A Novel VDH

Reliving the fall of Sparta: An interview.

by Katheryn Jean Lopez

National Review Online

Victor Davis Hanson, known as VDH to his fans, has a new book out. This time, it’s a novel, The End of Sparta. He talked with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the Greeks and the novel.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Did you enjoy recreating this world?

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Yes, a great deal. The story of how Epaminondas freed the Messenian helots and ended Sparta as a major power was one of the great dramas of the ancient world — every bit as moving as Thermopylae or Salamis. But for a variety of reasons — from the prejudices of the contemporary historian Xenophon to the loss of Plutarch’s much laterEpaminondas — we never got the full account. I wanted to set the record straight, as it were. So I brought back the history of his grand march according to two general principles. One, nothing in The End of Sparta would be inconsistent with those things that we do know actually happened. And the characters whom I added to the drama would reflect the sorts of real people we know from Greek literature and history. Two, I wanted to immerse the reader into the Greek world of the fourth century BC, in every sense of the word — politics, religion, war, agriculture, even to the degree of having the novel’s narrative follow the style of Greek prose grammar and syntax, although I understood that to many that effort at authenticity might come at the expense of easy readability.

LOPEZ: Did you enjoy it more than writing straight history like A War like No Other?

HANSON: Fiction is much harder than nonfiction. In history, one gathers clues like a detective, tries to present an honest account of what most likely happened, and writes a narrative according to what we know and, where we aren’t absolutely sure, what might be most likely to have happened, within the generally accepted rules of evidence and sources. But in fiction, the writer is not quite an investigator or interpreter, but more a creator of reality. And in the case of the ancient world, that means one cannot have characters thinking in terms of things like “minutes” or “seconds” or “weeks,” or having any inkling of the scientific world post 369 BC, or adopting any modern social or cultural mores. After writing the first three pages, I realized what a genius someone like Tolkien was — he invented an entire world (much harder than recreating one from history), whose presence is as omnipresent as it is often only alluded to. Beneath the veneer of his text lies an entire larger world of fabricated lineages, histories, and languages.

LOPEZ: How do you write a novel while teaching and keeping an eye on what Newt Gingrich said last night and everything else?

HANSON: I now teach just during four weeks at Hillsdale College, during my annual vacation time from the Hoover Institution. I could not do what I now do with my old load of classics courses at CSU Fresno, from which I retired in 2004. As far as reading the news in depth each day, I tried very hard not to allow it to intrude and make the novel allegorical. The Theban yeomen who preemptively invaded Sparta to establish democracy in Messenia for the indentured serfs were not neo-cons. More to the point, I tried to write two or three hours each morning before I did anything else. And as part of the bookend package with Bloomsbury books, I was also supposed to more or less simultaneously write a nonfiction book — The Savior Generals, about how five great leaders, from antiquity to Iraq, saved lost wars — which I just completed and which should come out late next year. My job description at Hoover is to offer historically based commentary on current events and at regular intervals to write works of history that reflect the institution’s charter of war, revolution, and peace. So The End of Sparta is and yet is not part of the job description. The result was — well aside from the two-book arrangement with the publishers — that I was careful to write the novel in addition to my contractual duties, rather than in lieu of them. Around 2007 I sort of decided not to go out in the evening, socialize, or do much more than write. So it was a schizophrenic experience the last four years, writing both a military/biographical history and a novel and trying to keep up with the NRO column, the TMS syndicated one, and a blog for PJ Media, in addition to my primary duties at Hoover. It was all a sort of blur of 14-hour writing days, and I lost a normal life, as friends and family remind me. I am glad it’s finally now over.

LOPEZ: Is it important for you as a historian to bring past battles to life again?

HANSON: Yes, it is. In The End of Sparta, I had two general aims: (a) to recreate the initial long narrative of the battle of Leuktra with historical exactitude — that is, the hoplites must be armed and equipped, and fight tactically, consistently with what we know from battle descriptions in Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and other sources; and (b) to recapture the human sense of fear, panic, sound, dirt, and even hallucination present in ancient battle. Long ago, I wrote a book on that, The Western Way of War, and edited another oneHoplites, so the ancient mental and physical experience of hoplite battle as reflected in Greek literature was familiar. And in The Other Greeks I had collated a lot of ancient sources on the nexus between ancient farming and fighting.

LOPEZ: How do you hope people view Epaminondas by novel’s end?

HANSON: After over two millennia of relative neglect, I hope we begin again to give him his due. In the novel he is both obsessive and a moral giant — a recluse with no wife, children, or close friends, whose life was pledged to ending Spartan aggression and giving freedom to the unfree. All that is rare in any age.

