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It’s All Greek!


We look into history from motives of two kinds. There is curiosity about the past, what happened, who did what, and why; and there is the hope to understand the present, how to place and interpret our own times, experiences, and hopes for the future. The world of classical antiquity is one of the best instruments we have for both purposes. There is a good deal of evidence, much of it exceptionally interesting and sophisticated, for a world that existed and developed for more than a thousand years, and produced memorable works of art and literature. It is a world, as it happens, that is connected with our own by links much closer and more pervasive than those between us and, for example, ancient China (too far away from the West, and consequently in its formative period almost unknown to it).

Some have liked to dream of ancient Greece as a place of serenity and repose, with the “noble simplicity” that Winckelmann praised in Greek art; but the reality was very different. Between the ferociously independent city-states war was endemic, and defeat could mean the destruction of a city, the death of its fighting men, and the sale of its women and children into slavery. The greatest war in Greek history, between 431 and 404 BCE, was that between classical Athens and its empire on the one side and Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies on the other. Viewing it from the Athenian side, we call it the Peloponnesian War.

Athens was a democracy, the first in history. That portentous innovation had unleashed an explosion of energy. The city had acquired an empire, and it had become a magnet for artists and intellectuals. It could boast of being the home of the tragic poets, and of the comic poet Aristophanes, and of the philosopher Socrates and his disciple Plato, and of the supreme historian Thucydides, and of the unrivaled buildings and statues on the Acropolis.

In Sparta the Athenians faced a grimmer society which regularly expelled foreigners, and which prided itself on subordinating the individual to the state. The Spartan economy was based on the subjection to serfdom of a native Greek people, the Helots, on whom each group of annually elected magistrates, on taking office, formally declared war. The state existed permanently on the defensive. It had been a stranger, for a hundred years past, to literature and the arts. The great war dragged on for nearly thirty years. It proved disastrous for Greece, ruining its cities, bringing in an atmosphere of violent class hatred and unprecedented atrocities and massacres, and fatally setting back the arts not only of Greece but of the subsequent West.

Donald Kagan, of Yale, is the author of an extensive and widely praised four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, aimed at specialists. He has now condensed it into a narrative “for the non-professional reader.” That reader is offered a detailed account of the military history of the period. Leaning heavily, as he must, on Thucydides, Kagan unravels with skill and clarity the complexities of a long and often confusing war. On the whole he avoids the temptation to point modern parallels. That temptation was greater, of course, when Western society faced the closed and repressive Soviet system of Stalin and Brezhnev. The claim was indeed often made that we were Athens to their Sparta. The current antagonist, radical Islam, does not fit that bill quite so easily.

Kagan’s book can be commended to anyone who wants to find out what happened on the battlefield, or what were the strategic issues. The story of the war is fascinating, with its twists, alliances, and unexpected developments. It is perhaps disappointing that the perspective is not wider, that more is not made of the cultural life of the period, and of the contrast between the two sides. Kagan barely mentions Socrates—tolerated by the Atheni- ans for fifty years and finally put to death on charges to which the politics of the war were central—or the Parthenon, built on forced contributions from Athens’ “allies,” which had been levied to pay for the cost of defense against Persia. The use of this money for the Parthenon was bitterly resented by many, both inside and outside the city. (It is striking that the Parthenon does not appear in the full and helpful index.)

Nor does he discuss the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, which have so much to tell us about war, and which in many ways reflect its hopes, its glories, and its oppressive weight. Even Thucydides, after all, the least sentimental of historians, gives us at full length the Funeral Speech of Pericles, which sets out unforgettably the unique quality of democratic Athens, its openness, its freedom, and its cultural achievements, as well as recording its acts of increasing desperation and atrocity.

As for the culture of Sparta, that too is rather taken for granted in Kagan’s book. By benign chance, its peculiar character is well illustrated in The Spartans by Paul Cartledge, of Cambridge. Sparta was already, by the fourth century BCE, a place of mystery; less a place, in important respects, than an idea. Spartans did not write books, and they tried to avoid mixing with foreigners. They wanted to freeze change and to preserve their extraordinary society exactly as it was. Even such upsetting innovations as coined money were excluded—though all too many Spartans, serving their country abroad and exposed to temptation, earned a bad name for avarice.

