Friday, June 3, 2011


Anton Powell, Stephen Hodkinson, Sparta: The Body Politic. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2010. Pp. viii, 348. ISBN 9781905125265. $100.00.

Reviewed by Nicolette Pavlides, The University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site

This is the seventh book arising from the International Sparta Seminar series. The present volume is a collection of essays presented at the Celtic Conference in 2006 held at the University of Wales Lampeter, now University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. The volume concentrates on the structure of Laconian politics, and offers an eclectic selection of topics both in regard to Sparta but also concerning the perioikic communities. Its wide array of themes touches among others on aspects of religion, women, dress, and even Sparta in twentieth-century British left-wing thought. As with the previous volumes in the series, it offers a high quality of scholarly work that will appeal to Spartan specialists and non-specialists alike.

Nicholas Richer explores the use and link of animals in Spartan personal names and the appearance of animals in Laconian vase painting. The article offers a synopsis of the literary and iconographical evidence with a discussion following each animal. The author attempts to offer an explanation for the significance of some animals in Spartan society, such as the horse, the wolf and the dog. However, the discussion would benefit from a comparison with other areas of the Greek world so as to present the extent to which Sparta is different or not. Richer has done a thorough job in presenting the evidence, but his article does not fit well in this volume and does not work well as the first article presented to the reader. Lastly, 519 endnotes are too many for a forty-seven page article.

Anton Powell investigates the use of religion in Spartan secular matters, especially in times of insecurity. He concentrates on how this reflects the idea that Sparta enjoyed institutional stability between the sixth and the third-centuries. In his article Powell first addresses the use of divination during the Persian invasion as described by Herodotus and highlights the importance of the seer Tisamenos in Spartan affairs. He then proceeds to demonstrate the diplomatic utility of oracles as in the case of the earthquake in 465/5 B.C. and the Helot revolt. Moving chronologically into the Peloponnesian War the author demonstrates how Sparta used the Delphic oracles in explaining setbacks during the war. Accordingly, Powell focuses on the events after the Peloponnesian war: Lysandros, the problems regarding Aegisilaos' accession, the conspiracy of Kinadon and the case of Lysandros' plot against the dyarchy. In every case Powell discusses the use of seers and oracles in influencing secular events and the instability in the internal affairs of Sparta. He concludes that because of the number of exiled or executed kings, religion, together with divination, was a way for royalty to maintain power while in an insecure position. The article offers a careful analysis of the sources and offers a compelling argument against the traditional view of the stable kingship of Sparta.

Ephraim David studies the significance of nudity in Spartan society. His main argument is that public nudity with its uniformity and simplicity supports the ideology of the homoioi in Archaic and Classical Sparta. David calls Spartan nudity institutionalised and traces its beginnings in the mid-seventh century, as evidenced by the gymnopaidia. The article proceeds with a discussion of Spartan nudity in three contexts: first, in examples where nudity is connected with youth and old age; second, in examples where nudity plays a role in state control (namely ritual and education); and third, female nudity. The author uses all relevant material and draws his examples from both literary and archaeological sources. Apart from the scanty evidence from Tyrtiaos, one wonders, however, how far fifth and fourth-century sources can illuminate seventh and sixth-century Sparta. Even the date of the gymnopaidia is not uniformly accepted as 668 B.C.1 Moreover, although the article stresses the ideology of nudity as a homogenising element for the homoioi, it is not possible, given our limited sources for Spartan society, to put this idea in practice. In other words: where was this nudity practiced? The gymnasium is one answer offered by David, but one may ask how Sparta is then different from other Greek poleis.

Andrew Scott assesses the Laconian black-figure industry and offers an alternative explanation for the existence of black-figure pottery and its decline in the sixth-century beyond the 'Lycurgan' measures of austerity. Assuming that pottery production was a perioikic occupation, he points out that the production and trade of pottery in Sparta was popular before and after the appearance of black-figure pottery (580-530 B.C.) in the large numbers of plain ware, while the archaeological record of Sparta reveals a large number of drinking vessels, thus implying that the practice of drinking was popular. Based on Critias (fr. 33 Diels-Kranz), Scott argues that each Spartan would have had his own cup during meals, and therefore one's own cup was a thing of high personal significance. He believes that the existence of black-figure cups among others found on the acropolis at Halieis, which was occupied by a Spartan force in the early sixth-century, is evidence that there were no measures that forbade Spartans using such luxury items. He goes on to propose that the early sixth-century date of these cups shows that the period was one of transition leading into the period of austere measures of Spartan society, but also one during which wealthier Spartans could still show their elite status by the use of black-figure pottery. The article ends with a brief examination of the symposia scenes on black-figure vases, which Scott takes to signify the local custom of a symposium, either contemporary or of a habit of the past, since the society of the sixth-century was in transition. In his view the symposium began to retreat in the sixth-century as the syssition became more regular. The Laconian black-figure industry which started in the early sixth-century reflects the transition period in which elite Spartans would use such personal luxury items in order to be placed apart from the rest of the Spartans, who would now use the plain ware in the syssition. Scott offers a persuasive argument that skilfully weaves together archaeological and literary evidence.

