Come Back with Your SI or On It: Reassessing Sparta's Legacy

by Sam Ruppert

Sparta and the Confederate States of America have two things in common: slavery and their fame within military circles. Robert E. Lee and King Leonidas are probably equally well-known and equally mythologized. Recently, the treatment and memorialization of Lee – and all others involved with the Secessionist cause – has come under renewed scrutiny within the military community. This scrutiny is well deserved. After all, if the self-professed core of the American military profession is character, those professionals cannot in good conscious emulate or idolize figures who fought to preserve the barbaric institution if slavery. Leonidas and the Spartans have evaded a similar reassessment, however, until now.

If the Confederacy deserves reassessment, so too does Sparta precisely because their stories are so similar. Both groups were mythologized as fearless warriors with great leaders, fighting to protect their way of life against a foe whose material and numerical superiority makes ultimate victory impossible. Regardless, their sense of honor caused them to fight on, using superior skill and daring to exact a disproportionate toll on their enemy. The Spartan and Confederate mythologies adopted the same pattern to mask the same truth, however: that their hopeless soldiers’ honor-bound cause was despicable. Sparta and the South fought to preserve their way of life, and their way of life – including their military cultures – revolved around the enslavement of other persons.

The lost cause is an admittedly intoxicating narrative. No one can deny the heroism and romance that accompanies a small group of warriors and their leaders as they struggle against insurmountable odds. Words like honor, courage, and pride naturally accompany these struggles. Soldiers in particular find themselves powerfully attracted to those ideals. The admirability of those ideals, however, should not overpower – or at the very least should not hide – the ugly causes they were appropriated to defend.

Plenty has been written about the moral quandary posed by idolizing Confederate Soldiers, but the Spartans are equally romanticized. American culture, especially American military cultures, abounds with romanticized Spartans. The USMC Commandant’s, the Army Chief of Staff’s, and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s reading lists all include Steven Pressman’s Gates of Fire. Patches, unit logos, and themed paraphernalia referencing Spartans can be found many times over on any American military base. There are Spartan runs, lambda logos, and even Spartan workouts. Soldiers and leaders hold up Spartans as warriors worth emulating, dedicated to American values like honor, courage, and duty. Each of these instances, though, propels an imaginary idea of Sparta without examining who the Spartans really were.

Spartan hagiographies neglect that Spartan society revolved the exploitation and enslavement of other persons. It is well-established fact that the male Spartan citizens, or Spartiates, who we see portrayed by the likes of Gerard Butler in the film 300 were the minority in Spartan society. Instead, the majority of those living in Spartan society were Helots, slaves who worked the land and formed the foundation of Sparta’s agrarian economy. Helots were treated terribly, although the moral repulsiveness of institutional slavery hardly needs to be argued for. Sparta’s Helot population far outnumbered that of its citizens, and their way of life was built upon small numbers of citizens exploiting the slave labor of large numbers of Helots.

Sparta, its warrior culture, and slavery are accordingly inseparable. Sparta as a political entity was founded when the Spartans enslaved the local people living where the city of Sparta would be founded around 700 B.C. Spartan citizens then found themselves significantly outnumbered by their enslaved population. At the height of Sparta’s power, there were approximately 30,000 able-bodied male Helots for 6,000 Spartan citizens, a ratio of about five to one. Any minority enslaving a majority has good reason to fear armed insurrection, and the Spartans developed the mundane solution of having their landed gentry use their free time to sharpen warrior skills which would help even the odds in the case of slave uprisings.

So, who cares? Maybe the real Spartans didn’t exactly embody American values, but if the Spartan myth can be used as a vehicle to transmit positive values like sacrifice and discipline is there any harm done? Ignore the distastefulness of actual Spartans, for instance, and Gates of Fire remains an excellent tale of combat leadership that young leaders can learn from – hence why it finds its way onto so many professional reading lists. The problem with emulating an imagined “positive” version of a society that in reality was quite bad, however, brings us back to the American Civil War.

Like Sparta, the Confederacy gained two faces: an imagined positive one that was venerated, and a real, darker visage. The same arguments as above – that we can separate the positive myth from the negative reality – are used in the debate over memorializing the Confederacy. The issue remains contentious, but there is certainly a large section within the U.S. military and society who believe it is wrong to mythologize a warrior class dependent upon institutional slavery, regardless of any positive attributes those myths may hold. More and more, the consensus seems that any admiration for Confederates is misplaced and reprehensible. If Americans have strong moral-ethical reasons not to glorify the slaveholding Confederacy’s military exploits, how could it be consistent to glorify the slaveholding Spartans?

