The Spartan Mirage (or Spartan Myth)
When people talk about Sparta the key event and idea that comes to mind is the Battle of Thermopylae and the film 300 (for some memorable quotes such as “THIS IS SPARTA”). However the Spartan mirage is much older and is originally in the most part the creation of other Greek historians such as Herodotus.
The Spartan myth was formed for better or worse of our understanding by the closure the Spartans enforced on their culture and their political and social self-enforced exile from the rest of Greece. This is perhaps best summed up in Thucydides who tells us in the Melian Dialogue (where the Athenians use military force to bring Melos (allied to Sparta) a Greek island into the Athenian empire after attempting a peaceful negotiation) “the Spartans relations with other states is a long story”. The Spartans even with their own allies were from what we are able to tell questionable with their dealings. Corinth and other Peloponnesian states voice their criticism of Sparta’s dealings in Thucydides too. Corinth being the second largest power in the Peloponnese, behind Sparta, are the key players in potentially stopping any bad movements from Sparta. The Corinthian delegates in the Debate at Sparta in 432 BC state “your inactivity has done enough harm”. However as with all Athenian writing on Sparta this has to be taken with a pinch of salt as it is unlikely that Thucydides heard or was able to piece together most if any of the speech. These unknowns in the inner running of Sparta gave the Athenians many ideas and judgements about the Spartans. Thucydides is also took in in some ways by this idea of the Spartan mirage as when writing about the surrender of the Spartans at Pylos he claims they were paraded around Athens as trophies and as wild creatures.
It is not just Thucydides who helped form our idea of the Spartan mirage and the other Greeks found the Spartan system strange and exciting to try to learn about. Herodotus in his histories records the end of the Battle of Thermopylae. In this he gives the impression of the Spartans that the later films about the battle give of not surrendering and fighting to the death for Greece. He states “Leonidas fell fighting bravely” suggesting that the Spartans would not fall any other way. He also gives examples of Laconic speech that only enhance the mirage of the Spartans. When a Persian told the Spartans their arrows would block the sun the Spartan replied “we shall fight in the shade” and this quote has become to symbolise the Spartan courage and attitude in battle. Plutarch in his lives tells us of a intercepted dispatch after a Spartan naval defeat that was in “Laconic style” indicating this myth of Spartans being short and to the point has been echoed from the 5th century BC right through time and taken in by the Romans. The Romans had…