Essays & Reviews

Paul Rahe on Spartan Grand Strategy

Paul Rahe, the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College, has recently published The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge (Yale Library of Military History). It is projected to be the first installment in a trilogy focused on the conduct of diplomacy and war by ancient Sparta. (Most histories of the period privilege the Athenian perspective.)  This volume assesses the Persian invasions of mainland Greece in 480 and 479 BC, during which the Spartans played the critical role in forming a coalition of diminutive self-governing cities that defeated one of the greatest empires the world had known.

Of perhaps greatest interest to the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy audience is Rahe’s Prologue, which restates in abbreviated form the conclusions that he will argue for at length in the companion volume, The Spartan Regime – the peculiar Spartan way of life, the mode of fighting they preferred, and their form of government, the first in human history to embody a system of balances and checks. He then traces their gradual articulation of a grand strategy designed to provide for the defense of Lacedaemon and the way of life that it fostered. In the remainder of this first book, he examines at length and in detail the manner in which the Lacedaemonians coped with Achaemenid Persia— a power that posed a challenge both military and moral that was in no way anticipated in the grand strategy the Spartans had initially devised. In the Prologue he proposes to sketch the Lacedaemonian polity as a political regime at rest, while in the later chapters he seeks to show it in motion— prudently adjusting its grand strategy to unexpected developments thrown up by a larger geopolitical environment itself.

He argues that one cannot hope to understand the diplomatic and martial interaction of polities if one focuses narrowly on their struggle for power. Every polity seeks to preserve itself, to be sure; and in this sense all polities really are akin. But Rahe contends that there are also moral imperatives peculiar to particular regimes; and, if one’s aim is to understand what has happened in the past and is apt to take place in the future, these cannot be dismissed and ostentatiously swept aside or simply ignored. Indeed, Rahe concludes, if one abstracts entirely from these imperatives— if one treats Sparta, Achaemenid Persia, and Athens or, for that matter, the United States, Russia, China, and Iran simply as “state actors,” equivalent and interchangeable, in the manner advocated by the proponents of realpolitik— one will miss much of what is going on. In thinking about foreign affairs and in pondering diplomacy, intelligence, military strength, and its economic foundations, one must always acknowledge the primacy of domestic policy.

Spartan domestic policy – their way of life – was an extreme form of that aspired to by the city-states of ancient Greece:  the self-sufficient political community in which the citizens were united in a commitment to the common good.  Of all of these ancient Hellenic political communities, Sparta came the closest to giving absolute primacy to the common good. She did this— as a number of ancient observers noted— by turning the city into a camp, the pólιs into an army, and the citizen into a soldier. She did it by taking the institutions and practices embryonic in every pólιs and developing them to an extreme only imagined elsewhere. As a consequence, she was able to exert an almost absolute control over the circumstances which shaped her citizens’ lives. Everything that she did in this virtually self-contained world was aimed at a single end: at nurturing what Lord Macaulay would later refer to as “that intense patriotism which is peculiar to members of societies congregated in a narrow space.” The grand strategy the Lacedaemonians gradually articulated in defense of the way of life was all-encompassing. Of necessity, it had domestic consequences on a considerable scale and it explains the Spartans’ aversion to commerce; their practice of infanticide; their provision for every citizen of an equal allotment of land and of servants to work it; the city’s sumptuary laws; their sharing of slaves, horses, and hounds; their intense piety; the subjection of their male offspring to an elaborate system of education and indoctrination; their use of music and poetry to instill a civic spirit; their practice of pederasty; the rigors and discipline to which they habitually subjected themselves; and, of course, their constant preparation for war. It accounts as well for the articulation over time within Lacedaemon of a mixed regime graced with elaborate balances and checks.

This system was sustained by an underlying system of slavery. The helots who tilled the soil were both a precondition for the Spartan way of life and a permanent threat to the city’s survival. They outnumbered their masters by at least 4 to 1, and perhaps as much as 7 to 1.  The “old helots,” descended from the ancient Achaean stock ascendant in the Mycenaean age, resided near their masters within Laconia in the southeastern Peloponnesus. The Spartans also laid claim to the neighboring province of Messenia in the southwestern Peloponnesus as well. The latter region was fertile and exceedingly well watered but extremely difficult of access, shut off as it was from Laconia’s Eurotas valley by the rugged peaks of Mount Taygetus. There, where the Spartans themselves were few, the helots were numerous, conscious of their identity as a separate people, bitterly hostile to their masters, and prone to revolt. As were the old helots, given the opportunity.

Not far from Sparta’s northeastern border, her ancient enemy Argos, a large and powerful city, stood poised, watching and waiting to take advantage of any disaster that might strike. To make matters worse, in the early archaic period, the Arcadians, just to the north of Messenia and Laconia, were allied with Lacedaemon’s Argive foe and ever ready to lend a helping hand should the helots revolt.

As a consequence of the community’s strategic situation, fear was perhaps the fundamental Spartan passion. It was fear that explained why Lacedaemon was notoriously slow to go to war; it was fear that accounted for the remarkable caution she displayed on the field of battle. This omnipresent fear lay behind her flagrant inability in matters of state to distinguish the dictates of interest from the biddings of honor, and it was fear that made the distrust and deceit that governed her relations with other communities pronounced and glaring. Fear, the great equalizer, rendered the Spartan regime conservative, stable, and —despite the presence of a wealthy, landed aristocracy— socially harmonious. Fear held the polity together. The Spartiates had to be friends: as members of a garrison community, they desperately needed one another. This modus vivendi had one strategic precondition: Lacedaemon’s continued dominion over Laconia and Messenia and its brutal subjection of the helots on both sides of Mount Taygetus.

