Early America’s Spartan Romance
The ancient historian Thucydides speculated that if Sparta was completely deserted, and all that remained was their buildings, ‘distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame.’ Despite the scarcity of their art, architecture, literature and poetry, the Spartans have become an object of constant appreciation. While they did not leave much of a material culture, what remains is something arguably more impactful; namely a deeply patriotic and staunch ethos which has garnered praise from a wide variety of authors, politicians and philosophers.
The image of Sparta has and continues to undergo perpetual distortion. Even in the ancient world, Sparta was shrouded in mystery due to its hatred and fear of foreigners. Unlike many eras of ancient history, the problem is not that we lack written records of Sparta, rather we have too many. This excess of sources has intensely romanticized Sparta. The Spartan way of life was so unusual that it attracted many commentators and critics alike. What has emerged is what historians call the ‘Spartan mirage’. An over-idealized image of the Spartans that, regardless of reality, survives due to constant reinforcement.
One of the most influential writers contributing to our perception of Sparta was Plutarch. Plutarch was a Greek biographer living in the Roman empire from 46–120 AD. He is known most prominently for a collection of biographies he wrote entitled Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, in which he pairs famous Greeks and Romans together discussing their moral virtues and vices. Plutarch’s stressed how his biographies, while historical, mainly existed to capture the character of his subjects:
‘For neither is it histories we are writing, but lives, nor is there by any means display of merit or vice in the most outstanding of actions, but often a trivial matter as well as a remark and some joke have offered a better illustration of character than clashes with countless casualties and the biggest battalions and sieges of cities.’
Plutarch wrote two influential pieces about the Spartans; a biography of Lycurgus the mythical Founder of Sparta, and a collection of Spartan sayings attributed to both renowned Spartans and anonymous figures. Thanks to Plutarch’s character-oriented approach to history these pieces give the reader a sense of the Spartans’ unique ethos.
America’s Education System
During the Enlightenment period of the 18th and 19th centuries, to be educated was to be interested in the classical tradition of philosophy, history and poetry. The young budding nation of America was no exception to this rule. The American education curriculum was drenched in classicism, with boys learning Greek and Latin from a young age.
By 1776, the nine colleges of America all had roughly similar entrance requirements of being capable to read Latin and Greek proficiently. Fluency was achieved by practising reading a wide array of ancient authors such as Cicero, Tacitus, Livy, Homer, Horace, Xenophon and, of course, Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives consistently ranked amongst the nation’s bestsellers.
However, the reading of these texts was not solely to gain fluency in Greek or Latin, or even to have a scholarly grasp of texts. There was a higher purpose to reading classical authors. The study of history for many during the Founding generation was a process of moral education through examples of the greatest heroes of the past. History functioned as a faithful mirror for comparing the current day with the past. When discussing the function of history in Early America, Lord Bolingbroke’s Letters of the Study and Use of History was often quoted. Bolingbroke believed the point of history is:
‘[To] teach and to inculcate the general principles of virtue, and the general rules of wisdom and good policy… always come, expressly and directly into the design of those who are capable of giving such details: and therefore whilst they narrate as historians, they hint often as philosophers.’
Plutarch’s individualistic and moralistic approach appealed greatly to a readership desperate to gain applicable wisdom from their readings.
Many Founding Fathers were fond of Plutarch’s writings. Benjamin Franklin referred to his adolescence reading Plutarch as ‘time spent to great advantage.’ John Quincy Adams advised his son to read Plutarch in order to gain an understanding of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Charles Lee remarked that reading Plutarch inspired him with an enthusiasm ‘for liberty in a republican garb.’ Many educated men kept commonplace books. These books functioned as an intellectual scrapbook, with collections of extracts and quotations from authors that the owner admired. Quotations of Plutarch arise in many famous people’s commonplace books, but few read Plutarch as avidly as Alexander Hamilton.
America’s revolution was based on republican principles — the political philosophy, not the modern-day party. For republicans, the ultimate end of government was to preserve an orderly liberty. Republican is a nebulous term. The famous historian, Franco Venturi once described it as not merely a collection of political beliefs but ‘a form of life.’ Yet, republicans tended to agree on three ways of securing a free society; by implementing a mixed constitution, adopting the governing principle of ‘a government of laws not men’ and a broad commitment to the civic virtue of a populace which would be ever vigilant of external threats and internal corruption.
The idea of mixed government has a long history. It was first articulated by ancient thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero. They believed that the three main forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) were all prone to decay and corruption. Monarchy decayed to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy and democracy to mob rule. Adherents of mixed government believed that by combining the three classical forms of government, rule by one (monarchy), the few (aristocracy) and the many (democracy), they could arrive at the most stable and prosperous order which would not degenerate into chaos.
Similarly, the Founding Fathers believed that a mixed constitution was the key to a free society, as it avoided the excesses of each individual system. The Founders made use of their classical education and used the examples of many famous republics to bolster their case such as Rome, Carthage and of course, Sparta.
