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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Reading List: The Spartan Regime

Rahe, Paul A. The Spartan Regime. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-300-21901-2.
This thin volume (just 232 pages in the hardcover edition, only around 125 of which are the main text and appendices—the rest being extensive source citations, notes, and indices of subjects and people and place names) is intended as the introduction to an envisioned three volume work on Sparta covering its history from the archaic period through the second battle of Mantinea in 362 b.c. where defeat of a Sparta-led alliance at the hands of the Thebans paved the way for the Macedonian conquest of Sparta.

In this work, the author adopts the approach to political science used in antiquity by writers such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle: that the principal factor in determining the character of a political community is its constitution, or form of government, the rules which define membership in the community and which its members were expected to obey, their character being largely determined by the system of education and moral formation which shape the citizens of the community.

Discerning these characteristics in any ancient society is difficult, but especially so in the case of Sparta, which was a society of warriors, not philosophers and historians. Almost all of the contemporary information we have about Sparta comes from outsiders who either visited the city at various times in its history or based their work upon the accounts of others who had. Further, the Spartans were famously secretive about the details of their society, so when ancient accounts differ, it is difficult to determine which, if any, is correct. One gets the sense that all of the direct documentary information we have about Sparta would fit on one floppy disc: everything else is interpretations based upon that meagre foundation. In recent centuries, scholars studying Sparta have seen it as everything from the prototype of constitutional liberty to a precursor of modern day militaristic totalitarianism.

Another challenge facing the modern reader and, one suspects, many ancients, in understanding Sparta was how profoundly weird it was. On several occasions whilst reading the book, I was struck that rarely in science fiction does one encounter a description of a society so thoroughly alien to those with which we are accustomed from our own experience or a study of history. First of all, Sparta was tiny: there were never as many as ten thousand full-fledged citizens. These citizens were descended from Dorians who had invaded the Peloponnese in the archaic period and subjugated the original inhabitants, who became helots: essentially serfs who worked the estates of the Spartan aristocracy in return for half of the crops they produced (about the same fraction of the fruit of their labour the helots of our modern enlightened self-governing societies are allowed to retain for their own use). Every full citizen, or Spartiate, was a warrior, trained from boyhood to that end. Spartiates not only did not engage in trade or work as craftsmen: they were forbidden to do so—such work was performed by non-citizens. With the helots outnumbering Spartiates by a factor of from four to seven (and even more as the Spartan population shrunk toward the end), the fear of an uprising was ever-present, and required maintenance of martial prowess among the Spartiates and subjugation of the helots.

How were these warriors formed? Boys were taken from their families at the age of seven and placed in a barracks with others of their age. Henceforth, they would return to their families only as visitors. They were subjected to a regime of physical and mental training, including exercise, weapons training, athletics, mock warfare, plus music and dancing. They learned the poetry, legends, and history of the city. All learned to read and write. After intense scrutiny and regular tests, the young man would face a rite of passage, krupteίa, in which, for a full year, armed only with a dagger, he had to survive on his own in the wild, stealing what he needed, and instilling fear among the helots, who he was authorised to kill if found in violation of curfew. Only after surviving this ordeal would the young Spartan be admitted as a member of a sussιtίon, a combination of a men's club, a military mess, and the basic unit in the Spartan army. A Spartan would remain a member of this same group all his life and, even after marriage and fatherhood, would live and dine with them every day until the age of forty-five.

From the age of twelve, boys in training would usually have a patron, or surrogate father, who was expected to initiate him into the world of the warrior and instruct him in the duties of citizenship. It was expected that there would be a homosexual relationship between the two, and that this would further cement the bond of loyalty to his brothers in arms. Upon becoming a full citizen and warrior, the young man was expected to take on a boy and continue the tradition. As to many modern utopian social engineers, the family was seen as an obstacle to the citizen's identification with the community (or, in modern terminology, the state), and the entire process of raising citizens seems to have been designed to transfer this inherent biological solidarity with kin to peers in the army and the community as a whole.

The political structure which sustained and, in turn, was sustained by these cultural institutions was similarly alien and intricate—so much so that I found myself wishing that Professor Rahe had included a diagram to help readers understand all of the moving parts and how they interacted. After finishing the book, I found this one on Wikipedia.

