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Spartan Myth busting

Remius

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Came across this video on YouTube featuring Dr. Roel Konijnendijk from Oxford. He’s been on a few other videos and I find him quite good.

He does a great job debunking the myths about the Spartans.


Some good stuff about:

  • how they were not really a warrior society (and how they didn’t actually have a professional standing army)
  • the truth about how they were actually educated and trained.
  • why they almost always fought as heavy infantry
  • how they were viewed by contemporaries
  • miscelaneous things like if lambda shields were a thing, why women were also trained in athletics, etc
 
Came across this video on YouTube featuring Dr. Roel Konijnendijk from Oxford. He’s been on a few other videos and I find him quite good.

He does a great job debunking the myths about the Spartans.


Some good stuff about:

  • how they were not really a warrior society (and how they didn’t actually have a professional standing army)
  • the truth about how they were actually educated and trained.
  • why they almost always fought as heavy infantry
  • how they were viewed by contemporaries
  • miscelaneous things like if lambda shields were a thing, why women were also trained in athletics, etc

IIRC that alot of the 'Sparta Hype' comes from the US military idolizing them in various ways, sadly...

... in contrast Euro-armies never mention them or, even worse, name units after them ;)

Spartans Were Losers​


The U.S. military’s admiration of a proto-fascist city-state is based on bad history.​


The Athenian historian Thucydides once remarked that Sparta was so lacking in impressive temples or monuments that future generations who found the place deserted would struggle to believe it had ever been a great power. But even without physical monuments, the memory of Sparta is very much alive in the modern United States. In popular culture, Spartans star in film and feature as the protagonists of several of the largest video game franchises. The Spartan brand is used to promote obstacle races, fitness equipment, and firearms. Sparta has also become a political rallying cry, including by members of the extreme right who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Sparta is gone, but the glorification of Sparta—Spartaganda, as it were—is alive and well.

Even more concerning is the U.S. military’s love of all things Spartan. The U.S. Army, of course, has a Spartan Brigade (Motto: “Sparta Lives”) as well as a Task Force Spartan and Spartan Warrior exercises, while the Marine Corps conducts Spartan Trident littoral exercises—an odd choice given that the Spartans were famously very poor at littoral operations. Beyond this sort of official nomenclature, unofficial media regularly invites comparisons between U.S. service personnel and the Spartans as well.

Much of this tendency to imagine U.S. soldiers as Spartan warriors comes from Steven Pressfield’s historical fiction novel Gates of Fire, still regularly assigned in military reading lists. The book presents the Spartans as superior warriors from an ultra-militarized society bravely defending freedom (against an ethnically foreign “other,” a feature drawn out more explicitly in the comic and later film 300). Sparta in this vision is a radically egalitarian society predicated on the cultivation of manly martial virtues. Yet this image of Sparta is almost entirely wrong. Spartan society was singularly unworthy of emulation or praise, especially in a democratic society.

To start with, the Spartan reputation for military excellence turns out to be, on closer inspection, mostly a mirage. Despite Sparta’s reputation for superior fighting, Spartan armies were as likely to lose battles as to win them, especially against peer opponents such as other Greek city-states. Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War—but only by accepting Persian money to do it, reopening the door to Persian influence in the Aegean, which Greek victories at Plataea and Salamis nearly a century early had closed. Famous Spartan victories at Plataea and Mantinea were matched by consequential defeats at Pylos, Arginusae, and ultimately Leuctra. That last defeat at Leuctra, delivered by Thebes a mere 33 years after Sparta’s triumph over Athens, broke the back of Spartan power permanently, reducing Sparta to the status of a second-class power from which it never recovered.

Sparta was one of the largest Greek city-states in the classical period, yet it struggled to achieve meaningful political objectives; the result of Spartan arms abroad was mostly failure. Sparta was particularly poor at logistics; while Athens could maintain armies across the Eastern Mediterranean, Sparta repeatedly struggled to keep an army in the field even within Greece. Indeed, Sparta spent the entirety of the initial phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Archidamian War (431-421 B.C.), failing to solve the basic logistical problem of operating long term in Attica, less than 150 miles overland from Sparta and just a few days on foot from the nearest friendly major port and market, Corinth.



 
I remember being fascinated with Spartans after a grade 12 history class on antiquity. A few years later I read Gates of Fire and was even more interested. Then I read Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel and was underwhelmed. (Yes I know it was essentially a fantasy version).

That led me to get into some historical sources. Xenophon for one (he was an actual contemporary and although he wasn’t Spartan he lived with them). It wasn’t until then that I realized that history is far more detailed than a grade 12 class and historical fiction.

It’s why I shake my head when I see Spartan patches and people extolling Spartans as paragons of warrior culture etc etc and see just how much people don’t know and are influenced by Hollywood…

But the actual history is still fascinating.
 
