Michael Flower lecturing

Michael Flower Delivers Lecture on "Social Control in Ancient Sparta" for Humanities Colloquium

September 20, 2018

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the ancient Spartans is not that they defeated the more adventurous and far wealthier Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, the catastrophic civil war that lasted 27 years, but that they avoided violent internal discord and revolution from the mid-seventh century until the second half of the third century BC. A period of internal stability that lasted for some 400 years was without parallel in the Greek world and it would indeed be difficult to find a comparable example from any historical period. By contrast the history of the twentieth century (and of the twenty-first so far) has shown that totalitarian states tend to be relatively short lived, lasting only two or three generations. It would be anachronistic to label Sparta ‘totalitarian’, but the degree of state control over every aspect of a citizen’s life, from cradle to grave, was far greater than that in any other Greek city-state. I explain Sparta’s success by looking at a variety of factors that accounted for Sparta’s long-term stability. These are their system of education, the reliance on an exceptionally large workforce of serfs, and their religious system. All three of these factors are closely intertwined, but modern scholarship has primarily focused on the first two. In my opinion the most important factor, and the one which was missing from twentieth century totalitarian states, was ‘religion’. Another controversy is also relevant to the topic of this panel. Modern scholars have roundly condemned the Spartans for the fact that their serfs were fellow Greeks, while excusing the Athenian exploitation of non-Greek slaves on the grounds that the enslavement of foreign populations was socially acceptable in antiquity. I problematize this argument in the light of contemporary concerns over the abuse of human rights in other cultures.

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