ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ, my ass


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.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    The easiest way to realise that a lot of what we think we know about Sparta is exaggeration or whole-cloth manufacture is to read what their contemporary Athenian enemies wrote about them. Particularly Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides does not describe the Spartans as hulking warrior brutes with savage, testosterone-fuelled customs, but as normal Greek warriors and statesmen much like any other. Very little of the exaggerated image we have inherited is at all apparent in any contemporary (5th-4th Century source). Much of it comes from later writers, under the Roman Empire (such as Plutarch), who tend to work in the sorts of excesses that would appeal to an Imperial Roman, not a Classical Greek, sensibility. The Spartans themselves had been promulgating these things for centuries by Plutarch’s day, though, given how profitable it was being a site of cultural tourism for wealthy laconophile Romans.

    Which is not to say that Sparta had no cultural differences that marked it out as unique. Some of what we know has a basis in reality. The Spartans were a largely illiterate culture, and they did have a system of state slavery (helotage) that allowed most of their citizens to live as full-time warriors in communal barracks. Not that this helped their war effort much, since ancient battles tended to be won by sheer numbers rather than fancy tactics or skill at arms. The Spartiate citizens’ main role was to terrorise and oppress the helots into doing all the productive work for them.

    There were admirers of the Spartan system in other cities, even Athens. But what those Athenians (Xenophon being the most well known) admired was not some myth of warrior harshness and racial purity, it was the fact that Spartan society was firmly and proudly oligarchic, with important people like them in charge, where Athens laboured under silly notions of democracy and allowed even the poor a say in how their state was run.

    I’m surprised that aspect of things doesn’t get more praise from the modern crowd of oligarchs and their enablers.

  2. Snarki, child of Loki says

    The parents of ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ rwnj’s could have used more Trojans, just sayin’.

  3. PaulBC says

    I can’t say I ever admired Sparta. It sounds like an appalling way to live. (Despite their popularity as a High School mascot.) I did think they were at least good in battle, but even in warfare, economic productivity and innovation will get you a lot farther than having a warrior culture. It’s clear that no current society likes them enough to emulate them.

  4. cartomancer says

    Also, “μολὼν λαβέ my ass” is a great title for a classically themed gay porn film.

  5. stroppy says

    PBS had a series “The Spartans.” I think this is the one I’m remembering:
    https://www.amazon.com/Spartans-PBS/dp/B000BITU34

    All I can say is, if accurate and if you actually watch it, Sparta was even more disturbing than has been discussed so far. The sales blurb on Amazon suggests that it was somehow a progressive society. It wasn’t, not by a long shot.

    The fact that the all powerful Limbaugh and his adoring hoard rotting zombies think that 300 was the greatest movie ever says a lot about how f’ed we’ve become.

    While you were sleeping America…

  6. erichoug says

    The funniest bit about the whole “Come and take them” battle cry is that it’s exactly what the Persians did. They did come, they did take them and they killed the guy who said that. Which is pretty much what always happens when people say that. The sole and only reason that it isn’t what happened to the original 13 colonies is because the Kings of France and Spain wanted to piss off England. And it’s only a minor miracle that we didn’t end up a protectorate of one of those two kings.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    I was keen on Ancient Greek history and mythology as a kid (those, and astronomy). Even went through a brief period of laconophilia. But the drip, drip of actual history eroded that eventually (by age 12 or so). The first thing that bothered me was about Thermopylae. Folk kept going on about the 300 Spartans, but what about the Thespians (cue silly jokes about actors)? There were more of them that fought and died there. Then the whole helot thing. No way to run a society. And the tendency of Spartan generals to be bought by Persian gold. All rather squalid.

  8. PaulBC says

    Funny, in school, I was always taught that the Athenians were the good guys, and the Spartans were their authoritarian cousins. (This roughly, from a Catholic prep school education in the early 80s, or maybe I wasn’t listening carefully) I don’t really believe any of that. Athenian democracy was a very limited sort. Roman culture had something closer to a middle class and at least someone more rights for women (but yeah, it was atrocious in any number of ways). Humanity is pretty rotten through and through, but it’s the only one we got.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    erichoug @9: If Leonidas did in fact say that, I’m sure he was quite cognizant of the fact that the Persians would indeed “take them”.

    And yeah, it would’ve been a real disaster if the 13 colonies had ended up like Australia or Canada. The horror!

