On the blog today, Myke Cole discusses the continued interest and relevance of Ancient Spartans in the modern day. His insight comes from a deep passion for challenging the misconceptions that surround the Classical warriors, something that he explores adeptly in his latest title, The Bronze Lie.
There’s a famous strip of the beloved Internet comic Mr. Lovenstein where two people are sitting at a table, clearly on a first date. One of the pair says “So, tell me about space.” The other then puts a bucket on the table labeled “SPACE FACTS,” then stands on the table. The final panel is this person hefting the bucket of space facts, about to dump it all over their date. Based on this comic, my girlfriend calls this relentless barrage of enthusiasm on a particular subject (often to the horror of the recipient) “bucketing someone.”
This is, of course, totally me. Except instead of space facts, my bucket is labeled “The Spartans were not the super-warriors everyone says they were. They were utterly average.”
I have spoken this line at so many parties that at this point my friends preemptively roll their eyes when I walk through the door and remind me “Please don’t talk about the Spartans tonight.”
But try as I might, by the time the clock strikes 11PM, I’ve got some poor devil cornered while I wax lyrical about how the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC was a disaster for all of Greece and the Spartans in particular. When my friends catch me once again unable to help myself, they inevitably throw up their hands and exclaim “These people died millennia ago! Why do you care so much?”
Well, I’ll tell you.
Even before Zack Snyder’s hit 2006 film 300 sent the notion of the Spartan super-warrior into overdrive, Sparta’s military reputation was enshrined in pop culture more than any other ancient people. The very word “Spartan” currently means (falsely, when you know anything about how the ancient Spartans actually lived) “showing indifference to comfort or luxury.” Everything from high school sports teams to mud runs to exercise programs are named for the Spartans in the hope of evoking the myth of their military indomitability.
Here are three reasons why this mythologizing of Sparta’s ancient past is a really bad idea:
1) It isn’t true – Abraham Lincoln said “History is not history unless it is truth,” and this remains one of my favorite quotes about the field. We live in an age where “alternative facts” are the order of the day, and there is no longer any public consensus on scientific truth. From vaccines to climate change, experts who have dedicated their lives to separating fact from fantasy are often held in no higher regard than a pundit or an actor with a larger social media megaphone. In the midst of one of the darkest periods in our history, the importance of telling the truth as best we are able about everything always is starker than ever.
History is often subverted for political or entertainment ends, but serious students of it agree that it must be a quest for truth for its own sake. What this truth means or reveals is irrelevant. That it is true is in and of itself enough.
2) It’s misused as a symbol by far-right extremists – From the Oathkeepers, to the Golden Dawn, to Generation Identitaire, to the Sons of Odin USA, the most extreme reactionary groups around the world use the toxic myth of Spartan “badassery” as a galvanizing symbol to rally support. Sparta’s legend was forged at Thermopylae, and far-right groups love this concept – an “East vs. West” struggle where a tiny minority of white Europeans gave their lives to hold back an immigrant horde. Given the anti-immigrant platforms of these extremist groups, Herodotus’ wildly inaccurate narrative seems tailor-made for them, and Frank Miller’s comic book adaptation set the stage for Zack Snyder to take this to a level that became a near instant cultural phenomenon.
We aren’t talking about center-right political organizations. We are talking about the people who attacked the US Capitol. Orwell’s famous quote is absolutely true: “He who controls the past, controls the future.” Reasonable people may disagree on politics, but we cannot allow violent extremists to hold Sparta’s story hostage.
3) It deprives us of a chance to connect with Sparta’s real and inspiring Story – I’ve often criticized Frodo Baggins as being one of the worst lead characters in any story because of his utter lack of flaws. What’s the worst thing about Frodo? He’s excessively earnest? How can any normal human identify with a character like that? This is why shows like Game of Thrones are such smash hits – audiences identify with flawed human beings. When we see our own mistakes and failures reflected in others, we can be genuinely inspired by their successes.
The Spartan superwarrior myth robs us of this chance. It removes the human Spartan and replaces him with a bronze statue. No living person can live up the entirely mythic image of Leonidas, the Spartan king lionized in 300. There are many examples of Spartans who behave like real human beings – flailing and failing, making mistakes and paying for them. And when we allow ourselves to engage with the reality of a flawed and human Sparta, we can in turn be inspired by the times the Spartans truly pulled off astounding victories – not defeats cloaked in propaganda like Thermopylae, but actual impressive victories like the First Battle of Mantinea and the Battle of the Nemea.
I fully admit to and own my many “bucketing” moments. I am absolutely “that guy” at the dinner party when it comes to the subject of the ancient Spartans. But while I’ll accept the disconnect between my passion and everyone else’s, the topic is important to me for very good reasons. Our willing choice of the myth of the Spartans over the reality is more than tragic, it is at times dangerous, and if the truth matters at all, then it matters here. Orwell’s quote bears repeating – “He who controls the past, controls the future” – but the solution, of course, is for the past to remain uncontrolled.
The wild truth can only be seen, encompassed and related. It speaks for itself, and is the surest way to honor our past.