Of Spartiates and Demos

Wheeler lauds the Spartans in a discussion of men, women and family:

The Spartans had a Noble culture designed around virtue and excellence and in being a Man. Very different from America—being a banavsos is what defines manhood in America.

And Renee rightly pins down the irony:

W. Lindsay Wheeler, are you aware of the fact that Spartans regularily practiced eugenic forms of infanticide? Were you aware that families only took care of their children until they were around 6, after which they were raised by the state? Were you aware that the women were also rigourously trained in athletics, such as javelin throwing? Oh yes, that sounds exactly like a “noble” society.

What Renee misses despite her correct disdain for what passed for Spartan family life, Wheeler is likewise correct to point to the distinguishing nobility of Spartan culture.

Sparta was the epitome of Greek aristocratic oligarchy, merely expressing a willingness to fight for Sparta on the part of a male not of the Spartiate class was enough to justify a death sentence. And yet, despite its cruelty and its extreme class delineations, Sparta also demonstrated how an aristocracy can be significantly superior to a democracy during the Peloponnesian War, not because it was the victor in that conflict, but because, ironically enough, Sparta reliably demonstrated that she represented the more humane culture.

Athens, too, practiced infanticide. And during the war, it was the democrats who were far more prone to commit mass murder than the oligarchs, as shown by the Athenian massacres at Scione, Melos, and the massacres at Corcyra supported by an Athenian fleet. Furthermore, it was not the oligarchic Spartans who were to blame for the massacre at Plataeus, but the democratic Thebans, who were taking vengeance for the Plataean murder of Theban hostages ten years before.

As late as 410, the total war democrats in Athens were refusing to grant the war-weary Spartans the peace they requested, a foolish decision in light of coming events. Six years later, in victory, noble Sparta showed far more magnanimity than democratic Athens ever had to its defeated foes, despite being urged to justly treat the Athenians as they had the Melians by Thebes and other Lacedaemonian allies. Moreover, a Spartan general could fail without being put on trial, as VDH notes in his new book, an Athenian general either died in battle, was put on trial and executed, or if he was lucky, merely exiled.

There are ugly aspects to aristocracy, to be sure. It too is often an enemy of freedom. But regardless, don’t be misled into thinking the history of democracy is anything but one of merciless and total war, an inevitable decline into imperialism and mass slaughter.