True Spartans were called homoioi, a stronger term than “equals”; Cartledge renders it “peers”: perhaps “interchangeables” might convey something of its force and oddity. Brought up in boarding establishments from the age of seven, required to dine in the mess even after marriage, visiting their wives (we read) only by stealth, they were bred for toughness and unquestioning devotion to the state. It was a regular part of the upbringing of young men to serve a term in the secret police (Krypteia), which prowled about by night to detect unrest among the subjugated Helots and to make away with those suspected of it.

Cartledge rightly stresses that the Spartans could on important occasions rise to military challenges. When in 480 BCE the Great King of Persia, which had conquered Babylon and Assyria and Lydia and Egypt, invaded Hellas with the countless hordes of Asia, drinking rivers dry as they passed, according to Herodotus, most Greeks quite reasonably assumed that resistance was futile. True, ten years before the Athenians had defeated an invading Persian army at Marathon; but that was a comparatively small, sea-borne expeditionary force, not in the same league as this vast array. Even the god Apollo, to judge by his disheartening responses from his prophetic shrine at Delphi, had written the Greeks off. No doubt that was because the staff of the oracle, with their international contacts and clientele, had a more accurate idea than other Greeks of the odds stacked by King Xerxes against Hellas.

But in the narrow pass of Thermopylae three hundred Spartans, under their king, Leonidas, and a couple of thousand other Greeks, fought to the last with a ferocity, a discipline, and an effectiveness that impressed the Persians and their own countrymen alike. “Their arrows will darken the sky? Good: we shall fight in the shade.” That was the classically laconic response of the Spartan warrior Dieneces to defeatists before the battle. The moral impact of the heroic stand was incalculable, in antiquity and far beyond. The idea that Europe really was different from Asia received here its decisive boost, and from the pass of Thermopylae to the thin red line of British troops standing fast against the Fuzzy Wuzzy was to prove, historically, quite a short step. No less important was its meaning for Greece during the Italian invasion and the German occupation in World War II.

The toughness of the Spartans, and the lack of reliable information about Sparta, impressed other Greeks. The impression was not always favorable, but the influential conservative tradition of Plato and others, hating democracy and inclining to paranoia about the dangers of free discussion and the arts, idolized Sparta as far preferable to the volatile and unreliable democracy of Athens. The extraordinary painting by J.-L. David Leonidas at Thermopylae, now in the Louvre and reproduced by Cartledge, gives that tradition memorable embodiment, as the doomed warriors, about to fight and die at Thermopylae, pose nobly in the nude. Napoleon, trying to be super macho, reproached the artist with having glorified men who, after all, were defeated: a truly leaden echo from that cracked military bell, but it would not be until the middle of the nineteenth century that sympathy would really swing back to Athens from Sparta.

The history and atmosphere of Sparta are well conveyed by Cartledge, who calls it “an authoritarian, hierarchical and repressive utopia.” It shows a remarkable, a more than Spartan, self-control to write,

The book will be divided into three Parts. The first, “Go, tell the Spartans,” which has also been used as the title of a movie based on the Vietnam War, is named after the opening words of the famous contemporary epitaph for the Thermopylae battle-dead attributed to [the poet] Simonides.

and not to quote the couplet itself:

Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Is it so certain that everybody knows these lines nowadays? They certainly were well known at one time in England. In the days of the press barons Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook, they were drawn on by Anon for an “Epitaph on an Army of Journalists:

Go, tell his Lordship, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to his laws, we lie.

Cartledge describes with approval the comparative freedom of Spartan women, so shocking to Athenian democrats—for Athenian women were kept far more firmly in their place. Spartan girls got some education. In the fantasies, at least, of some European historians, they exercised naked with the young men. (In the London National Gallery there is a rather disappointing painting by Degas showing such a scene.) Other Greeks, pruriently disapproving, imagined Spartan girls as unchaste, and there were curious rumors of wife-swapping in the highest circles.

Like many others, Cartledge is fond of the early-fifth-century BCE Spartan princess Gorgo, of whom Herodotus and others give us charming glimpses. No little girl in Athens is comparably described in any literary source. When her father was offered a large sum by a foreign visitor for the use of Spartan troops, “Gorgo piped up: ‘Daddy, you had better go away, or the foreigner will corrupt you.’” But it is sad to find what Cartledge thinks about her name:

What was her father, King Cleomenes I, thinking when he so named her? That she would petrify anyone who looked her in the eye? Surely not. Yet “Gorgo” means “Gorgon,” as in the myth of the Gorgon called Medusa…. A truly terrifying name, but perhaps in Sparta it was not felt to be quite as odd as all that.

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