This isn’t Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s best book, but it’s still fascinating because it makes you think so deeply about Spartan society. We still use the words “spartan” and “laconian” today, and many different schools of thought at different periods of modern history have looked to Sparta for inspiration. Yes, inspiration: the view of Ancient Sparta is generally a positive one, and not even because of Spartan heroics at Thermopylae but because of the idea of dedication to the state and everything being done by and for the state.
So – we have heroism, selflessness, and striving for success and even perfection. Yet, with that, freedom and individual choice, all the ideas of personal freedom and individual choice go out of the window. It’s much more French Revolution than American Revolution, just to be incredibly annoying and try to sum up an ancient society in 18th century terms! Yet it’s not French Revolution-ish at all, because Spartan society consisted of a privileged elite – and that’s partly what this book is about. Yes, we see Thermopylae, but we also see one of the major revolts of the Helots, the majority population who were subjugated to the Spartan elite.
The Spartans weren’t just privileged by birth, they were privileged by virtue of physical strength … and that’s really what makes Spartan society so uncomfortable to read about, especially in the post-Nazi era. The (fictitious) hero of this book was abandoned as a baby because he had a disability, a problem with his leg which affected his mobility. He might well have died, just dumped on the mountainside, but he was rescued by the Helots. The idea that Spartans threw physically or mentally disabled babies into a ravine has been largely discredited, but that they just abandoned them to die is well attested to. So are stories of wives of men who were unable to have children being passed over to healthy, fertile men, to breed more strong Spartans. It sounds like a cross between Nazi eugenics and some horrific science fiction novel … but it’s what happened. And this is the society which has attracted so much admiration.
I’ve read better books by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. In this one, the style of writing isn’t wonderful, and he doesn’t seem sure whether he’s writing historical fiction or fantasy. Also, the ending is a big let-down. But it doesn’t half make you think. So much humanity, amid a society which didn’t really allow for it … yet which also brought about so much bravery. Sparta – what are we to make of it?