The End of Sparta: A Novel, by Victor Davis Hanson (Bloomsbury, 464 pp., $28)
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.
Epaminondas’ undertaking was not an easy one. With Athens weak, the farmer-soldiers at his disposal were more likely to end up as arrow-fodder than to be elevated as conquering heroes. The Thebans were — fatally for Sparta, as it turned out — underestimated by the Spartans as “pigs.” But this hubris was understandable: On paper, the Theban cause did appear hopelessly lost. The Thebans’ victory at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 b.c., when the odds were so heavily stacked against them, raises an inevitable question: Why, when Athens had failed for 27 years to defeat Sparta, did Epaminondas manage this feat in just two? It is obvious that Hanson admires the nascent Theban system of government — sitting as it did between the two extremes of Spartan martial discipline and Athenian hyper-democracy — and considers it a contributing factor to Theban success. To adapt the apocryphal phrase often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, Thebes was great because Thebes was good.
In telling his story, Hanson is forced to practice the deft skills of the reconstructive surgeon, filling in the detail with his imagination when confronted with a dearth of evidence. (The book’s hero, Epaminondas, in particular has been to some extent excised from history, first by a bitter Xenophon, and then by the loss of Plutarch’s biography of him.) The result is a rich fiction, woven neatly around the skeleton of the few solid details we have at our disposal. This task forced the author to delve more deeply into the minds of his subjects than a writer might ordinarily have to. Their internal conflicts center on the tensions between Pythagorean rationalism and the more romantic polytheism that was ubiquitous in Greek society, and on the ultimate question of whether security or liberty is preferable (these issues were debated long before Benjamin Franklin voiced his famous maxim).
Wisely, Hanson avoids telling the story solely from the perspective of aristocrats and key players, as has been the tendency of many academics in the classical field. Epaminondas may be the hero, but we see most of the action through the eyes of Mêlon, a veteran farmer-soldier whose humanity shines through even to the extent of frustrating us with many of his decisions and attitudes, and those of his two slaves. This decision on Hanson’s part is instrumental in allowing readers to take the lie of a land with which most are likely unfamiliar. Mêlon is emblematic of the uninterrupted nature both of the Spartan threat to Thebes prior to the Battle of Leuctra, and of the inveterate necessity of fighting oppression: He has fought the Spartans before and was crippled for his troubles; his father was killed. Mêlon’s testimony and perspective demonstrate the depth to which Theban society was devastated by Spartan hegemony.
In other places, though, Hanson’s character development can be lacking. Some of the characters are clearly included solely to carry philosophical discussion, and this makes it hard to develop an emotional stake in them and their fates. Likewise, Hanson’s need to discuss abstract ideas occasionally puts his characters into unrealistic positions: It is a little hard to believe, for instance, that Mêlon can think so deeply and clearly about metaphysics while desperately fighting to stay alive, or that he would enjoy such a cinematic view of the battlefield.
This shortcoming is more than made up for by the musically resonant descriptions of battle. As in his academic work, this is where Hanson shines. The old adage about portraits is that the eyes should follow the viewer around the room; Hanson’s battles surround the reader and are brought to life with a claustrophobic realism that can veer roughly into discomfort. There is a level of detail unusual for a novel — we are informed how much a spear weighs, for example — but the inclusion of such minutiae is necessary rather than superfluous; most of us know little of the ancient world’s quotidian detail, and need such description in order to make sense of the scene.
Relatively little is definitively known of the period, and Hanson has to fill in gaps with both imagination and scholarly deduction. What he has achieved is a realistic portrait of an ancient world troubled in much the same way as our own; and in this respect, The End of Sparta slips the surly bonds of Greece to touch the face of a deeper truth.
– Mr. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.