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Archidamos and Sthenelaidas
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Archidamos’s Vision and Spartan Practice

If neither Archidamos nor Sthenelaidas articulates a satisfactory plan for Sparta, does one of the two speakers nevertheless better represent Sparta—or, at least, the Sparta that we encounter in Thucydides? More important, if each of these speakers stresses different aspects of a common Spartan self-representation, how valid does this model of Spartan character prove? A number of episodes within the History seem framed in such a way as to test the claims and assumptions of Archidamos and Sthenelaidas. Thucydides does not wholly reject Sparta’s self-representation, but the events in his History and the subsequent utterances that he chooses to include qualify and constrain the Spartan model. The most famous such critique comes during the Melian Dialogue, when the Athenians correctly predict that the Spartans will not intervene and that they subordinate virtue to their own self-interest. Nevertheless, the dialectic between the pretensions of Archidamos and of Sthenelaidas and Spartan practice begins as soon as the Spartans take the field. I will concentrate upon three episodes: Archidamos’s first invasion of Attika, the naval battles in the Corinthian Gulf early in the war, and the Spartan defeat at Sphakteria.

After his one page of celebrity at Thucydides 1.86, Sthenelaidas vanishes from the History and is never heard from again. Archidamos, however, is a major character. He leads the Peloponnesian allies on their yearly invasions of Attika in 431, 430, 429, and 428 and plays an important role in the early negotiations between Sparta and the Plataians, before he disappears from the narrative, to be replaced by his son Agis. When hostilities finally do erupt between Athens and the Peloponnesian allies in the summer of 431, Archidamos takes center stage. Thucydides introduces this section of the narrative with a “new preface,” summarizing the situation at 2.7–9. At 2.10, the Peloponnesian invasion force gathers, and at 2.11 Archidamos delivers a brief speech to the chief allied officers under his command.

Archidamos’s speech at Thucydides 2.11 has attracted far less attention than it deserves. H. D. Westlake, for example, dismissed Archidamos’s speech as “thoroughly conventional and uninspired” and suggested that it “probably reflects the real character of Archidamos more accurately than the speech assigned to him in the first book.” [34] Archidamos’s remarks in book 2, however, are more than a dramatic exclamation point for the beginning of hostilities. Archidamos subtly restates and revises many of his previous assumptions and claims. His speech is remarkable both because of its similarities and its contrasts to his advice in book 1. As in the previous speech, Archidamos opens by characterizing himself as an elder statesman with experience of wars (Thuc. 2.11.1: ἡμων αὐτῶν οἱ πρεσβύτεροι οὐκ ἄπειροι πολέμων εἰσίν; 1.80.1: (καὶ αὐτὸς πολλῶν ἤδη πολέμων ἔμπειρός εἰμι). As before, he looks even farther backward and explicitly links present actions with the standards of “our fathers” (2.11.1, 11.2), closing his speech with an appeal to ancestral tradition (2.11.9: οἱ πατέρες ἠμῶν; 1.85.1: μήτε τῶν πατέρων χείρους φαίνεσθαι As before, he praises caution (2.11.3: μεγίστην δόξαν οἰσόμενοι τοῖς τε προγόνοις καὶ ἡμῖν αὐτοῖς 1.84.1: ᾶς οἱ πατέρες τε ἡμῖν παρέδοσαν μελέτας emphasizes true (rather than illusory) security, asphaleia (2.11.3, 5, 9; 1.80.1, 84.4), and a healthy respect for the Athenians even if the Peloponnesians are more numerous (2.11.4; 1.81.1–2).

But if the Archidamos of Thucydides 2.11 has strong links to the figure that we see in 1.80–85, his attitudes are subtly but significantly different. Where Archidamos’s earlier audience consisted entirely of Spartans, he now addresses the combined Peloponnesian force. In book 2, he alludes to the public reasons for the invasion: the rest of Greece has goodwill (eunoia) and hopes that “we will accomplish what we plan” (Thuc. 2.11.2). Where before Archidamos scorned the excitement caused by hope (expressed by the verb epairomai: 1.81.6, 83.3, 84.2), he now argues that the allies must not prove inferior to their forefathers or to their own reputation, “for all Hellas has been whipped into a state of excitement (2.11.2: epêrtai, the perfect of epairomai) and is focusing its attention on us.” The emotionalism denoted by the verb epairomai—to be avoided by Spartans—should, we now hear, be exploited and made to serve Spartan ends when it appears among others. Archidamos has lower expectations for those who are not his immediate countrymen and does not to hesitate to elicit emotions that he would deplore and seek to suppress among his fellow Spartans.