According to Plutarch, the semi-mythical Lycurgus was the sole creator of the Spartan constitution. He had explored the ancient Greek world and learned from each nation he visited. By combining everything that he had learned from his travels he created a constitution that, according to the ancient historian Polybius, had ‘preserved liberty at Sparta for a longer period than is recorded elsewhere’ and created a ‘lasting heritage of freedom’ for Sparta.
Sparta’s constitutional order was composed of a dual kingship, a council of elders and a popular assembly of citizens. Each power base had a separate function. One of the kings presided over religious ceremonies, while the other waged war. In the council of elders, known as the Gerousia, members possessed much of Sparta’s legislative power. The popular assembly voted on a few minor matters and played a very small role in Spartan politics. Lastly, and most importantly, there were overseers known as ephors. They were tasked with making sure the kings did not overextend their authority.
This system appealed to the Founders because of its focus on balancing power. Each office of the government had defined and separate roles in a rudimentary practice of the separations of power. Polybius is the thinker credited as being the first to conceive of the separation of powers in government. He believed that Sparta created one of the two best constitutions of the ancient world, the other being Rome. Polybius was also read extensively by the Founding generation for his account of the separation of powers.
Not only did Lycurgus revolutionize Sparta’s system of government, but also its daily life. He decreed many radical changes such as every Spartiate owning an equal share of land, all citizens eating communally and an intense militaristic education of the young of both genders from a very early age. What emerged was a highly unified and self-sacrificing society in which patriotism and honour reigned supreme. Sparta was admired not only for its unique customs but also for its ability to preserve their traditions for centuries.
The man dubbed the Father of the American Revolution, Samuel Adams, hoped that Boston would become ‘a Christian Sparta.’ John Dickinson in his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer remarked ‘To such a wonderful degree were the ancient Spartans, as brave and free a people as ever existed.’ James Wilson admired the Spartan focus on educating their citizens from an early age. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison cited Sparta as an example of a strong republic with a functioning Senate. Most of all Sparta was admired for its longevity and stability.
However, praise was not unanimous. Thomas Jefferson referred to the Spartans as ‘military monks,’ while Alexander Hamilton described Sparta as ‘little better than a well-regulated camp.’ John Adams believed the Spartan system of property and communal ownership was simply ‘stark mad.’ Adams also condemned Lycurgus for prohibiting Spartans from interacting with other Greeks, ‘it is such a felicity to be confined to a cage, den, or cave?’ He simply asked ‘Is this liberty?’
While praise was not universal by any means during the American Revolution, Sparta served as an example of an enduring republic that preserved a simple and austere way of life. Many admired its preservation of freedom, and its capacity to educate selfless, patriotically minded citizens.
In the ancient world, women played an extremely limited role in political life. One could read a history of ancient Greece and only come across a handful of non-mythical names of women; each mentioned briefly. As ever, Sparta was unorthodox.
Unlike in other Greek city-states, Spartan women were educated, they spoke publicly and managed their households financial affairs. In ancient Greece, these domains were traditionally reserved for men. Contemporary commentators were confused as to why Sparta allowed their women such freedom. Aristotle remarked that Lycurgus only finished half the job in legislating society because he had not sufficiently dealt with the female population, who he believed caused lawlessness and discord with their excessive freedoms. Spartan women were aware of their unique status and took great pride in their freedom. According to Plutarch, Gorgo, the wife of King Leonidas, was once asked by an Athenian woman “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?” Gorgo replied, “because we are the only ones who give birth to men.”
Spartan women were highly regarded for their devoted patriotism. Whenever Spartan mothers bid their sons farewell as they departed for war, they commonly said “Either with your shield or on it.” The shields Greek hoplites carried were so heavy that if one wished to flee they would have to drop their shield. The Spartan mothers’ implication is that her son will either win the battle or die with honour.
Another extreme example of female patriotism was recorded by Plutarch when he describes a woman who had sent five of her sons off to war. She stood on the outskirts of the city waiting to hear the outcome of the battle. When someone passed her by she asked them how the battle went. The passerby sympathetically told her that all of her sons had died in the battle. She sternly retorted “This isn’t what I asked you, vile slave, but rather how our country was doing.”
Early feminist, Judith Sargent Murray discussed the future of women’s rights in her optimistic essay entitled The Gleaner. In the essay, she adopted the common axiom of the day that the republican form of government, which protects liberty, relies upon the virtue of its citizens for its success. In this essay, she argues that the character of a republican is not exclusive to men. She believes that if women were afforded equality, they would cultivate virtuous republican behaviour akin to their male counterparts.
‘The idea of the incapability of women, is, we conceive, in this enlightened age, totally inadmissible; and we have concluded, that establishing the expediency of admitting them to share the blessings of equality, will remove every obstacle to their advancement.’
To prove her point she refers to numerous points in history in which women have shown themselves capable of heroic behaviour. She enthusiastically cites Spartan women as an excellent example, writing that:
‘The character of the Spartan women is marked with uncommon firmness. At the shrine of patriotism they immolated nature. Undaunted bravery and unimpeached honour, was, in their estimation, far beyond affection. The name of Citizen possessed, for them, greater charms than that of Mother; and so highly did they prize the warrior’s meed [that is, a reward], that they are said to have shed tears of joy over the bleeding bodies of their wounded sons!’
