; and, third, a capacity for almost limitless self-criticism as well as unstinting criticism of others (not least other Greeks).

The first two of these might be identified equally strongly in either of the two main exemplars of ancient Greek civilization, Sparta and Athens. The third, however, specifically self-criticism, was a distinctively Athenian cultural trait and apparently not a Spartan trait at all – or so contemporary Athenians liked to claim, and many have subsequently agreed. Pericles, for example, in Thucydides’s version of his Funeral Speech of 431/30, sneered at Sparta’s merely state-imposed courage; and Demosthenes a century later asserted falsely that it was forbidden to Spartans even to criticize (let alone alter) their laws.

Undoubtedly there were no Spartan equivalents of the Athenians’ democratic Assembly and popular lawcourts, nor did the Spartans enjoy the Athenians’ annual tragic and comic drama festivals, which provided state-sponsored opportunities for self-examination and self-criticism. Yet the Spartans were not quite the unhesitatingly obedient automatons that ancient Athenian and modern liberal propaganda have made them out to be. On occasion, grumbling at authority might turn into open defiance, both individually and collectively. Even Spartan kings, who were perched at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of birth, wealth and prestige, might be brought low by being tried and fined – or, worse, exiled like Demaratus under sentence of death. It would be fairer and more accurate, then, to say that the Spartans’ culture was not one that favoured intellectual argument or even open dissent either in the agora or in any other place of public assembly.

All Greeks, probably, were passionately keen on a good contest. Their word for the spirit of competitiveness, agônia, is the root of our word ‘agony’, and that etymological connection well suggests the intense, driven quality of ancient Greek competition. A war was for the Greeks an agôn (contest), obviously enough, as was a public debate, whether real or fictional. So too was a lawsuit, but so also was any religious festival that involved, centrally or otherwise, athletic or other kinds of competition – a festival such as the Olympic Games, for example. It was in fact the Greeks ultimately who invented our idea of athletic sports, just as they invented the prototype of our idea of the theatre, and both of them within a context of religiously inspired competition and competitiveness.

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