A lucid, literate history of a model society—though whether a model of good or evil remains a subject of debate.
Tucked among the nearly impenetrable mountains of southern Greece, Sparta was less an empire or kingdom than an alliance of small, unostentatious villages. Its leaders, most famously Lycurgus (“wolf-worker”), whom Cartledge (Classics/Cambridge Univ.) memorably reckons to have been a cross between George Washington and Pol Pot, shunned the thought that these settlements should hide behind tall walls and acropolises, in the manner of other Greeks; instead, its warriors and its topography would keep it safe. And so it was for nearly 300 years, until first a threatened invasion on the part of the Persian empire gave insular Sparta a key role in Western history; it was then, at the close of the fifth century b.c., that Sparta’s famed 300 fighters held off the invaders at Thermopylae. (The story, Cartledge notes wryly, will soon be coming to a theater near you, “with stars of the stature or at any rate the cost of George Clooney and Bruce Willis said to be running to play [the Spartan hero Leonidas].”) Cartledge considers the Spartan defense of Thermopylae to have been an event more important to European, and even English, history than the Battle of Hastings. The Peloponnesian War, he allows, was perhaps of less importance, though it remade the Greek world following Sparta’s defeat of Athens. Though admiring of Spartan accomplishments and the bravery of its warrior heroes, Cartledge takes pains to note the dark side of Spartan life: a martial society whose privileged youth took pleasure in hunting and killing slaves, whose well-organized secret police used murder and terror to keep the people in line. So much for utopia—though, as Cartledge notes, Sparta was the real-life model for Thomas More’s vision of a virtuous and virile world.
Chocked with learning lightly worn, and a pleasure for anyone interested in the ancient world.