Due to women’s widespread oppression throughout history, it was difficult to imagine a world in which they had any real share of economic and political power. In this regard, Sparta served as a rare shining example of how women could be both patriotically minded and involved in republican politics.
Sparta was unique in its comparatively large size compared to other Greek city-states and its fortuitous farmland which was capable of producing two crop yields in one year, a rarity in ancient Greece. Sparta’s size and prime location was not a result of a lucky lottery ticket. The Spartans took this land by brutal conquest and subdued the inhabitants, reducing them to brutish slavery. Sparta made the former inhabitants of Arcadia into helots, perpetual slaves for generations.
Unlike other city-states at the time, Spartan males were wholly dedicated to professional soldiering. Spartans were so proud of their absence from menial work that, according to Aristotle, Spartan men grew out their hair as a sign of their freedom, as menial work is difficult with longer hair. In order to support their lifestyle of constant military drills and war, helots were forced to hand over half of everything they produced to their Spartan masters. The number of helots vastly outnumbered their Spartan masters with historians estimating for every Spartan there might have been ten helots.
The Athenian historian Thucydides noted that because the Spartans were so heavily outnumbered by helots, all of their political institutions were based around the repression of helots due to fear of them revolting. This can be most clearly seen in what is called Krypteia. During the autumn of every year, Krypteia began with the ephors declaring war on the helots. Young Spartans completing their military training were sent out into the countryside to stalk and murder any potentially strong or rebellious helots.
Interest in Sparta was renewed as the question of slavery became more controversial in American politics during the Antebellum period. During the early decades of the 19th century, Hellenism (the study of ancient Greece) became popular due to the Greek war of Independence against the Ottomans. Hellenism was most prominent in the American South. As the divide between North and South deepened, many wealthy southerners started to view their classical education as a mark of distinction as refined gentlemen, as opposed to the vulgar and commercially minded northerners.
As the debate around slavery intensified, slavery apologists deployed the classical examples of Rome and Sparta to justify their positions. As the debate wore on, it was not uncommon to hear biblical stories and classical societies being utilised to argue in favour of slavery. Virginia-born professor, Thomas Roderick Dew argued in a piece entitled Abolition of Negro Slavery that slavery was perfectly compatible with a free society:
‘In the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, where the spirit of liberty glowed with the most intensity, the slaves were more numerous than the freeman… In Sparta, the freeman was even forbidden to perform the office of slaves, lest he might lose the spirit of independence.’
James Henry Hammond was another prominent figure on the pro-slavery side of the debate. Hammond was a lawyer and governor of South Carolina. Famously, Hammond was one of the first proponents of mudsill theory. A mudsill is the lowest foundation on which a building lies, without it, nothing above could exist. In a speech addressed to the Senate, Hammond explained that “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life… It constitutes the very mudsill of society.” Proponents of mudsill theory propose that there must always be a lower class of people in order for a more sophisticated higher class to exist.
The idea was that the gentlemanly upper class of educated white men could only exist as long as black slaves were performing the menial tasks which supported their comfort and wealth. This idea resembled the Spartan system which relied upon the brutally subjugated helots working so Spartans could train as soldiers. It comes as no surprise that Hammond wrote a piece entitled Letter to an English Abolitionist in which he uses the examples of Rome, Athens and of course, Sparta to argue that slavery did ‘not weaken Rome, nor Athens, nor Sparta, though their slaves were comparatively far more numerous than ours, of the same color for the most part with themselves, and large numbers of them familiar with the use of arms.’ Slavery was apparently quite compatible with republican government and in Hammond’s view supported its existence.
During the Antebellum period, Sparta provided pro-slavery advocates with evidence that a free society could exist in tandem with slavery. While no modern observer would call Sparta a free society, its name carries respect which made it a useful example to argue in favour of the South’s peculiar institution.
The Use and Abuse of History
Early America is only a snippet of Sparta’s appraisal in history. A wide variety of politicians, writers and advocates throughout the world have praised Sparta for a multitude of reasons. The radical French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a devoted admirer of Spartan virtue. In Revolutionary France, Sparta was considered by many to be a model of virtue and frugality. The infamous leader of the French reign of terror, Maximilien Robespierre, praised Sparta’s history as ‘a lightning‐flash amid vast darknesses.’
On the complete opposite end of the political spectrum, many Nazi race theorists adored the Spartan example. They admired that such a small army of racially pure Spartans had subjugated such a vast population of racially inferior helots. For many eugenicists, Sparta was the first racialist state the world had known. After the invasion of the USSR during World War II, Hitler believed Germany ought to follow the example of the Spartans when they conquered the helots.
History is not simply a chain of events, instead, it is a resource that is constantly re-contextualised and re-interpreted to justify a variety of ideological commitments. Simply put, history always has the potential to be political. The famous French author and aphorist, François de La Rochefoucauld observed that ‘nothing is more contagious than example.’ The combination of precedent and romanticism are excellent ways to justify all sorts of ideological positions, admirable or amoral. The reception of Sparta is a textbook example of how the past can be used to justify the status quo or herald a bold new future.