I remember being fascinated with Spartans after a grade 12 history class on antiquity. A few years later I read Gates of Fire and was even more interested. Then I read Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel and was underwhelmed. (Yes I know it was essentially a fantasy version).

That led me to get into some historical sources. Xenophon for one (he was an actual contemporary and although he wasn’t Spartan he lived with them). It wasn’t until then that I realized that history is far more detailed than a grade 12 class and historical fiction.

It’s why I shake my head when I see Spartan patches and people extolling Spartans as paragons of warrior culture etc etc and see just how much people don’t know and are influenced by Hollywood…

But the actual history is still fascinating.
History is fascinating. Even podcasts about polio vaccines are fascinating.

I just can't pick what history I want to know.....I am all over the map.
 
I watched this video. A similar discussion was presented on the pod-cast “The Ancients” (also from History Hit). He’s the author of Classical Greek Tactics. Dr Roel Konijnendijk is an undoubtedly brilliant scholar (writer, reading of ancient texts, etc).

But he’s an academic deconstructionist. He’s bringing a type of critical theory to the study of Classics.

He frequently paraphrases Zenophon and the characterization of Spartan (pre-Macedonian) phalanx formation as something learned in “half an hour”. That the Spartans didn’t drill or train; that spending years in the outdoors, constant exercise, building endurance and tolerance to cold, hunger and the like, somehow didn’t make the Spartan a “professional” warrior, or elite; that they weren't a warrior society. It’s word play.

On a very simple level, I suspect he’s never spent a minute in any type of military formation or even an historical re-enactment group. I have great difficulty imaging 300+ plus men with 5-7 meter spears and bronze shields learning to march, turn, present a formation front in any sort of demonstratively effective manner as “learned in half an hour.” It takes time.
 
I watched this video. A similar discussion was presented on the pod-cast “The Ancients” (also from History Hit). He’s the author of Classical Greek Tactics. Dr Roel Konijnendijk is an undoubtedly brilliant scholar (writer, reading of ancient texts, etc).

But he’s an academic deconstructionist. He’s bringing a type of critical theory to the study of Classics.

He frequently paraphrases Zenophon and the characterization of Spartan (pre-Macedonian) phalanx formation as something learned in “half an hour”. That the Spartans didn’t drill or train; that spending years in the outdoors, constant exercise, building endurance and tolerance to cold, hunger and the like, somehow didn’t make the Spartan a “professional” warrior, or elite; that they weren't a warrior society. It’s word play.

On a very simple level, I suspect he’s never spent a minute in any type of military formation or even an historical re-enactment group. I have great difficulty imaging 300+ plus men with 5-7 meter spears and bronze shields learning to march, turn, present a formation front in any sort of demonstratively effective manner as “learned in half an hour.” It takes time.
I'm always wary of moderns who think themselves so cool and superior by downplaying the achievements of their forefathers. Of those who attempt to gain notoriety via sheer arrogance.

To me, this is just another expression of a modern trend which consists in tearing down anything that may exude greatness or bring inspiration.
 
In other news, historians happy that ancients like the Spartans get people thinking and talking about history ;)

Witnessing Season 2 GIF by NBC
 
I watched this video. A similar discussion was presented on the pod-cast “The Ancients” (also from History Hit). He’s the author of Classical Greek Tactics. Dr Roel Konijnendijk is an undoubtedly brilliant scholar (writer, reading of ancient texts, etc).

But he’s an academic deconstructionist. He’s bringing a type of critical theory to the study of Classics.

He frequently paraphrases Zenophon and the characterization of Spartan (pre-Macedonian) phalanx formation as something learned in “half an hour”. That the Spartans didn’t drill or train; that spending years in the outdoors, constant exercise, building endurance and tolerance to cold, hunger and the like, somehow didn’t make the Spartan a “professional” warrior, or elite; that they weren't a warrior society. It’s word play.

On a very simple level, I suspect he’s never spent a minute in any type of military formation or even an historical re-enactment group. I have great difficulty imaging 300+ plus men with 5-7 meter spears and bronze shields learning to march, turn, present a formation front in any sort of demonstratively effective manner as “learned in half an hour.” It takes time.

Well the thing we actually do t have any record of any Greeks actually training, ever. It’s actually very odd since you’d assume some Athenian or Thebian would have recorded something about on X Feast day the men all met and trained together. Something like that. Plato even derides training to much and wrote about the value of dance as training. The most real detail we have about the Spartans is that other Greeks were shocked they walked in battle, vs running.