The strongest argument that Spartans and Confederates are not equivalent has to do with each group’s proximity to and relationship with contemporary Americans. Confederate slavery creates stronger moral claims on Americans specifically because many Americans’ recent ancestors were directly subject to Confederate (American) slavery, and that system has lasting effects on Americans today. This argument does give Confederate slavery a stronger moral claim on Americans. The Confederacy’s strong moral claim, though, does not make Sparta’s moral claim weak. Even if Confederate slavery did not so directly affect Americans, they still should not glorify it – for instance, glorifying the Confederacy remains distasteful in Europe. Accordingly, Americans should think twice about glorifying the slavery-based Spartan system even if its moral connection is not felt as deeply as our personal national shame.

Another argument against drawing parallels between the Confederacy and Sparta might be that Sparta’s most famous military exploits were not directly related to preserving slavery. The same certainly cannot be said about Confederate military exploits. The American Civil War was fought over slavery, period full stop. Conversely, many (most?) characterize Sparta’s most famous battle at Thermopylae as a heroic victory fought in the name of freedom. In the Confederacy’s case, slavery seems endemic to its military while in Sparta’s case it seems incidental.

In a society based upon institutional slavery, however, it is impossible to separate anything that society does from slavery. Sparta may have fought Persia for the freedom to preserve its way of life from a foreign invader, but that preservation necessarily entailed preserving their system of slavery. A huge portion of the American Lost Cause narrative rests on the same pillar of misdirection – that the secessionists simply fought for freedom from the central government, or “States’ Rights.” Conveniently, the critical right to own slaves is left out. Similarly, part-and-parcel with the Spartan desire to fight was the desire to see their way of life protected, and that way of life fundamentally boiled down to a landed gentry exploiting enslaved persons.

The final counterargument might be that all ancient societies practiced slavery, so Sparta’s behavior was no more reprehensible than any other Greek or Near-Eastern polity. Furthermore, had Persia been successful, perhaps it would have instituted its own system of slavery and so Sparta’s actions were not an inextricable defense of slavery. First, these arguments engage in whataboutism: others’ bad behavior does not make (in this case) Sparta’s bad behavior any better. Second, Spartan society seems bound more closely to institutional slavery than their contemporaries. Slavery in Achaemenid Persia was fundamentally different from Spartan slavery both in that slaves had much wider rights and slavery was not an institution fundamental to Persia’s political order. Conversely, Spartan culture intentionally cultivated the belief that Helots were fundamentally inferior beings worthy of being despised and mistreated; these beliefs were codified with “practices of ritualized contempt.” Spartan slavery and the Helot system was different from typical Ancient slavery as practiced by other Greek states, at the very least in terms of relative magnitude.

The Spartan myth can be deconstructed from other angles, too. Others have already raised military-technical reasons for adopting a more critical attitude toward Sparta. Moral qualms aside, the Spartans may not have even been the fiercely skilled or wildly successful warriors popular culture portrays them as. Contemporary historiography of Sparta seems to be trending toward that conclusion. The reassessment of the very grounds of the Spartan myth, their military prowess, is an encouraging footnote to the reassessment of the moral implications of emulating Sparta.

Admiration for Sparta is not new, and it is not necessarily unfounded. The American military and American society writ large do not have a monopoly on this admiration. In many ways this admiration is ingrained in Western culture alongside the broader claim to be the inheritors of the entire Greco-Roman tradition. Like the Greco-Roman tradition as a whole, Western societies have held Sparta up – exaggerating its supposed nobility and ignoring those it marginalized – for literal centuries. There is no disputing that the features we admire in these mythical Spartans are admirable. The real question is whether it is right to align ourselves with the legacies of slaveholders, even when those myths are used to a positive end. Should we find another, better way to encourage citizens and Soldiers to strive for virtues like honor, selfless sacrifice, and discipline that does not involve idolizing those who, in reality, stood against most everything America stands for? From experience with the American Civil War’s legacy, Americans should at least know to be skeptical of creating admirable mythologies for people whose real-life practices were anything but.

For military professionals, simply accepting pop history and artistic interpretations of the military past is not enough. Military professionals have an even greater obligation to think critically and carefully about the militaries and peoples they choose to idolize. This is not to say that only the “good” should be studied or that we cannot identify good traits in bad societies. Developing a black and white list of paragons to emulate and pariahs to scorn is likely impossible and should not be the goal. Military professionals’ goal, however, should be to achieve a nuanced understanding of those we aspire to emulate. Simply becoming conscious of who or what we are idolizing and why is not a terrible burden. It does not require that we throw out or disdain any group simply because they have done wrong – just that we recognize the wrong they did, and base our lessons learned on reality and not myth.


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