Monday, 23 November 2020

Sparta: its political regime and grand strategy

I mentioned in a previous post the tendency among Sparta’s detractors to caricature it as a despotic, tyrannous, even fascistic regime, suggesting it was a model for Nazi ideologues or resembled Soviet society – in the latter case, it’s often pointed out that, just like the communist Eastern bloc, Sparta did not welcome foreigners and prevented its citizens from travelling beyond its borders for fear of ideological contamination. I also mentioned that rather than trying to interpret Sparta adopting modern preoccupations and prejudices it’s more useful to consider Aristotle’s view that the Spartan political system was a mixed regime – oligarchic, monarchical and democratic.

This nuanced approach to the Spartan polity is emphasised by Paul Rahe in the talk above, in which he draws attention to those elements in the Spartan constitution that could be described as democratic – general participation in the assembly, the selection of ephors by lottery, the checks and balances inherent in Spartan government designed not to allow one branch to exert sole and untrammelled influence over any other.

In The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, Rahe expands on his analysis of the Spartan constitution and way of life, before explaining how this revealed itself at the high point of Spartan civilisation, i.e. its command of allied Hellenic forces in the repulsion of the Persian invaders in the fifth century BC.

Rahe insists, however, that Sparta’s leadership in securing Hellenic independence against the Persians should not mislead us about Sparta’s ‘grand strategy’, which, Rahe says, was limited and conservative and dominated by anxieties closer to home, of helot revolt and the threat this posed to the Spartiates’ aristocratic way of life – with its disdain for work and emphasis on military training, hunting, wrestling and athletics. 

Thus, Rahe points out, although Sparta has the reputation of being a belligerent and belicose power, in reality the Spartans tried to avoid fighting and were loathe to engage in wars outside their immediate sphere of influence and vital living space – i.e. the Peloponnese. Indeed, for Rahe, echoing J.E. Lendon’s account of the Peloponnesian War, if any Hellenic power deserves the label of aggressive and imperial, it was ambitious democratic Athens not cautious authoritarian Sparta.