Thursday, July 18, 2019


Anton Powell (ed.), A Companion to Sparta (2 vols). Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World: Ancient History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2018. Pp. xviii, 805. ISBN 9781405188692. $400.00.

Reviewed by Manolis Pagkalos, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is the first case of a 'Companion' devoted to a single polis.1 Of course, as Paul Cartledge indicates in the Foreword (xiii), the Companion to Sparta is a successor to the long series of edited collections on aspects of Spartan history and society edited by Anton Powell and Stephen Hodkinson.2 However, here Sparta is singled out as an exception by the creation and publishing of a Companion volume to address all the core aspects of Spartan history and culture from the origins of the polis to the late Roman Empire and its modern reception. It is a more than welcome addition to the reading lists of everyone – from students to researchers and the general public – interested in the Classical Greek World.

The Companion to Sparta is a two-volume collection of 29 papers written by a range of experts in the field. The choice of the editor to structure the book in two volumes may, at first, be questioned. The rationale becomes more evident, however – though not always without problems – on consideration of the contents.

The first volume (Parts I-III) introduces the reader to Sparta by highlighting key aspects of the polis and then building a chronological narrative from the Archaic to the Roman Period. Part I features two chapters dedicated to overarching questions and difficulties in approaching Sparta. Namely, Anton Powell (Chapter 1), in a thought-provoking chapter, discusses the difficulty of unlocking Spartan history because of the nature of the sources – which are mostly non-Spartan and severely influenced by the Spartans' manipulation of their image. Similarly, Stephen Hodkinson (Chapter 2) explores how exceptional (or not) Sparta was and to what extent the state dominated society. Hodkinson is following on the topic discussed earlier by Powell and, in effect, discusses the role of Spartan society in creating and sustaining the Spartan state.

Part II is dedicated to pre-Classical and Classical Sparta covering topics from archaeology and pottery to art and culture. William Cavanagh (Chapter 3) offers an excellent survey of the archaeology of ancient Sparta, discussing Laconia from the Dark Ages to the Roman period. However, the reviewer feels that this chapter should appear in Part I of the volume due to its diachronic perspective. The next chapter (Chapter 4) discusses Lykourgos, the famous Spartan lawgiver. Massimo Nafissi offers a thorough discussion of the sources on Lykourgos, his political role within Spartan culture, and later views of him in order to highlight that Lykourgos' character, laws and customs were redefined through additions and subtractions' (111). Chapters 5 and 6 cover Laconian pottery and art respectively, fitting well with the overview of the archaeology of Sparta offered by W. Cavanagh. Maria Pipili discusses painted pottery, from production to stylistic and artistic developments, and iconography from the Geometric to the Classical periods. Francis Prost then proceeds to discuss the original Laconian art and style of the same period – an expression of early Spartan identity. He touches on human representations, the artistic forms and their artists, as well as Spartan trade networks up to the Classical period. Claude Calame (Chapter 7) shifts the discussion to Spartan song culture, specifically Alkman and Tyrtaios, and the political culture of song and music, exploring another signifier of early Spartan identity. Hans van Wees, in two consecutive chapters (8 and 9), focuses first on the topics of luxury, austerity and equality, and then on the common Spartan messes. In effect, what is on under discussion is the duality of private versus public life in Sparta, in order to better understand the social implications of the hierarchical system in effect and the attempts to produce a working social reality for the Spartans, especially after c. 515-500 BC.

Part III is the most narrative part of the Companion, offering the political and military history of Sparta from the Classical to the Roman periods. Instead of the thorough and at times diachronic exploration of themes, this section more clearly fulfils the primary role of a Companion, yet with a critical eye and with brief but on-point comments on ideological aspects. Marcello Lupi (Chapter 10) starts with Sparta during the Persian Wars. Then, Anton Powell (Chapter 11) offers an overview of the internal and external history of Sparta from its rise as a superpower to its victory in the Peloponnesian War. The concept of kairos – the Spartan ability to evaluate and exploit strategic opportunities – is central to his analysis. Françoise Ruzé (Chapter 12) discusses Spartan hegemony, offering a stimulating discussion on the role of Agesilaos, who dominated Spartan political life in the period. James Roy (Chapter 13) returns to the Archaic Period to discuss the region of the Peloponnese and trace the ways Spartan socio-political contacts shaped the history of the region. Daniel Stewart (Chapter 14) deals with the history of late Classical and Hellenistic Sparta narrating the events from Leuktra to the defeat of Nabis, and Sparta's submission to the Achaian League. Lastly, Yves Lafond (Chapter 15) closes Volume One with the exploration of Roman Sparta up to the reign of the emperor Caracalla (third century AD), demonstrating the implications of the period and its trends – notably euergetism – on the social and political levels.

