EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest wave of leftist “wokism” that attacks Ancient Greek institutions and traditions. They started with “Black Athena”; they continued with a series of misinformed attacks on everything Greek, and they are now aimed at one of the most glorious of our ancient traditions, Sparta. Thanks to DNA studies, we defeated permanently the most severe attacks of the Left and earlier anti-Greek, primarily German, historians who were suggesting that we are a different biological race than our ancestors… As the American military is disintegrating, this latest attack on Sparta will also fail as it seems to be guided mostly by “flashy” so-called “facts, intended mostly to impress rather than to analyze. But its main aim is to attack the “warrior class” that is threatening the Left…
I will let one of our readers with military background answer it (below). But it would be a good idea if the Mayor of Sparta in Greece or other relevant institutions issued a response…
Spartans Were Losers
The U.S. military’s admiration of a proto-fascist city-state is based on bad history.
The Athenian historian Thucydides once remarked that Sparta was so lacking in impressive temples or monuments that future generations who found the place deserted would struggle to believe it had ever been a great power. But even without physical monuments, the memory of Sparta is very much alive in the modern United States. In popular culture, Spartans star in film and feature as the protagonists of several of the largest video game franchises. The Spartan brand is used to promote obstacle races, fitness equipment, and firearms. Sparta has also become a political rallying cry, including by members of the extreme right who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Sparta is gone, but the glorification of Sparta—Spartaganda, as it were—is alive and well.
Even more concerning is the U.S. military’s love of all things Spartan. The U.S. Army, of course, has a Spartan Brigade (Motto: “Sparta Lives”) as well as a Task Force Spartan and Spartan Warrior exercises, while the Marine Corps conducts Spartan Trident littoral exercises—an odd choice given that the Spartans were famously very poor at littoral operations. Beyond this sort of official nomenclature, unofficial media regularly invites comparisons between U.S. service personnel and the Spartans as well.
Much of this tendency to imagine U.S. soldiers as Spartan warriors comes from Steven Pressfield’s historical fiction novel Gates of Fire, still regularly assigned in military reading lists. The book presents the Spartans as superior warriors from an ultra-militarized society bravely defending freedom (against an ethnically foreign “other,” a feature drawn out more explicitly in the comic and later film 300). Sparta in this vision is a radically egalitarian society predicated on the cultivation of manly martial virtues. Yet this image of Sparta is almost entirely wrong. Spartan society was singularly unworthy of emulation or praise, especially in a democratic society.
To start with, the Spartan reputation for military excellence turns out to be, on closer inspection, mostly a mirage. Despite Sparta’s reputation for superior fighting, Spartan armies were as likely to lose battles as to win them, especially against peer opponents such as other Greek city-states. Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War—but only by accepting Persian money to do it, reopening the door to Persian influence in the Aegean, which Greek victories at Plataea and Salamis nearly a century early had closed. Famous Spartan victories at Plataea and Mantinea were matched by consequential defeats at Pylos, Arginusae, and ultimately Leuctra. That last defeat at Leuctra, delivered by Thebes a mere 33 years after Sparta’s triumph over Athens, broke the back of Spartan power permanently, reducing Sparta to the status of a second-class power from which it never recovered.
Sparta was one of the largest Greek city-states in the classical period, yet it struggled to achieve meaningful political objectives; the result of Spartan arms abroad was mostly failure. Sparta was particularly poor at logistics; while Athens could maintain armies across the Eastern Mediterranean, Sparta repeatedly struggled to keep an army in the field even within Greece. Indeed, Sparta spent the entirety of the initial phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Archidamian War (431-421 B.C.), failing to solve the basic logistical problem of operating long term in Attica, less than 150 miles overland from Sparta and just a few days on foot from the nearest friendly major port and market, Corinth.
The Spartans were at best tactically and strategically uncreative. Tactically, Sparta employed the phalanx, a close-order shield and spear formation. But while elements of the hoplite phalanx are often presented in popular culture as uniquely Spartan, the formation and its equipment were common among the Greeks from at least the early fifth century, if not earlier. And beyond the phalanx, the Spartans were not innovators, slow to experiment with new tactics, combined arms, and naval operations. Instead, Spartan leaders consistently tried to solve their military problems with pitched hoplite battles. Spartan efforts to compel friendship by hoplite battle were particularly unsuccessful, as with the failed Spartan efforts to compel Corinth to rejoin the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League by force during the Corinthian War.
Sparta’s military mediocrity seems inexplicable given the city-state’s popular reputation as a highly militarized society, but modern scholarship has shown that this, too, is mostly a mirage. The agoge, Sparta’s rearing system for citizen boys, frequently represented in popular culture as akin to an intense military bootcamp, in fact included no arms training or military drills and was primarily designed to instill obedience and conformity rather than skill at arms or tactics. In order to instill that obedience, the older boys were encouraged to police the younger boys with violence, with the result that even in adulthood Spartan citizens were liable to settle disputes with their fists, a tendency that predictably made them poor diplomats.
But while Sparta’s military performance was merely mediocre, no better or worse than its Greek neighbors, Spartan politics makes it an exceptionally bad example for citizens or soldiers in a modern free society. Modern scholars continue to debate the degree to which ancient Sparta exercised a unique tyranny of the state over the lives of individual Spartan citizens. However, the Spartan citizenry represented only a tiny minority of people in Sparta, likely never more than 15 percent, including women of citizen status (who could not vote or hold office). Instead, the vast majority of people in Sparta, between 65 and 85 percent, were enslaved helots. (The remainder of the population was confined to Sparta’s bewildering array of noncitizen underclasses.) The figure is staggering, far higher than any other ancient Mediterranean state or, for instance, the antebellum American South, rightly termed a slave society with a third of its people enslaved.