What is equally true is that the Greek citizen of the hopilite class didn’t have the lifestyle you described. Not even close. These were land owner who viewed labour as beneath them, a view shared by many ancient Greeks, and preferred to have slaves do it for them. Those slaves were doing the labour, living outside, and constantly exercising. The Spartan citizen was not.

Finally the Phallanx itself is something we’ve invented in our minds. Mostly at least. While certainly by the time of Alexander they were well drilled, moving blocks of men the Spartans were a back water by that point and the height of their power was 120 years before. The whole concept of pushing matches and tightly packed bodies is a concept that came into popularity by historians theorizing what it may have been like two millennia later.

This isn’t a deconstructionist / critical theory view of the matter. It’s the more modern take that isn’t based on the assumption that a theory, made without evidence, is correct. I’d highly recommend Van Wees’s excellent Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities to get another view point.
 
Well the thing we actually do t have any record of any Greeks actually training, ever. It’s actually very odd since you’d assume some Athenian or Thebian would have recorded something about on X Feast day the men all met and trained together. Something like that. Plato even derides training to much and wrote about the value of dance as training. The most real detail we have about the Spartans is that other Greeks were shocked they walked in battle, vs running.

What is equally true is that the Greek citizen of the hopilite class didn’t have the lifestyle you described. Not even close. These were land owner who viewed labour as beneath them, a view shared by many ancient Greeks, and preferred to have slaves do it for them. Those slaves were doing the labour, living outside, and constantly exercising. The Spartan citizen was not.

Finally the Phallanx itself is something we’ve invented in our minds. Mostly at least. While certainly by the time of Alexander they were well drilled, moving blocks of men the Spartans were a back water by that point and the height of their power was 120 years before. The whole concept of pushing matches and tightly packed bodies is a concept that came into popularity by historians theorizing what it may have been like two millennia later.

This isn’t a deconstructionist / critical theory view of the matter. It’s the more modern take that isn’t based on the assumption that a theory, made without evidence, is correct. I’d highly recommend Van Wees’s excellent Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities to get another view point.

The Hoplite Heresy enters the chat ;)

The Hoplite Heresy: Why We Don't Know How the Ancient Greeks Waged War​

Hoplites are probably one of the first things that come to mind when one thinks of “Ancient Greece”. Equipped with a bronze spear and wearing bronze armor or a linothorax, and hefting the aspis—the hoplite’s bronze shield—they fought in phalanxes. The classic mode of fighting in this formation was the “othismos”, the push, with the aim being to disrupt the enemy phalanx and break their formation. But, over the past few decades, views on hoplite warfare have been called into question and seriously revised, because there are problems in the source material. So, what are these problems, and how do historians of Ancient Greece understand hoplite warfare?


 
I'm always wary of moderns who think themselves so cool and superior by downplaying the achievements of their forefathers. Of those who attempt to gain notoriety via sheer arrogance.

interesting take. What exactly was or is being downplayed? I’m curious about the argument. We did the same thing in our own recent history. Take the war of 1812. Canada loves to romanticize it being a war won by a rag tag bunch of militia but we all know that wasn’t the case.

I understand that a scholars take might not be as cool to some but it generally looks as fact over fiction.

Take custer’s last stand. What was previously was propaganda and a lot coming from his wife. The truth while not as grandiose as a brave last stand (compared to the more accurate failed and incompetent attack leading to a desperate and likely quick end) is still a fascinating piece of history.

My point is that sometimes we make certain historical things way more grandiose than they were.
To me, this is just another expression of a modern trend which consists in tearing down anything that may exude greatness or bring inspiration.

Again, nothing wrong with inspirational stories but what is being torn down exactly in this regard?
 
Heroditus did say that even if history is not true, you have to believe. At least that is what Dan Carlin told me.
 
interesting take. What exactly was or is being downplayed? I’m curious about the argument. We did the same thing in our own recent history. Take the war of 1812. Canada loves to romanticize it being a war won by a rag tag bunch of militia but we all know that wasn’t the case.

I understand that a scholars take might not be as cool to some but it generally looks as fact over fiction.

Take custer’s last stand. What was previously was propaganda and a lot coming from his wife. The truth while not as grandiose as a brave last stand (compared to the more accurate failed and incompetent attack leading to a desperate and likely quick end) is still a fascinating piece of history.

My point is that sometimes we make certain historical things way more grandiose than they were.


Again, nothing wrong with inspirational stories but what is being torn down exactly in this regard?
I'm afraid I have a terrible memory so I don't have particular examples to bring up. Here's an example of arrogant historiography though: the idea that the medieval era was strictly a dark age has been shown to be nonsense made up by the Enlightenment thinkers as a way for them to distinguish themselves from the previous era. We know that significant technological, architectural, and sociological progress continued to occur at the time on both sides of the Mediterranean.

