The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge
by paul a. rahe
yale, 392 pages, $38.00
The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings.” John Stuart Mill’s insight is often taken to mean that if the Persian invasions of the Greek mainland from 490 to 479 BC had succeeded, the “Greek Miracle” of the fifth and fourth centuries BC might have been stillborn and Western Civilization would never have developed. Nothing distinctive about the culture that in the centuries after the battle of Salamis would have developed. No Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, no Herodotus and Thucydides, Pericles and Demosthenes, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And the England that Mill knew would have been altogether different, and inferior.
Who deserved credit for the triumph at Marathon was a matter of debate from the beginning. When Herodotus recounted the story of the Persian invasions, he argued that the Greek victory depended on the cooperation of both democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta. Writing in the late fifth century, when many Greeks resented Athens’ aggressive imperialism and credited Sparta with the lion’s share of the victory, Herodotus protested that without the Athenian navy, the Persians would have outflanked and defeated Sparta’s forces, despite their heroic resistance. In our age, Athenian democracy enjoys a better press than in Herodotus’s day, and scholars tell the story of Greek resistance to Persia from the Athenian point of view just as our accounts of World War II privilege the successful American landing on the beaches of Normandy over the Russian victory at Stalingrad. We look back to Athens, not Sparta.
In The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta Paul Rahe aims to restore the Herodotean balance. Without downplaying the Athenian contribution he begins with Sparta. The Spartan political system was one of checks and balances: two royal families, five annually rotating elected officials (ephors), a senate (gerousia) of men over sixty and a popular assembly of all citizens (Homoioi or “equals”). Their way of life enforced a military commitment to the state over individual achievement or family life. Men spent the years from seven to 45 with their military unit while contacts with birth family and married family were discouraged in favor of relationships between older and younger men we might call “male bonding.” Rahe prefers the franker term “pederasty.”
Sparta fostered a culture of military solidarity over self-fulfilling individualism because Spartan political freedom depended on the forced labor of the Helots, serfs who worked the fields of nearby Messenia to grow grain for their Spartan masters. Spartans had to be constantly on guard against revolt. Sparta’s Grand Strategy aimed at controlling southern Greece, Pelops’ Island, with an iron fist and rarely venturing beyond.
The Persian invasions changed the Grand Strategy. The Spartans were slow to send troops to help the Athenians at Marathon in 490, but when the two-pronged Persian expeditionary force on land and sea arrived in northern Greece in 480, three hundred Spartans led by their king died slowing down the Persian army at Thermopylae. After the decisive Athenian naval victory at Salamis, a Spartan general defeated the Persian army at Plataea and drove them back to Asia. The Greeks fought the Persians for another generation, but in Asia or Egypt, not in Greece.
Rahe is a solid military historian and is quite good at explaining hoplite warfare on land and the role of the trireme battleship. What drives his narrative, however, is a vision of the Persian Wars as a clash of civilizations, which he presents as possessing significant parallels to the conflicts of our own day. Rahe calls the invasion of Greece a jihad, because Persia’s expansive foreign policy was rooted in an aggressive commitment to a moralistic Zoroastrian religion. He draws other modern parallels. Churchill’s name appears only once in the index, but Rahe calls pro-Persian Greek tyrants “quislings.” After the invasion had failed, the Athenians punished their wartime leader, Themistocles, first with ostracism and then with exile. Rahe indignantly compares Themistocles’ fate to the British electorate’s “unjust” rejection of Churchill in 1945.
Whether or not we find these contemporary parallels apt, Rahe’s focus may help us understand Sparta’s important role in early modern Europe, on which he has written significant scholarship. Rousseau modeled his ideal communities on Sparta. American patriot Samuel Adams dreamed of his native Boston as “a Christian Sparta” that valued virtue over wealth, though New England ended up pursuing the more Athenian path of a democratic commercial republic. With the deindustrialization of America and the growth of a large standing army, we may come to appreciate the virtues of Sparta once again. Under the tutelage of Jerry Seinfeld (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .”) and Justice Anthony Kennedy, we may even come to accept the institution of pederasty. Even if we limit our admiration to Sparta’s privileging citizenship over individualism, Paul Rahe’s philosophical history helps us see the virtues of classical Sparta as our ancestors did.E. Christian Kopff teaches ancient Greek literature and the Bible in the Honors Program of the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the author of The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition.