The Most Nuanced Take You Will Ever Read About Sparta (and North Korea)
How I went from disliking Sparta, to hating it, to not knowing what to think anymore, to disliking it but for better reasons
At first this was going to be a hit piece against Sparta.
I’ve never really liked Sparta. Maybe this is because military history is by far the most boring part of history. The Spartans are known mostly for being badass warriors and dying in a heroic last stand against the Persians at Thermopylae, as depicted in the movie 300, which I have never watched and probably never will.
They’re known for other things, too, but we have to recognize that pretty much every cool thing about ancient Greece (philosophy! architecture! theater!) came from the other great city-state, Athens, which did better than Sparta along all dimensions. Except the military, perhaps. Quite frankly, there’s no reason to pay attention to Sparta at all, except as a historical curiosity. Or, maybe, if you’re an anonymous Twitter account trying to gain insecure male followers by demonstrating Contrarian Opinions and Love of Discipline and Badass Masculinity.
(To be clear, I fully support demonstrating contrarian opinions. We do it here too! Also, in case you hadn’t figured it out, this essay is going to contain a lot of hyperbole. Consider yourself warned.)
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A Narrative of Acquainting Myself With Sparta
So I’ve never really liked Sparta, but there was no reason to stop there. With a bit of effort, I could hate Sparta.
And I started doing exactly that recently, after I read The Beginning of Infinity, by the physicist David Deutsch. This is a book about many things (it literally has a list of different meanings for the phrase “the beginning of infinity”), one of which is optimism in our ability to solve problems through free creativity combined with a tradition of criticism. According to Deutsch, such optimism is the only way to make real progress and improve our lives. But optimism has bloomed only a few times in the past: the Enlightenment from the 18th century onward, the Florentine Renaissance in the 15th century, and the Athenian Golden Age in the 5th century BC.
The Athenian Golden Age was a time of fast, open-ended progress. But it didn’t last. Why not? Who was guilty of ending it? I could answer something about complicated historical reasons and multifactorial something something, but why do that when you can pin the blame on a single entity: Sparta.
At the close of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan army under general Lysander conquered Athens and installed the Thirty Tyrants to rule it. The Thirty Tyrants were all-around terrible people who brutalized the Athenians and stole their property, but they were, fortunately, rather incompetent, and Athens regained its independence and democracy within a year. Unfortunately, the damage was done: the city became unremarkable. It ceased to innovate at a fast pace. Deutsch thinks it’s because it had lost its optimism. If that’s true, then Sparta’s victory may have been one of the most tragic moments in history.
Okay, so now I had a great reason to detest Sparta. Hate is fun, so I decided to go further still and read a classic in Sparta-bashing: the “This. Isn’t. Sparta.” series of blog posts by historian Bret Devereaux.
Devereaux did not disappoint. His thesis is that the popular conception of Sparta, most stereotypically seen in the movie 300, is off-the-charts inaccurate. Moreover, Sparta was almost certainly a horrible place to live, even by the pretty low standards of the ancient world. With a comprehensive look at the historical sources, Devereaux shows that there’s basically nothing at all to admire from its society. Take that, Sparta!
The seven blog posts (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII) are worth reading, but they’re kind of long, and I try to be mindful of your time, dear reader. So have a summary of some of the claims instead:
The education was bad. The rigorous schooling of the Spartans, the agōgē, was a violent indoctrination program that ensured the perpetuation of the political system rather than the well-being of the citizens.
The slaving was bad. The polis relied on a slave class, the helots, that comprised a higher fraction of the population than anywhere else, and that was exploited more ruthlessly than anywhere else. Some sources suggest that the agōgē involved murdering helots through the mysterious Crypteia institution. That may have been a rite of passage, a secret police, and/or a convenient way to terrorize the slaves into submission.
The elite class was bad. Imagine if your local rich person not only spent all their time on leisure and the gym, but also actively despised anyone who worked for a living, while relying on a giant class of exploited and terrorized laborers to give them wealth. Well okay, some anti-capitalists among you may not have a hard time imagining this. The citizen class — the spartiates — was that, but worse.
The class structure was overall bad. Although later writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau admired the equality of Spartan society, it is likely that such equality never existed, not even among citizens. Sure, spartiates were guaranteed equal shares of land by law. But in practice, there was likely never a time without large economic discrepancies within the citizen class. That doesn’t mean Sparta was less equal than (say) the Persian Empire, but that reputation has been overplayed by Mr. Rousseau and others. And of course, the vast majority of Spartans were either helots or non-citizens (who were free, but didn’t have the privileges and political rights of the citizens).
The military was not bad, but not great either. Militarily, it’s true that Sparta was pretty good at hoplite battles, but it was not that much better than other Greek cities. It didn’t shine in other military operations, like naval power, and it failed at accomplishing most of its strategic objectives. Even the conquest of Athens didn’t bring a golden age of Sparta, and Spartan dominance was mostly undone within a year.
Other things were bad, like the inflexible political system and the unforgiving laws on who gets to be a citizen.
My understanding of Devereaux’s work is that it’s mostly correct (Elizabeth Van Nostrand has fact-checked some of the claims and finds most confirmed or plausible). Of course, people who love Sparta will be quick to say Devereaux exaggerates or judges Sparta according to unfair standards. It’s true that he was deliberately trying to counterbalance the cultural force that gave us 300 and the Spartan super soldier meme.
At that point I realized I should make up my own mind about 300. But I still didn’t want to watch the movie, so I did the next best thing, which is to read the graphic novel that inspired the movie.
While I was at it, I also picked up Three, another graphic novel that was made as a spiritual response to 300, as the number-themed title strongly suggests. In Three, we follow three helots who flee from the spartiates after a conflict between the two groups. It is a well-documented work of fiction, with input from a specialized historian and approximately one historical footnote per page.
300 was pretty much what I expected. I disliked it, which to be fair was to be predicted after reading Devereaux. It is inaccurate, overly serious, and hagiographic. Very meh.
But Three was not what I expected. I thought it would paint Sparta in a negative light, since it was concerned with the plight of the helots (who are inexplicably absent from 300). But it didn’t. Instead, it was nuanced! It showed the Spartans as complex characters who disagreed with each other. It showed them — both helots and citizens, and also free non-citizens — as normal people, trying to do the best they could in their circumstances. And all of this was well-researched enough that I could trust it.
Suddenly it made less sense to write a hit piece. A little voice was telling me to aim for nuance instead, and to avoid strong, uninformed opinions. Maybe even read the classical sources like Plutarch and Xenophon myself. But also, at that point a fun essay idea was taking shape in my mind: a comparison between Sparta and North Korea, intended to show that one was as bad as the other. If the voice was right, then it was probably not appropriate to make such a comparison, not unless I did way more research.
I did what anyone would have done: I told that voice to shut up, and I began comparing with North Korea anyway.
Sparta and North Korea Are Obviously Literally the Same Thing
Everyone loves answering the question of which country is the modern Sparta. Lots of people will suggest their own country, usually a liberal democracy with easily criticized flaws, because who doesn’t like to use The Ancients to advance a political point? And so we get comparisons with the United States, because like Sparta, it’s highly militarized. Or Israel, because it’s highly militarized and it discriminates against the Palestinians just like the Spartans discriminated against the helots.
These comparisons are weak sauce. As open, culturally productive societies, the US, Israel, and all other Western countries are much closer to Athens, if for some reason we insist on comparing them with an ancient Greek polis. We can do better. We can compare with what is probably the worst society to live in today, in the year of our Lord 2022 (or the Juche year 111, if you prefer counting from Eternal President Kim Il-Sung’s birth): the longest-lived totalitarian society in history, the nuclear-backed, cartoon villain-led, irredeemably un-self-aware Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
I thought of the comparison myself, I swear, but Devereaux got there first:
Sparta was – if you will permit the comparison – an ancient North Korea. An over-militarized, paranoid state which was able only to protect its own systems of internal brutality and which added only oppression to the sum of the human experience. Little more than an extraordinarily effective prison, metastasized to the level of a state.
What is there to add? Lots, as it turns out. If you start looking for similarities between any two things, you will find similarities. Here are some that I found:
High reliance on the military. North Korea is the most militarized country in the world in relative terms: despite having a population comparable to Australia or Cameroon, it fields the 4th largest army in the world. 5% of the population is part of the standing army, and a staggering 30% are either active, reserve, or paramilitary personnel. In Sparta, all male citizens were exclusively soldiers, and men from all other social classes could be forced to fight in the army when needed.
