Book review: Historian Paul Rahe recounts epic Spartan tales and the defeat of the mighty Persian empire

Historian Paul Rahe presents a meticulously researched account of a Spartan society ruthlessly built on privilege and its unlikely defeat of the mighty Persian empire.

The Battle of Thermopylae between Persian king Xerxes’ army and a small force of Spartan king Leonidas’ soldiers in 480 BC took place in a narrow pass along the coast of the Gulf of Malia, ancient Greece. The Persians were victorious but were defeated a year later. Courtesy Corbis
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It's a little deflating to realise that the "grand strategy" referred to in the title of historian Paul Rahe's new book The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta was not anything grander than the generational effort of the Spartan ruling elite to maintain their way of life.

The Lacedaemonian rulers of this ancient Greek city-state had over centuries crafted a well-ordered society to benefit its most privileged members, and they wanted that society to last.

Long, long before the appearance of popular modern Hollywood renditions, the society was famous throughout ancient Greece for its martial rigour.

As Rahe puts it, the other city-states of the area were communities of smallholders and gentlemen farmers, but Sparta was “a legion of men-at-arms.”

Physically fit boys were taken from their families at the age of seven and ordered into training phalanxes (weak or unfit boys were murdered), after which they would return to their homes only to visit – their true home was from then on with their messmates.

These companies of fighting aristocrats were able to concentrate on their art in this way because their society was perched on top of a massive pyramid of oppression. The city-state of Sparta controlled not only its own region of Laconia in the southern Peloponnesus but also the province of Messenia on the other side of the Taygetus mountains, and they did this through overseeing an enormous population of slaves called helots, who were “conscious of their identity as a separate people, bitterly hostile to their masters, and prone to revolt.”

Each male Spartan citizen was given an allotment of land sufficient to give him an independent income, but it was helots who actually worked the land and outnumbered their masters many times over. During the coming-of-age ceremony for elite Spartan boys, they were encouraged to hunt down any helots “found roaming about after curfew”.

Ruling such a precarious arrangement could naturally be extremely tricky, which might explain both the nature and the extent of Spartan government. The city-state and its territories were ruled by two kings, a council of elders, and an administration of elected ephors who directly oversaw all aspects of Spartan daily life.

These rulers exercised complete control over their citizens: all aspects of clothing, hairstyle, deportment and contact with the outside world were strictly regulated in order to foster the impression of Sparta as a tight and orderly little world of its own, one capable of lauding itself to the rest of Greece as “the scourge of tyranny, the champions of liberty, the friends of oligarchy, and the heirs of Agamemnon” (as Rahe tartly puts it).

Rahe is entirely right to assert (again echoing Plutarch) that the Spartans maintained their authoritarian, militaristic slave-power in large part through fear: fear of the liberating tendency of individual thought or initiative, fear of the inherently destabilising effect of radically different scales of wealth or property, and most of all fear of the omnipresent threat of helot revolt.

The elite of the Spartan state, as Rahe writes, formed such intense bonds specifically because they viewed themselves – with some justification – not as fellow citizens in a larger polity but as shoulder-to-shoulder soldiers in a state that was as much an armed garrison as a city. Such a state might be able, from a standpoint of manpower and material, to field an army of 10,000 soldiers. But it would be wary of sending such an army far away from a homeland that was always seething with underclass resentment.

The main action of Rahe’s book begins when this semi-isolated slave-state encounters an outside intrusion it cannot ignore.

Beginning in the mid-540s BC, all the city-states of ancient Greece gradually became aware of the growing threat represented by the vast Persian Empire to the East, spearheaded by that empire’s ruling Achaemenid dynasty. It was given particular focus and charismatic energy by the leader who came to its throne in 486 BC, Xerxes, whose father Darius had attempted to invade Greece and been defeated at the famous Battle of Marathon a decade before, and who decided on an invasion in strength in 480.

As Rahe succinctly writes, “World conquest was, as we have seen, the raison d’être of the Achaemenid regime.” And like Herodotus before him, he pauses to marvel at the sheer size of the conglomerate which Xerxes ruled as King of Kings: “The Achaemenid realm was one of the largest contiguous land empires in human history, and it included among its subjects something on the order of 40 per cent of the human race – a greater proportion than any empire before or since.”

When the navy of Xerxes set sail, it seemed to onlookers like they could walk from ship to ship across the whole of the Hellespont. When his armies marched, they shook the earth.

At Abydos, we are told, “Xerxes had a throne of marble set upon a hill so that he could look down on the force then gathering and take satisfaction in its magnificence ... It took, Herodotus reports, a week for the footsoldiers, the cavalry, the beasts of burden, and the train of servants, marching day and night, to get across the two bridges.”

The Persian king expected capitulation; he styled himself as de facto king of all nations and expected either to meet no resistance or to crush it with negligent effort. “That an alliance of small cities,” Rahe writes, “should stand up to annihilate what was arguably the largest army and most formidable fleet ever assembled – this was and still is a wonder well worthy of extended contemplation.”

Much of The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta concerns itself with that clash, particularly the small but world-famous encounter between the Spartan king Leonidas and his small band of allied soldiers and the whole sprawling army of Xerxes, an encounter that took place at a very narrow pass along the coast of the Gulf of Malia called Thermopylae. There, Leonidas reinforced an old border wall and waited with his hugely-outnumbered men for the Persian advance, which was forced to crowd into a constricted terrain where its numbers were rendered largely irrelevant.

“Xerxes’ weakness lay in his strength,” Rahe shrewdly observes. “The army that had overawed everyone it encountered prior to Thermopylae was its own worst enemy.”

Leonidas and his forces were famously overwhelmed at Thermopylae, and the Greek naval forces withdrew from Artemisium when this news reached them. Both encounters were technically Persian victories, allowing Xerxes’ forces to overrun much of Greece and to capture Athens. But the stubborn tenor of the resistance he had encountered on land and sea clearly unnerved Xerxes, who tried for a conclusive naval victory later in the year, only to be surprised by a decisive defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis.

Stung, he withdrew, leaving his general Mardonius to carry on the Persian invasion. Mardonius was killed along with large numbers of his men at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC when they faced a coalition of Greek forces that included a strong Spartan contingent and led in part by a young Spartan regent named Pausanias, whom Rahe describes as “a neophyte in his mid-twenties who may never before have commanded troops”.

Persian forces were ultimately turned back at the Battle of Mycale later that summer, and throughout all of these epic hostilities, the other Greek city-states looked to Sparta as unofficial leader and bulwark.

Rahe’s book, the first in a projected trilogy charting the life of classical Sparta, is intensely well-researched and well-balanced, especially in light of the notoriously patchy nature of his primary sources.

He is a very likeable sympathetic reader of great authors from antiquity, especially the greatest of them all, Herodotus, who made the wars between Greece and Persia the dramatic climax of his own book 2,500 years ago. The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta tells the old stories in a new light, from the Spartan point of view.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and a regular contributor to The Review.