I do remember, however, reading analyses regarding Sparta, as well as other historical groups and societies, that ran counter to the narrative presented in this thread.

As to what is being torn down: inspiration for greater things. Humility itself is being torn down. By downplaying the achievements of predecessors we elevate ourselves to undeserved heights.

A recurrent theme these days is that youngsters struggle to find purpose in life. Deconstructing historical avenues of meaning does not help them in that regard, I would think.
 
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Take custer’s last stand. What was previously was propaganda and a lot coming from his wife. The truth while not as grandiose as a brave last stand (compared to the more accurate failed and incompetent attack leading to a desperate and likely quick end) is still a fascinating piece of history.

This is one of my favourite books on the subject.


It revolves around archeological forensic evidence after an exhaustive mapping of the site coupled with an analysis of both the capabilities and armament of the two sides. In short, not so much poor strategy but a cascading disintegration of poorly trained soldiers incapable of maintaining the skirmish lines they employed.

🍻
 
I'm afraid I have a terrible memory so I don't have particular examples to bring up. Here's an example of arrogant historiography though: the idea that the medieval era was strictly a dark age has been shown to be nonsense made up by the Enlightenment thinkers as a way for them to distinguish themselves for the previous era. We know that significant technological, architectural, and sociological progress continued to occur at the time on both sides of the Mediterranean.

I do remember, however, reading analyses regarding Sparta, as well as other historical groups and societies, that ran counter to the narrative presented in this thread.

As to what is being torn down: inspiration for greater things. Humility itself is being torn down. By downplaying the achievements of predecessors we elevate ourselves to undeserved heights.

A recurrent theme these days is that youngsters struggle to find purpose in life. Deconstructing historical avenues of meaning does not help them in that regard, I would think.

Historical analysis is a moving shifting thing. We constantly seek the best interpretation of facts and sources. How that makes us feel about ourselves will always change, but we shouldn’t abandon that for the sake of feeling good about us.

Sparta, in particular, is a favourite topic for a certain kind of person whose wants it to mean a certain thing to them. Regardless of the actual historical facts. I’d really recommend Hans Van Weese, or the video posted above for a coles notes version, to get a sense for what academia is now understanding.
 
As to what is being torn down: inspiration for greater things. Humility itself is being torn down. By downplaying the achievements of predecessors we elevate ourselves to undeserved heights.
This!

🍻
 
When History is viewed as an "Art" , which is very much fabricated and created as a story; it can become subjugated into propaganda by anyone. For good or bad, depending on what the narrative of choice is.

That is why I have always preferred to view history under a far more scientific lense, à la Anthropology or Forensics. Facts based analysis, tangible references from those who were there (where possible). Opposing views, dissenting views, all of it. Paint the picture based on all sides and don't try to pretty it up or make it look uglier.

With the Spartans, they were very much a Greco-Centric tribe that existed alongside other tribes and empires. They fought using the technology and tactics of the day and were successful in some pursuits and were defeated in others. The same can be said of the Romans, Phonecians, Mughals, Mongols, Royal Navy, and U.S. Armed Forces; take your pick.

Where we fall down in the Spartan myth is that it is not the "pinnacle" for professional soldiering; quite the opposite. Spartans were either warrior caste or conscripted/enslaved. They fought because the "had to" and were often thrown into the fray with little training or direction. This is not the example I would want my soldiers to follow, so why idolize it?

Instead, we need look more intently to professional armies and their edge over their enemies who weren't. The armies of Wolfe, Montcalm, Napoleon, Wellington, Frederick the Great, Washington, Brock, Currie, Montgomery, Schwarzkopf etc.

They all were brilliant tacticians who's trained armies and soundly defeated their enemies at various engagements, but also suffered defeats from which they adapted and evolved. They used new technologies, tactics, and ideas to outwit and outflank stronger forces. Their militaries were made from citizen soldiers who were made great, not elite warrior castes that fell into their battle stations right out of the womb.

Spartans were great warriors, but were not soldiers. We need to stop idolizing something we're not; as the mythology is historically inaccurate and the idolatry is misplaced. We can train soldiers to be part of that historical line of professionals without trying to make everyone a "Warrior."
 
I'm afraid I have a terrible memory so I don't have particular examples to bring up. Here's an example of arrogant historiography though: the idea that the medieval era was strictly a dark age has been shown to be nonsense made up by the Enlightenment thinkers as a way for them to distinguish themselves from the previous era. We know that significant technological, architectural, and sociological progress continued to occur at the time on both sides of the Mediterranean.
All the historians I have heard who referred to the time period of a few hundred years after the Fall of Rome as “the Dark Ages” said they did so not because it was a dark and barbaric time, but because there was little contemporary written record of this time period compared to when the Roman Empire was still established.
 
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