Friday, October 8, 2021

The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy, by Myke Cole

Osprey Publishing, February 2021

Myke Cole sets out to deconstruct the myth of Spartan warrior supremacy, not out of hostility to the Spartans, but frustration with the mythologizing of these very real people who had gifts and virtues, but also flaws. Another significant motivation is the misuse of the myth rather than the reality of the Spartans in support of hard right ideologies, and not just in the US, but at least throughout the cultural West.

The Spartans are revered and nearly worshipped as the ideal warriors, men who valued war, despised money, and served the good of the state over personal reputation and comfort. What Myke Cole shows us, in this careful, well-researched, and very readable book, is a culture of men as variable and human as any others. They were in some ways better soldiers than others contemporary to them. The Spartan hoplites did some regular training. It was more than most other Greek city-states did, but nothing close to the professionalism attributed to them by myth. It did give them a degree of organization and discipline that was, for most of their history, rare in the armies of other contemporary armies. That was a real advantage, especially when fighting other Greek hoplites.

Unfortunately, a serious look at their history shows Spartans displaying some real weaknesses as soldiers. They were slow to adapt to changes in military practice and tools. They regarded missile weapon (for instance, bows and arrows) as "effeminate," never developed their own cavalry forces, and were never very effective at naval warfare. They also were never very good at scouting the ground ahead of them, or posting lookouts when they were encamped.

We also see Spartans, including Spartan kings, sometimes fleeing the battlefield, taking bribes, paying bribes. Sometimes, of course, these are the right military decision--but even when they are, they're contrary to the cherished myth of Sparta. More clearly from a modern viewpoint, Spartan use of diplomacy and soft power of all kinds, as well as really excellent spy work, seems obviously sensible. Why fight and lose soldiers' lives, if you can get what you need without fighting? It's not, however, in keeping with the Spartan myth.

I'm not doing justice to Cole's thesis, and I strongly recommend reading the book. It is very readable, although at few points, in his commitment to presenting a solid case while honestly presenting where the evidence is incomplete, where sources disagree, and in analyzing as many battles as practical so that the reader can evaluate the evidence, I found it wise to take a couple of breaks to let the argument so far settle into my mind and think about it for a while. I kept coming back to it, though, and overall it was a compelling read.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book. 

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