The second volume (Parts IV & V) is for the most part thematically structured. Part IV is dedicated to the discussion of core aspects of Spartan society and culture. Michael Flower (Chapter 16) opens the volume with a very coherent and well-argued chapter on Spartan religion, exploring the range of beliefs, practices and rituals with which the Spartans first legitimised and then supported the social values and ideals as well as the hierarchical political structure of their society, from laws and customs to institutions. Lykourgos naturally occupies a central place in this analysis, which fits well with Nafissi's discussion (Chapter 4). Ellen Millender first discusses Spartan dyarchy in a diachronic account (Chapter 17); and then (Chapter 19) canvasses the status of Spartan women – from personal wealth and economic power to actual political power – and the ways this has been received in Athenian sources. Between these two chapters, Philip Davies (Chapter 18) explores status in Spartan society and its manifestation in communal bonding, mainly through the upbringing and the mess. This theme is also connected to the contribution of Nicolas Richer (Chapter 20) where he thoroughly discusses the complex system of Spartan education (for both sexes). Paul Christesen' s expertise on Spartan athletics is mirrored in his brief yet informed reconstruction of the role of sports and dance (Chapter 21). Thomas Figueira (Chapter 22) and Jean Ducat (Chapter 23) move from the superstructure to the base of Spartan society and discuss helotage and the perioikoi respectively. Naturally, these discussions involve not only socio-political but also financial and militaristic aspects. Jacqueline Christien's chapter (24) is dedicated to infrastructure and material culture – namely the extensive Laconian road network and quarries – a reminder of the need to explore all the variables when we approach ancient Sparta. Nigel Kennell (Chapter 25), in an excellent article, discusses the cultural memory of the Spartans (a term developed by Jan Assmann) during the Roman period. His chapter demonstrates both some of the available tools for the interpretation of cultural and historical processes and the need to use them.

Part V transports us to modern times and changes the prism to the modern reception of ancient Sparta, forming a formidable base for anyone interested in modern uses of the classical past. Haydn Mason (Chapter 26) deals with the reception of Sparta in France from the period before the Enlightenment to after the Revolution. Stefan Rebenich (Chapter 27) writes about Sparta in Germany and German-speaking Europe touching upon the Nazi period and the post-Second World War (dis)use of its paradigm. Sean R. Jensen (Chapter 28) transfers us to the other side of the Atlantic to discuss the reception of Sparta in North America from politics to education and popular culture. Anton Powell (Chapter 29) concludes this Companion with an account of the reception of the model of Spartan education and culture and its use as an example – 'through similarity of social function' – for Imperial Britain's educational system.

A list of notes and directions for further reading or a full-blown bibliography or both follow each chapter, which are very beneficial for anyone seeking to examine in depth the aspects covered. Their style and structure, however, are not consistent throughout. It is the reviewer's opinion that consistent representation of further readings and bibliography would improve the way any reader, especially the student, might navigate through the book and efficiently extract information and guidance for further study. What the reviewer found excellent is the cross-referencing within the book that partly alleviates this problem. Another hindrance is the absence of a table of figures/tables and the relatively small number of pictures that could have further embellished the volumes. Finally, although there is an extensive 'Index', separated indices (locorum and nominum) would have greatly benefitted the work.

