REVIEW – Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478 – 446 BC

3 mins read
Paul A Rahe
Yale University Press, £25 (hbk)

With this book, Paul Rahe continues his projected six-volume account of the history of the Spartan state.

The two previous volumes (see MHM April 2017) dealt with Rahe’s rationale for the series, followed by an account of the role Sparta played in the Persian Wars. This book examines the oft -overlooked period between the final defeat of the Persians in 479 BC and the events that led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in 431 BC.

With this series, Rahe, a leading classical scholar in the US, has embarked upon an exceptionally ambitious project. Sparta was a militaristic state with a low level of literary and artistic culture, so virtually everything we know about Sparta we know from other Greek sources, and most of that information is patchy and liable to be skewed by hearsay and prejudice. The author is to be applauded, therefore, for attempting, for the first time, a multi-volume history of Classical Sparta.

Rahe’s premise is extremely strong. His concern is to consider the events of the 5th century through the character of the various Greek cities involved. Rather than thinking of them as a homogeneous collection of city-states, he argues that only an examination of their different characters – as determined by their constitutions and the nature of their ruling elites – will lead to an understanding of their strategy and conduct during the period.

This is, Rahe argues, especially the case for Sparta, a city-state that has been considered unusual and worthy of admiration by writers both ancient and modern.

The Spartan state had been purposefully constructed so as to avoid stasis (faction/strife), such that every citizen had the same interests, motivations, and economic imperatives. This, along with respect for age, virtue, and discipline resulted in a foreign policy that was essentially cautious and defensive. The Spartans intervened in foreign affairs only when it was deemed absolutely necessary.

The Persian invasions had, of course, created such a necessity, and it is in the aftermath of those tremendous conflicts that Rahe’s narrative in this volume begins.

The wars did not end with the events of 478 BC, as the Athenians had then taken the offensive against Persia with a series of the maritime expeditions aimed ostensibly at liberating the Greeks of the eastern Mediterranean whilst simultaneously reducing Persia’s effectiveness as a naval threat.

At the same time, Sparta’s own foreign incursions led to the rogue general Pausanius being recalled to Sparta on charges of corruption and Medism (behaving like a Persian). This reinforced the Spartans’ own belief that the city’s generals and citizens would follow the disciplines of their own society only as long as they were within it. Rahe memorably describes this as a conviction that Spartan virtue and discipline were ‘hothouse flowers’ apt to ‘wither in the larger world where temptation abounded.’

It was Athens’ expansionist tendencies and Sparta’s accompanying caution that lead to the creation of the Athenian-led Delian League, with the Athenians taking on the mantle as defenders of the Greek world against the threat from the east.

Rahe shows his masterful command of the source material as he traces a convincing timeline through these events to the Battle of Eurymedon, which he dates to 469 BC. This defeat of the Persians on land and at sea by Athens and her Delian allies confi rmed the Athenians in their supremacy.

Still there was no direct confl ict with the Spartans. Sparta had her own preoccupations: maintaining control of her subject helot population, and also of Messenia, a subject territory where the population had also been reduced to helotry and which was vital to the Spartan economy. This, alongside Sparta’s weakness as a sea power, kept the two most powerful city-states at some remove from each other.

A complex series of diplomatic manoeuvres and internecine warfare followed until the two rivals were finally brought together, somewhat inconclusively, at the Battle of Tanagra in 457 BC.

A fast-paced series of international conflicts were the result, with warfare in the Corinthian Gulf, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean. The Athenians were left exposed and at the mercy of the Spartan king Pleistoanax.

Again, though, a diplomatic solution was agreed, with Sparta recognising that a reduced Athens would open the door once again to Persia. The ensuing ‘Thirty Year Peace’ gave Athens the opportunity to restore her power and for Pericles to build the city we now think of as Classical Athens.

Indeed, if there is a problem with the book, it is that for much of the narrative the Spartans themselves are removed from events. Whilst the focus on the expansionist policies of the Athenians is always considered from the viewpoint of the cautious and more locally engaged Spartans, a reader looking specifically for a Spartan military history is likely to be slightly disappointed.

However, for those keen to understand how the political outlook of Greek city-states drove the events of the 5th century BC, it is difficult to think of an alternative recommendation. Paul Rahe’s book is both an excellent piece of historical reconstruction (from inconclusive and sometimes absent sources) and a convincing argument as to the historical inevitabilities that the Spartan worldview brought into being. I eagerly await the next volume in the series.

Review by Stephen Batchelor

This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

1 Comment

  1. Bonjour,
    Some sort oƒ similar community liƒe, to the one established in the Jesuit Missions in Paraguay (1609-1763) and a part oƒ Argentina; Brasil, Paraguay? TO PROTECT the natives against spanish conquistadors, and ƒierce slavery………

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