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Doing Justice to the Classics

Scholars Respond to Spartan Helmets

As Pharos documented previously, Spartan helmets were among the symbols displayed by white nationalist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and misogynisitc marchers in the April 2017 Berkeley protests. [Update: Read our response essay]

Scholars Respond

Pharos invited specialists on ancient Sparta to comment on this appropriation:

  • The protesters’ interpretation of Sparta is very similar to that of the Nazis, who claimed that Sparta exemplified racial purity, social hierarchy, and military strength. Despite their claim to be defending western values and “free speech,” the protesters’ invocation of this version of Sparta signals their totalitarian aims.
  • The protesters waved a flag featuring a Spartan helmet and a Greek text intended to be the Spartan King Leonidas’ response to Persian emissaries who demanded that the Spartans hand over their weapons: “Come and get them.” The flag misspells the phrase (correct: ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ/molon labe; flag: ΜΟΛΩΠ ΛΑΒΣ/molop labs). The phrase is especially popular with many gun-rights activists in the United States. It’s a great line, there’s no doubt about it, but it is unlikely that Leonidas or any Spartan of his period ever said it.
  • The right admires Sparta as heroic defenders of Europe against foreign invaders from Persia, but Sparta colluded on several occasions with the Persian Empire: in the Peloponnesian War it was Persian financial support that allowed the Spartans to defeat the Athenian Navy and at “The King’s Peace” of 387/6 BCE  the Spartans allowed the Persians to take control of much of the eastern Greek world in order to preserve their own territory. The Spartans fought against the east only when it suited their interests, and collaborated with them against the west when expedient.
  • The protesters in Berkeley were primarily young men. Sparta was renowned in antiquity for its expectation that the young should honor and abide by the traditions of the dominant culture. Demonstrations of the sort seen in Berkeley would probably not have been tolerated. Certainly the kind of “free speech” the demonstrators claim to be defending was not part of Spartan culture.
  • One of the protesters wore a shirt with the motto “Straight Pride,” which likely reflected the homophobic views of many in the rally. Spartan military life involved what we would label homosexual relationships between the soldiers. Ultra-nationalists have attempted to blame Sparta’s decline on this practice, but in fact it was most common in the period of Sparta’s greatest strength and influence.
  • The version of Sparta embraced by the demonstrators seems to be derived primarily from Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 and possibly Steven Pressfield’s 1998 novel Gates of Fire. Both of these representations idealize Sparta and ignore aspects of the historical record that undermine that idealization, such as the Spartan economy’s reliance on, and domination of, enslaved Helots, and ancient claims that the Spartans practiced infanticide. Kieron Gillen’s and Ryan Kelly’s 2014 graphic novel Three presents a different vision of Sparta, one told from the point of view of the Helots who propped up their economy.
  • Like any aspect of antiquity we lack much firm evidence for ancient Sparta. What we have comes primarily from biased, non-Spartan sources. In such cases ancient material is malleable to any political purpose. French Revolutionaries (also ignoring Helot slavery) held up Sparta as a model of communitarian life, the exact opposite of the Nazi interpretation. The impossibility of achieving certainty about Sparta has led scholars to coin a special term for the situation, “The Spartan Mirage.”
  • All such interpretations of Sparta are predicated on its exceptional status (exceptionally committed to military strength, exceptionally committed to communal support and citizen involvement). Accounting for the pro- and anti-Spartan biases in our ancient sources produces a picture of Sparta that is much more similar to other Greek city states of its time.
  • What Spartan history seems to illustrate is the risks a culture faces when it refuses to change with the times. Sparta’s refusal to expand its citizenship led to a population crisis and an unequal distribution of wealth among citizens, both of which made it impossible for them to maintain their military just as other regional powers were on the rise. The outnumbered Spartans were defeated by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371BCE and permanently lost their position as a regional power.

The following scholars contributed to this post:

Timothy Doran (California State University, Los Angeles)
Lynn Fotheringham (University of Nottingham)
Stephen Hodkinson (University of Nottingham)
Nigel Kennell (University of British Columbia)
Ian Morris (Stanford University)
Gideon Nisbet (University of Birmingham)
Tim Whitmarsh (University of Cambridge)
Donna Zuckerberg (Eidolon)

This is a composite of scholars’ responses and it should not be assumed that every contributor agrees with every point made above.

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