That is, at best, half-true. It is true that Spartans did not give a written account of themselves, so we know them only by outside sources. But it is not true that all those sources are hostile. No doubt our knowledge of Sparta does include some hostile propaganda.* But most of our sources are either favorable or neutral. The foregoing description was based on two friendly sources. Xenophon's Polity of the Lacedamonians, which praises the wisdom of Spartan institutions in a sober and realistic manner by one who has lived in Sparta and seen its institutions in action. Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus, on the other hand, was written long after the fact and presents so romantic and idealized a portrait of Sparta as to be beyond credibility. To our favorable sources we should probably add Plato, who did not say much about Sparta as such, but whose ideal societies tended to be based on Sparta and to be almost caricatures of the real thing.
Less worshipful is the account of Herodotus. He lets us see Sparta's internal politics and finds them highly factional, with selfish leaders promoting their own interests without regard to the common good and doing each other down. Of course, the Spartans are no worse in this than anyone else, just not any better. Indeed, it would hardly be worth mentioning if Plutarch had not portrayed Spartans as a sort of superior breed, above all selfish concerns. Furthermore, despite the Spartans' heroic stand at Thermopylae, in naval warfare they are constantly on the verge of panic and desertion. They bear the brunt of the fighting at the decisive Battle of Platea, but only by accident. The Athenians, as the only Greeks who had actually fought the Persians (at Marathon) were to be positioned against the Persians, but the Persians found out and attacked before the maneuver could be completed. (The Spartans' maneuvering was also delayed by a stubborn battalion commander who refused to retreat). Still, Herodotus clearly sees Spartans as part of the "good guys" fighting for Greek freedom against Persian conquest, and vividly portrays their heroism at Thermopylae. He is best considered a neutral source.
Thucydides is less flattering still. He portrays the mighty Spartan war machine (at least in the first part of the Peloponnesian War) as vastly overrated -- unequaled in head-to-head clashes between heavy infantry, but constantly weakened by domestic security concerns, inexperienced in naval warfare, siege warfare, hit-and-run attacks by light forces, and (despite their emphasis on living off the land) guerrilla warfare. The Spartans' fear of helot revolt becomes so extreme that they offer freedom to the helots who can establish that they have done most service to the state and then mysteriously slaughter some 2,000 who come forward, believing that any helot spirited enough to come forward are the greatest security risk. He also mentions that well before the war, Spartans promised safety to some helots who had taken refuge at the altar of Poseidon, only to kill them. Nonetheless, he is by no means writing anti-Spartan propaganda. In fact, he makes every effort to be neutral and objective. He is equally unflinching in describing Athenian atrocities, and he accepts the basic assumption of the Athenian Empire as oppressive and Spartans as liberators, although facts were almost certainly more complicated. Thucydides, too, is best seen as a neutral source.
Our other main neutral source is Aristotle. His Politics he praises Sparta as a good example of a mixed government. But he has many criticisms as well, large and small, but above all:
The entire system of the laws is directed towards one part of virtue only, military valor, because this is serviceable for conquest. Owing to this they remained secure while at war, but began to decline when they had won an empire, because they did not know how to live a life of leisure, and had been trained in no other form of training more important than the art of war.Plutarch, at least, is aware of accusations against the helots and makes some attempt to address them as a sort of afterthought. At no time does he claim that these accusations are hostile propaganda. Furthermore, this is the best compilation of such accusations, and our best opportunity to assess them. Plutarch cites Thucydides as his source on the massacre (described above) In Thucydides, we have an account of the massacre we know to have come from a source that is neutral, reliable, contemporary, and extant today. In other words, highly reliable.
Plutarch attributes the Plato (favorable) and Aristotle (neutral) information on the crypteia, or secret society. Plutarch described the crypteia as young men armed with daggers sent out into the countryside and kill helots caught out at night, or particularly strong ones out working in the fields. As for Plato, his only known mention of the crypteia does not say anything about killing helots, but only describes men roving the countryside, alone, barefoot and without blankets in winter, by day and by night. Aristotle's Politics makes no mention whatever of the crypteia. This has led some modern historians to question whether the crypteia was actually a secret police suppressing helots, and suggested that it might be something more benign, like an elite team of army rangers trained in living off the land, or simply a rite of passage into manhood.
