Spartans. I think of high school and college mascots, or (mostly) of the fighting elite portrayed in the latest movie 300. This modern movie was a very stylized portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off the Persian Army for days (100,000-300,000 soldiers). They are portrayed as the fighting elite, the best trained soldiers in the world at that time. And that they were.
I just started my new audiobook today, The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan. This war was after the second failed Persian invasion of Greece. Athens and Sparta were at their height then, and since my knowledge of this time period is spotty, I decided on this book. From the introduction, I learned that this war was brutal, and similarities have been drawn between this war and World War I. These Spartan men enjoyed the privilege of being free, but there was also a part of Spartan culture that is probably not widely known. Sparta kept state slaves called Helots, and they outnumbered the freemen 7:1. As Kagan describes in his book, Sparta kept a highly trained and disciplined army. But they were reluctant (in general) to deploy their soldiers too far from their cities, namely in fear of a Helot revolt. As one Athenian who knew Sparta well said, the Helots “would rather eat the [Spartans] raw.”
It is ironic that behind the courage and glory of those 300 Spartan warriors lay 2100 Helot slaves. To draw a parallel between another modern book and movie, rooting for these Spartans may be similar to rooting for the Panem Capital in The Hunger Games. The Capital lived similarly, importing everything from the districts while pursuing a life of…well, not military excellence, but surely absolute freedom. The Hunger Games showed District 12 and it’s poverty, and also it’s hero Katniss.
Hmm…Katniss was a Helot…and would fight the Spartans!
Ok, on a whim I googled “Katniss was a helot.” What I found was someone’s Honors Thesis from the University of Rhode Island. In it, the writer explores the classical themes and allusions found in The Hunger Games. It is a very good paper! Here is something about the Spartans and Helots:
“According to the Greek historian Thucydides, Spartaan policy was “at all times…governed by the necessity of taking precautions against” the Helots. The Spartans constantly feared a Helot uprising, and Thucydides reports that the Spartans devised ways of eliminating strong Helot youths they viewed as threats.”
“Paul Cartledge, in his study of Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta, claims it would not be an overstatement to characterize the history of Sparta as “fundamentally the history of the class struggle between the Spartans and the Helots.”
Well, those buff men with chiseled abs are not looking so glorious to me now. I don’t think I will look at them the same again, shown in the context of history.