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Doing Justice to the Classics

Banner image: We Hunted the Mammoth, April 18th, 2017

This is Not Sparta

Provoked by the University’s cancellation of a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a group of right wing demonstrators held a rally in Berkeley, CA on April 15th, 2017. The stated goal was to protest what they perceived to be the infringement of free speech, but it wasn’t hard to see something much more abhorrent fueling the event: the leader of Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group, attended, and one of the speakers espoused the theory of “white genocide.” The protesters shared with the journalist Shane Bauer anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist views and accused those in the counter-protest of being “intent on the destruction of Western Civilization.” This a common line from alt right activists: because they have traditionally benefited from inequalities in our society, they claim that the progress we are making toward greater equality and opportunity for all is actually harming the United States.

We Hunted the Mammoth, April 18th, 2017

It wouldn’t surprise many people to see swastikas, the sieg heil, skull masks, and “Make America Great Again” hats at such a rally, but it might surprise some to see protesters wearing helmets imitating the battle armor of the ancient Greek city-state Sparta. The popularity of Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 seems to have convinced some on the right that they are the heirs to the hyper-masculine, elite fighting force who heroically fought and died at the Battle of Thermopylae in the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. In fact, if all you know about Sparta is the film, the protester’s message in wearing the helmets is clear: we’re like the Spartans, we’re the only ones in a corrupt and cowardly culture willing to stand up for “Western Civilization,” and if you try to stop us we’re going to fight back. By comparing themselves to the Spartans, they may also be likening their opponents on the left to the ancient Persians who, in the film, are treated as totalitarian, effeminate, and decadent.

Sparta might be a model for them, but it’s not a positive one. It’s a warning.

The problem is, this is not Sparta. It’s a particular version of Sparta, familiar from Nazi and other white nationalist propaganda, that’s dependent on a whole series of omissions and distortions, as we detailed in our previous post on the topic. When we view the evidence inclusively and critically, as is done, for example, in the graphic novel Three (which should be required reading for any fan of Snyder’s film), the history of classical Sparta shows that the very things that the protesters think are admirable about Sparta are either not reflected in the historical record or, in the case of the strict social hierarchy and refusal to modernize, are the very things that led to Sparta’s downfall. Seen in this light, Sparta might be a model for them, but it’s not a positive one. It’s a warning that their movement’s cultural priorities aren’t going to save our country, as they seem to believe. Rather, they can only weaken it.

@shane_bauer via Twittter

The right likes Sparta because its example seems to support their view of culture: Sparta’s reputation for having an invincible military “proves” that military strength and violence are necessary for the success of a nation. Their strictly exclusive citizenship requirements are thought to prove that expanding our citizenry will diminish our society. Sparta’s commitment to preserving tradition, in the eyes of these demonstrators, means that the increasing acceptance of, for example, same-sex marriage can only lead to our culture’s downfall. And yet these assessments of Spartan culture are based on only a superficial interpretation of historical sources. Almost none of these sources were written by Spartans, and almost all of them are blatantly biased for or against Sparta in one way or another. Archaeological evidence that might confirm or refute the written record is limited. For example, Sparta’s enemies, especially Athens, tried to make Sparta look bad by claiming that Spartan culture focused exclusively on military prowess,not on the arts and civic life that Athens bragged about. Stephen Hodkinson’s more balanced readings of these representations of Sparta suggests that the military was an important part of Spartan culture but not its exclusive pursuit, as the Athenians, and the protesters, would have us believe.

Many of these sources, too, paint a picture of Sparta at odds with the political views of many of the protesters. They say, for example, that Sparta was run by women while the men were on campaign, something it is unlikely the “Proud Boys”  would approve of considering that they “venerate the housewife.”  In fact, because Spartan women could inherit property, 40% of Spartan land was owned by women, which makes Sparta one of the more egalitarian ancient cities, at least in terms of gender, considering that women in Athens could not even control their dowries (which explains the hostility of Aristotle, a resident and partisan of Athens, in his description of Spartan practice). That means Spartan women not only were involved in political and social affairs, but had some measure of personal independence. And a lot of Spartan property was also shared and loaned for the good of the community. In fact, before the Nazis built up Sparta as a model of military strength and racial purity, Sparta was studied as a model for what we would now call a socialist state. French Revolutionaries looked to Sparta as a model because of its emphasis on the public good. This view prioritizes Sparta’s cultural commitment to cooperation and community over its military culture. Not exactly what the demonstrators seem to be going for.

What we can say about Sparta is that the version the protesters embrace focuses on the elements of Spartan culture that led to its decline.

It is no more correct to say, with the 18th century, that Sparta was a socialist paradise than it is to say, with the Nazis, that it proves that racial purity is beneficial. Both positions distort what limited evidence we have. But what we can say about Sparta is that the version the protesters embrace focuses on the elements of Spartan culture that led to its decline: the rigid class system, the steadfast refusal to admit new and different kinds of citizens, and the unwillingness to modernize and change with the times. Sparta dominated the Greek world after the Peloponnesian War, but their empire fell apart because they couldn’t govern it. They ended up with a disastrously unequal distribution of wealth and a Spartiate population crisis because of a refusal to revise citizenship requirements, and even had to turn to mercenaries to bolster their failing military. And yet, when King Agis IV tried to reform the constitution, the Ephors who governed the state had him executed. Sparta’s refusal to change with the times led to their collapse. And the alt-right wants nothing more than to turn back to the past.

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