This is Part I of a seven part series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII) comparing the popular legacy of Sparta (embodied in films like 300) with the historical ancient state. Today, we’re going to start by looking at the sources of our information on Sparta, and then begin at the beginning: the Spartan rearing and training system, the agoge.
I knew we’d go here eventually (a critique of 300 in particular has been a fairly common request), but I decided to move this up in the calendar after reading the dueling articles in the New Republic about the value of Sparta. I don’t think either article was really as comprehensive as it could have been, and I felt one of them was deeply mistaken – it will soon be very obvious which one.
Sparta’s legacy in American popular culture has always been prominent, but it seems particularly so now. You see the Spartan lambda (the Λ for Lacedaemon, the name of the territory of Sparta) on t-shirts. Sparta is invoked in fitness motivational posters. Famous Spartan witticisms (like molon labe – “come and get them”) are turned into modern political slogans. There’s an entire, popular series of obstacle course runs called ‘Spartan race’ (an unfortunate phrasing if ever I’ve heard one).