As in the first speech, Archidamos speaks repeatedly of paraskeuê.[35] The Peloponnesian force has greater paraskeuê than any of the numerous other expeditions that have preceded it (Thuc. 2.11.1). They should not let themselves proceed “in a state of less careful paraskeuê ”(2.11.3: ἀμελέστερόν τι παρεσκευασμένους because of their great strength. Those who are overconfident often prove to lack paraskeuê (2.11.4: τὸ καταφρονοῦντας ἀπαρασκεύους γενέσθαι Athens itself is superbly fitted out with paraskeuê of all kinds (2.11.6: τοῖς πᾶσιν ἄριστα παρεσκευμένη and they should expect the Athenians to fight.

The Athenians of Thucydides 2.11 have the same paraskeuê to which Archidamos alludes more extensively in 1.80–81. The Peloponnesians, however, also still possess their own peculiar paraskeuê, the same inappropriate power against which Archidamos had eloquently warned. They have acquired neither the ships nor the money that would allow them to strike at Athens’s true power, its naval empire (Thuc. 1.80.4–81.4). They march into Attika with the same massive force that they would wield “against Peloponnesians and their neighbors” (1.80.3), a “force that is not comparable” to that of Athens and thus cannot strike a mortal blow. Only one year has passed since Archidamos addressed his fellow Spartans, and the Peloponnesian force lumbers across the Isthmus on a mission that, according to his own analysis, has little hope of success.

Given the weak prospects, Archidamos shifts his rhetoric to reflect his lower expectations.[36] In his first speech, Archidamos had boasted that Spartans did not depend upon the mistakes of others. They assumed that their opponents planned well and differed from them primarily in training. As a consequence, they did not base their expectations on the mistakes of others (Thuc. 1.84.3–4). In book 2, however, Archidamos sketches the following strategy:

We have every reason to expect that they will take the field against us, and that if they have not set out already before we are there, they will certainly do so when they see us in their territory wasting and destroying their property. [7] For men are always exasperated at suffering injuries to which they are not accustomed, and on seeing them inflicted before their very eyes, and where least inclined for reflection (logismos), rush with the greatest heat to action. [8] The Athenians are the very people of all others to do this, as they aspire to rule the rest of the world and are more in the habit of invading and ravaging their neighbors’ territory than of seeing their own treated in the like fashion.

The Peloponnesian invasion will enrage the Athenians. Accustomed to injuring rather than being injured, and little inclined for rational reflection, the Athenians will rush out to confront the superior Peloponnesian force. The allies, Archidamos argues, will provoke the Athenians into a terrible miscalculation.[37] In fact, Archidamos’s prediction comes very close to being fulfilled.[38] A portion of the Athenian populace reacts exactly as Archidamos foresees (Thuc. 2.21.3). Perikles, however, observes that the people “are enraged by what lies at hand and are not thinking very well” (2.22.1). He thus refuses to convene the assembly, so that “they would not go out of the city and commit an error because of anger (orgê) rather than planning (gnômê).” Perikles’ parliamentary gambit saves the Athenians. Archidamos’s plan falls short—barely perhaps, but enough. Forced to lead an expedition in which he has little confidence, he adopts a strategy that he knows is flawed. He does the best he can, and almost succeeds; his failure illustrates perfectly the problems that he pointed out in his earlier speech. Unable to attack the true source of Athenian power, the Peloponnesians can only hope that their opponents will make a mistake and give them an opening. The Peloponnesian invasions never inflict a strategic defeat upon the Athenians.[39]

At the same time, Archidamos’s Spartan character is also at least partially to blame. His troops accused him of wasting valuable time: he delayed at the Isthmus, moved slowly when the expedition began to march, and then wasted the most time of all investing the border fortress of Oinoe in Attika (Thuc. 2.18.3). Archidamos had already in his first speech justified such a restrained pace: Attika was a hostage that the Peloponnesians should spare as long as possible (1.82.4; cf. 2.18.5). The delay, however, allowed the Athenians to bring in their possessions and to evacuate the countryside (2.18.4). The invasion, when it did come, was less devastating than might have been the case. Archidamos’s hesitation directly reduced his prospects for goading Athens into an ill-considered and possibly catastrophic land battle.[40] Archidamos thus shrewdly manipulated his Spartan caution to play upon Athenian nerves, and, in this, he followed the course that he himself had recommended, but this same constancy weakened his “un-Spartan” assumption that the enemy would make a mistake.