Structure of Government in Sparta
Image by Wikipedia user Putinovac licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The actual relationships are even more complicated and subtle than expressed in this diagram, and given the extent to which scholars dispute the details of the Spartan political institutions (which occupy many pages in the end notes), it is likely the author may find fault with some aspects of this illustration. I present it purely because it provides a glimpse of the complexity and helped me organise my thoughts about the description in the text.

Start with the kings. That's right, “kings”—there were two of them—both traditionally descended from Hercules, but through different lineages. The kings shared power and acted as a check on each other. They were commanders of the army in time of war, and high priests in peace. The kingship was hereditary and for life.

Five overseers, or ephors were elected annually by the citizens as a whole. Scholars dispute whether ephors could serve more than one term, but the author notes that no ephor is known to have done so, and it is thus likely they were term limited to a single year. During their year in office, the board of five ephors (one from each of the villages of Sparta) exercised almost unlimited power in both domestic and foreign affairs. Even the kings were not immune to their power: the ephors could arrest a king and bring him to trial on a capital charge just like any other citizen, and this happened. On the other hand, at the end of their one year term, ephors were subject to a judicial examination of their acts in office and liable for misconduct. (Wouldn't be great if present-day “public servants” received the same kind of scrutiny at the end of their terms in office? It would be interesting to see what a prosecutor could discover about how so many of these solons manage to amass great personal fortunes incommensurate with their salaries.) And then there was the “fickle meteor of doom” rule.

Every ninth year, the five [ephors] chose a clear and moonless night and remained awake to watch the sky. If they saw a shooting star, they judged that one or both kings had acted against the law and suspended the man or men from office. Only the intervention of Delphi or Olympia could effect a restoration.

I can imagine the kings hoping they didn't pick a night in mid-August for their vigil!

The ephors could also summon council of elders, or gerousίa, into session. This body was made up of thirty men: the two kings, plus twenty-eight others, all sixty years or older, who were elected for life by the citizens. They tended to be wealthy aristocrats from the oldest families, and were seen as protectors of the stability of the city from the passions of youth and the ambition of kings. They proposed legislation to the general assembly of all citizens, and could veto its actions. They also acted as a supreme court in capital cases. The general assembly of all citizens, which could also be summoned by the ephors, was restricted to an up or down vote on legislation proposed by the elders, and, perhaps, on sentences of death passed by the ephors and elders.

All of this may seem confusing, if not downright baroque, especially for a community which, in the modern world, would be considered a medium-sized town. Once again, it's something which, if you encountered it in a science fiction novel, you might expect the result of a Golden Age author, paid by the word, making ends meet by inventing fairy castles of politics. But this is how Sparta seems to have worked (again, within the limits of that single floppy disc we have to work with, and with almost every detail a matter of dispute among those who have spent their careers studying Sparta over the millennia). Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which was the product of a group of people toiling over a hot summer in Philadelphia, the Spartan constitution, like that of Britain, evolved organically over centuries, incorporating tradition, the consequences of events, experience, and cultural evolution. And, like the British constitution, it was unwritten. But it incorporated, among all its complexity and ambiguity, something very important, which can be seen as a milestone in humankind's millennia-long struggle against arbitrary authority and quest for individual liberty: the separation of powers. Unlike almost all other political systems in antiquity and all too many today, there was no pyramid with a king, priest, dictator, judge, or even popular assembly at the top. Instead, there was a complicated network of responsibility, in which any individual player or institution could be called to account by others. The regimentation, destruction of the family, obligatory homosexuality, indoctrination of the youth into identification with the collective, foundation of the society's economics on serfdom, suppression of individual initiative and innovation were, indeed, almost a model for the most dystopian of modern tyrannies, yet darned if they didn't get the separation of powers right! We owe much of what remains of our liberties to that heritage.

Although this is a short book and this is a lengthy review, there is much more here to merit your attention and consideration. It's a chore getting through the end notes, as much of them are source citations in the dense jargon of classical scholars, but embedded therein are interesting discussions and asides which expand upon the text.

In the Kindle edition, all of the citations and index references are properly linked to the text. Some Greek letters with double diacritical marks are rendered as images and look odd embedded in text; I don't know if they appear correctly in print editions.

Posted at August 3, 2017 00:06