Jean Ducat examines what the terminology behind 'Lakedaimon' reveals about the status of the perioikoi. He uses the vocabulary found in Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and other authors in order to understand in what context Lakedaimon is used. He concludes that the term is used in most cases to denote Sparta as a polis, but that the Lakedaimonians can be Spartans or perioikoi. By examining the term 'city of Lakedaimon' he concludes that in most cases it implies Sparta as a state, not the perioikic territory. The term 'basileus Lakedaimonion' is found in military contexts. As the Lakedaimonian army consisted of Spartans and perioikoi the term illustrates the close ties between the king and the perioikoi. Lastly, the term 'politikon strateuma' occurs in relation to the army and not the citizen body of Sparta. The phrase, as evidenced by fourth-century literary sources, implies neither mercenaries nor allies. Therefore, the 'politikon strateuma' shows that outsiders saw the Lakedaimonian army as a single unit. Ducat proceeds to discuss the evidence for Lakedaimon as a city, through the unity of the army, but also for Lakedaimon as a federal state. He concludes that the evidence shows ethnic homogeneity in Lakedaimonia in the alphabet and in religious practices, but that the region was not uniform since some areas were culturally less similar to Sparta. The article offers a long overdue discussion of terminology which is indiscriminately used by modern authors, and exposes the reader to the complexity of the Spartan-perioikic relationship.

Paul Christesen explores the treatment of Lycurgus' reforms in Ephorus' works while also attempting to contextualise the passages within Ephorus. He examines Ephorus' fragments dealing with the Lycurgan politeia and highlights the importance of the Lycurgan reforms in the text. He emphasizes the Lycurgan reforms of equality of possessions and the appearance of landholdings, the andreia and the creation of the homoioi as reasons behind the eleutheria and hegemony of Sparta. Based on Wickensham's argument that Ephorus constructed his Histories as a study of hegemonies that rose and fell, Christesen sees Ephorus' treatment of Sparta as one example of a hegemony which owed its success to the Lycurgan reforms but which fell because of the change in the ways of life notable in the fourth-century, when Ephorus himself was writing. Christesen studies another society, the Skythians, pastoralists who enjoyed a communal harmony, as a parallel to Sparta. In his view, Ephorus, influenced by Herodotus, connects Sparta and the Skythians as groups disinterested in wealth. Christesen argues that by studying Ephorus it becomes evident that by the fourth-century the so-called 'Spartan mirage' was already being contrasted with contemporary Sparta. Ephorus was able to do this by compiling examples of hegemonic powers and by figuring patterns, a reason that Christesen concludes should make Ephorus important in the Greek historiographical tradition.

Thomas Figueira offers a stimulating proposal that women in Sparta monitored masculine behaviour. He traces this phenomenon in sources such as Herodotus, Aristotle and other fourth century writers, and Plutarch. He defends Plutarch as a source for Archaic and Classical Sparta since the author relies heavily on earlier sources, especially on the constitutional tradition deriving from the Peripatetics and the Cynics. Figueira discusses how Spartan women (especially mothers) treated their sons going to combat as well as their negative reaction against sons who did not behave bravely in battle. In order to comprehend gynecocracy in Sparta, one has to contextualise it in the local lifestyle: first, gynecocracy in Sparta reflects Spartan customs mainly in the preservation of the homoios; second, women had a different role from many of their counterparts in other Greek cities, and gynecocracy should not be viewed in an Athenian context. The essay is thought provoking and sure to stimulate subsequent discussion on the subject.

Stephen Hodkinson analyses how classically trained intellectuals used Sparta as an analogue of Nazi-Germany when engaging with contemporary politics. The article is divided into three sections. The first examines how the left-wing intellectual Richard Crossman emerged with the Sparta-Germany analogy in his writing and radio broadcasting and in the mid-1930's. The second part explores how the analogy developed during World War II when Britain was at war with Germany. In particular, it focuses on a lecture by the classist and liberal Gilbert Murray. The third part of the article moves forward chronologically from World War II and analyses how the analogy developed after the end of National Socialism. Hodkinson concentrates specifically on the radio broadcasts of the left-wing American and naturalised British citizen, Moses Finley. The article is excellently researched and offers a wonderful analysis and discussion of the emergence and development of the Sparta-Nazi-Germany analogy by British intellectuals.

As with other volumes in the series, the articles work better as individual studies rather as a unified whole. In the same light the volume would have benefited from a longer introduction that clarified the aims of the book and drew out the connections between papers. Regardless, it is still an excellent work that offers the reader stimulating discussion of a variety of issues on Spartan politics and should surely belong in the library of anyone interested in Spartan and Laconian studies.


Nicholas Richer, "Elements of the Spartan bestiary in the Archaic and Classical periods", 1-84

Anton Powell, "Divination, royalty and insecurity in Classical Sparta", 85-135

Ephraim David, "Sparta and the politics of nudity", 137-163

Andrew Scott, "Laconian black-figure pottery and Spartan elite consumption", 165-181

Jean Ducat, "The ghost of the Lakedaimonian state", 183-210

Paul Christesen, "Spartans and Scythians, a meeting of mirages: the portrayal of the Lycurgan Politeia in Ephorus' Histories, 211-263

Thomas J. Figueira, "Gynecocracy: how women policed masculine behavior in Archaic and Classical Sparta, 265-296

Stephen Hodkinson, "Sparta and Nazi-Germany in mid-20th-century British liberal and left-wing thought, 297-342


1.   P. Shaw. Discrepancies in Olympiad Dating and Chronological Problems of Archaic Peloponnesian History. (Stuttgart, 2003), 273-309.

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