Thucydides does not hide his disdain for Spartan caution. Near the end of the History, Thucydides describes a prime opportunity that the Peloponnesians failed to exploit:

But here, as on so many other occasions, the Lakedaimonians proved the most convenient people in the world for the Athenians to be at war with. For being most different in regard to character (tropos)—the Athenians energetic (oxeis), the Spartans slow (bradeis), the former enterprising (epicheiretai), the latter lacking in daring (atolmoi)—the Spartans proved of the greatest service, especially to a maritime empire like Athens. Indeed this was shown by the Syracusans, who were most like the Athenians in character (homoiotropoi), and also most successful in combating them.

Like Archidamos, Thucydides concludes that the Spartans were too different from the Athenians to compete effectively against them. Unlike Archidamos (and like the Corinthians at Thuc. 1.68–71), however, Thucydides locates this essential difference in the national characters, rather than the material forces, of each side. Whatever Archidamos may say, Thucydides asserts that caution weakened the Spartans.

Thucydides, however, goes farther in his critique of Spartan character. He not only denigrates the efficacy of Spartan caution, he calls into question another prized character trait. Archidamos had boasted to his fellow Spartans of the internal consistency that they shared. The Spartan general Brasidas prefaces a successful Peloponnesian action before a much greater non-Greek force with similar claims to such discipline and steadiness (Thuc. 4.126), but elsewhere Thucydides subverts this quality. The first major sea battle of the war takes place in the Gulf of Corinth, near Naupaktos. The Athenian admiral Phormio ambushes a fleet of transports attempting to ferry troops into Akarnania. Phormio’s twenty triremes caught the Peloponnesian fleet of forty-two heavily loaded troop ships and five fast vessels and inflicted a sharp defeat, capturing twelve ships (2.83–84). The Peloponnesians collected reinforcements and assembled a fleet of seventy-seven ships, all primed for action, to oppose Phormio’s fleet of twenty—a crushing advantage if the two sides were remotely equal in skill. In this dramatic situation, Thucydides includes speeches for both sides.

Concerned with the low morale of their troops, the Spartan commanders appeal to the Archidamian vision of men who, by the strength of their inherent character, impose their will upon events. For them, as for Archidamos, the Peloponnesians, with their Spartan leadership, outstrip their Athenian opponents in moral strength, and they will thus be able to win a very material victory. The Spartan commanders mention only briefly the overwhelming superiority in numbers and instead spend most of their time arguing that the superior character of the Peloponnesian force would, in the end, prevail over the superior Athenian experience in naval warfare. Mere chance (tuchê) and inexperience (apeiria) were responsible for the previous defeat (Thuc. 2.87.2):

It was not, therefore, cowardice (kakia) that produced our defeat, nor ought the determination (gnômê) which force has not quelled, but which still has a word to say with its adversary, to lose its edge from the result of an accident; but admitting the possibility that men may fail because of chance (tuchê), we should know that those who are the same in their resolutions (gnômai) are always properly courageous, and while they remain so can never put forward inexperience (apeiria) as an excuse for proving cowardly (kakoi). [4] Nor is your inexperience (apeiria) so behind the enemy as you are ahead of him in daring (tolmê); and although the science (epistêmê) of your opponents would, if valor (andreia) accompanied it, have also the presence of mind to carry out at an emergency the lesson it has learned, yet without courage (eupsuchia) art (technê) is powerless in the face of danger. For panic (phobos) takes away presence of mind, and without valor (alkê) art (technê) is useless. [5] Against their superior experience (to empeiroteron) set your superior daring (to tolmêroteron), and against the fear induced by defeat the fact of your having been then unprepared (aparaskeuoi).

