Monday, October 1, 2012

The End of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson

My pace of reading books has slowed tremendously.  I was just reviewing the last several books I've read ... last year at this time, I was still reading the Patrick O'Brian books and had about 5 books to go to finish the series before the end of the year.  This year, I've only managed to polish off about five books, yet here we are in the 10th month.

A couple of things have contributed to the slow-down.  I got off to a great start with End of Sparta, but then the book just didn't hold my interest.  Along with that was our very long summer trip coupled with the fact that I moved work locations and can no longer take the bus into work  ... I no longer have those two hours a day to read.

But over the last two weeks, I've taken this book with me everywhere I went and read while I had time.  I read it more at night as well as during lunch.  Today, I finally finished it ... after four months!

It was a good book.  It started off really good; slacked considerably in the middle and picked up a bit toward the latter part and in the end.  End of Sparta is about the Battle of Leuctra and then the first invasion into Sparta to free the helots.

I found the discussion on phalanx tactics used in the Battle of Leuctra to be quite fascinating.  The wiki entry for the battle does a good job explaining the change in tactics and how that change won the battle.  Hanson does a great job setting the scene up for that change in tactics.

The aftermath of the battle sets up a number of sub-plots for the rest of the book.

Then after the battle, the book slows considerably as the long wind-up for the invasion begins.

They finally decide to invade Sparta and break them forever and when the begin to muster, the book becomes more interesting again.

They break the Spartans, free the helots and help them begin their own democracy.  Of course, liberty is never easy or clean and there is consternation on the part of Epaminondas' army about this.  They figure it will take a few more years for the helots to work things out ... after all, they've been in slavery for over 300 years.

There are a few dialogues and passages in the book that I found interesting and I'll copy those here.

The first one comes from when they armies are mustering.  The main character, Melon, is addressing some of the men, and one of them asks him a question.

"So, Melon, do you really believe our Epaminondas should have settled up with the king?  Do you think his harsh words caused a war?"

"Melon frowned and went on, though he sensed his general was not serious, was teasing rather than learning from him.  "Of course not, my general.  Name a war, Pelopidas, that was an accident - just one that broke out over a wrong word."  He was soon stammering, worried that a big man like Pelopidas, leading an army to war, had little idea why they were at war at all.  So Melon pressed him further.  "Listen, my commander.  The men of the Peloponnesos invaded our land because they thought they could.  And, by the gods, we had done nothing to persuade them otherwise.  Why not?  We lost Koroneia.  We stumbled at Nemea.  Tegyra was only a small victory.  For years when you build women's barricades rather than raise shields chest-high, you send a message: that lesser men either cannot or will not keep the Spartans out."  Melon found his words were clearing his own head, putting into some sort of order what he knew in his breast.  He could not have stopped if he wished to.  "So for our part, why do you think Boiotians march this morning?  Only because Leuktra taught us that we could - and these red-capes to the south cannot keep their enemies our like they have the past seven hundred years.  Had we lost at Leuktra, not a northerner would be in the ranks with us today."

"Melon, the lone vine pruner on Helikon, had an audience and so he lectured the general on why his army was following him.  He thought states were like people, and knew people well enough up on Helikon - both how to keep the bad off his land and to enlist the good to help him.  "Most men have no belief, either good or bad.  They follow only the winners.  So they claim we are liberators and follow you, Pelopidas, because they think you can do what you promise.  If you cannot make them rich, then at least make them proud to lord it over the losers.  But stumble and most will damn you not just as weak, but as bad also.   Remember Backwash in the assembly.  Just like at Leuktra, if we win, he'll claim us as disciples.  Lose - and he will put the nooses around our necks.  Back home, right now he's waiting and tapping his foot as we march here.  Most men are like that: They pass on risks to be safe and liked."  (pp. 349-350)

And then there was this passage regarding thoughts on the price of victory ...

"Victory, the wealth of peace, proves as deadly to states as does defeat.  Is that man's doom?  That as we struggle to plane down the edges for the young, old men forget that their own blisters and cuts from these knots and burls made us the savvy carpenters we are?  That smoothing the splintery grain for our children only ends up smoothing them, so that they know nothing of the rough to come?  That in our wish to be good we ruin those who we wish to help, because we cannot let them suffer as we did when we have the power or the wealth to stop it?  That law of iron explains the fall of families and the poleis as well.  Did their Pythagoras have any answers for all this, since - Melon knew - his vanishing Zeus did not?"  (pp. 353-354)

The last section I marked, I marked because I read on the wiki entry for Epaminondas that some history critics felt that he did more harm than good.  Although his intent was to free the helots, he in fact, according to the critics, left all of Greece in disarray and vulnerable.  And by the time Phillip of Macedon came to power, and then later his son Alexander the Great, they were able to quickly and decisively conquer all of Greece.

Seemingly in response to all of that, Hanson had this to say in chapter 36: "Alkidamas turned to them and looked over at Melon.  'Are we ready for our climb up to the sanctuary?  Don't worry about our Melissos or whatever his name was or shall be.  I too believe that he may not quite be a killer, although he proved to be a killer enough still.  We did our best to tame him so he wouldn't learn just our warcraft but also the rule of law, our nomoi, as well and the voice of Pythagoras, which I think I heard in him beneath his strange speech.  What he does with that knowledge rests on his soul, not ours.  The One God sorts it all out in the end.  Enough; each man fights the battles of his own day.  Ours are mostly over, and his will begin soon." (p. 415)

You would have to read the book to know that the Melissos he refers to is Phillip of Macedon who served under and learned from Epaminondas as a young man.  He later returns to Greece and wins a decisive victory over Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea.

And one last note ... a monument of a lion was erected at the Battle of Chaeronea (wiki link here).  Earlier in the book, Hanson envisions two monuments of lions erected at Messene - representing Chion and Proxenos.

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