LOPEZ: Should history think more of him?

HANSON: I think so. Sparta, then and now, was and is all the craze — or its antithesis, Athens. But Thebes? There was no Theban “300” or Theban Socrates. The agrarians lacked both the military mystique of the Spartan warrior caste and the high culture of the cosmopolitan Athenians. Nonetheless, in 370–369 BC, they did in five months what Athens could not in 27 years during the earlier Peloponnesian War: invade the heartland of Sparta, humiliate its militaristic culture, free the helots, and establish fortified cities — most prominently democratic Messenê — all to box in Sparta and end its role as a major city-state. So Epaminondas, given his rare moral imperative, really was the most impressive military and political leader of the Greek world. Cicero, over 300 years later, called him “the first man of Greece.”

LOPEZ: How important is Pythagoras to understanding Epaminondas?

HANSON: Very. I think the strange moral obsessions of Epaminondas were inspired by the teachings of Pythagoras, especially the idea of a perfect world in the afterlife, which the initiated can get glimpses of through prime numbers or music. Pythagoreans had a different morality from the traditional Olympians. There was a colony of Pythagoreans who fled to Thebes, and their religious views seem to have permeated Epaminondas and a new democratic Theban elite: one moral god, equality between the sexes, transmigration/reincarnation of souls, vegetarianism, the primacy of the left hand, etc. But their main contribution to Greek thought — and Plato felt their influence deeply — was the idea of an afterlife where the soul’s fate was predicated on the material life it had lived in the prior physical world.

LOPEZ: You point out in the preface that “classical Greek authors themselves wrote in what we today might call a formal style. Their own elevated vocabulary and complex syntax certainly were not realistic, and would have been recognized as such by the proverbial man in the street.” Is your novel seeking in part to draw the younger reader to Greek history with more accessible language?

HANSON: I tried to strike a balance, to avoid the contemporary Americanese that is the style of most successful contemporary novels, and yet not give in to the sort of Victorian prose of 19th-century historical novels. Instead, I tried to emulate the prose of a Thucydides or Xenophon, especially their speeches. In three cases, I even first wrote out the addresses of my speakers, in the assembly scenes, in Greek and then translated them back into English. But I understand that some readers might find the style foreign and difficult. I hope not. In some sense, Tolkien’s prose is the gold standard (comparing the mundane to a genius), since it is not artificial in its formality, but in readable fashion conveys a proper sense of the archaic and distant.

LOPEZ: “What an odd woman, this Erinna, at the same time looking to kill, talking of helots, singing her poetry, serving the world of men, idolizing the general Epaminondas — all as she cooked and paced and broke into song, and went out beyond their fire to find a rabbit.” Who is this Erinna woman and why did you include her?

HANSON: She was a historical figure, a lyric poetess, one of the few we know of in Greece. And in the novel she becomes the most unlikely and fervent of Epaminondas’s followers who march southward. Most of the major historical figures of the age aside from the Thebans — Alkidamas, Plato, Philip II, Ainias Tacticus, etc. — find their way into the narrative. In her case, I also wanted to remind the reader that women were not just second-class citizens, though they were of course politically in some sense just that, but also goddesses, huntresses, poets, political advisers — and all the more so in the case of the Pythagoreans. Religious and mythological figures like the Amazons, the Furies, Helen, Athena, Circe, Calypso, and a host of others reflect the Greek fear of and obsession with powerful women who defy the norms of traditional family life. Erinna in the novel was all that and more.

LOPEZ: “So it is with all wars, that both supporters and critics weave and warp until the final story is known — and alike then go back with their plumb strings to line up their past principles with the final verdict of the last battlefield.” Is that important for students of history today to bear in mind?

HANSON: Yes. Because the novel is first and foremost about war, human nature is unchanging, and fairly or not the majority of people, then and now, whether in ancient Thebes or 1940 Berlin, hedge their support for war on whether they seem to be winning or losing — and then, sadly, on those perceptions seem to flesh out the necessary moral or political rationalizations. And because we live in an age of wars, we can learn from what the ancients thought about conflict. The characters in the novel who talk about war reflect the general attitudes of Greeks, at least from what we can tell from their surviving literature and history. The End of Sparta is about two wars: the first to stop Sparta at Leuktra, and the second the march south to destroy Sparta and free the helots. In the novel Epaminondas and his generals through actions and words tell us why they are doing this — and, I hope, why we should care.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This