The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy
Paul A Rahe
Yale University Press
232pp, seven black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £25 ($35)

Aristotle described Spartan politics as a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. In Plato's Laws, the Athenian stranger describes Sparta as a mixture of monarchy and democracy, but the Spartan Megillus has trouble naming Sparta's polity at all. As a magistracy, Sparta's ephorate (elected council) is a tyranny, but overall Sparta seems the most democratic of cities, though it would be strange to deny that it is also an aristocracy.

Machiavelli and Rousseau considered Sparta to be an ideal of republican liberty. Having witnessed some of the implications of Machiavelli and Rousseau's ideas, 20th-century scholars have characterised Sparta as the pioneer of the totalitarian state. In The Spartan Regime, Paul Rahe excavates the historic of truth of the Spartan system, and shows how this politeia (a term denoting both 'regime', and the 'citizenship' that it creates) shaped the 'grand strategy' with which Sparta responded to the arrival of the Persians in the Aegean.

The word politeia enters Greek political thought in Herodotus' Inquiries. The concept organises Thucydides' analysis of the warring systems of Athens and Sparta, Xenophon's treatment of the Persian monarchy, the ideal system of Plato's Politeia (known to us as the Republic), and thence to Aristotle. In this brilliant analysis, a prologue to a planned three-part study of Sparta's grand strategy, Rahe applies the 'largely forgotten political science' of politeia to the ancient Lacedaemonians.

Rahe begins with the 'practices and institutions' that differentiated Spartans from their fellow Hellenes. The Spartan system was widely admired and, for the same reasons, rarely imitated. Spartan paedeia came close to 'giving absolute primacy to the common good', in order to foster the 'solidarity and likemindedness' that the Greeks called homonoia, and Sparta's great admirer Jean-Jacques Rousseau called 'the general will'. Sparta controlled faction not by 'controlling its effects' but by 'removing its causes'. To preserve the free polity, Sparta coined no money, and at one point banned the possession of silver and gold. Men under 30 were banned from visiting the commercial agora.

Macaulay referred to the 'intense patriotism which is peculiar to members of societies congregated in a narrow space'. There were no Greek states in the modern sense: the polis was constituted of its men. Valour, not wealth, was the currency of Spartan life, and training for war the chief activity of Spartan youth. The 'mixed system' of the polity preserved this focus by 'an elaborate system of checks and balances'. The two kings (basileus) and the council of elders (gerousia) prevented the ephorate from tending towards democratic excess. A 'vigorous inquisitorial tribunal' enforced 'citizen virtue'.

There is little reliable evidence, Rahe observes, for the origins of the Spartan regime. The Spartans were 'interlopers' in Laconia, and probably arrived in the late 10th century BC. Apart from the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, two events shaped their emerging politeia: the introduction of hoplite warfare in the 'military revolution' of the 7th century BC, and the helot revolt that followed. These combined to transform an 'aristocratic magistracy' into a mixed system with a 'democratic magistracy',
and a militarised society.

Archaic Sparta became what Herodotus called a kosmos, a musical, violent, 'rough and tumble' world that granted eudaemonia to its members. This 'gentlemanly' system rested on Spartan control of Laconia and Messenia, the 'brutal' subjection of the helots on both sides of Mount Taygetus, and the cultivation of alliances. In the middle of the 6th century, Chilon and other leaders recognised this, and developed the 'grand strategy': Sparta was not an expansionist power, but the defender of Hellenic liberty.

A superb account in its own right, Rahe's story ends with the Spartans facing the great test of their strategy, with the arrival of the Persians in the 540s BC.
Dominic Green

 

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