Unlike Archidamos, the Spartan commanders disparage the moral character of their enemies. The Athenians, we hear, have more experience in naval warfare, but they are far less courageous than the Peloponnesians. Like Archidamos, the Spartan commanders locate their greatest and ultimate strengths in their own moral strength, but they go farther than Archidamos. Technical skills, they argue, can be learned, but courage cannot, and courage is a Peloponnesian strength. Where Archidamos had stressed that all people were fundamentally similar and that only education distinguished the Peloponnesians from their opponents, these Spartan commanders appropriate a traditional boast of the Greek elites. Like the Corinthians in an earlier speech to rally the Peloponnesians (Thuc. 1.121.4), they denigrate learning and stress courage as if it were an inborn quality peculiar to the Peloponnesian side. Without courage, they argue, technical skills are forgotten in the pressure of battle. The Peloponnesians should thus, by means of their firm resolution (gnômê) and their courage (eupsuchia, andreia, alkê), break the Athenians’ concentration and will to fight. When all is said and done, the Peloponnesians, cool and unflappable in battle, will be able to impose their superior will upon their enemies.

The battle that follows turns the Spartan argument on its head. The Spartan commanders do what Archidamos could not previously do—they force the Athenians to meet them on their own terms. The Spartan force threatens undefended Naupaktos, and the Athenian fleet must reluctantly send their twenty fast and maneuverable ships against the seventy-seven lumbering Peloponnesians in narrow waters (Thuc. 2.90). A swift movement by the Peloponnesians cuts off almost half of the Athenian squadron, and just ten ships escape to Naupaktos, where they form up for a final defence (2.91.1). The leading squadron of the Peloponnesian fleet—the vanguard of a force that now outnumbered the Athenians seven to one—advanced to crush the remaining Athenian ships, singing a hymn to Apollo in celebration of their victory. By any rational calculation, the Peloponnesian navy was about to annihilate Athenian naval power in the west.

But in the midst of this catastrophe, the true characters of the Athenians and the Peloponnesians came into play. One Athenian ship had not yet reached Naupaktos:

The single Athenian ship remaining was chased by a Leukadian far ahead of the rest. [3] But there happened to be a merchantman lying at anchor in the roadstead, which the Athenian ship found time to sail round, and struck the Leukadian in chase amidships and sank it.

Faced with destruction, the Athenians had executed an unexpected maneuver and attacked, a single ship against the outrunner of a squadron. This single, bold gesture, however, overwhelms the Peloponnesian fleet:

An exploit so sudden and contrary to plan (para logon) produced a panic (phobos) among the Peloponnesians; and having fallen out of order in the excitement of victory, some of them dropped their oars and stopped their way in order to let the main body come up—an unsafe thing to do considering how near they were to the enemy’s prows; while others ran aground in the shallows, in their ignorance of the localities.

The Peloponnesians succumb to the inconstancy that their leaders had attributed to the Athenians. Where the Peloponnesians had spoken confidently of the pressure of battle, a single reverse that was minor but “contrary to plan” (para logon) breaks their nerve and fills them with panic (phobos). The Peloponnesian leaders had encouraged their men by anticipating weakness among the Athenians and their allies. “Panic takes away presence of mind,” they had blithely proclaimed at Thucydides 2.87.4, but, in the event, this panic grips the Peloponnesians rather than the Athenians. Their tactical formation went to pieces, and their ships became ensnarled with one another. Even the Spartan commander of the Leukadian ship, once the vessel began to sink, gave in to circumstances and killed himself (Thuc. 2.92.3).

In the end, the Athenians demonstrate that they, not the Peloponnesians, have gnômê and tolmê. The Athenians exhibit presence of mind in the worst emergencies. Where Phormio had warned them that they were at a serious disadvantage in Peloponnesian waters (Thuc. 2.89.8), nevertheless, when forced, they did not hesitate to meet the Peloponnesians. With almost half their small squadron destroyed, the remaining ships sought a defensive position and formed up again in good order. Pressed with imminent destruction, the exposed Athenian ship had brilliantly seized an opportunity, skillfully rounding the Leukadian merchantman and seizing victory. And once the ten Athenian ships, lined up in defensive formation, saw the confusion of their enemies, all of them at once seized the opportunity, attacked the Peloponnesians, captured the nearest six vessels, and rescued those of their own ships that had not been destroyed (2.92.2).