Poor grand strategy. Other than self-perpetuation, neither Sparta nor North Korea demonstrated a strong capacity at using their military to achieve strategic objectives on the international stage. The Spartans didn’t win a proportionately high number of crucial battles, for example.
Discrepancy between claimed equality and achieved equality. We already went over the supposed equality of spartiate citizens; let’s add the growing class of ex-citizens who had been disgraced in some way, and who would forever be shut from citizenship along with their descendants; and let’s remind ourselves that most people were helots. Meanwhile, as a socialist state, North Korea claims equality among all Koreans, but in fact there are classes based on political loyalty, including a small rich elite at the top, mostly in Pyongyang.
Oppression of the lower classes. The Spartans murdered helots in ritual war to terrorize them. The North Koreans have been accused of human rights violations whose “gravity, scale, and nature . . . reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” Oppression is hardly unique to these two societies, but it does seem to have been uniquely worse than elsewhere in both cases.
A relatively mysterious, secretive, and closed society. It’s difficult to know anything for certain about North Korea because of the ubiquity of state surveillance. For example, no one really knows to what extent cannabis is legal or not. Sparta seems to have also been difficult to access, at least much more so than Athens.
A cultural life centered on large festivals. Sparta had its Gymnopaedia; North Korea has its quasi-annual and frankly insane Arirang Mass Games.
No production of cultural value for the wider world. Outside of its military victories, bizarre political system, and peculiar customs, Sparta has barely innovated in anything that we know. The works of only two poets have survived: Tyrtaeus and Alcman. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to find anything culturally or scientifically significant that has come out of North Korea, except an international expertise in monumental statues in the socialist realist style, which for some reason are popular in Africa.
I could keep going, but I’m pretty sure I have made my case that Sparta and North Korea are literally identical.
Do you not agree? Are you saying that there must have been some differences between two countries that are separated in time by 2,140 years and in space by 8,500 kilometers?
You got me. You’re right. There are differences. For one thing, totalitarianism is a concept that doesn’t really make sense for anything before the 20th century. For another, the cult of personality around the Kim dynasty has no equivalent in Sparta, whose kings and magistrates are far less known than the intricate political system they were part of. I could keep going, but I won’t: identifying differences is as easy — or even easier — than identifying similarities. If you look for them, you will find them.
So, yes, the header of this section is wrong and hyperbolic, and Sparta and North Korea are not two emanations of the same Platonic ideal.
The comparison is, I think, interesting and instructive. But the more I thought about it, the less it made sense to strongly claim that North Korea is the modern Sparta. Many of the similarities, after all, are just characteristics shared by all states, like having festivals and economic inequality. And North Korea is not necessarily that different from the totalitarian states of the past. We could as well have compared Sparta with Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union or the Islamic State. (I’m… not sure that would have gone well. North Korea at least has the following benefit: it’s almost universally recognized as a totally ridiculous country. That is a great antidote against controversy!)
The little voice that had been born after reading Three was getting stronger. I could no longer ignore it. My essay was not going to be a hit piece. I had to add nuance.
In Which I Keep Comparing But This Time With Nuance
The comparison between Sparta and North Korea was predicated on the opinion that North Korea is a bad society. But is it?
Well, not according to Juche ideology, I’m sure. But according to my own values, which are the best values (otherwise I would have different values), North Korea is definitely bad. Still, my opinions of that country have become more nuanced as I learned more, just like they did for Sparta.
My personal equivalent to Three for North Korea was a popular South Korean TV drama called Crash Landing on You. The premise is that a rich South Korean woman has a paragliding incident involving a tornado and ends up on the other side of the border, where she will of course meet a handsome North Korean soldier from the elite who’ll help her hide and go back to her country. Among many other plot points.
Crash Landing on You is good drama, if a bit over the top. But it’s also a great window into what life in North Korea may look like. Some defectors to the South have said that the representation is about 60% accurate, which in the realm of TV drama is probably as good as it gets.
The creators of the show purposefully avoided dealing directly with political events. I don’t think Kim Jong-un was even mentioned, for instance. This allowed the narrative to focus more on the lives of the characters, who for the most part are… just normal people who happen to have been born in a very bizarre country.
From the outside, it’s difficult to have a clear image of North Korea. We mostly hear about the crazy stuff, like the overenthusiastic news anchor who’s always dressed in pink or the gigantic pyramidal hotel that’s been under construction since 1987; or the horrifying stuff, like the political repression, the famines, and the intra-elite assassinations abroad. This is because the North Koreans have no freedom of speech. They cannot write or talk about themselves, except through government-approved propaganda.