To sustain their dominion in Laconia and Messenia and to maintain the helots in bondage, the Spartans had to eschew faction; foster among themselves the same opinions, passions, and interests; and employ— above all, in times of strain— procedures, recognized as fair and just, by which to reach a stable political consensus consistent with the dictates of prudence. There was, in sum, an almost perfect match between the moral imperatives of the Lacedaemonian polιteía, the way of life it fostered, and the prerequisites for its defense.

The grand strategy the Spartans embraced had serious consequences for Lacedaemon’s posture in the international sphere as well. Their perch was precarious.  The Lacedaemonians understood from early on what history would eventually confirm: that it took but a single major defeat in warfare on land to endanger the city’s very survival. Even when their population was at its height, as it was in the late archaic period, there were never more than ten thousand Spartiates, if that; and the territory they ruled was comparatively vast. The underlings they exploited were numerous and apt to be rebellious. In Messenia, if not also in Laconia, the helots saw themselves as a people in bondage, and geography did not favor the haughty men who kept them in that condition.

The Spartans could look to the períoιkoι — the class of non-Spartiate Lacedaemonians who resided in the subject villages and who retained a measure of local autonomy – for support, and this they did. But the latter were also few in number, and it was never entirely certain that they could be relied on. They, too, had to be overawed. The Spartan’s first impulse to address their strategic dilemma was to continue to expand, turning north and enslaving those who would support their own revolting slaves—but to no avail. By the middle of the sixth century, they had come to recognize that it was not within their power to make helots of the Tegeans and the other Arcadians, and they had also begun to suspect that, if they did not find some way to leverage the manpower of their neighbors, they would not long be able to sustain their dominion over Messenia. So, with great reluctance, they abandoned the dream of further expansion and embraced as their motto: “Mēdèn ágan— Nothing too much! Nothing in excess!” Then, when the Argives flagged in their support for their traditional allies within Arcadia, the Spartans pounced, seized the opportunity this afforded them, and repositioned themselves to the satisfaction of their neighbors as the defenders of Arcadian autonomy.

By this time, they had already begun presenting themselves to the larger Hellenic world as the scourge of tyranny, the champions of liberty, the friends of oligarchy, and the heirs of Agamemnon. It was under this banner that they rearranged the affairs of their fellow Peloponnesians to their liking and founded a regional alliance designed to keep their Argive enemies out, the helots down, and the Arcadians, above all others, in. Taken as a whole the grand strategy of classical Lacedaemon was brilliantly designed for the purpose it was intended to serve. It had, however, one grave defect. It presupposed that for all practical purposes, under Sparta’s hegemony, the Peloponnesus was a world unto itself— which, of course, it was . . . at the time that this strategy was first formulated. If, however, there ever came a moment when a power equal to or greater than Lacedaemon appeared— or even threatened to appear— in force at or near the entrance to that great peninsula, the Spartans would have to rethink this strategy and recast it to meet an unanticipated challenge.

It was in the mid-540s that such a prospect first loomed in the distance on the horizon.  Rahe documents the evolving Spartan response to the Persian threat.  Their new dilemma: if the Spartans remained isolated and diplomatically and militarily cautious, the Persian juggernaut would overwhelm the rest of the Greek world, leaving Sparta without the resources and allies to resist when their time came. On the other hand, if Sparta met the Persian threat head-on by committing itself whole-heartedly outside the homeland, it would be subject to revolt and destruction at home.

Prior to 481, the Spartans had entertained the hope that the Persian challenge would be evanescent and that their hegemony within the Peloponnesus might be more or less sufficient. The skein of alliances constituting this hegemony had enabled them to keep the Messenians down, the Arcadians close, and the Argives out— which left them free to live in splendid isolation in the discreetly opulent manner to which they had grown accustomed. Xerxes’ invasion had shown the Lacedaemonians, however, that the grand strategy which they had gradually articulated in the first half of the sixth century was not entirely adequate to their needs. In the crisis, at least, this strategy required a supplement— which the Spartans supplied by bringing their Peloponnesian allies into a league with Athens and by inviting others, further afield, to join.

This had proved a brilliant stroke. The Hellenic League had managed to field a fleet capable of countering and, in the end, defeating the naval armada dispatched by the Persian King of Kings. It managed to field an army of nearly forty thousand hoplites capable of countering and, in the end, defeating the core of Xerxes’ army. In both cases, to be sure, the struggle had been close-run. In both cases, the Hellenes had profited from egregious errors committed by the Great King and his marshal Mardonius. In both cases, they had enjoyed good fortune. In both cases, moreover, canniness had been required on their part. But they had won and they had won decisively. The victory had bolstered their prestige; and, should the Mede return in force, as everyone understood, the Hellenic League organized against him would be much, much larger, and the Greeks would win again.

In the aftermath, Spartans had a choice. They could declare victory, retreat to their fastness in the Peloponnesus, and return to their time-honored ways, grateful that they had weathered the storm, confident that no such threat would reappear, and satisfied with their diminutive realm and the disciplined way of life it made both possible and necessary. Alternatively, they could try to sustain their extended hegemony on both land and sea by continuing the war; by incorporating central Greece, the Aegean islands, and the Hellenic cities on the coast of Asia Minor within the Hellenic League; and perhaps also by seeing just how far they could project power into Anatolia and Egypt and along the Mediterranean coast of Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine in between. After victory, as was only natural, many Spartiates breathed a sigh of relief and hankered for home. Others, as was no less natural, were tempted by what the larger world had to offer.

In the short run, however, there was no need for a decision, and none was made.  That is a story for another day.