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Essay on History: Spartan Mirage and the Battle of Thermopylae

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The theory of the Spartan Mirage was first coined by Francois Ollier in the 1930s. Francois Ollier was a French historian who published a book titled ‘Le Mirage Spartiate’. The book outlined the effect of distortion of Sparta found in ancient writers like Xenophon, Plutarch, and Herodotus. These books have created a picture that the Spartan society was equal and united. The theory states that the perception of Sparta is distorted by sources written by non-Spartans. These writers either idealized or were hostile towards Sparta. After the French revolution and the growth of democracy, Sparta became a symbol of ancient society against modern freedom. However, many philosophers still idealized Spartan society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a swiss philosopher, states ‘He fixed upon [the Spartans] a yoke of iron, the like of which no other people has ever born; but he tied them to that yoke, made them, so to speak, one with it, by filling up every moment of their lives. … And out of this ceaseless constraint, made noble by the purpose it served, was born that burning love of country which was always the strongest—or rather the only—passion of the Spartans.’ In 1930s Germany, the Spartan image was heavily appropriated by national socialism to focus on the worth of an authoritarian regime.

Victor Ehrenberg was a German historian who idealized Sparta’s military that was influenced by his devotion to the law. He states that Sparta was ‘the first and greatest of all authoritarian and totalitarian states, where authority dominated the political and social world of its citizens. Xenophon was an Athenian historian and philosopher who lived in Sparta. He was an admirer of Sparta but he also speaks about the negative sides of Sparta like Krypteia (the Spartan secret service). However, he still neglects most negative sides of Sparta. Lycurgus was a legendary lawgiver of Sparta. He created laws that inspired strong military and citizen equality. Xenophon believes that Lycurgus had founded Sparta’s institution and reduced the indigenous Achaean population to the same social status level as the serfs and helots. Xenophon states that ‘Now once it had struck me that Sparta, despite having one of the lowest populations, had nonetheless clearly become the most powerful and most famous in Greece, I wondered how this had ever happened. But I stopped wondering once I had pondered the Spartiate institutions, for they have achieved success by obeying the laws laid down for them by Lycurgus’.

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This was his description of the Spartan society that had Lycurgus find stability. This proves that the Spartan Mirage is real as Xenophon speaks of Sparta positively and believes that Lycurgus promoted stability in the Spartan law system making Xenophon an unreliable source. Another example of the Spartan Mirage in ancient sources is Plutarch. Plutarch is from Chaeronea, Boeotia. Plutarch is a biographer, not a historian. He wrote biographies of Spartans including Lycurgus. Many modern historians find Plutarch’s ‘Life of Lycurgus’ to be a significant record of what most believed about the Spartan traditions. In this biography, he appeared to be highly influenced by Spartan kings from a later time like King Agis and Cleomenes. These kings claimed that they restored Lycurgan Sparta. Plutarch wanted Greeks and Roman’s the same to recognize the legacy which they acquired from extraordinary men and great city-states of the past. He aimed to educate. Plutarch starts the biography with a warning, ‘Generally speaking, it is impossible to make any undisputed statement about Lycurgus the lawgiver since conflicting accounts have been given of his ancestry, his travels, his death and above all his activity with respect to his laws and government, but there is least agreement about the period in which the man lived.’ This shows limitations in his writing, therefore, proving the Spartan Mirage theory. Ancient sources have stated that the Spartans were a very war-driven society. Thucydides has referred to the Spartans as ‘Liberators of Hellas’. However, it was the Spartans who gave up the freedom of Ionia to the Persians without their approval and were the ones who committed the most outrageous acts in war. The Spartan reputation of being very patriotic was heavily represented in the Battle of Thermopylae.

At Thermopylae, the Spartans only had 300 troops against the 150000 Persian troops. However, the Spartans weren’t fighting alone. As Herodotus states ‘The Hellenes who awaited the Persians in that place were these: three hundred Spartan armed men; one thousand from Tegea and Mantinea, half from each place; one hundred and twenty from Orchomenus in Arcadia and one thousand from the rest of Arcadia; that many Arcadians, four hundred from Corinth, two hundred from Phlius, and eighty Mycenaeans. These were the Peloponnesians present; from Boeotia, there were seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans.’. Leonidas was a Spartan king who led the Greek states, including the Spartans, to the battle of Thermopylae. The idea that Leonidas led only 300 Spartans to the battle against 100000-150000 Persians doesn’t seem strategic. The Spartans and Leonidas were at the battle so the other Greek states had to assemble their troops and to prove they weren’t isolationists. Leonidas only stayed behind to secure the Spartans’ reputation and his victory. The Spartans never died for freedom but they died to preserve the Spartan reputation of being extraordinary. As Herodotus states ‘It is said that Leonidas himself sent them away because he was concerned that they would be killed, but felt it not fitting for himself and the Spartans to desert that post which they had come to defend at the beginning…For himself, however, it was not good to leave; if he remained, he would leave a name of great fame, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be blotted out.’ This demonstrates the idealization of Sparta through Ancient sources like Herodotus.

Ancient writers like Xenophon, Plutarch, and Herodotus, have affected how modern society perceives Sparta society. Some modern historians have concluded that Lycurgus was not a real person due to his conflicting reflections of him. This conclusion was because the Greeks discuss political and social practices in the phrases of a single founder. Modern historians agree that the Spartan Mirage exists. This theory has appeared in abundant pottery, art, and sculptural remains that modern historians like Paul Cartledge, and Stephen Hodkinson, used to critique excavations like Artemis Orthia and Acropolis. Paul Cartledge suggested that the Spartans were skilled at promoting a reputation that they were stable. Many Ancient philosophers were interested in this perspective of Sparta. This meant that further generations of modern historians will continue this perspective and opinion. Cartledge states ‘To call it a mere barracks bereft of high culture, as did certain Athenian propagandists, was probably going too far- but not all that much too far. The historical question for us is why the open and progressive Sparta of the mid-6th century metamorphosized.’ Hodkinson collected ancient evidence to expose the written evidence to a thorough archaeological view. Cartledge also agrees with Hodkinson’s approach. The purpose of his approach was to ‘consider the bearing of archaeology and art history on the Spartan economy mainly as they were constituted during the 7th and 6th centuries. Had Sparta always been the cultural desert projected by the later mirage?’

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Essay on History: Spartan Mirage and the Battle of Thermopylae. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from
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