Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sparta, Athens, 300, and Problems

Sanjay's recent guest post on 300: Rise of an Empire pointed out how rather than give the Athenians their due, the movie pumped up the Spartans yet again got me thinking. I'm going to take a page from David Brin or, God forbid, the obnoxious Internet Social Justice mob, and point out how "problematic" that is.

Before I begin, I'll admit the Athenians had their flaws. They were sexist even by the pretty bad standards of ancient Greece and in that respect the Spartans were superior. Spartan women could own property, testify in courts, and walk around naked in public just like Spartan men could. Athenian women were basically confined to the house in a manner more akin to Saudi Arabia than anything one might imagine in Europe.

But there's a reason Spartan (ruling-class women) at least had so much more personal freedom, and it's a bad one. Spartan society was very hierarchical--the Spartan men who were such fierce warriors ruled over a vastly larger class of slaves (the helots, who were indigenous to the area and conquered by the Spartans long ago) and the "dwellers-about" (conquered people who weren't enslaved). To dominate them the Spartan men had to specialize in war and thus had to rely on their women to a much greater degree. Restricting talent by virtue of gender was a luxury they could not afford.

Although only around 20 percent of the Athenian population could participate in government, it was a lot more open in terms of social class. Its citizen body dwarfed that of any other Greek city-state. That's a lot better than having a tiny ruling class kept in power by pure terror, including a secret police force. The democratic traditions of the modern West (and those non-Western societies that have adopted them) are based on those of Athens. In contrast, the Nazis aspired to make themselves into a new Spartan class ruling over Russian slaves. General Sherman's comments on the Confederate cavalry--in particular how they were men who did not work but were highly-skilled at war--echoes this. Like the Spartans or feudal knights, they could only spend so much time learning the skills of war because they relied on a vast number of subordinate laborers for everything else. The apotheosis of the Spartan ideal is S.M. Stirling's Domination of the Draka--a ruling class sustained by the labor of slaves outnumbering them ten to one who casually rape enslaved women, impale rebels, and constantly plot war to destroy any alternative to their social system. In contrast, the apotheosis of the Athenian ideal is modern-day liberal democracy.

The original 300 glossed over this massive flaw in Sparta's political system, but since it was told from the perspective of a Spartan loyalist, that makes sense. Rise of an Empire, though it certainly gives the Athenians credit for the great victory at Marathon, depicts the Battle of Artemesium as an outright defeat of the "amateurs" derided by the Spartans in the first film. This is straight-up inaccurate, and not in the harmless way the uber-ab-toned Spartans or the bejeweled circus freak Xerxes are--it was a strategic withdrawal due to the Persians' defeat of the Greeks on land at Thermopylae. And even at Athens' great victory at Salamis, the Athenians are losing despite Persian admiral Artemisia's arrogant blundering until the Spartan fleet (which numbered less than 20 ships at Salamis) and ships from some other barely-named Greek cities show up.

As Sanjay pointed out, here's a chance for the citizen-soldiers to show their worth, but yet they're rescued from defeat by the Spartans whose real-life contribution was pretty poor. Not only is that historically inaccurate, but it has its ideological problems. Democratic states with citizen armies tend to do better than despotisms with warrior classes when all is said and done. Compare the Confederacy (dominated by what Marx called "an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveowners" with the pro-Confederate whites outnumbered slightly by the white unionists and black slaves) with the Union, especially after the early run of bad Union generals.

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