December 8th, 2011
Hellenistic and Roman Sparta
Paul Cartledge & Antony Spawforth
312 pages including index
published in 2002
When most people think of Sparta their first thought will probably be about that godawful movie based on that godawful Frank Miller comic 300: This! IS! Sparta! and all that. For all its faults, it does mirror the common view of Sparta as a warrior state, one of the superpowers of classical Greece, indomitable in its resistance to tyrannical Persia, if not quite a democracy itself. But there is more to Sparta’s history. There’s a tendency in pop history to look only at the classic Sparta, to lose interest once it has been overtaken by Thebe and lost its supremacy, just before the rise of Macedon under Philip and Alexander. What happened to the city once it became just another polis doesn’t interest us all that much, it seems.
We should therefore be grateful for books like this: Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: a Tale of Two Cities which does look at Sparta’s history after its fall from grace, first under Macedon rule, then under Rome. It was originally published in the early nineties, but updated for a second edition in 2002. More of a textbook than a pop history book, but I’ve struggled through much drier texts. At the very least it was an effective treatment of a part of Greek history I’m not that familiar with.
As the title indicates, this is a book of two halves. The first part treats Sparta as a Hellenistic city and is largely a chronological overview of its history from the end of the fourth century BCE when it lost its status as a great power to when it became part of the Roman Empire. The second part is much less chronologically arranged and gives more of a general overview of what the city looked like as just another provincial town in the empire, with the last few chapters looking at particular aspects of Spartan city live.
Part of this difference in approach is that historical sources are much more abundant for the first, Hellenistic period, when Sparta was still active in greater Greek politics, than they are for the Roman period, when its politics were largely local. For the later period then greater emphasis is laid on archaeological sources and what they can say about life in the city rather than on chronological history. To be honest, these later chapters were therefore off less interest to me.
What I took away from the book was that Sparta didn’t take its loss of great power status lying down and repeatedly attempted to restore its dominion, but just lacked the resources to do so. Under the Macedonian hegemony, an independent Sparta was only tolerated as long as it didn’t threaten the status quo, while its neighbours were more than happy to pull it down if it became too powerful again. Whether through internal reforms, using mercenaries financed through the foreign adventures of its kings or by gaining the support of greater powers, each of Sparta’s attempts to get back the land and possessions it had lost failed. Its resource base was too small and its local enemies too powerful to overcome, though not powerful enough to destroy the Spartan state completely.
Despite this Sparta entered Roman rule on better terms than many of the other Greek city states, having become a loyal if passive ally at exactly the right time to ensure that Sparta entered the empire as a free city. It helped a lot that Romans appreciated the traditional Spartan values of martian valour and sober, simple, clean living. Sparta made full use of its history to lure influential visitors to the city, including through various Olympic style games. This enabled the city’s elite to forge ties with notable Roman families, including those of a couple of emperors, making it more important than it really was as a smallish provincial town…