Understanding Fact from Fiction Regarding Sparta in Literary Sources

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Understanding Fact from Fiction Regarding
Sparta in Literary Sources

During most of the Archaic and Classical periods Sparta became an equally feared and dreaded state, which led to their eventual rise as the most powerful city in the Greek world. Despite the Spartans rise to power and glory it is extraordinarily difficult to write about the history of Sparta. The problem does not lie in the lack of sources but whether or not the sources can be viewed as historically accurate. When looking at literary sources pertaining to Spartan history, there are five issues that must be analyzed and understood if we are to attempt to depict the fact from the fiction regarding the truth of Sparta from both modern day and ancient Greek literary sources. The first issue that must be understood is the Spartans own lack of written historical literature, before the Hellenistic period. Subsequently, the next issue that must be viewed is the re-telling of Spartan history transmitted orally by non-Spartans, whose sense of awe and wonder of Sparta oft led to embellishment, especially in the case of Aristocrats even Athenian ones. The third issue is the lack of archaeological evidence of Spartan buildings and pottery, which subsequently illustrates a simple Sparta whilst validating the claims from Thucydides. Preceding, the above issue the next viewpoint is that of Xenophon and how he saw Sparta. Lastly, how the Spartan mirage continues to distort the evidence of Sparta to both the writers from Ancient Greece and the scholars of today. In closing, these five issues must be analyzed before a decision can be made on whether or not a literary source regarding Sparta can be true.

The foremost issue that results in most corrupted literary sources against an accurate account of Spartan history is that the Spartans themselves did not record their own history before the Hellenistic period. As stated above the Spartans refused to record their own history which lead to differing accounts about what happened when a particular event was recalled. This lack of historical evidence regarding the early years of Spartan history puts scholars of today as well of scholars back then at a disadvantage, as they have to rely on accounts that were only told as after the events they wished to record were finished, most likely resulting in missing and inaccurate information; "Since Spartans did not write historical literature before the Hellenistic period"(Pomeroy et al. 152). From this evidence it can be found that because the Spartans did not record their own history the true accounts of what happened were changed over time, making the information hollow in terms of accuracy to historians when trying to determine fact. Spartans simply refused to record their own history and no move was made to change this until after the Hellenistic period. In fact even cultural and economic records were not kept by the Spartans. This lack of historical evidence is detrimental to literary sources; "Even Sparta's laws were preserved in memory rather than committed to writing. [. . .] Much of our written evidence for Sparta originated after many of the events described" (Pomeroy et al. 152). From the evidence provided above it can be assumed that the Spartans before the Hellenistic period would rather preserve their culture among themselves, refusing to share it with non-Spartans as per their military society. In summary, the Spartans lack of literary sources describing Spartan history before the Hellenistic period much leaves much to be desired, forcing scholars to accept that the sources before this time do not have the criteria necessary to considered accurate.

The subsequent issue that must be examined when determining the authenticity of a literary source regarding Spartan history, is the fact that it was re-told by non-Spartans who either looked at Sparta with fear, awe, or a mixture of both. Because these non-Spartans often marvelled Spartan society...
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