Sparta: Unfit for Empire by Godfrey Hutchinson
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
Let us start with the main point – if you are looking for a book which tells you what happened immediately after the Peloponnesian War which ended in 404 BC, this is probably the best book for the job.
Godfrey Hutchinson, author of Xenophon and the Art of Command (Greenhill Books 2000), returns to the works of Xenophon and basically re-examines the material covered in that old general's history, the Hellenica. However, Hutchinson does not uncritically accept Xenophon's account, but offers alternative material from other sources such as Diodorus and the Oxyrhynchus papyri to give as clear an explanation of events as the general reader is likely to find. Those with a more technical understanding of the topic might prefer Paul Cartledge's Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (Hushion House 2000). This covers much the same ground, but makes much less allowance for the general reader than does Hutchinson's book
What Hutchinson does is take the reader through the years between Sparta's successful conclusion of the war with Athens to the aftermath of the Spartan defeat by Thebes a generation later. In this time we see Sparta fall from the apogee of its power to a vastly diminished state which was hardly relevant outside the Peloponnesian peninsula.
The title of the book 'Unfit for Empire' is somewhat polemical and feels like something chosen by a sales-minded editor rather than the author himself. The book itself does little to develop this thesis, and indeed begs the question of whether the Spartans themselves actually wanted an empire at all. As the author points out, for an allegedly warlike nation, the Spartans were slow to go to war, cautious while fighting, and generally eager to return home afterwards. Enthusiastic imperialists they were not.
However, the book does give a clear exposition of why Sparta collapsed. There are four interlinked themes which are brought out in the narrative and again in the very substantial set of appendices which are not so much at the end of the book as the second part of it.
The first Spartan failure was in leadership. Infighting among the political elite, and poor decisions by those in charge were instrumental in bringing down Sparta. Even Xenophon's hero, King Agesilaos made at least two fatal blunders. And when Agesilaos was not in command, poor generalship led to a series of defeats in the field.
Secondly, despite a series of half-hearted adaptations to existing systems, Sparta fell behind in military innovation. The Spartan army struggled to cope with new developments such as the greater use of cavalry, the rise of peltasts, and skilled mercenaries who could give the Spartans a run for their money in military expertise. This is described rather well in the book.
Next, as the author states - to the point of wearisome repetition – the number of Spartiates was falling due to economic exclusion and the concentration of power and property in Lacedaemonia. This meant that the number of fully-fledged Spartans in the army was equal only to the corps of full-time warriors that other states such as Thebes and Corinth had by now also developed, and consequently Spartan superiority in battle was no longer assured.
Finally, there was the issue of rebellion at home, whether by disaffected Spartans or oppressed helots. The need to control Messenia, a conquered territory richer and more populous than Sparta itself, had shaped Sparta since the archaic era. As the author explains, once an alliance of anti-Spartan Greeks had stripped Messania from Spartan control, Sparta dropped from the top level of Greek cities.
The arrangement of the book – a narrative first half and then a second half of detailed appendices discussing other aspects of Spartan history, society and warfare – feels somewhat clunky. Certainly this method allows for a stripped-down, lean narrative which allows authorial digressions to be limited to an analysis of events, but ploughing through the appendices afterwards feels rather too much like work.
Consequently, the overall text is rather like the Parson's egg. However, while that egg was 'good in parts', this book is excellent in parts, good in most of the rest, and pedestrian only on rare occasions. There are many books on Sparta in print – and this is definitely one of the better ones.
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Philip Matyszak is a British non-fiction author, primarily of historical works relating to the ancient world. Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St John's College, Oxford. In addition to being a professional author, he also teaches ancient history for Madingley Hall Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University.