On the other hand Aristotle, besides writing the extent Athenian Constitution is credited 170 such works, describing the history, society and government of other city-states.** Presumably he wrote another such work about Sparta, in which he may have described the crypteia killing helots. Plutarch also attributes to Aristotle the allegation that the Ephors, upon being inaugurated, would declare war on the helots so they could be killed without offending the gods. Once again, we have no existing source for this claim, but I would again guess that it comes from a lost Constitution. In other words, Plutarch attributes the crypteia killing helots and the declaration of war that allowed such killings to a neutral source, written when Sparta was in decline, and lost to modern times so that we do not know what it said. This is not as good a source as Thucydides, but it is not hostile propaganda either.
Finally, and less dramatically, Plutarch says that Spartans would force helots to get drunk and brought them drunk into mess halls to show how shameful drunkenness was. He does not give any source for this claim, nor has any account I have read cited one. I can only assume from this that the source is unknown, so we cannot rule out hostile propaganda. On the other hand, I have my suspicion. The Athenian scholar Critias, a contemporary of Thucydides, is known to have written a Constitution of the Lacedamonians which has been lost except for a few quotes in other sources. It is known to have been favorable to Sparta. From the few remaining fragments he says:
Apart from these things, (to come to) the smallest matters of daily life: Spartan shoes are the best, their cloaks the pleasantest and most convenient to wear; the Spartan goblet is the most suitable for war and the easiest to carry in one's wallet.The main surviving part of it we have describes Spartan drinking customs. Naturally, Critias praises the Spartans for their temperance and contrasts them with the "uncontrolled natures" of slaves. So Critias might be the source for Plutarch's comment on getting helots drunk. Certainly, Critias was well aware that the Spartans had serious domestic security problems. He is the source of the information that when Spartans drilled helots for war, they took the handles from their shields before allowing helots to take their shields home, and that this could not be done during war, but that the Spartans did not give spears to helots during war and ranged about them, on the lookout for mutiny. He also mentions that Spartans had strong bolts on their doors to keep out helots.***
In short, these accounts of cruelty and brutality are not easily dismissed as hostile propaganda. Alternately, Sparta's admirer's suggest that these acts were a late development. Plutarch believes they began after 464 B.C. (about 30 years before the Peloponnesian War), when Sparta suffered a devastating earthquake and the helots took advantage of the confusion to revolt. Others have attributed it to brutalization during the Peloponnesian War or to the corruption of wealth and a shrinking citizen body after the war or to nationalistic hostility in Messenia, while Laconian helots remained loyal.
other atrocity Thucydides mentions. He says that some helots took refuge in the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Taenarus. The Spartans, after persuading them to leave by promising them safety, then killed them. He reports that the Spartans believed that this act so angered Poseidon that he punished the with the earthquake that so devastated their city and led to the helot uprising. He does not explain why the helots were seeking refuge in the temple, or what led the Spartans to risk the anger of the gods by killing them. This makes clear that the killings took place before the earthquake. Wikipedia also points out that due to the location, the helots in question must have been supposedly loyal Laconians. We do not know any details, only that even before the earthquake, and even in Laconia, the Spartans apparently feared at least some helots more than they feared the anger of the gods. Slightly earlier, the Spartans risked the anger of the gods by violating another sanctuary, this time in the case of General Pausanias, hero of the Battle of Platea, wanted for the crimes of treasonable correspondence with the Persians -- and plotting a helot revolt. And there is Plutarch's quote from Aristotle's lost work, saying that the crypteia was part of the system from the start.
In short, most of our information about Sparta is from either favorable or neutral sources, not from hostile propaganda. Much of it shocks us. And in my next post, I intend to address what so many people found attractive about such a society.
*Eurpides' Andromache in particular is often described as anti-Spartan propaganda.
**Of course, he did not prepare all of them single-handedly. His students are presumed to have done much of the groundwork.
***Keep an eye on Critias. We will be seeing him again.