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The Spartans

A review of a book by Andrew J. Bayliss

Sparta’s perennial appeal to readers is shown by the sheer number of publications focused on this polis. Dr Andrew Bayliss has written the most recent monograph on the subject, offering an up-to-date introduction to the Spartan scholarship.

Written by Owen Rees on

Is there a bolder move in book writing than to copy the title of what is, perhaps, the most popular book on the subject? While it may not have been the intention, Dr Andrew Bayliss’s new book The Spartans attracts obvious comparison with Prof. Paul Cartledge’s book with the same main title. It compares very well indeed.

I suppose a justification should be given for yet another book about the Spartans, written for a public audience… again, but Bayliss’ small offering – 35,000 words long by his own admission – offers a big punch. While the book has its issues, it is nonetheless remarkably concise, covering a lot of ground in a short space.

Bayliss offers a very up-to-date overview of Spartan culture, drawing upon leading figures in the study of ancient Sparta, including his own contributions to the field. On the one hand, this is excellent to see, especially in a book written for a public audience. On the other hand, it is marred by the editorial decision to not offer references to that scholarship. Instead we are met with “some historians think”, “one historian has argued”, and we can only hope that those same historians appear in the very short references section at the back, categorised by chapter. I understand the need to make scholarship accessible, but I am not sure if this is perhaps one step too far in the wrong direction from Oxford University Press.

But, this is to nit-pick at something innovative and refreshing. For those of you who have read the works of Stephen Hodkinson, Thomas Figueira, Nigel Kennell, Anton Powell, and so on, little here is “new”. But the synthesis of such research in one place for a public audience makes this a very valuable contribution.

The Spartans

Bayliss’s book consists of seven thematic chapters that offer a good overview of Spartan culture. Chapter One looks at the Spartan military, of course, through an exploration of the battle of Thermopylae. In it, he covers discussion of the “Spartan Mirage”, and suggests that this model has possibly gone too far to normalise the Spartans but, as he argues: “the very notion of the Spartan mirage tells us that there really was something different about the Spartans” (p. 4).

The battle of Thermopylae is reviewed well, with many of the common misconceptions covered briefly, including: the number 300, the phrase molon labe, the presence of the helots at the battle, and so on. As the only chapter to offer a discussion on the Spartan’s military history, it is limited by its remit.

This single-battle approach does allow the reader to continue holding one large misconception (p. 15):

This [not surrendering] became so much the norm that Thucydides reported, “It was thought neither force nor famine could make the Spartans surrender their arms, but they would keep them and fight on as long as they were able to death.”

But the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria (425 BC) would suggest otherwise (Thucydides, 4.37-8).

Chapter Two covers the civic structure of Sparta, including the hierarchy of citizenship, the place of helots (who are explored in more detail in their own chapter later) and perioikoi, and how Spartan government was set out. Bayliss manages to explain the Spartan systems with real clarity, name dropping ancient sources as he writes but, again, without any direct citation to aid the interested reader.

Chapter Three looks at the Spartan lifestyle and really highlights how far scholarship has come from the days of seeing Sparta as a city-barracks, and the Spartans as simply full-time warriors. His sections on the perception of Spartan austerity, and the question of their professional status as soldiers, are particularly good. Nowhere will you find a more concise overview of the prevailing academic ideas on these questions.

Chapter Four looks at the education of Spartan boys, covering important topics such as literacy levels in Sparta, and the topic of Spartan pederasty. While I don’t find his argument on pederasty convincing – that the contradictory sources about Spartan customs of pederasty can be reconciled by explaining their sexual relationship as non-penetrative – it is indicative of this book’s approach to try and offer possible explanations to cover any gaps or debates, which I think is a good thing.

This can sometimes go awry when Bayliss appeals not to evidence but to his own authority. One such instance comes when he discusses the topic of eugenics and the supposedly habitual infanticide of babies with disabilities – the obvious counter to this is King Agesilaus II who was born with a congenital leg condition (p. 75):

The decision to raise the lame Agesilaus was surely the exception rather than the rule in Sparta.

This is a valid and not uncommon explanation, but it is also an opinion. Bayliss brushes over a lot of disability-history studies that bring the claims of institutionalised infanticide, which appears only in Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 16.1), under serious scrutiny. There is actually no reason to assume Agesilaus was “surely” the exception, other than the fact that we want to. As for the more general historical issues around Spartan eugenics and whether they did kill babies, see this article on Ancient World Magazine’s sister site, Bad Ancient.

Chapter Five is on Spartan women, and offers a very even-handed assessment of their role in Sparta. Bayliss rightfully dismisses the idea of Sparta being a gynaecocracy (thanks for that Aristotle! Politics, 1269b 24-34), or indeed some feminist utopia. He settles on the view offered by another unnamed expert (the excellent work of Thomas J Figueira, for those interested), who emphasises women’s role in reinforcing social conformity (p. 110).

Chapter Six revisits the helots in greater detail, covering their economic role in the Spartan state and, very briefly, the domestic and military tasks they performed. An important section covers the question of the helot’s status: slavery vs serfdom. Helots are hard to categorise within conventional discussions on ancient slavery, because they were never removed from their homeland. Bayliss does not draw a conclusion on the discussion but does mention a new trend to conceptualise “helotic slavery” as a way of examining this phenomenon inside Lacedaimon, and other Greek states. Helot/Messenian history is covered toward the end of the chapter, bringing to mind the realisation that this book does not usually cover narrative history at all. The invasions and subjugation of Messenia are outlined, as are the subsequent rebellions up to their gaining freedom after the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC).

Chapter Seven focuses on the reception of Sparta outside of the classical period. Predominantly it focuses on their presence in European political thought up to and including the Nazis. The influence of historians such as Dr Helen Roche is very clear here, to any who have read her amazing work on the reception of Sparta in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany.

The graphic novel (and film) 300 has its own reception section, but Bayliss offers more than the usual criticism, aligning it with other popular-receptions of Thermopylae, such as other graphic novels, like Three (which focuses on three helots on the run from Sparta), and the books by Steven Pressfield. Sports clubs are covered, but the length available to Bayliss restricted any meaningful exploration of less popular sports.

Closing thoughts

To be able to judge a book you must be able to first discern its purpose and place in the market. At 35,000 words, and an RRP of £10.99/$13.95 USA, this must be aimed at a public audience. It is small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, so it is an ideal gift for any history lover.

With that in mind, this would explain the reluctance to use referencing, and the brief lists of reading offered at the end of the book. But, if that is the case, the information is pitched too high. The explanation of Spartan life, of Spartan politics, is too in-depth and lacks any basic groundwork for the new reader, including any historical narrative to help people understand the “Spartan story”, so to speak.

Furthermore, there is a growing battle between history audiences and book marketing. The decision to not use citations is a frustrating one. I understand the prevailing belief that footnotes put general readers off, and perhaps there is truth in that, but compare it to Cartledge’s Spartans book, who uses endnotes almost exclusively for ancient evidence. There aren’t many, but they are there.

Perhaps, then, this book is aimed at the student level. Indeed it would work very well as a course text on the Spartans, guiding students through the debates that are ongoing. But again, if this was the case I would want to see more references to ancient evidence, more direction to scholarly opinion to help students navigate the topic.

These critiques aside, this is a great book for any ancient history lover with a basic knowledge of Sparta gleaned from other popular works. It offers a much needed antidote to the Spartan love-in that dominates the public history market. If you have a good grasp of Spartan history already, or a basic understanding of classical Greek history, this book is a perfect read to update yourself on what Spartan scholarship has had to say over the last 40 years.

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