The setting of The End of Sparta is antique, but the book has contemporary resonance. By the end of its opening chapter, we have learned that “decline [is] a choice, a wish even,” and that the nature of civilization’s enemies is that “only the spear arm stops them. Nothing else. They won’t parley, won’t surrender, won’t stop — until killed.”
That these warnings about the perennial nature of the threats to liberty appear so early on is no accident. The author, classicist and regular NR contributor Victor Davis Hanson, is a fervent believer in classical education as a path to understanding the continuity between the past and the present, and, like conservatives of all stripes, is well aware that, when it comes to life’s fundamentals, nothing really changes. The struggle for freedom is never-ending, and this novel provides a timely reminder of this and other enduring truths.
Tall in the long identity parade of history’s villains stand the Spartans. It is their malfeasance, ambition, and downfall — and, by extension, the glory of those who would stand up to tyrants — that Hanson makes the subject of his first novel, and it is particularly refreshing to see an explicit rejection of the recent pop-cultural glorification of Spartan morality. The adventures of warrior-cults may lend themselves well to graphic novels, but they are not especially beneficial to civilization. Sparta was a city-state that deserved emasculation.
As the book opens, the Thebans are living under constant threat of raids and invasion from neighboring Sparta. Hungry to expand Laconia — the empire of slave farms that fed their dominance of the Greek peninsula — the Spartans wanted to roll both Thebes and the Boeotian farms into their realm, and their hoplite armies had a nasty habit of coming, seeing, and conquering, leaving devastation in their wake. The situation looks unchangeable until Epaminondas, a forgotten Great Man of History who would be described by Cicero as “the first man of Greece,” steps up to the plate.
Overcoming his own reservations, and the better judgment of some of his lieutenants, Epaminondas comes slowly and unexpectedly to the conclusion that the only way to guarantee lasting peace and protect Thebes is to offer battle, thoroughly to vanquish the Spartan army, and to free the 100,000 or so Messenian helots who, with their ancestors, have been enslaved for over 200 years since their defeat in the Messenian War. In achieving their liberation, they win a larger battle, namely the smashing of the considerable influence and prestige Sparta has held in Greece since the Peloponnesian War, and the removal of the slave farms that have served as bases for the projection of Spartan power. The Thebans’ victory dramatically redraws the political map.
The freedom of the helots is, thus, bound up with the freedom of all. It is impossible not to note the parallel here with recent American involvement in the Middle East: Amid the sweeping democratic fervor, one can hear echoes of Pres. George W. Bush making his case for preemptive action, and insisting both that peace is not just the absence of violence but the absence of the threat of violence, and that freedom is a universal value.