The Spartans

The Spartans

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by Paul Cartledge

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The Spartans were a society of warrior-heroes who were the living exemplars of such core values as duty, discipline, self-sacrifice, and extreme toughness. This book, written by one of the world’s leading experts on Sparta, traces the rise and fall of Spartan society and explores the tremendous influence the Spartans had on their world and even on ours. 

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The Spartans were a society of warrior-heroes who were the living exemplars of such core values as duty, discipline, self-sacrifice, and extreme toughness. This book, written by one of the world’s leading experts on Sparta, traces the rise and fall of Spartan society and explores the tremendous influence the Spartans had on their world and even on ours. 

The Spartans is a compelling narrative that explores the culture and civilization of the most famous "warrior people": the Spartans of ancient Greece, by the world's leading expert in the field. Sparta has often been described as the original Utopia--a remarkably evolved society whose warrior heroes were forbidden any other trade, profession, or business. As a people, the Spartans were the living exemplars of such core values as duty, discipline, the nobility of arms in a cause worth dying for, sacrificing the individual for the greater good of the community (illustrated by their role in the battle of Thermopylae), and the triumph of will over seemingly insuperable obstacles--qualities that today are frequently believed to signify the ultimate heroism. Paul Cartledge is the distinguished scholar and historian who has long been seen as the leading international authority on ancient Sparta. He traces the evolution of Spartan society--the culture and the people, as well as the tremendous influence they had on their world and even ours. He details throughout the narrative the lives of such illustrious and myth-making figures as Lycurgus, King Leonidas, Helen of Troy (and Sparta), and Lysander, and explains how the Spartans, although they placed a high value on masculine ideals, nevertheless allowed women an unusually dominant and powerful role--unlike Athenian culture with which the Spartans are so often compared. In resurrecting the ancient culture and society of the Spartans, Cartledge delves deep into ancient texts and archeological sources and complements his text with illustrations that depict original Spartan artifacts and drawings, as well as examples of representational paintings from the Renaissance onwards--including J.L. David's famously brooding "Leonidas." This illuminating volume that ties in with the PBS television series of the same name, airing in the summer of 2003. Booklist called Cartledge's The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, a companion to the PBS series, "superb," while The International History Review called Cartledge's The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece "an original and insightful work."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Legendary for their ferocious combat skills, the Spartans built a warrior culture in ancient Greece unsurpassed for its courage and military prowess. Eminent historian Cartledge (Spartan Reflections) provides a remarkable chronicle of Sparta's rise and fall, from its likely origins around 1100 B.C. to the height of its fame and glory in the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and its fall in the fourth century B.C. The Spartans built their society through conquest and subjugation, ruling over their subject peoples with an iron hand and putting down revolts with devastating might. Between 490 and 479, Sparta joined Athens in fighting the Persians in three key wars-Thermopylae, Plataea and Mycale-that contributed to the demise of Persian power and the rise of Hellenistic power on the Mediterranean. Cartledge punctuates his absorbing tale with brief, engaging biographies of the city-state's kings from Lycurgus, the earliest Spartan leader, who brought constitutional law to the city, to Leonidas, who led the Spartans at Thermopylae. According to Cartledge, the Spartans' legacy to Western culture includes devotion to duty, discipline, the willingness to sacrifice individual life for the greater good of the community and the nobility of arms in a cause worth dying for. Cartledge's crystalline prose, his vivacious storytelling and his lucid historical insights combine here to provide a first-rate history of the Spartans, their significance to ancient Greece and their influence on our culture. It ties in to a PBS series to air this summer. 27 b&w illus., 3 maps. Agent, Lucas, Alexander, Whitley. (July 25) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Given the preeminence of Athens, Sparta is frequently overlooked. But it did win the Peloponnesian War, and those studying slavery and colonization ignore it at their risk. Sparta itself limits what historians can say, for it is difficult to write about a culture that contained neither writers nor builders, thus acutely affecting the record left behind. Nonetheless, this effort by Cartledge (Greek history & classics, Cambridge; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization) is both commendable and fascinating. In roughly chronological order, he reviews the major players, from the city-state's beginnings through Rome's domination. This includes the important pairs of hereditary kings descended from Heracles, making reliance on the Great Man theory of history unavoidable. Yet despite the scarcity of sources, Cartledge does pay strict attention to the social aspects of Spartan life (see also Sarah B. Pomeroy's Spartan Women); his book is a good overview of the people and the issues. Modern readers will also enjoy Cartledge's treatment of the Leonidas phenomenon and the development of a Spartan myth in the centuries since Thermopylae. Recommended for all collections.-Clay Williams, Hunter Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lucid, literate history of a model society—though whether a model of good or evil remains a subject of debate. Tucked among the nearly impenetrable mountains of southern Greece, Sparta was less an empire or kingdom than an alliance of small, unostentatious villages. Its leaders, most famously Lycurgus ("wolf-worker"), whom Cartledge (Classics/Cambridge Univ.) memorably reckons to have been a cross between George Washington and Pol Pot, shunned the thought that these settlements should hide behind tall walls and acropolises, in the manner of other Greeks; instead, its warriors and its topography would keep it safe. And so it was for nearly 300 years, until first a threatened invasion on the part of the Persian empire gave insular Sparta a key role in Western history; it was then, at the close of the fifth century b.c., that Sparta’s famed 300 fighters held off the invaders at Thermopylae. (The story, Cartledge notes wryly, will soon be coming to a theater near you, "with stars of the stature or at any rate the cost of George Clooney and Bruce Willis said to be running to play [the Spartan hero Leonidas].") Cartledge considers the Spartan defense of Thermopylae to have been an event more important to European, and even English, history than the Battle of Hastings. The Peloponnesian War, he allows, was perhaps of less importance, though it remade the Greek world following Sparta’s defeat of Athens. Though admiring of Spartan accomplishments and the bravery of its warrior heroes, Cartledge takes pains to note the dark side of Spartan life: a martial society whose privileged youth took pleasure in hunting and killing slaves, whose well-organized secret police used murder and terror tokeep the people in line. So much for utopia—though, as Cartledge notes, Sparta was the real-life model for Thomas More’s vision of a virtuous and virile world. Chocked with learning lightly worn, and a pleasure for anyone interested in the ancient world. Agent: Julian Alexander/Lucase, Alexander, Whitney