  10. erichoug says

    Rob Grigjanis @#12 – I’m sure Leonidas did. It’s the morons that keep saying that and printing it on T-shirts that I fell like need to think it over a bit more. I am sure a heroic last stand looks different when you are on the inside of it.

    If you haven’t already, you should watch the second Super Troopers movie. The Mounties have a hilarious joke about exactly that bit. About the American war of Indepence. Not the Spartans. Suffice it to say, Agreed.

  11. chrislawson says

    As cartomancer says @3, most of what we “know” about Sparta was written for the purposes of bolstering a political opinion rather than for historical accuracy.

    The comic 300, which I picked up years ago on the basis of glowing reviews, was well-drawn but terribly written, full of stupid macho posturing and anachronistic lines from contemporary US military banter, the only good lines coming straight from Herodotus. It was a fully carved totem of Frank Miller’s emerging politics, perhaps best demonstrated by the way Miller turned the traitor Epialtes into a deformed man whose parents had fled Sparta to save him…so now the traitor wasn’t motivated by money (as in the histories) but disabled, resentful of his limitations, and therefore a threat to the state.

    After that I had little interest in seeing the movie — and any chance of changing my mind was gone when I saw the horribly yellow-toned trailer complete with weird rock-star Xerxes, the fighting without armour, and the charging rhinos.

  12. MichaelE says

    I kinda like the Spartan myth. No, I rather do, simply because it isn’t real, it’s a fantasy. And as a fantasy it’s a good setting for various fun stories.

    I sure as hell would not want anyone to actually live like that, that would be awful for everyone involved.

    But as a fantasy, I like the whole “city state of invincible warriors blah blah blah” stuff. Because to my mind, it’s as escapist as the next fantasy story. It just lacks awesome warrior women though. That’s a shame.

  13. microraptor says

    I had a bunch of friends who raved about 300 (as the movie came out back when I was still a conservative), but I’m glad I avoided watching it.

  14. says

    The novel “The Wreckage of Agathon” by John Gardner is a worthwhile read about the formation of the Spartan state and not very kind to the Spartans.

  15. thirdmill301 says

    Weren’t Spartan soldiers also famous for being gay? Funny how the proponents of toxic masculinity are also a fairly homophobic group.

  16. F.O. says

    When I lived in Athens, “300” was still fresh in our collective minds, and once I met four girls and they where keen to say that they were from Sparta.
    “So, hey, what brought you here in Athens?”
    “Eh… you know, the university….”
    X**D

    Modern Athens is 4 millions people and the capital of Greece.
    Modern Sparta is a backwater town of 32 000 people that not even tourists visit.

  17. PaulBC says

    I’ll confess (perhaps at my peril) that I always liked “A Nation Once Again” (the anthem by Thomas Osborne Davis). I’m struck by how in the 1840s he cleverly rooted the Irish cause in classical precedent “When boyhood’s fire was in my blood/I read of ancient freemen/For Greece and Rome who bravely stood/Three hundred men and three men”.

    The “three hundred” being the Spartans in this discussion (and now I’m confused about the “three”). I think it’s all nonsense, but it does strike a chord and makes a good battle cry. It’s a stretch to call Spartans “freemen.”

  18. lumipuna says

    To loosely quote Terry Pratchett, the measure of military achievement isn’t winning battles, but killing lots of men. If you manage to kill mostly enemies, that’s good personnel management.

  19. blf says

    now I’m confused about the “three”

    Ye Pfffft! of All Knowledge notes “The ‘three men’ may refer to Horatius Cocles and his two companions who defended the Sublician Bridge, a legend recounted in Macaulay’s poem Horatius [at the Bridge], published as part of the Lays of Ancient Rome, in 1842, or alternatively to the three assassins of Julius Caesar (Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus and Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus) who aimed to preserve the Roman Republic from tyranny.”

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    thirdmill301 @19:

    Weren’t Spartan soldiers also famous for being gay?

    From what I’ve read, sexual relationships between Spartiates were supposedly forbidden, but that was probably not taken too seriously. Anyway, they had their arses kicked by the Sacred Band of Thebes at Leuctra.

  21. benedic says

    Cartomancer (3 )Put’s his finger on many important salient points. No doubt the oligarchs did see its structures as inhibiting democracy and thus admirable. But why Plato could admire it, despite his scepticism about democracy, when all the activities he pursued were anathema to the Spartan polity he relates to, remains unexplained.
    Robespierre and St Just pre-dated Gobineau et al, in their admiration for Sparta -for them a sort of model on which they saw The Revolution proceeding-Rousseau had praised Sparta and compared Athens unfavourably to it.
    Cafavy in his poems is a late yet very pertinent critic of the Spartan myth.

