I’ve been asked why I wrote The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy. Why did I think it was so important to target the myth that the Spartans were history’s greatest warriors?
For one thing, it isn’t true, and the truth matters.
But in the lionization of the ancient Spartans, there’s something bigger and more insidious at work.
About a decade ago, Spike TV ran a series called Deadliest Warrior. The premise was simple: two famous historical icons (say, a Roman gladiator and a Japanese samurai) would be reviewed and then squared off against one another to answer the burning “who would win in a fight?” question. As a former unscripted TV personality myself, I can tell you the fact it ran for three seasons is a clear marker of success (many shows get canceled after just one), and that doesn’t even count the spin-off web series and video games. At its inception, it was one of Spike’s highest-rated shows, averaging 1.7 million viewers.
The show is long gone, but the impulse behind it still burns brightly. My work deliberately seeks to popularize history, to reach non-scholarly audiences – the video and tabletop gamers, the pub enthusiasts seeking to refight the major battles on the bar-top using pretzel sticks and peanuts. The most common question I am asked by both this audience and the occasional scholar taking an interest in my work is inevitably something along the lines of this old TV show: “Who were the toughest warriors?”
This phenomenon – this seeking to find the “the best…the bravest,” to quote Homer – has a name: Praetorianism. The word specifically refers to the undue influence of the military in the politics of a country, but its connotation is broader: our obsession, particular in military history, with ascribing monolithic competence to elite warriors – Japanese hatamoto, Nepali Gurkhas, US Navy SEALs, European Knights Templar, Roman legionaries of the first cohort, and yes, the Spartan homoioi – and we do more than weave legends of fighting prowess around such storied fighters, we tell stories of ethical and personal elite status as well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our politics – where warrior status gives an electoral edge in a decidedly non-military contest. Praetorianism leaks into the paramilitary as well. Here in the American fire service, we lionize the New York City Fire Department’s Rescue-1, the top of the charts for firefighting nationally, who lost half their number on 9/11. Rescue-1’s company arms are a self-conscious imitation of the eagle, flintlock, and trident used by the Navy SEALS, including a gun that no firefighter would ever use.
This impulse to worship comes from a deep-seated insecurity. It’s born of a bone-deep belief that we aren’t good enough as we are, and that by emulating the legendary self-denial, discipline, and willingness to lay down one’s life for a cause we see in storied warriors, we can somehow achieve their legendary status. On its own, this is fine – for millennia people have used prophets, totems, and examples of all kinds to spur themselves on to greater achievement. But in praetorianism there’s one major problem: by worshiping an idol, we are turned away from the humanity that has the real power to propel us to greatness.
I worked with a Navy SEAL during my first tour in Iraq. An undeniably elite military professional. Multiple Purple Hearts. Multiple Bronze Stars with Combat “Vs.” I was his tactical targeter, providing ground intelligence to guide his operations. I saw exactly what he could do on targets first-hand. He was, without a doubt, a Hollywood superhero. He had absolutely earned the trident he wore on his chest.
He was also a human being.
I won’t go into the details of his many personal problems, and how they bled into the workplace (as they occasionally do for all of us). I will not go into detail on the egregious operational errors he repeatedly made on targets. They were the kinds of errors we all made, over and over again, because such operations are complex and people are fallible.
He reminds me of the Spartan hero Brasidas, a Spartan of the truly legendary stripe – purportedly self-denying, vaunting the city-state above his own safety, utterly committed to a life at war. Almost single-handedly, Brasidas changed the course of the Peloponnesian War, extending Sparta’s reach in the north through a brilliant combination of skillful soft-power and brutal warfighting, taking city after city, saving his outnumbered and out-positioned men at Lynkestis in 423 BC with tenacity, grit, and tactical brilliance.
Brasidas also charged down the gangplank at Pylos in 425 BC like a damned fool, catching a face full of javelins and nearly getting himself killed. His precious shield, which according to legends the Spartans must never lose, slipped off his arm and fell into the sea. You can see the bronze remains of one such shield in Athens today, inscribed with a dedication from the Athenians telling all it was taken at that famous battle. We can’t know it belonged to Brasidas, but I like to think it did. Brasidas also foolishly attempted to press his advantage during the defense of Amphipolis in 422 BC, getting himself killed in the process.
In an article for Smithsonian Magazine last year, I lamented the Bronze Lie that denies us the chance to connect with the fallible humanity of the real ancient Spartans, but the truth is that the larger phenomenon of praetorianism prevents us from making that connection across all of military history.
Heroism, and the ability to be inspired and motivated by the example of others, must be ground in the fallible humanity that is universal to us all. The Shurangama Sutra (one of the core Buddhist texts) warns us: “Do not mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon.” As military historians and fans of military history, we are thrilled by understanding, by bearing witness to the reality of our fighting past.
But reality is peopled by humans, not heroes. And it is in the glory of triumphing in spite of our many mistakes and shortcomings that the greatest stories are found.
There is no deadliest warrior. There is no toughest unit, no most elite gathering of picked warriors.
There are only people, some better trained, some better equipped, some just lucky or more determined in a given moment.
We do our fighting past no honor by pretending otherwise.
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