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The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse
By Paul Cartledge


Copyright © 2003 Paul Cartledge
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1585674028

Chapter One


The image of Sparta as a dour, barracks-like camp hardly prepares the first-time visitor for the glorious spectacle that unfolds as one emerges from the uplands abutting Arcadia to the north and enters down the Eurotas valley into the Spartan plain. Stretching before one are two parallel mountain chains, that of Taygetus on the west reaching to 2,404 metres at the peak, and that of Parnon on the east (1,935 metres at its peak). The alluvial plain itself, and its continuation south in the Eurotas valley that runs out into the sea in the Laconian Gulf, constitute one of the most fertile and desirable pieces of land in all southern Greece. Soil, climate and man conspire to yield and garner sometimes two harvests of grain in a single year. Olives and grapevines, the other two staples of the so-called Mediterranean diet, flourish here too - as of course does the forest of citrus trees, but they are a post-Classical import, reminding us that the terrain and vegetation we see today are not necessarily those enjoyed by the inhabitants of two and a half millennia ago.

Hardly surprisingly, this region, known in historical times as Lacedaemon, was believed also to have been the seat of a great king in the ancient Greeks' heroic age - what we scholars more prosaically call the Mycenaean or Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1100 BC). An attempt has been made very recently (see biography of Helen p. 48) to relocate the palace of Homer's Menelaus from Sparta to Pellana further north in Laconia, but that flies in the face not only of ancient legend and religious worship but also of topographical geopolitics. Any real Late Bronze Age Menelaus must have had his palace in or near the site of historical Sparta - perhaps actually where a large settlement, including a building qualifying as a 'mansion', has been scrupulously excavated by the British School at Athens. However, no contemporary palace on the scale of those excavated at Mycenae (seat of Homer's Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus) and Pylos (capital of garrulous old Nestor) has yet come to light in Laconia - and perhaps never will. It is important not to read Homer as a straight history textbook, however archaeologically productive that mistake has undoubtedly been.