  22. cartomancer says

    PaulBC, #24,

    My guess would be the three Horatii, who fought the three Curtii from Alba Longa in the earliest history of the city, so the whole populations didn’t have to go to war. Or so Livy’s highly mythicised first book of Roman history has it.

  23. Gregory Greenwood says

    Many, many fascists and authoritarians (especially of the White supremacist strain) have been obsessed about the supposedly invincible might of Sparta for thousands of years. They inevitably parted from history entirely in pursuit of their weird, blood thirsty fantasies. Equally predictably, they hold up as a social ideal the brutal, ineffective, needlessly cruel ‘Spartan way’ and assume that they would flourish in such a culture, even though most of them entirely fail to live up to their own deluded imaginings of the near superhuman physical prowess they mistakenly attribute to the Spartans.

    The fact that the Spartans took money form the Persians is particularly amusing, since these types of blinkered, profoundly racist ethno-nationalists do so love to try to hold up the Spartans as the ultra Right wing defenders of Greek (here crudely symbolising ‘Western’ – by which they really mean ‘White’) culture and intellectual freedom from the supposed threat of ‘barbarous foreign hordes’, even though by most standards the Persian empire was a more cosmopolitan, free, and intellectually sophisticated society than Sparta ever was.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    stroppy @ # 7: The sales blurb on Amazon suggests that it was somehow a progressive society.

    Only in one sense: As the men spent much of their time drilling and fighting, while slaves did most of the farm work and general maintenance, that left upper-class Spartan women as the most independent, self-assertive, and business-savvy women in Greece. (In Athens, where status depended much more on eloquence, women comprised such a competitive threat that husbands and fathers kept them house-bound day and night; except for the most high-class and wealthy sex workers, Athenian women had the least freedom of those in ancient Greek city-states.)

    Historians indicate that, as their cult of militarism grew, Spartans developed a new founding-myth of a heroic Lycurgus (“Wolfman”), not found in any historical record of his purported time. I have yet to see a study of how the propagandists injected this false history into their culture, but feel no doubt if such an analysis turns up, Trumpublican ideologues will peruse it eagerly.

  25. PaulBC says

    blf@26

    Yes, I thought it was the conspirators against Julius Caesar, but that was not the first result that came up when I checked.

  26. mrquotidian says

    I’m deeply fascinated by ancient history, and even in particular of the Mediterranean, but I certainly don’t have any reverence for it!

    I’ve listened to Donald Kagan’s Yale open-course on ancient Greece and enjoyed learning about some of the bizarre (to contemporary ears) intricacies of ancient Greek culture… I get the impression that these city states were far stranger than many today would like to believe. Instead, they just take the parts of these alien cultures they wish to highlight and ignore the inconvenient parts. There are so many gyms and high school sports teams in the US who adopt the Spartan moniker because they vaguely understand them to have been particularly formidable warriors…

    Never mind that Spartan society was entirely based on enslavement of the helots and that they were incredibly reluctant to leave to go to war in fear that their slaves would rebel in their absence. Or that male children were essentially raised in brutal military prep-schools where they were so underfed that they were forced to steal food to survive (this was by design). Or that they remained in those military units, unable to even spend the night with their wives until they were 30 years old…

    My favorite thing I heard in that course (but only half remember) was that in many Greek city-states there were ruins from an even earlier time, so old that even in like 600bc, no one knew who actually built them (we call them the Mycenaean civilization)… So the Ancient Greeks basically made up stories about who those societies were and how much better life was in those times. And whatever particular city-state you came from had obviously inherited all the great things about that dead culture, unlike the other city-states who were just new-comers and thus naturally inferior… Making shit up about where you come from is a hell of a drug.

  27. Walter Solomon says

    Never mind that Spartan society was entirely based on enslavement of the helots and that they were incredibly reluctant to leave to go to war in fear that their slaves would rebel in their absence.

    #34

    The last Spartan king, Nabis, did free many slaves, though not the helots, before being subjugated by the Romans.