As a result, any information we get is biased. Defectors, for instance, hate the regime they have fled, and sometimes exaggerate their stories for sensationalism. Tourists can visit and see some of North Korea for themselves, but they are constantly accompanied by guides who make sure to paint them a rosy picture.
For totally different reasons, Sparta is the same. We have almost no sources about Sparta by the Spartans. Everything we know was written by outsiders, such as Athenian aristocrats who admired the city and liked to use it as a way to criticize the flaws they perceived in Athenian society. Classical scholarship has long recognized this problem and called it the “Spartan mirage”: the tendency to project whatever we want on the polis, without being able to prove any of it right or wrong due to the lack of sources.
Yet in both cases, one must assume that under the hood of their strange and dreadful political systems, most people are and were just like you and I. They live normal lives, they mostly like their country despite its flaws, and they don’t spend all their time thinking about politics.
And Now, the Nuanced But Not Relativistic Conclusion
Still, it would be a mistake if this attempt at nuance concluded on something like “Sparta and North Korea weren’t worse than any other country, everyone’s right on some things and wrong on others, who’s to say which!” On balance, I think it’s correct to say that these two societies caused more harm than good.
And I’d even say that the root of those evils is the same in both. Sparta and North Korea have fallen into the same trap. They constituted themselves as reactionary societies in which ideas do not flow freely. Everything else — the helots, the cult of personality, the secret police, the overmilitarization — could have been solved (and could still be, for North Korea) if people were free to do what David Deutsch argues for: generate new ideas and criticize them.
Sparta could have resembled Athens; North Korea could resemble South Korea. This would be better for the well-being of their people, and it would be better — with a minor caveat about cultural diversity — for the world. But Sparta and North Korea were and are stuck in their traps, unable to reform themselves without external intervention.
The lack of self-critical stories is both a clear symptom of this problem, and a barrier to forming accurate opinions on our own.
This is why media such as Three and Crash Landing on You are valuable. Since Sparta and North Korea won’t provide us with nuanced views of themselves, and external views tend to be biased, the few narratives that make a real effort at nuance and research should be rewarded. They’re simply the best thing we’ve got.
That’s also, I think, why I found 300 grating. Charitably, 300 is a modern take on Spartan propaganda. It describes the image the spartiates may have had of themselves: strong, beautiful, free people who war against the effeminate and the monstrous. And sure, propaganda can be enjoyable — I love North Korean propaganda as an art form myself. But considering the paucity of stories about Sparta, propaganda is exactly what we don’t need. It just makes everyone’s view less nuanced! It perpetuates the mirage!
So do hit pieces, by the way. Bret Devereaux’s blog posts are entertaining and well-argued, but I can’t shake the feeling that he did indeed venture too far in his critique of Sparta. His work did not actually give me a nuanced view, and I may not even have realized that until I spent more time wrestling with the topic. It’s fine, of course, to discover truth from the collision of strong opinions — but really it’s better to just strive for nuance from the start. Especially when writing about a society that is unable to respond, whether that’s because it’s long gone or because it’s a totalitarian hellscape.
In this essay I wasn’t going to strive for nuance from the start. But the little voice saved me. Listen to that voice, when it tells you to be nuanced. It’s the right thing to do.
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I think the claim that Sparta was merely average in the field of battle is overblown. Thucydides finds it remarkable that Spartans are able to maintain enough composure in battle to walk very slowly towards the enemy. Similarly, in Xenephon's account of the 10,000, it is Persia that wants to hire Spartan mercenaries. Furthermore, when the southern cities of Greek Italy are threatened by Roman expansion, they turn to the Spartan General Pyrrhus to run the military affairs. The sheer quantity of references to Spartan mercenaries across texts seems to indicate a real reputation for war-philia.
Concerning low living standards in Sparta. This seems intentional? In both Plato's Republic the pleasureless Malthusian society is first praised (as a proto-Sparta), and in the Laws the Crypteia (those secret police you mention) are praised for their ridiculous amounts of endurance without clothes and barefoot.
There is much more to be said about Spartan culture, their decision for war against Athens, their alleged relationship with Israel (seriously!), which can add more nuance still.