The Athenian commander Phormio presents a different and apparently more telling interpretation of Spartan courage:

As to that upon which they most rely, the fact that they feel that it is their due to be courageous (andreioi), they are confident here for no other reason than because, on account of their own experience (empeiria) in infantry warfare, they are usually successful, and they fancy that they will achieve the same in naval warfare.

Phormio then goes on to give the other side of Archidamos’s moral equation its proper due:

But this advantage will in all justice belong to us now, if to them there; as they are not superior to us in courage (eupsuchia), but we are each of us more confident (thrasuteroi), insofar as we have more experience (empeiroteroi) in our particular department.

Phormio, like Archidamos in book 1, assumes that the Spartans and the Athenians are fundamentally similar and differ primarily in their training (cf. Thuc. 1.84.4.). The Spartan character is not a unique quality that radiates outward from the Spartans and ultimately subjects the world to their will. The Spartans are successful at the things in which they are accustomed to succeed, and their strong qualities in traditional warfare and diplomacy do not automatically support them in different circumstances. If gnômê is primarily for the Spartans a moral rather than an intellectual quality, resolution and firmness of purpose rather than intellectual planning and analysis,[41] this difference emerges from the assumption, seen dramatically at Thermopylai and explicated by Archidamos, that Spartans possess an emotional space within themselves that no adversity can touch. The second battle at Naupaktos exposes the limits of this self-serving pose. Confronted with unexpected and unfamiliar circumstances, the Spartans and their allies lose control of the situation. The despairing suicide of Timokrates, the Spartan captain, at Thucydides 2.92.3 is a gesture that seeks to assert this control and to place the Spartan beyond the reach of events. By the standards of Greek culture, however, such a suicide, like that of Ajax, is at best ambivalent, a gesture of weakness rather than of self-control.[42]

The History as a whole at best partially confirms Archidamos’s boast that “we give in to disasters less than others” (Thuc. 1.84.2). Events that are “contrary to calculation” (para logon) cow the Spartans. The Spartans, at one point, concluded that the Mytilenean campaign had stressed Athenian resources to the limit. The Athenians chose to disabuse the Lakedaimonians of this perception, and “they made a formal demonstration (epideixis)” of their power, sending 100 ships off on an expedition that made landings on the Peloponnese “wherever it pleased” (3.16.1). “The Spartans, viewing an unexpected event of this magnitude (polun ton paralogon), concluded also that the people of Lesbos” (3.16.2), who had claimed that Athens was weak (3.13.3–4), “were lying.” The other Peloponnesian allies failed to appear, and the Spartans gave up this attempt at sending an expedition to Lesbos. The Peloponnesian fleet that did set sail arrived too late (3.29). The Spartan admiral, Alkidas, did minor damage and butchered some prisoners that he took along the way (3.32.1), but, once Mytilene had fallen, was mainly concerned to return home safely (3.31.2).

Later in the war, Thucydides sketches the limits of Spartan character even more clearly. When the Athenians managed to seize the island of Kythera, just off the coast of Lakonia, as well as a strong point at Pylos, in Messene, the Spartans found themselves exposed to a guerrilla war “that surrounded them on all sides, a war that was swift and against which no guard could be set” (Thuc. 4.55.1). The number and strangeness of these setbacks begin to break their spirit:

They became more hesitant (oknêroteroi) than ever in military matters, finding themselves involved in a maritime struggle, which was at odds with the nature of their preparation (paraskeuê) in its current state, and that against Athenians, with whom an enterprise unattempted (to mê epicheiroumenon) was always looked upon as a success sacrificed. Besides this, their late numerous reverses of fortune (tuchê), coming close one upon another without any reason, had imposed a tremendous shock (ekplêxis) on them, and they were always afraid of a second disaster like that on the island and thus became even less daring (atolmoteroi) with regard to battle but fancied that they could not stir without a blunder, for, being new to the experience of adversity, they had lost all confidence in themselves.

Thucydides portrays the Spartans and Athenians in the terms that the Corinthians had used at 1.68–71. The Spartans really are excessively hesitant (Thuc. 1.70.4) and less daring (70.3). The Athenians really do thrive on epicheirêsis, putting their hand to new endeavors (70.7). Thucydides likewise recalls Archidamos’s admonitions at 1.80–82: the paraskeuê of the Spartans is qualitatively not suited to the kind of naval combat prosecuted by the Athenians.

