Spartans fighting
Monday, January 9, 2012

The End of Sparta

Victor Davis Hanson is best known as an historian and as a political commentator. He writes for the National Review and other right-leaning magazines as well, and he’s appeared on some History Channel programs. He’s also a farmer, and runs one in California. I’ve heard it described as a “hobby farm,” but have no idea how much time he devotes to it.

The End of Sparta is a novel about the Theban general Epaminondas, and his campaign against Sparta. Epaminondas is not well known, but Hanson featured him, along with Sherman and Patton in his book The Soul of Battle. The thesis of that book was that in some cases men actually do fight for an idea rather than to protect their buddies.

Epaminandos, starting in 371 BC, waged a series of campaigns against the Spartans with the objective of freeing the helots (slaves) from Spartan control. He scored a major victory at Leuctra in 371, and then invaded Spartan territory four times before finally dying at Mantineia in 362.

Hanson has chosen to novelize the events of Leuctra and the first invasion of Sparta. In doing so he focuses on Mêlon, his family, and his former slaves.

Let me get one minor gripe out of the way before I go any further. He has chosen to transliterate names rather than using the common equivalents. This can preserve the ancient pronunciation. Sikily rather than Sicily preserves the hard C sound of the Greek kappa. On the other hand, Leuktra rather than Leuctra and Korinthos rather than Corinth or Corinthos seems rather silly since in both cases, unlike Sicily, the kappa has transformed into a hard C.

The issues that Hanson deals with have resonances with modern history and with current events. The much maligned and hated George W. Bush affirmed that freedom was the desire of every human heart. After 1789 the French attempted to export their revolution to Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. After 1917 the Russians attempted to export their revolution abroad. It wasn’t until 1945 that the U.S. exported its revolution abroad and imposed democratic regimes on Germany and Japan. (The Spanish-American war did give the US territory, and the US did build a democracy in the Phillipines, but that was never the primary aim of the war to the best of my knowledge.) The Soviet Union finally achieved an export of the revolution in 1945, but that did not last past 1989-91. The fate of our democratic gestures in Iraq and Afghanistan remains to be determined

So the questions that Hanson deals with are: 1.) Is the desire of the human heart for freedom? 2,) Can democracy and democratic institutions be exported on spear points?

There are several debates that leave the question hanging, but the action of the story suggests that while there are some who have other yearnings the overwhelming mass of people do yearn for freedom. Democracy can be exported, and people can learn to be free. Hanson gives a picture of freed Helots who initially cannot handle their freedom, but who grow into it. So I would have to say that Hanson comes down on the side of those who, as the old Marxists used to say, wish to “export the revolution on bayonets.”

In terms of its novelistic qualities the book has a tendency to be rather slow moving, but it picks up as it moves closer to the end. Hanson has foreshadowed the final end of the story, so I doubt if he is planning a sequel, though he may move on to other periods.

Next up a little light reading about wacky writers.