Helen of Troy - or Helen of Sparta? She was, of course, both. A local girl, daughter of Tyndareus, according to one version of her myth, but yet, according to another version, daughter of great father Zeus and born miraculously from an egg because her mother Leda had been visited by Zeus in the disguise of a swan. Her unsurpassed beauty made her a natural prize for the ambitious Menelaus, son of Atreus of Mycenae, whose older son Agamemnon took Helen's sister Clytemnestra for his bride. However, that beauty also captivated an unwelcome visitor to Sparta: Paris, prince of Troy in Asia, overlooking the straits of the Dardanelles, who - aided crucially by the Cyprus-born love goddess Aphrodite - violated the sacred obligations of guest-friendship and robbed Menelaus of his lawfully wedded wife.

Recently, a Greek archaeologist caused a little stir by claiming that he had located Helen's (and Menelaus') palace, not at Sparta but at Pellana some fifteen kilometres farther north. That claim would have astonished the ancient Spartans, who built a new shrine for Helen in Sparta, or more precisely at Therapne to the south-east of the ancient town, where she received worship along with her husband Menelaus and her divine brothers the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux in Latin). This was in the later eighth century, a time when the Spartans were, so to speak, rediscovering their roots, seeking to legitimize their recently won domain in south-east Peloponnese by presenting it as the legitimate successor of the kingdom of Menelaus as set out in Homer's Iliad. In actual fact, the cult of Helen at Therapne probably reflects a conflation of two Helens: one a goddess of vegetation and fertility associated with trees (also worshipped as such on Rhodes), the other the heroic Helen of Homeric legend. We shall stick with the latter.

More specifically, since Helen served later as an icon of Spartan womanhood and beauty, we must ask, was Helen raped (according to our usage of that term) by Paris or did she go with him consensually, of her own accord? Herodotus, father of history (in the phrase of Cicero), has three very interesting passages regarding Helen. The first comes in his opening aetiology of the Graeco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century, where he traces the history or mythography of Greek-Oriental enmity back through the mists of time and legend. A series of claims and counter-claims is wittily rehearsed, with Herodotus purporting merely to relate the stories he has been told by learned Phoenicians and Persians. Among them features, inevitably, the theft, if that is what it was, by Paris of Helen. Herodotus himself adopts a robust, not to say male chauvinist, view of the matter:

it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be.

However, an unambiguous tale, not related by Herodotus, of an earlier rape of Helen, effected by Theseus of Athens when she was but a girl rather than an adult wife, tells a different story. Lately, both Elizabeth Cook in her imaginative retelling of Achilles' story and John Barton in his no less powerful Tantalus play-cycle have reminded us opportunely of this earlier, darker chapter in Helen's eventful life.

The next reference to Helen in Herodotus is, if anything, even more disturbing, from the historical point of view. For according to him, as he relates it in his account of matters Egyptian in the

Excerpted from The SPARTANS by Paul Cartledge Copyright © 2003 by Paul Cartledge
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Paul Cartledge is the inaugural A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Clare College. He is also Hellenic Parliament Global Distinguished Professor in the History and Theory of Democracy at New York University. He written and edited over 20 books, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. He is an honorary citizen of modern Sparta and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor awarded by the President of Greece.

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Spartans 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the author is clearly very knowledgeable about the subject, his writing, as the earlier reviewer noted, leaves much to be desired. Run on sentences and a general lack of flow makes this a somewhat laborious read. The information included is great, but his thoughts come across in a very disjointed fashion. For example, the chapters are arranged chronologically, yet he interrupts this pattern with a chapter on Spartan women, right in the middle of the book, a topic he might better have tackled earlier. Probably the best chapter is the last, on the legacy of Leonidas. However, this is followed by an appendix which is a rebuttal of a book written on fox hunting in England (because the author of that book invoked the ancient Greeks to justify his approval of the fox hunt). All in all, a let down, which makes one reluctant to bother checking out Cartledge's new book on Thermopylae.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book with high hopes and learned a lot because of it. It is not the most desirable reading you can find in this subject (I've seen better-and worse), but it does teach one, with very much detail, about the lives of the Spartans. I recommend it only for history enthusiasts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Cartledge's writing style leaves a lot to be desired. Run on sentences are found throughout. By the time one reaches an end of a sentence it is difficult to remember the initial thought. This grammar interferes with the enjoyment of the book. Maybe the tv special will make things clear.