I have been interested in the Spartans ever since I first read about the battle of Thermopylae and this book includes lots of information on their culture as a whole. The book is a collection of some of the writings of Plutarch including three volumes of his Lives series detailing the life of three important people from Sparta's history. First is Lycurgus the man who virtually created the Spartan way of life and this is followed by the lives of the kings Adis and Cleomenes who tried to reintroduce Lycurgus' reforms with varying degrees of success. All three of these volumes are very interesting and not only gives information into the lives and society of ancient Sparta but also has lots of information on the general history of the city state.
Also included in the book are a collection of sayings from various Spartans as well as a discourse on Spartan life by the ancient historian Xenophon. Both of these parts are interesting with the Sayings section giving you a view of the mentality of the ancient Spartans. I am unsure, however, why the Xenophon section was included as although it was interesting to get a different perspective of the subject I feel that it doesn't really add anything else to the book.
Overall this book is a very good read and should be interesting to anyone who is interested in ancient Greece and Sparta in particular.
on 7 August 2007
This is the second time I have read Plutarch on Sparta; my book collection, being treated as a public library by friends, often means I find myself replacing items I erroneously believed I still owned, this, as you may appreciate, is irritating. However, on this occasion serendipity has been replaced with my usual desire to maim known recidivists. The reason: an excellent translation by Richard J. A. Talbert.
Now, I do not claim to have knowledge of ancient Greek, but the previous edition I once owned- if memory serves correctly- was a weighty affair which struck me as being very sententious, even laborious. Needless to say it was not a recent translation. Having read Ian Scott-Kilvert's excellent "The Age of Alexander" (bought on the back of Prof Wood's wonderful BBC documentaries based on the campaigns of Alexander the Great) I was struck by the immediacy of Plutarch's narrative voice. What Richard J. A. Talbert, has achieved is to make this 'voice' come to life and in so doing present to the reader Sparta's warlike and hawkish culture as vividly as a modern day 'Guardian' commentary on American foreign policy.
The lives and actions of Lycurgus, Agesilaus, Agis and Cleomenes are illuminating and tangible but what is masterful about this edition is the accessibility of the written portraits; this is not just a testament to the mesmeric philosophical, psychological and anthropological insights that Plutarch offers but to a skilful handling of a classic text. The edition also includes several other texts I did not encounter when reading my earlier copy, namely: Spartan sayings.
History is often more revelatory with the documentation of that which the present considers throwaway or dispensable. So too with the Spartan idioms. What is equally refreshing is the (tiny) window opened on the Spartan sayings of women which provides the modern ear with the embedded sense of duty (mixed with brutal callousness) permeating this fascinating society. On hearing a son was behaving badly abroad a mother wrote:
"You've acquired a bad reputation. Either shake this off or cease to exist."
If, like me, you are an uneducated barbarian (none speaker of ancient Greek) or member of the hoi poloi, anyone has the ability to see that Spartans did not really `do' home comforts as well as totalitarianism.
Plutarch's book tells the immensely sad story of the relentless warring between the Greek City States: `Alas for Greece, how many men have you killed with your own hands.'
His masterly brushed picture of Sparta is not less than astonishing. Sparta has been one of the purest communist States on earth.
In order to stamp out arrogance, envy, crime, luxury, wealth and poverty among its citizens, the kings imposed redistribution of land, common messes for all Spartans, no free travel (foreign morals should be hidden) and no immigration (could be teachers of evil practices). Gold and silver coins were declared invalid and replaced by iron ones. Those who wanted to sin by amassing great wealth, needed vast granaries. Nepotism was impossible because children didn't privately belong to the fathers, but jointly by the city. Moreover, the city needed children from the best men (eugenics). Barbarous methods were used in the military education of the youth: thousands of human targets (helots) were killed in nightly survival exercises.
The ultimate goal of the State was to create an army of bees swarming around their leaders and capable of defending Sparta's 4 villages against any outside enemy.
For Plutarch, Sparta went under when it replaced its defence policies by offensive one: `empire and sovereignty war by force - unnecessary elements for maintaining the happy life of any State.' It was beaten by Epaminondas' Theban army.
Sparta was the ideal State for Plato, of whom Plutarch adopted his anti-democratic reflexes: `those politicians, whose sights are set on glory, are servants of the crowd, even though they are called rulers.'
This book is a must read for all those interested in the history of mankind.
on 14 September 2010
My initial interest in this book was after watching '300' a fictionalised movie of the Battle of Thermopylae (The hot gates). Where among others 300 Spartan warriors held the Persian army at bay, a suicide mission basically.
I went on to read Frank Miller' graphic novel '300' of which the movie was based and that was me hooked on Sparta. So I went out and bought Plutarch' 'On Sparta' and I must admit I was not disappointed.
Now obviously it isn't filled with tales of Spartans fightingdeformed fantasy creatures, ogres and such like, but Plutarch has a way of conveying the Spartan spirtit perfectly. They are raised to be warriors, toughness is drilled in to them, honour, respect and the warrior code, they live, breathe and eat warfare.
There are two kings to Sparta, which is just as well if one is killed in combat, there is always another to take the place, avoiding all the chaos and confusion of waiting for a new king to be installed and the weakening it could cause during a war.
They are motivated most strongly to not only go to war, but to succeed at all costs. Their wives would tell them to go and either return with their shields or upon them! Cowardice in the face of the enemy is not only discouraged but leads to ostracization from the Spartan community. One who returned from the battle of Thermopylae felt so isolated and guilty that he eventually killed himself from the shame and torture of his peers.
The women of Sparta, unlike other parts of Greece, were very confident and outspoken. They played a prominent role in Spartan culture and were certainly no shrinking violets. They participated in physical exercise, just as the men, naked, without any shame, a natural activity and one whichmeant they could hold their own with any man in physical activity.
Also in this book is a list of Spartan sayings both men,
Agasicles - When asked how anyone could rule the citizens safely without having a bodyguard, he said: 'By ruling them in the way father's do their sons'.
Another woman, as she was handing her son his shield and giving him some encouragement, said: 'Son, either with this or on this'.
With a handy glossary of terms at the back this is a must read for anyone interested in Ancient Sparta, its history and culture.
on 17 January 2004
I worry about how I get inspired by this book. It is a collection of Spartan biographies from Plutarch's Lives with added quotes. Thus purely in the terms of a book it is an inexpensive and very accessible classical text collection.
Sparta was an unpleasant, militaristic, anti-intellectual state whose raison d'etre was warfare and which conducted regular pogroms of its serfs/helots. I can't fault the translations or the fact that this is a themed collection of some of Plutarch's work. What worries me is that,( and I am interested in military history) it is very easy to get seduced reading this by all the talk of honour, self sacrifice for the state and military glory. It does not take any great intellect to figure out that quite a few totalitarian regimes throughout history have used selective Sparta case studies as a sourcebook. Be afraid...be very afraid