Spartan Myths

Yannis Hamilakis

In the early hours of Thursday 17 January, 26-year-old Shehzad Luqman rode his bicycle from the Peristeri suburb of Athens to the farmers’ market (or bakery, according to other reports) in Petralona, not far from the Acropolis, where he’d been working for several months. He was paid 20 euros a day, most of which he sent back to his family in Pakistan. He’d been in Greece for six years, and now had a ‘pink card’, granting him temporary residence. Not far from the market, he was knifed to death by two young Greek men on a motorbike. They then unscrewed their number plate, put it under the seat and drove calmly towards Syntagma Square.

A taxi driver who witnessed the incident took a note of their number plate and called the police. The men were arrested shortly afterwards and, according to press reports, their racist feelings became immediately clear. Their story was that Luqman blocked their way with his bike. The police raided their homes and found several folding knives and penknives, air rifles, metal pellets, slingshots, brass knuckles and, in the words of the police report, ‘50 pre-election leaflets of a certain political party’ – i.e. the far-right Golden Dawn, which won 18 seats with just under 7 per cent of the vote in last summer’s general election. Their current poll showing is at 10 to 12 per cent.

Two days later, the two men, one serving in the fire brigade and one unemployed, were charged with murder, but not racially motivated murder. Legislation on racially motivated crimes has been in place since 2008 but is very rarely acted on. The president of the Pakistani Community in Greece said that his members have been the victims of more than 800 attacks in the last six months. Under public pressure, the police gave a press conference announcing that they are launching a phone number citizens can call to report racist attacks. They made it clear, however, that immigrant callers who are found to be in Greece without legal documentation will be deported.

On 26 July 2008, at the Golden Dawn’s annual gathering at Thermopylae, one of the speakers said:

We look forward to the moment of great counter-attack, walking on the footsteps of ancient krypteia, which involved silent strikes, in the darkness and quietness of the night, against the city’s internal enemies.

Krypteia was the ancient Spartan rite of passage that supposedly involved going out at night armed with nothing but a knife and killing helots. The perceived militarism of ancient Spartan society has an obvious appeal for the Golden Dawn, as it did for the Third Reich and for Ioannis Metaxas, one of their heroes. It was during Metaxas’ regime, in 1939, that the site of Thermopylae was excavated. The dictator visited the dig, and the first report on it was published in his ideological mouthpiece, Neon Kratos (‘New State’).

Ancient historians have demonstrated time and again that though militarism was a significant factor in Spartan society, it was not the dominant one. Nor did the Spartans glorify their war dead in the way that some of their present-day admirers would have us believe. One of the Golden Dawn’s favourite mottos is ‘ή ταν ή επί τας’ (‘Either this [shield] or on it’), supposedly the Spartan mothers’ farewell to their sons who were departing for the battle: come back victorious or dead. But the phrase comes to us from later sources, of the Roman period. And in any case the classical Spartan dead were not brought back home for burial.

It’s not clear whether there is a direct connection between the Golden Dawn’s evocation of krypteia and the attack on and killing of immigrants. But the myth of Sparta is still more potent that it should be, with political implications, and still in urgent need of debunking.


  • 16 February 2013 at 9:06pm
    Redfish says:
    Having some basic familiarity with the subject of Sparta, I'm in total agreement. However, in college I was only subjected to standard teaching on Sparta and the Peloponnesian war, which vacillated between subtly glorifying Sparta and passive reportage of things glorifying Sparta.

    What sources would you suggest for critical historiography on Sparta?

  • 18 February 2013 at 6:47pm
    Stephen Hodkinson says:
    In response to Redfish, the key recent historiography on the role of military elements in Spartan society is work by the French historian Jean Ducat and also my own research. We have both independently reached the same conclusion that Classical Sparta was more than just a military society - as Yannis Hamilakis rightly indicates.

    This conclusion is not intended to sanitise the brutal aspects of Spartan life, but to provide a more realistic account of a powerful Greek state whose internal stability and external successes were achieved by more wide-ranging and subtle means than simple militarism.

    I recommend two academic publications:
    1) Jean Ducat, Spartan Education (Classical Press of Wales, 2006), especially ch. 5 on 'The social function of Spartan education': where he argues that Sparta's famous public upbringing provided not just military training, but also a broader training for citizenship.
    2) Stephen Hodkinson, "Was classical Sparta a military society", ch. 4 in Sparta and War, edited by S. Hodkinson & A. Powell (also the Classical Press of Wales, 2006): where I argue that, despite the undoubted effectiveness of the Spartan army, warfare did not dominate over civic society or over more private aspects of a Spartan's life.

    One reason why images of Spartan militarism loom so large in modern thinking is the political misappropriation of Sparta by prominent militaristic regimes like Nazi Germany. See Sparta in Modern Thought, edited by Stephen Hodkinson and Ian Macgregor Morris (Classical Press of Wales, 2012). The attempt of Golden Dawn to appropriate the Spartan krypteia - an institution which ancient writers depict in quite contradictory ways - for its own purposes is one more example of this abuse of ancient Spartan history for contemporary political ends.

  • 19 February 2013 at 10:47pm
    Helen Roche says:
    As one of the contributors to the volume which Steve mentions above, I would certainly second this conclusion. My own research at present is particularly concerned with the appropriation of philhellenism in general during the Third Reich - especially by the Nazi elite, in terms of politics and diplomacy, but also with an eye to the afterlife of such appropriations, as manifested in the troubled relationship between Germany and Greece which continues to this day. The Golden Dawn movement seems in some ways to provide a telling instance of this (if a rather ironic one). It's also noteworthy that their activities at Thermopylae etc. are reported quite extensively in some of the German-language press, but far less in Britain - though perhaps this isn't so surprising...

    On a slightly different note, here is an example of the 'with your shield or on it' motif being used by a retired Prussian General to justify the effects of German military education in the aftermath of World War I:

    "No [German] mother felt it necessary to issue her [latter-day] Spartan youths with the warning ‘Return home either with your shield or on it’. They all kept their shields of courage and sacrificial bravery intact and immaculate until the last second. That shield forms their gravestone, whether their place of burial be known or unknown..."

    cf. Helen Roche, Sparta's German Children. The Ideal of Ancient Sparta in the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps, 1818-1920, and in National Socialist elite schools (the Napolas), 1933-1945, Swansea 2013, 35.

  • 21 March 2013 at 11:27am
    Redfish says:
    Thanks (belatedly -- almost forgot about this but just found the browser tab I left open). That is fascinating and I definitely will check it out.