The Ancient World As It Was

by Cody Carlson

The Deseret News

Review of The End of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson, Bloomsbury Press, 2011

Having written extensively on the history of ancient Greece, it is no surprise that classics professor Victor Davis Hanson would set his first novel in that era.

His new book, The End of Sparta is an intelligent and engaging work set in the mid-4th century BC, when Theben general Epaminondas leads his army of Boeotian hoplites against the power of the Spartan hegemony over Greece.

The story begins on the eve of the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. The leader of the Boeotians, Epaminondas has been preaching the ideas of the Pythagorean cult, which among other things holds that all men are created equal. This does not sit well with the Spartans, whose society depends upon the rigid control of their slave helots.

The Spartans are defeated and soon sent retreating back to the Peloponnesos, leaving the Boeotians with a major decision to make: Should they sit upon the laurels of their victory, and perhaps face another Spartan attack in a few years, or should they march south now, free the helots, and destroy Spartan power forever?

The principle character is Melon, a Boeotian farmer, who does his duty at the battle and loses a son, though covers himself in glory. In spite of himself, Melon becomes caught up the desire to march south and witness the end of Sparta.

Hanson’s considerable intellectual skills are on display throughout this work. The language he employs for his characters is exotic and clunky, just as it would have been spoken, though not without a hint of poetry. The complexities of politics and society are explored brilliantly here, without weighing down the narrative. The characters are by turns sympathetic and cruel, and entirely believable.

A critic of the Obama administration, Hanson also offers cautionary tales, as when the Athenians are presented as citizens of a city-state resting on the laurels of its former glory. The downfall of the great polis lay not in military defeat, Melon realizes, but in the democracy’s ancient entitlement programs.

Where Hanson really shines is in his description of hoplite warfare. Hanson describes the bloody Battle of Leuctra:

“The best hoplite was not the strongest right arm, Melon knew, but he who could cover his neighbor, stab, advance, keep his balance amid the flotsam at his feet, and hide in the shield cover from his right — all at once.”

As can be expected from the subject matter, The End of Sparta is a violent book about a violent world. The novel also addresses sexual themes of the day, though neither the violence nor the sex comes across as exploitative or gratuitous. Rather, Hanson presents these things as the Greeks understood them — simply a part of life.

Cody Carlson is a writer for The Desert News

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