Thucydides and Sparta is the second in a series of five Spartan-source themed Classical Press of Wales volumes, following Xenophon (2020), with Plutarch, Herodotus, and Archaeology still in production. This volume, which has its origins in a meeting of the International Sparta Seminar at Cork in 2008, brings together contributions from experts on Sparta and Thucydides to reconsider the impact Thucydides has on our understanding of Classical-period Sparta. It sheds light on Thucydides’ role in creating the image the Spartans wanted to project, as both unwitting victim and perpetrator of the so-called „Spartan mirage“.
In the eye-catching opening chapter („Thucydides’ general attitude to Sparta“), Emily Greenwood provides a sophisticated re-reading of Thucydides’ portrayal of Spartans as viewed through the eyes of others (especially the Athenians and the Corinthians). Greenwood argues that Thucydides has a profound interest in „the constructedness of ethnic identity and how this relates to Spartan identity“ (p. 15), and that the differences between the perceptions other Greeks have of Spartans and the realities of Spartan actions serve as evidence of a „performance gap at the centre of all identities: the gap between the performative cultural/national identity and the vagaries of experience“ (p. 12). Greenwood argues persuasively that this „gap“ between the „virtual Spartans“ (p. 9) imagined by outsiders and the real Spartans shows that „in Thucydides’ account, Spartanness is mutable“ (p. 17).
Paula Debnar’s chapter („Spartan slowness in Thucydides’ History“) unpicks Thucydides’ portrayal of Sparta’s allegedly national characteristic of „slowness” to act. Debnar argues that Thucydides treats Spartan slowness as „a kind of congenital disease“ (p. 23). By carefully re-examining Thucydides’ own account of the realities of the difficulties that the Spartans faced in financing and training a fleet adequate to face the Athenians (in particular, as outlined in Pericles’ Funeral Oration), Debnar demonstrates that the Spartans were merely cautious due to the difficulties they faced, and were, when circumstances permitted, comparatively swift acting. Debnar’s Spartans are revealed to be more akin to their allegedly bolder Athenian counterparts than Thucydides claims.
Jean Ducat’s chapter („The Presence of Sparta in the Funeral Oration of Perikles“) highlights the extent to which the Spartans are the implied focus of Thucydides’ Pericles in his Funeral Oration. Ducat carefully re-examines Pericles’ oration, “keep[ing] to the Spartan side of the picture” (p. 55). Ducat argues strongly that Sparta is frequently in Pericles’ mind, but not always as a negative example. As in Debnar’s chapter, Ducat’s Spartans emerge from this analysis as not markedly different from their Athenian counterparts, even sharing „the same ethic“ in prizing „la belle mort“ (p. 77). But perhaps the most significant aspect of Ducat’s discussion is his suggestion that Pericles’ seemingly jarring discussion of the behaviour of Athenian women which closes his oration might in fact be a negative comment on the women of Sparta.
Whereas Ducat highlights the similarities between Thucydides’ Athens and Sparta, Ellen Millender („Thucydides’ alienation of Spartan kingship“) argues that Thucydides’ „belief in the profound difference in temperament and mores between Athens and Sparta“ shaped his analysis of their rivalry. Millender sees Thucydides’ Spartans as „old-fashioned“ and stubbornly maintaining kingship due to their „torpor“ (p. 86) and resistance to change. Millender argues that Thucydides offers two visions of Spartan kingship: the „Archidamian model“, which is slow and ineffective, and the „Pausanian model“ (which includes both the regent Pausanias and Lysander) which is antithetical to Greek liberty. Both models stand in stark contrast to the fast-moving and innovative Athenians.
Thomas J. Figueira’s lengthy chapter („Thucydides, Ethnic Solidarity, and Messenian Ethnogenesis“) uses Thucydides a lens through which to re-explore the much-debated question of the ethnic identity of the Messenian helots, despite Thucydides’ „fitful interest in the Messenians“ (p. 148). Rejecting the modern tendency to „flatten out“ (p. 148) differences between fifth and fourth century BCE accounts of interstate relations, Figueira carefully compares and contrasts Thucydides’ testimony regarding the Messenian helots with a wide array of other earlier, contemporary, and later primary sources. Figueira argues strongly that the Messenians underwent a „cultural-linguistic homogenization and political-ethnic heterogenization“ (p. 143), and that the „Helots and former Helots were the main engine of [this] Messenian ethnogenesis“ (p. 139).
Polly Low’s chapter („Xenia and Proxenia in Thucydides’ Sparta“) scours Thucydides for the meagre, but not insignificant, references to the Greek institutions of xenia and proxenia. Low argues that Thucydides downplays the importance of both institutions as motivating factors for both the Athenians and the Spartans, and that Thucydides’ evidence suggests that in this regard Sparta is „not out of line with other poleis“ (p. 164). Low’s Spartans – like those of Debnar and Ducat – are therefore not markedly different from their Athenian counterparts.
Maria Fragoulaki („The Mythopolitical Map of Spartan colonization in Thucydides“) explores Thucydides’ portrayal of Sparta’s geopolitical vision, arguing that Thucydides deliberately downplays Sparta’s past as a coloniser and networker in the wider Mediterranean, limiting the Spartans to a „colonial triangle“ of Herakleia, Melos and Kythera. Fragoulaki argues persuasively that Thucydides rewrites the colonial past to cast Sparta as timid and prone to inaction. This allows Thucydides to contrast the Spartans to both the Ionian Athenians, whom he depicts as fast, daring, mobile, and forward looking (not always for the better), and the Corinthians, who emerge as „the Dorian coloniser of the west par excellence“ (p. 208).
Fittingly, the final word is left to the late Anton Powell („Information trap from Sparta: A trap for Thucydides?“). This volume opens with moving tributes by Thomas J. Figueira and Ellen Millender, and a brief introduction by Paula Debnar, who acknowledges her co-editor’s „enormous role“ as a driving force in Spartan studies throughout his distinguished career as a publisher and author. This chapter is no exception. Powell argues strongly that Thucydides’ seemingly reliable Spartan sources for Spartan history and practices were a „trap“, which led him to unwittingly perpetuate notions about the Spartans that they would themselves have wished others to believe. Powell argues cogently that Sparta’s high competence in matters of war created a „cognitive vacuum“ for outsiders who needed to explain it, and neutralised the critical sense of even the most intelligent of enquirers such as Thucydides.
Powell’s Thucydidean trap effectively serves as a conclusion to this volume which focuses consistently on the gap between Thucydides’ perception of the Spartans and the real Spartans he was seeking to portray. It would be tempting to attribute this gap to the so-called „Spartan mirage“. But it would be better to borrow a term Emily Greenwood coined in the opening chapter of this volume: „the Spartan effect“. Greenwood uses this term to describe the way that the Spartans were able to bamboozle outsiders into believing that they were something that they were not always capable of being. The diverse chapters in this volume show that the Spartans were not always quite as different as they wanted outsiders to see them, or indeed, as outsiders like Thucydides wanted them to be.