But Thucydides’ analysis disproves the proud boasts of Archidamos and the Peloponnesian commanders at Naupaktos. The Spartans are not more resilient than others in the face of misfortune. Spartan character is not constant, and even the relative difference between Spartans and Athenians is a dynamic factor that changes with events. The Spartan self, painfully constructed “in the most trying conditions” (Thuc. 1.84.4: en tois anankaiotatois), nevertheless cannot determine its own internal state. Reverses of fortune (tuchê) fill Spartans with shock (ekplêxis). They lose their daring (tolmê) and become more hesitant (oknêroteroi). Archidamos boasted that Spartan calculation was immune to the emotional swings of success and failure (1.84), but, in Thucydides’ History at any rate, external events cloud their judgment. The Spartans have no internal core of sôphrosunê to which they can turn when circumstances become excessively harsh.

Two specific engagements more than any other in Thucydides circumscribe Spartan moral authority in the eyes of the Greek world. The surrender of 120 surviving Spartans on the island of Sphakteria in 425 shocked the Greeks. Thucydides describes how the Athenians wore down this force with light-armed troops who could strike at the Spartans from a distance and escape at will (Thuc. 4.31–35). Finally, the Athenians surround the Spartans.

The Lakedaimonians thus placed between two fires, and in the same dilemma, to compare small things with great, as at Thermopylai, where the defenders were cut off through the Persians getting round by the path, being now attacked in front and behind, began to give way and, overcome by the odds against them and exhausted from want of food, retreated.

Once he has made explicit the similarity to Thermopylai (where the number of Spartans engaged was roughly equivalent), readers can make their own comparison in what happens next. Where the Spartans at Thermopylai chose to die and thus to purchase with their lives immense credit for Spartan moral determination, the Spartans at Sphakteria give in and surrender to save their lives (Thuc. 4.38). “Of all the events that had taken place during the war this one was the most contrary to rational expectation (gnômê) for the Hellenes” (4.40.1). The Hellenes had formed a moral evaluation (êxioun), an axiôsis of the Lakedaimonians, which confirmed the ideologically charged posture that Thermopylai had dramatized and Archidamos had articulated. The other Greeks were sure that the Spartans would “surrender to neither famine nor necessity but would, as they were, fight on to the extent of their abilities.”

Thucydides allows us to see how the Spartans themselves could attempt to assimilate their defeat on Sphakteria to their traditional values, and, in so doing, he departs from his normal practice and relates an aphorism framed in an anecdote. Such combinations of anecdote and aphorism are common in Herodotus, and Thucydides may well have had Herodotus’s treatment of Thermopylai in mind when he chose to include such a story at this point in his narrative. After describing the battle, Herodotus reports that the Spartan Dienekes “is generally agreed to have been the best (aristos)” (Hdt. 7.226.1). Dienekes does not, however, earn this distinction by his outstanding valor during the fighting—how he saved one of his fellows or cut down an exceptional number of the enemy. Rather, Dienekes distinguished himself by his skillful ability to capture Spartan character in the form and content of his language alike. A terrified local from Trachis warned him that the foreigners were so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun. Dienekes disdained the massive numbers of the Persian army and thanked the Trachinian for his good news: “If the Medes cover up the sun, then battle against them would take place in the shade and not in the hot sun” (7.226.2). Dienekes was well known and left behind “many other similar utterances as a memorial” (7.227.1). His skill with the aphorism, the pithy distillation of moral wisdom, stylistically suits his Lakonian persona. Disdainful of numbers and mere physical power, Dienekes provided a verbal tag with which to associate the moral status to which the Spartans laid claim at Thermopylai. Dienekes’ fame, in turn, captures perfectly the extent to which Spartan authority was an “artificial” construct, which the admiring Greek world assembled from the poses, grand gestures, and telling remarks of the Spartans.

