Myke Cole dissects the weird phenomenon of laconophilia, or Sparta worship. There’s something about it that has fascinated men for centuries — the whole fiercely macho, iron man myth keeps going and going, despite the fact that it is actually that, a myth.
The Spartans, popular wisdom tells us, were history’s greatest warriors; in fact, they lost battles frequently and decisively. We are told they dominated Greece; they barely managed to scrape a victory in the Peloponnesian Wars with wagonloads of Persian gold, and then squandered their hegemony in a single year. We hear they murdered weak or deformed children, though one of their most famous kings had a club foot. They preferred death to surrender, as the legend of the Battle of Thermopylae is supposed to show—even though 120 of them surrendered to the Athenians at Sphacteria in 425 B.C.E. They purportedly eschewed decadent wealth and luxury, even though rampant inequality contributed to oliganthropia, the manpower shortage that eventually collapsed Spartan military might. They are assumed to have scorned personal glory and lived only for service to the city-state, despite the fact that famous Spartans commissioned poetry, statues, and even festivals in their own honor and deliberately built cults of personality. They all went through the brutal agōgē regimen of warrior training, starting from age seven—but the kings who led their armies almost never endured this trial. They are remembered for keeping Greece free from foreign influence, but in fact they allied with, and took money from, the very Persians they fought at Thermopylae.
I’ve actually used a short clip from the opening of that comically over-the-top movie, 300, in introductory biology classes when discussing the flaws of eugenics. You know the one, the bit about how they culled the weak, shown with a mountain of infant skulls, and sending young boys off to fight unrealistically gigantic wolves with a stick. It’s a horrible way to run a society, and isn’t going to “improve the stock” in the way they imagine it. Spartan culture doesn’t seem to have survived very well, and has left to us only these destructive myths. Really destructive myths.
For much of this time, laconophilia was a relatively benign ahistorical myth, but Spartan admiration unmistakably turned malignant in the late-nineteenth century with the advent of scientific racism. German scholar Karl Müller included in his influential Geschichten hellenischen Stämme und Städte a history of the Dorian race responsible for founding classical Sparta. Müller’s work lionized the invaders’ Northern origins, which dovetailed into the early evolution of Nordicism, the pseudo-anthropological notion of a Nordic master race that would become a cornerstone of Nazi ideology. Müller was hardly alone, and European thinking about inherent inequality and Nordic superiority was already maturing in the fevered minds of thinkers like the French aristocrat Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, whose writings influenced the famous composer and German nationalist icon Richard Wagner. It is not surprising that Adolf Hitler saw in Sparta “the first völkisch state” and gushed about the ancient city-state’s legendary eugenics: “The exposure of the sick, weak, deformed children, in short, their destruction, was more decent and in truth a thousand times more human than the wretched insanity of our day which preserves the most pathological subject.”
The only “wretched insanity of our day” we have to worry about is the fascism Hitler endorsed, and the toxic masculinity celebrated in all of this Spartan nonsense. Pathological cultures, like Sparta, might capture the imagination, but they don’t last.