History : Nov-Dec 2016
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 31 THE RISE OFA WARRIOR STATE Little remains of the ancient city of Sparta, cap- ital of the Laconia region, situated on the Pelo- ponnesus peninsula in modern Greece, but the impact of its unique culture is impossible to ig- nore. Unlike Athens to the north, Sparta was famed for its austerity—its “spartan” charac- ter—was, and is, proverbial. A state run by an inflexible military regime, whose people existed almost entirely to serve the army, the Spartans were legendary for their professionalism, in- tense physical and mental stamina, and absolute dedication to the defense of their land. No great philosophers would ever arise from Spartan cul- ture the way they did from Athens. Athens and Sparta Founded around the ninth century b.c., Sparta’s kings oversaw a society with little interest in intellectual and artistic pursuits beyond patri- otic poetry. Religion did occupy a central role in this warrior society. An efficient military ma- chine in almost every other respect, war was only unthinkable during the festivities dedicated to Apollo Carneus. These were celebrated every summer, sometimes in full campaign season, and it was considered impious to interrupt them. The Athenian view of Sparta oscillated be- tween admiration and fear, according to whether their warlike neighbors were allies or enemies. Without Spartan participation in the war against Persia at the beginning of the fifth century b.c.— especially their heroic stand at the critical Battle of Thermopylae in 480—the Persians may well have conquered Greece. Later in the same cen- tury, however, Athens found itself at war with its ferocious former ally, a venture that greatly sapped its energy and resources. Even as Ath- ens experienced a Golden Age, the conflict with Sparta largely brought about its political decline. The Peloponnesian War in which Athens fought Sparta began in 431 b.c. At the outset, the Athenian statesman Pericles ordered all inhabitants of the Attica region to take refuge within the capital’s strong walls. Despite grum- bling from some quarters that this amounted to cowardice, many Athenians understood Peri- cles’ pragmatism. Athens was strong at sea, but the Spartans were invincible on land. Pericles knew that facing the enemy there would mean certain defeat. Sparta’s total dedication to mil- itary greatness and discipline earned them their fearsome reputation and their enemies’respect. S parta’s enemies, when facing the intimidating Spartan forces, would see a wall of shields, bristling with lances, in- exorably bearing down on them—not to the beat of drums, but as the Greek historian Thucydides explains, “to the music of many flute-players, a standing institution in their army, which has nothing to do with religion, but is meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without breaking their order.” 730-660 b.c. Sparta dominates the southern Peloponnesus, creating a slave class known as the Helots. 480 b.c. Outnumbered at the Battle of Thermopylae, 300 Spartans take a stand against the Persian army. 479 b.c. Some 40,000 Spartan hoplites play a key role in trouncing the Persians at the Battle of Plataea. 418 b.c. In a major blow to Athenian power, the Spartans rout the Athenians and their allies at Mantineia. 371 b.c. At the Battle of Leuctra, Thebes finally defeats Sparta, ending their era of military dominance.