In the aftermath of Sphakteria, another Spartan used a pithy remark to embody his fellow Spartans’ attitude. In this case, however, the Spartan is unnamed. He is not a heroic martyr, but one of the survivors taunted for surrendering:

Indeed people could scarcely believe that those who had surrendered were of the same stuff as the fallen; and an Athenian ally, who some time after insultingly asked one of the prisoners from the island if those that had fallen were men of honor (kaloi k’ agathoi), received for answer that the “spindle” (atraktos)—that is, the arrow—would be worth a great deal if it could tell men of honor (hoi agathoi) from the rest; in allusion to the fact that the killed were those whom the stones and the arrow happened to hit.

The anecdote subtly deflects the question, but the Spartan’s defence has disturbing implications for Sparta as a whole. If the men who did fall in defence at Sphakteria are no better than the rest, then there are no martyrs. The Spartans who surrendered may not be worse than the other Spartans who died or who were not involved, but, by the same token, the other Spartans are not better. The surrender on Sphakteria is not an exception, but a true indication that the Spartans are not inherently the heroic, self-denying figures that the rest of the Greeks assumed.

The unnamed Spartan’s response contains within it, however, a more general defence. He scornfully terms the arrows with which they had been attacked “spindles,” parts of the loom and thus artifacts associated with women rather than men. In so doing, he draws upon a strain of upper-class disapproval for light-armed troops such as archers, who could from a distance attack those encased in the expensive gear of a hoplite.[43] The Spartan attempts to convert his surrender into a further statement of superiority. Those who cornered the Spartans were not, he implies, their equals, nor did they dare to meet the Spartans in an even, pitched battle. “Only a challenge (or an offence) coming from an equal in honor deserves to be taken up; in other words, for there to be a challenge, the man who receives it must consider the man who makes it worthy of making it.” [44] The Spartans did not push the contest to its limit and surrender their lives, because the contest was not fought between equals. The cowardly recourse to missiles such as arrows and rocks demeaned the Athenian forces, and the Spartans, it is implied, surrendered as much from disdain as from anything else. Unable to lay down their lives in the exchange of blows from one line of hoplites to another, the Spartans give up the entire contest. Thus the unnamed Spartan attempts to convert a humiliating defeat into a moral victory that asserts Spartan status.[45]

The Spartan captive’s defence was sufficiently clever to find its way into Thucydides. It did not, however, convince many Greeks. The Spartans at Thermopylai had, of course, also succumbed in the end to arrows (Hdt. 7.225) and had endured the fate that their descendants on Sphakteria pretended to disdain. Thucydides makes this general loss of prestige explicit at the point where he describes its subsequent recovery in the battle of Mantinea. Here the Spartans had entered the battle “knowing that the long training (meletê) of action was of more saving virtue than any brief verbal exhortation, though never so well delivered” (Thuc. 5.69.2). This time, however, events do not contradict Spartan confidence. They win decisively and make a strong impression on the rest of the Greek world:

The imputations cast upon them by the Hellenes at the time, whether of cowardice (malakia) on account of the disaster in the island or of mismanagement (aboulia) and slowness (bradutês) generally, were all wiped out by this single action: fortune (tuchê), it was thought, might have humbled them, but in their force of resolution (gnômê), the men themselves were the same as ever.

The other Greeks revise their interpretation of Sphakteria and Sparta’s general conduct of the war in the light of Mantinea. They had come to attribute Sparta’s setback on Sphakteria to malakia, “softness,” a moral weakness that affected the spirit and manifested itself in actions such as the surrender. Similarly, their view of Spartan caution had aligned itself with that of the Corinthians at Thucydides 1.68–71 rather than with Archidamos. The particular success at Mantinea, in a single stroke, reversed Greek perceptions and restored Spartan prestige. The Greeks quickly reverted to the traditional view of Spartan character: they concluded that Spartan gnômê, their force of resolution, had, in fact, not changed. The vagaries of fortune (tuchê) had caused a temporary dip in Spartan fortunes.

But the Greek reassessment of Spartan behavior is, within the context of Thucydides’ narrative, oversimplified. Phormio presented a better model when he observed that the Spartans were courageous (andreioi) on land because they were traditionally successful in that element (Thuc. 2.89.2). The Athenians, conversely, exhibit more courage on sea because they have greater experience with naval warfare (2.89.2). Spartans and Athenians alike have an equal share in courage (eupsuchia), but their different backgrounds make them courageous in different contexts. The Greek analysis of Mantinea is, thus, only partially correct. The Spartans had, in fact, remained “the same in their firmness of resolution,” for they remained the same formidable opponents on land as before. The Greek analysis falls short, however, in that it does not recognize Sparta’s greatest weakness, its failure to change and to adapt to the new form of warfare that a conflict with the Athenian empire demanded.

