Electronic Antiquity v7n1 - Reviews - Spartan Reflections

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

Spartan Reflections , Paul Cartledge. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press / London: Duckworth, 2001. ISBN 0-520-23123-6. Pp. xii + 276.

Reviewed by Nick Fisher
School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University, Wales

[I should start by declaring an interest: I have been pleased to count Paul Cartledge as a friend since the late 1960s and one who has given me much valued encouragement and support, as he has to so many other scholars. I recently enjoyed attending an international conference at Sparta in which his standing as one of the very top Spartan scholars of this generation was plain to all, and had the pleasure of visiting museums and sites in his expert company (including the Menelaion - which makes the slip on p. 16 all the odder, where it is described as being to the NE of Sparta; this book would also have benefited from a couple of maps.]

As the new millennium begins, Paul Cartledge (C.), currently perhaps the leading Anglophone 'Sparta-watcher', is in an unusually - even for him - reflective mood, induced in part by canny publishers and his many admirers. Sparta and Lakonia (1979) and Hellenistic and Roman Sparta (1989; co-authored with Tony Spawforth), have just re-appeared, and Agesilaos (1987) is about to re-appear, in revised versions, and here thirteen substantial articles entirely or largely concerned with Sparta are represented; most are much appreciated and constantly-cited classics, while one is the first appearance in English of a paper on the debate on the 'hoplite reform' originally published in Italian, updating his views after the major piece in JHS 1977 (which is not reprinted here). There are two new papers, on Spartan kingship and Spartan bronzes. All the previously published papers come decked out with new introductions, and updated bibliographical references, and the book as a whole opens with a (brief) new introduction on the recent history of Spartan studies. As is well known, and is demonstrated throughout this book, C. has always been commendably concerned to pay tribute to his predecessors, and to situate his own ideas in relation to methodological approaches, from his early espousal of the sophisticated marxism of Geoffrey de Ste Croix, not by any means wholly given up, to his openness to many other approaches whether in comparative anthropology, economic theory or post-modern history. All interested in Sparta, and even those who already possess all or many of the articles in their earlier forms, have many good reasons to acquire this latest set of detailed, firm but always fair-minded arguments on the central aspects of Spartan history and historiography, in addition to the more synoptic narratives and analyses of his other books.

'Reflections' here, as he explains himself (p.x), suggests both the conscious other- and self-reflexivity and provocativeness of C.'s writings, and equally the obliqueness, or worse, the 'mirage', of our evidence for Spartan history: the almost complete absence of literary texts composed by Spartans (after the early poets, whose genuine Spartanness I'm glad to see C. still believes), the systemic ideological drives of all our non-Spartan writers, the limited epigraphy and the problems in interpreting the material record (elegantly symbolised by the opaque bronze mirror on the 'dust'-jacket). C. is less sure in this 'post-modern' age than he once was (p. 4-5) that a combination of critical analysis of texts with systematic use of archaeology and anthropological comparison can lead to any certain conclusions, but he has not quite abandoned such positivist hopes; many of the revised introductions to these papers have the tone of a man determinedly justifying, albeit in ever more nuanced forms, many of his initial convictions.

A convincing example (to my mind) of this is the introduction to the paper ('Rebels and Sambos') from the Festschrift for de Ste Croix CRUX (1985). The paper itself, like a great many of those collected here, works with sustained comparisons between Sparta and other Greek states, especially of course Athens; it is also justly famous for its subtle and balanced use of comparison with systems of slavery in the New World, to explain the differences between Greek or American chattel slavery, with its plentiful evidence for harsh treatment and endemic resistance, and Spartan helotage with its systemic and ultimately successful readiness for mass revolt. The introduction here concentrates on a welcome restatement, against the likes of Roobaert, Talbert and Whitby, that Thucydides could have had informants for his famous statement of the 'disappearance' of c. 2000 helots (4.80) and for his more general, and consistently held, view, that the defence against the helots was the constant preoccupation for the Spartiates (however we choose to translate 4.80.2, on which C. suspends judgement), and the primary determining cause of all the distinctive aspects of Spartan society; this theme, which remains at the heart of C.'s understanding of Sparta, recurs in almost every paper.

In similar vein, the reprint of the equally seminal paper on Spartan women (1981) briefly defends his sceptical view of the extent to which they may be described as 'liberated' or 'powerful' (against e.g. Pomeroy, Kunstler and Zweig), and his view that aspects of Aristotle's harsh analysis, for all its blatant prejudice, is not totally without foundation; the companion piece on Spartan pederasty (also 1981) has been very lightly touched up, fairly enough, since as C. notes, the recent intensity of debate has focused rather on the general issues of studying ancient ideologies of sexuality and gender difference and on the moralities and modalities of Athenian same-sex relations.