  28. kaleberg says

    I always got the impression that Athenians created the Spartan myth. It was the old timers Athens, convinced, as old timers often are, that young people are too soft, blah, blah, blah, who compared the soft living Athenians with the hard living Spartans who had to walk uphill to school for an hour in the snow, each way.
    It’s like the myth of a tolerant society in Spain before Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the last Muslims and kicked out the Jews. That was invented by early 19th century Jews arguing for Jewish emancipation.
    One can probably come up with piles of rhetorical devices that wound up being accepted as historical truth. One only has to look at the myth of the noble savages of Polynesia which gloss over the abuses of the conquering aristocratic and sometime cannibalistic culture.
    I’m all in favor of myth making. If Americans didn’t have a myth of equality and liberty, we’d have to invent it.

  29. kaleberg says

    I read that article, and it was rather obvious that the author had no military experience, direct or indirect and little understanding of warfare. Honestly, you want the people who are stuck with the thankless job of protecting you to think in terms of fighting hard and winning even when the odds seem to be against them. It’s much better than them accepting probable defeat or being ready to decamp at the first sign of trouble. I agree that the Spartans are a piss poor example of this, but defiance against odds has its place. When Anthony McAuliffe told the Nazis “nuts” when asked to surrender, he had a lot of people wishing they had had the nerve to say that in the same situation. (BTW, the Nazis lost the Battle of the Bulge and the rest of the war, though there are an awful lot of people in the US still upset with that fact.)

    One of the big problems with the Spartan myth is that it is used by people who have never fought in a war or trained to fight in a war. They are people who have no idea of how military power works, why we need to put up with it and what it takes to have an effective military. Hint, it isn’t a bunch of loner idiots holing up with private arsenals. Sure, soldiers play bloody war games on their computers. Most of soldiering is sitting around killing time, and it has been for thousands of years. They all know that their jobs have little or nothing to do with what they do with their game controller.

  30. chrislawson says

    mrquotidian@34–

    From what I’ve heard of college sports in America, Spartan is a pretty appropriate name for teams.

  31. says

    @#3, cartomancer:

    Then again, Thucydides was, according to some of the people who taught me his history in college, himself propagandizing against the Athenians, because by the time he began writing he had been removed from command and was something of a pariah, and he did not finish writing his history because he had been hoping Athens would lose and he could triumphantly end the book with the punishment of all the people who had disagreed with him (and that didn’t happen), so I’m not sure whether his view of Spartans is really free of bias either.

  32. says

    kaleberg@37: “I read that article, and it was rather obvious that the author had no military experience, direct or indirect and little understanding of warfare.”
    From Myke “the author” Cole’s website:

    As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He recently joined the cast of Hunted on CBS as part of an elite team of fugitive hunters.

    So Cole is lying about his personal history?

  33. monad says

    @39: That’s quite an unusual take. Thucydides doesn’t end up covering the whole war, but Athens is coming apart by they end of his account, and ultimately does lose. So what would the disappointment be? My impression was he was mostly writing about Athens with sympathy for the misfortunes it was undergoing, even as he explains how they were mostly the result of it squandering its own strength.

  34. Rob Grigjanis says

    The Vicar @39: Thucydides claimed he began writing the History of the Peloponnesian War when it started, so in 431 BCE. Is there any reason to doubt that? He was exiled no earlier than 423 BCE.

  35. cartomancer says

    Thucydides’ biases and political motives are open to question, certainly. But he was writing for a contemporary Athenian audience, most of whom would have been at least somewhat familiar with Sparta and Spartans. It does not seem likely that he would be able to distort the image of their culture and society so radically as to erase what, if true, would be very remarkable features of it indeed. More convincingly, contemporaries of Thucydides don’t paint the Spartans as all that weird either. Even a comic poet like Aristophanes, who does sometimes use Spartan characters as the butt of jokes in his plays, tends to focus mainly on how weirdly mannish their women seem to Athenians, because they are allowed to exercise and go outside.

    Herodotus, likewise, does not paint a picture of the Spartans as any weirder than any other Greeks. He is very interested in their specific laws and customs, and does go into some detail about how their society is run, but he focuses mainly on the rights and privileges of their paired kings, their adoption and property laws, and the religious festivals they observe. He does set up a dramatic speech in his description of the Battle of Thermopylae, where Xerxes summons a former Spartan king and asks him if these Greeks really are so brave or stupid as to oppose his huge armies with only a few thousand men. The king’s answer is that, yes, these are indeed supremely brave and excellent men, and they will go down fighting, but he doesn’t link this specifically to Spartan customs and culture. And, besides, the Thebans and Thespians will too.

    Aristotle and Xenophon go into greater depth on Sparta’s social system and political oddities, but neither of them presents the lurid machismo you get in later, Roman-era sources either.

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