The Spartan Mirage and American Militarism

Several years ago I wrote a post for this site claiming that the Spartan mirage is/was rooted in military excellence. As I later pointed out on that post, this characterization is inaccurate. In fact, the Spartan mirage stems from the stability of the Spartan constitution. The state did not suffer from the same internecine stasis that plagued other poleis and thereby allowed the Spartans to have an extended period of military hegemony in classical Greece. But I still had the idea that the mirage was one of military invincibility, ironically calcified by the death of 298 Spartans at Thermopylae, damaged by the Spartan surrender at Sphacteria and shattered by the defeat at Leuctra.

I built the idea from my own readings of translated sources as a college student. I had also heard the term mirage, but I did not know the origin. To me it was self evident that military prowess–the eternal demonstration of Spartan power–was at the crux of the mirage, [1] after all, the other Greeks were aware of the perioikoi with whom they might have traded [2] and they also were aware of the extremely precarious position that the Spartan helot system created.[3] While neither of these situations is the same as stasis, the state of factional violence between citizens, neither was Sparta an entirely stable state.

Even as I write these words in light of what I now know about Greek culture, philosophy and society, they ring false. A citizen body without factional strife was such an ideal situation that if it could be maintained on the brink of a precipice, that could be preferable to stasis.[4] To keep that utopia, any and all means of preservation would be warranted. Sparta might be weird in organization, but whatever weirdness appeared acceptable.[5] The real point here is that this is a first impression that I held on to for far longer than I had any business doing. While my mistaken belief is my own problem, I want to suggest here that it is not one isolated in me.

In 2005, Andrew Bacevich, a self-identified conservative, wrote The New American Militarism. He argues that in the past century Americans of all political affiliations have become enthralled with military power. [6] Bacevich tries to warn the readers about the dangers of excessive militarism and how it shapes the consciousness of American citizens. I generally agree with his sentiments, but, for my part, I wonder if this sort of cultural fascination makes it more likely that Americans identify the singularity of Sparta in the military success rather than in the political stability. Instead of seeing political stability as leading to military success, military power could be what ensures political stability. More than simply being a chicken-and-egg problem, this inversion can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions entirely.


[1] I am now aware that this is faulty logic. Invincibility could be a mirage of sorts, but the (unbroken?) string of military victories is a fact. The mirage, then, would be the perceived cause of the success.

[2] Recall that the people who defended Athenian honor in the Spartan war council, according to Thucydides, were Athenian merchants. Presumably they were aware who produced any goods they traded for.

[3] In the mid-fifth century, the Athenians sent a military force to help suppress a helot revolt. During the Peloponnesian Wars, one of the Athenian strategies was to encourage helots to escape from Sparta.

[4] Hyperbole, but not by much.

[5] Emphasis on appearance. I am quite convinced by Stephen Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta that Sparta functioned much more normally than assumed. Lysander might still take the rap for unsettling the politics, but not because he introduced money to Sparta.

[6] For a single snapshot of this phenomenon, one could look at the foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential debate.

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