Sparta: Rise of a Warrior Nation by Philip Matyszak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book was a bitter disappointment for me in a couple of ways, one of which is shared by another book on Sparta that I’m currently reading. I’ve looked up to and admired Sparta and the Spartans my entire life. The first research paper I ever wrote was on Sparta, and it was in elementary school. My whole life, I’ve heard about how tough they were as a people, how they were warriors, the infamous story about the youth and the fox, their innovative political and cultural systems, the incredibly famous stand at the Battle of Thermopylae, their leadership and domination of the Greeks, their rivalry with Athens and eventual defeat of Athens, etc.
But this book dashed those fond beliefs and admirations to pieces, and for that, I cannot forgive the author. I’ll be the first to admit that he’s the expert, he’s done the research, written the book. He knows more, and perhaps knows the truth. But the truth hurts, and most of my beliefs and perceptions of Sparta and the Spartans turned out to be bloody well wrong! They were indeed viewed as a warrior people and tough as hell, but I’m not sure why. They were surrounded by rivals and enemies, most of whom I’d never heard of before, and they fought awesome, hard fought, longass wars against some of the nation states, and it took them over a century, I believe, to simply subdue just one of their rivals on their part of the Greek peninsula! Other enemies they tricked, battled hard against, tried to avoid fighting altogether, and because even though they were allegedly “warriors,” the men had to get back to the fields for harvest season, they rarely laid seige to cities or peoples, and wanted quick victories so they could get home. They also weren’t a sea faring people, while Athens dominated the seas. They played neighbors off one another, getting Athens to fight Thessaly or Thebes or one of the others over a third city state, and while their males trained from a very young age to become warriors, the population of Sparta was so freaking small, they couldn’t even field a remotely respectable army (which may account for their decades long struggles against their neighbors, possibly), often putting a mere 7,000 men in the field. Compare that to the universally believed vastly inflated Persian number of at least a million man army, and even up to a three million man army, and it’s almost impossible to believe Sparta was capable of dominating ANYONE! In fact, during the first Persian invasion, Sparta didn’t even participate because of “religious” rituals they couldn’t leave, so Athens had to fight the Persians off. That’s a little embarrassing, particularly when you believe Sparta made its reputation off fighting the damn Persians! So when Xerxes decides to go after the Greeks again several decades later, Sparta had taken so much grief for pansying out of fighting them the first time and leaving it up to the rest of the Greeks (which is how it was viewed), that this time, even though they were having the SAME DAMN RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS AND RITUALS, they weren’t going to be denied, and gathered the independent Greeks together, and somehow because they were universally viewed as the best and toughest warriors in Greece (which says a lot for the rest of Greece, considering Sparta could barely beat anyone), they were placed in the military leadership position, and one of their two kings (they operated on a two king system), the famous Leonidas, took his famous 300-member honor guard off to hold off the Persians. And even though the battle is famous for the “300” (recall the Hollywoodized movie), they actually had a number of servant-warriors, and even some allies with them, so they had many more warriors than the infamous 300. They had well over 1,000. Nonetheless, they pass they chose to defend was so damn tight, that only about a couple of men could approach at one time, and they built a wall to defend from the top, and also — this isn’t widely known — the actual battle commander was the Athenian naval commander, because evidently Sparta, Athens, and the rest of the Greeks actually believed the few Spartans and their allies could hold the pass indefinitely, while the Athenian navy actually won the battle against the huge Persian fleet, and when the Spartan religious ceremonies were over a week or so later, they’d send their “huge” army of some 7,000 warriors if they were even needed by that point. Bear in mind the “official” history we rely on, by Herodotus I think (???), so vastly overinflates the size of the Persian army, as to be viewed as almost totally unreliable, stating it was between one and three million men large. Against roughly 1,000 defenders led by the 300 Spartans. It boggles the mind. And when Xerxes sent emissaries to the Spartans requesting they put down their weapons and surrender, Leonidas reportedly made that hugely famous statement (in Greek): “Come and get them!” That, my friends, is the true definition of big, bad balls! And as everyone knows, after just 3-4 days, a Greek traitor who lived in the area went to Xerxes and offered to show him a small trail around the other side of the mountain, thus flanking the Spartans and trapping them from the rear. Becoming one of the most infamous traitors in history. The Spartans did indeed fight very nearly to the last man, while the Athenian navy did indeed rip the Persian navy to shreds, but because Xerxes got his men into Greece because the most famous battle the Spartans ever had, and one of the most famous battles in the history of the world, was LOST by the Spartans (although, yes, treachery played a huge role in that), Athens was sacked entirely, but enough time had been salvaged for the citizens to escape, but you know what? I really don’t know how the rest of the Greeks ended up beating and driving back the Persians to ultimately win the war. It wasn’t because of Sparta.
So my major complaint resides in the fact that this book (and the other one) totally demolish my lifelong held perceptions of Sparta and the Spartan warriors, because the best I can tell is, the few wars they won were against insignificant adversaries, sometimes through trickery, and sometimes over the course of many decades. So why did they have this reputation of such badasses? They’re probably the most overrated bad ass “warriors” in the history of the world! And that saddens me more than you can know, but who did they conquer, what territory did they acquire, how much of Greece did they take, etc.? The answer to all is virtually none. Meanwhile, just a hundred or two hundreds years difference shows Alexander, a semi-Greek, destroying Persia, and becoming probably the greatest king the world has ever know, controlling virtually all of Europe, all of north Africa, the Middle East (Asia Minor), the lower parts of what’s now the ex-Soviet Union, all the way through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, leaving virtually only the relatively unknown Chinese as the only moderately civilized people in the world NOT under his control. And he accomplished all of this before he turned 32! Meanwhile, Rome comes along just a few centuries later to form what’s often thought to be the greatest empire in history (although not nearly as big as Alexander’s) and centuries later, Ghengis Khan conquered China, much of Russia, dominated parts of the Middle East, and spread his territory into eastern and central Europe. And Sparta compares to these truly great leaders and warriors how??? Sparta was “dominant” (if you can even call it that) for maybe 200 years, and even then, only over a very small territory and to a very small degree. So why its huge, gigantic reputation? What the hell did they EVER do to merit it? I’m like a monotheist whose eyes have been opened by science and now the idiocy of my former beliefs are laid out before me, leaving me ashamed and embarrassed.
Finally, my other complaint about this book is it deals almost exclusively with the rise of Sparta through the second Persian war, and then the book just kind of ends, even though Sparta was to play a role in Greek politics, wars, and life for another century or so. It just ends. So it’s really just a half book, and that added to my disappointment.
I wanted to give this book one star, but I can’t because that wouldn’t be fair to the author. It’d just be displaying my biases, and wouldn’t realistically have anything to do with the actual writing, research, or disappointing truths I’ve been forced to endure learning. Nonetheless, I can’t give the book more than three stars, because for one thing, the book went through some very long, dry, boring spells, and ultimately because the book is incomplete, even though the title should indicate that it’s not about the entire history of Sparta, but merely the rise. It SHOULD be about the entire history of Sparta, and I think the author does the reader a disservice by just leaving the story half told. So, interesting, enlightening book, but not recommended for fans of the “traditional” Spartans, but objective ancient history fans might find it moderately interesting….