Book Review by Martin Holmes
This book, awarded the 2008 Lakedaimonian Prize of the Academy of Athens, is political and military history at its best. In an era where the Spartans are idealised in popular culture through films such as 300 (2006) and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) and, in contrast, are often dismissed or even derided by many classical scholars of the ‘Spartan mirage’ variety, Miltiadis Michalopoulos has provided a history of Sparta that is balanced, well researched, and fascinating. He takes as his subject neither the rise of Sparta nor its heyday. Indeed, at first glance its subtitle is liable to confuse: “the Rise and Fall of the Spartan Revolutionary Movement.” What movement? What revolution? In popular culture and in academia the Spartans are frequently portrayed as conservatives and traditionalists – rather dim ones, at that. Secluded in the southern part of the Peloponnese, perpetuating a centuries-old social system based on the teachings of Lykourgos that was foreign to the rest of Greece, and fiercely resistant to luxury, intellectual life, and cultural innovation, the Spartans make for unlikely revolutionaries. A major reason, most classicists think, behind Sparta’s decay was its inability to change.
Michalopoulos agrees with this conclusion. The Spartans were indeed too conservative, he argues. Encumbered with an enormous population of helot slaves, suffering a continual decline in the number of homoioi to guard them, and a xenophobia bordering on paranoia prevented Sparta from dominating Greece for any length of time. But whereas many classicists trace the end of Spartan power to the third century B.C. – either with the Battle of Leuctra or the Macedonian conquest of Greece – treating later events as mere footnotes, Michalopoulos disagrees. For him, Spartan history did not end in the third century B.C.; neither the Thebans nor Alexander the Great invaded and destroyed Sparta. The Spartans, like Sir Winston S. Churchill two millennia later, knew that decline is not defeat and that defeat is not final. Well into the expansionist days of the Roman Republic groups of Spartans conspired and warred to restore the city’s prestige.
In the Name of Lykourgos is the story of these latter-day Spartans. Finding themselves in an age far removed from that of their forebears, one in which the big empires – Rome, Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt – dwarfed the old city-states of mainland Greece, and with their city’s prestige shattered by military defeats and helot rebellions, these Spartans desperately fought to keep their city afloat. This book contrasts their desire to restore the ancient ways of Lykourgos with the innovative, often radical methods they employed. Their methods were drastic: Agis IV (r. 245-241 B.C.), to boost the city’s manpower, enacted widespread economic reforms. All debts were cancelled; land was redistributed. Foreigners could bear arms and fight alongside the homoioi.
For a short while the city was vibrant and hopeful. Yet traditional Spartans were stunned and, after only four years, Agis was executed. A generation later Kleomenes III (r. 235-222 B.C.) enacted wider, more radical reforms. He knew he was putting himself in danger but, at the same time, blamed Spartan complacency for the city’s decline. He too cancelled debts, redistributed land, and opened the army to foreigners and ‘inferior’ groups. Marching alongside an expanded and enthusiastic army, and celebrated as a champion of the poor throughout the Peloponnese, Kleomenes fought the rival Achaean League for restoration of Sparta’s traditional territories.
In only five years he brought much of the Peloponnese under his control, including Corinth and Argos, and seemed poised to control it all. Eventually, however, he was defeated and died in exile. A generation later another king, Nabis (r. 207-192 B.C.), made a last-ditch effort to restore Sparta to its former glory. Helots were freed and armed, walls (for the first time) were constructed to defend the city, a navy was built, and money – the bane of traditionalists – was issued to boost the economy. He too had dreams of expansion and he too faced defeat, in this case at the hands of Rome and its Greek allies. In 195 B.C. Sparta was sacked and, in a bloody campaign, most of its warriors, including the king, were slaughtered.
An account of these events is itself a worthy achievement on Michalopoulos’s part. The Spartan Revolution, occurring when it did, has been largely overshadowed by the exploits of Rome and Macedon. Certainly, those with an interest in Sparta will enjoy the book. So will anyone with an interest in Greek history, whether professional or amateur. Military historians may find the battles fascinating, not only because they are not so well-known, but because Michalopoulos is meticulous in his descriptions, having visited on multiple occasions each battle location, and provides readers with appendixes detailing the geography and military roads of the Peloponnese. It is as political history, however, that his book truly shines. Agis, Kleomenes, and Nabis were every bit as fascinating as Pericles, Marcus Agrippa, and the Gracchi; the economic and political reforms were among the most radical in the ancient world. His account of the small city state desperately trying to reassert its independence amid a changing world is probably the best of its kind to appear in recent years.
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In fact, though it is convention for a reviewer to find something to dislike, in this case it is impossible. The subject is significant; the research, considering it was the author’s first book, was done well. Although a translation, it is not clunky, and there are no obvious spelling or grammatical errors. Perhaps the use of ‘k’s rather than ‘c’s in the names might confuse some readers but, being a Greek, Michalopoulos is well within his rights to spell as he does. The only downside is that the author is by profession civil engineer rather than an academic and, as such, might be unfairly dismissed by specialists. Hopefully this does not happen. For, if this is the quality of his first book, one cannot wait (and indeed hope) to see him write another.
Miltiadis Michalopoulos was born in 1960 into a family with strong military traditions which originates from Sparta. He graduated from the Polytechnic School of Athens in 1990 with a BSc in civil engineering and currently works in that profession. He has had a life-long interest in history, particularly military history, and is a prominent member of local war gaming circles. His study In the name of Lycurgus is the result of ten years of intensive research into all available sources and repeated visits to the sites of the battles described in the book.
Book Review of In the Name of Lykourgos: The Rise and fall of the Spartan Revolutionary Movement (243-146BC) - Related Topic: Roman Greek