Mantinea suggests, then, that Archidamos was at least partially correct. The Spartans had constructed a peculiar self, distilled from qualities admired by elite Greeks in general, and this Spartan self could exert an unflappable autonomy that resisted swings in external fortune. The myth of Leonidas and his 300, of Spartans whose spirit cannot be crushed, has its justification, but only within certain limits. On land, confronting their peers in the tight hoplite formation, the Spartans were comfortable and knew what to expect. Where past experience mapped out the future, the Spartans were ready for either of the two possible outcomes, victory or death, and could rely upon their firmness of will to prevent them from “giving in.”

But Archidamos fails to anticipate the degree to which Spartan courage and the peculiarities of hoplite warfare are intertwined. For Archidamos, the paraskeuê that Sparta lacks can be measured in money and ships. Neither he nor any other Spartan commander—with the possible exception of Brasidas—appreciates the truth of the urgent Corinthian advice at Thucydides 1.68–71. Sparta must adapt its character to changing circumstances. Spartan character really is limited. The Corinthians are only partially correct when they set these limitations in a chronological framework: they argue that the Spartans are old-fashioned and that their strengths do not obtain in the modern world. Chronological development is, however, uneven. Sparta remains, from Archidamos’s first invasion of Attika to Mantinea, a powerful and crushing force in the traditional hoplite warfare on land. The empire that the Athenians invented and that exists side by side with the older society of the mainland is, however, alien to Sparta. Crushing material superiority at Naupaktos cannot make up for this inappropriate mentality. Alkidas’s relief squadron for Mytilene makes no bold stand but runs ignominiously before the Athenians. The Spartans trapped on Sphakteria ultimately find themselves harassed by light-armed skirmishers with whom they cannot come to grips, and worn down by an extended hunger and thirst that they would not have encountered in a furious pitched battle. Demoralized by such unexpected troubles, they surrender.

In the end, Archidamos and Sthenelaidas fasten upon complementary aspects of Sparta’s power. There was nothing magic about the Spartan self. Archidamos’s vision of absolute Spartan constancy falls far short of reality, but Archidamos’s vision was limited in scope rather than in kind. Neither Spartan power nor Spartan character was entirely an illusion, and Spartan actions did provide, however imperfectly, a base on which the ideology of Spartan hegemony could reside—as long as Sparta did not demand too much of its allies and provided enough benefits in return. Sthenelaidas, on the other hand, was correct in insisting upon the allies. Sparta did not exist as a lump of abstract but crushing force that its possessors could direct in any direction. Sparta was, to some degree, a mirage, for Sparta could fulfill its identity as the preeminent Greek state only if the other poleis of Hellas conferred that status upon it. Sparta was, to a degree, what other states thought it was. This shared reputation (doxa) or moral estimate (axiôsis) would determine who stayed loyal to Sparta and how energetic this loyalty could be. In the end, the Spartans had to fight because their allies expected it of them, and in the end, at Mantinea, they recoup their fundamental position because they remain fundamentally the same.

What we see in Thucydides is a delicate equilibrium in which Spartan character and its manifestations on the battlefield, balanced against the Greek need for some preeminent force and corresponding fear of external control, determine the final direction and extent of Sparta’s power in the Greek world. Reality and mystification are inextricably mixed in a dialectic. Archidamos and Sthenelaidas each fasten their gaze upon separate forces that, by the tension between them, circumscribe and define Sparta’s position. Neither Archidamos nor Sthenelaidas truly wins the debate. The Spartans enthusiastically support Sthenelaidas and vote that the Athenians had wrongly violated the treaty—thus the deceptively blunt Sthenelaidas shrewdly provokes the gesture that the allies demand. Sparta does not, however, take immediate action—Archidamos does not invade Attika until the following summer, when the Thebans attempt to seize Plataia and precipitate action. War on behalf of the allies and against Athens is a device that successfully balances the competing forces that constituted Spartan power for another generation, until an improbable victory rendered the Spartans masters of Greece—for a time.

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