These volumes are a valuable contribution to the scholarship on Ancient Sparta, touching on not only historical and social aspects but also on the reception of the polis in modern times. Anton Powell's (and the contributors') attempt to create a unique pool of essays on Sparta is undoubtedly successful. This companion is written by experts with knowledge both of the sources (archaeological, epigraphic and textual) and the broader scholarship. Moreover, it not only provides a survey of the existing scholarship but also promotes the study of Sparta with new research. Hence, these two volumes on Sparta should be part of the reading of both students and scholars. On this note, the reviewer wonders how accessible the hardcover Companion to Sparta is with such a price tag.

Table of Contents

Volume I
Foreword, Paul Cartledge
Preface, Anton Powell
PART I. Reconstructing Sparta: General
1. Sparta: Reconstructing History from Secrecy, Lies and Myth, Anton Powell [pp. 3-28]
2. Sparta: An Exceptional Domination of State over Society?, Stephen Hodkinson [pp. 29-57]

PART II. Origins: From Pre-Classical to Classical Culture
3. An Archaeology of Ancient Sparta with Reference to Laconia and Messenia, William Cavanagh [pp. 61-92]
4. Lykourgos the Spartan "Lawgiver": Ancient Beliefs and Modern Scholarship, Massimo Nafissi [pp. 93-123]
5. Laconian Pottery, Maria Pipili [pp. 124-153]
6. Laconian Art, Francis Prost (trans. James Roy), [pp. 154-176]
7. Pre-Classical Sparta as Song Culture, Claude Calame (trans. James Roy), [pp. 177-201]
8. Luxury, Austerity and Equality in Sparta, Hans van Wees [pp. 202-235]
9. The Common Messes, Hans van Wees [pp. 235-268]

PART III. Political and Military History: The Classical Period and Beyond
10. Sparta and the Persian Wars, 499–478, Marcello Lupi [pp. 271-290]
11. Sparta's Foreign – and Internal – History 478–403, Anton Powell [pp. 291-319]
12. The Empire of the Spartans (404–371), Françoise Ruzé (trans. Anton Powell) [pp. 320-353]
13. Sparta and the Peloponnese from the Archaic Period to 362 BC, James Roy [pp. 354-373]
14. From Leuktra to Nabis, 371–192, Daniel Stewart [pp. 374-402]
15. Sparta in the Roman Period, Yves Lafond (trans. Anton Powell) [pp. 403-422]

Volume II
PART IV. Culture, Society and Economy: The Classical Period and Beyond
16. Spartan Religion, Michael A. Flower [pp. 425-451]
17. Kingship: The History, Power, and Prerogatives of the Spartans' 'Divine' Dyarchy, Ellen G. Millender [pp. 452-479]
18. Equality and Distinction within the Spartiate Community, Philip Davies [pp. 480-499]
19. Spartan Women, Ellen G. Millender [pp. 500-524]
20. Spartan Education in the Classical Period, Nicolas Richer (trans. Anton Powell) [pp. 525-542]
21. Sparta and Athletics, Paul Christesen [pp. 543-564]
22. Helotage and the Spartan Economy, Thomas Figueira [pp. 565-595]
23. The Perioikoi, Jean Ducat (trans. Anton Powell) [pp. 596-614]
24. Roads and Quarries in Laconia, Jacqueline Christien (trans. Christopher Annandale & Anton Powell) [pp. 615-642]
25. Spartan Cultural Memory in the Roman Period, Nigel M. Kennell [pp. 643-662]

PART V. Reception of Sparta in Recent Centuries
26. The Literary Reception of Sparta in France, Haydn Mason [pp. 665-684]
27. Reception of Sparta in Germany and German-Speaking Europe, Stefan Rebenich [pp. 685-703]
28. Reception of Sparta in North America: Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries, Sean R. Jensen [pp. 704-722]
29. Sparta and the Imperial Schools of Britain: Comparisons, Anton Powell [pp. 723-759]


1.   Although it appears that A Companion to Classical Athens (ed. Sara Forsdyke) is underway.
2.   Anton Powell founded the International Sparta Seminar, and was the editor of its first volume, Classical Sparta: Techniques Behind her Success (London: Routledge, 1989). Since then, with Stephen Hodkinson, he has edited most of the Seminar's volumes, including The Shadow of Sparta (London: Routledge, 1994) and Sparta: The Body Politic (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2010).

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