The standard topic of the Spartan political structures and their development (The 'Great Rhetra' and all that) is treated primarily here in the Irish Academy lecture published in 1980, and also in the newly published piece on the dual kingship; both admirably balanced accounts, privileging alike the powers and authority of the Gerousia and the symbolic 'charisma' and patronage powers of the Kings. A related paper, only partly about Sparta, and at first sight perhaps an odd inclusion in this book, is his contribution to one of the many celebrations of Cleisthenes' 2,500th birthday, Ober and Hedrick's Demokratia (1966); this brief meditation on conceptions of equality, ancient Greek and modern, one of a number of preliminary position papers anticipating his coming large-scale book on Greek political thought in practice and theory, justifies its place here above all for the very clear and persuasive statement of the differences between the political equality of Athenian citizens and the Spartan homoioi , and (again) explaining Spartan hierarchies, and less fully democratic procedures, primarily by the military needs of helot-surveillance. (On effectiveness of voting by shouting as a reinforcement of status and hierarchy, see also now J. E. Lendon, in E. Tylawski & C. Weiss eds., Essays in Honour of Gordon Williams , New Haven, 2001, 169-75) A similar strategy informs the more 'popular' treatment of Spartan education, originally published (1992) in a festscrift to his teacher at St Paul's School, London, where a sustained comparison with the less compulsory and more liberal system at Athens is followed by an account of the agoge which, while generously including elements from others' interpretations, insists again firmly (and with his characteristic taste for precise, polysyllabic metaphor) how the agoge fitted 'as smoothly and noiselessly as any other moving part' into Sparta's 'machinery of prophylaxis against the helots'; the earlier, eminently sensible, paper on 'Literacy in the Spartan Oligarchy' (1978), uses the same comparative method to reach comparable conclusions on the severely limited, practical and controlled uses of writing among the Spartiates.

The contribution of archaeology and study of material culture to our understanding of Sparta, central to C.'s approach since his doctoral days, takes centre stage in two recent papers. 'City and Chora', which first appeared in a British Museum Colloquium of 1998 starts with a brief, warm, tribute to the work of the British School in Laconia, and proceeds to a very revealing set of suggestions of how the spatial arrangement of Sparta town, its territory and sanctuaries, its looseness and lack of walls and other signs of monumentality which so struck Thucydides, may in fact have emphasised and reinforced the state's hierarchical structures; intelligent and critical use is made here of the ideas associated with de Polignac, and the persistent tactic already noted, systematic comparison with Athens, is traced back to one of its earliest exponents, and then redeployed effectively. The hitherto unpublished, paper, on Spartan bronzes and other artefacts, which reveals his taste for the small figurines, has much of interest to say on the breadth and complexity of Spartan relations and interests with places abroad in the archaic period. C then revisits the issue of the relation of Spartan cultural change (traditionally seen as 'decline'), as plotted through the quality and quantity of Laconian artefacts from the later sixth century on, to the strengthening of the 'Lycurgan' social system and the increasing worries and oliganthropia and helot-control; the tone is more cautious, but some connection is still asserted positively, if not here argued for in detail. One can contrast now the fuller and more sceptical analyses of Stephen Hodkinson (in Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta , and his related articles), who points out that many of the types of change observed are far from peculiar to Sparta. This particular debate, like many others, has no doubt far yet to go; C's existing contributions, and his future ones, will remain central to all Spartan discussions for a long time.

The book's coda is one of C.'s explorations, fascinating, and remarkably learned and bibliographically aware, of significant classical allusions among modern writers, and it stems also from his 'Irish' period at Trinity College, Dublin. 'The importance of being Dorian' demonstrates, decisively, I would have thought, the not quite suppressed Spartan and homosexual significance of the 'Christian' (or rather pagan) name of the eponym of Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Grey , through an exploration of his deep classical learning and links at Trinity with Mahaffy; C. clinches the primary argument elegantly through an allusion in the novel to the idealising theory of the Spartan lover as 'inspirer' ( eispnelas ) which Wilde is likely to have found in K.O. Müller's book on the Dorians, and explores Wilde's subtle and delicious paradox in finding a model for the effete aesthete Grey in the tough and rugged Dorians, and especially the Spartans.