Made by History

What Sparta and Athens Can Teach the Modern World About War

6 minute read

What drove the Ancient Greeks to fight wars, thousands of years ago? The answer may surprise you, because what we consider “good” and selfless reasons to fight paradoxically led to more wars than the “bad” and selfish ones.

The Spartans are famous today because of their reputation as fearsome soldiers, to which films like 300 and athletic events like the “Spartan Race” attest. Athens, on the other hand, is famous for gleaming temples and democracy, a stark contrast with the austere and oligarchic Spartans.

But the democratic Athenians could fight too. Counterintuitively, the Athenians fought more often, for longer periods of time, and at greater material and human cost. In this season of Veterans Day and Remembrance Day, understanding why democratic Athens fought more than militaristic Sparta reminds us that being a democracy and framing military action as undertaken for the supposedly “right” reasons does not prevent wars—in fact, it might them more likely.

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Three hundred Spartans making their doomed last stand against the gigantic army of Xerxes at Thermopylae in 480 BCE is the image of Sparta that has stuck. Commentators frequently evoke Thermopylae as the historic precedent for brave resistance against tyranny. The real historical Spartans, however, did not much care about fighting for freedom. Instead, they took their cues from the epic poetry of Homer, whose warriors fought for fame and glory. Achilles, the greatest hero in the Trojan War, infamously cared so much for glory that when Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, insulted him, he withdrew from the battle and prayed to the gods for his fellow Greeks to be slaughtered—behavior we would consider treasonous.

This search for fame explains why the Spartans commissioned poetry emphasizing glory to be inscribed on the monuments of their war dead. Why? Because they thought of the dead as paragons of excellence and wanted to ensure those who fell won fame. This kind of commemoration had the added advantage of making future generations of Spartans more eager to fight and die for glory.

The Athenians thought differently about war and sacrifice, commemorating their dead after the Persian Wars by honoring their deeds as not only glorious, but in the service of freedom. Their poetic inscriptions celebrated how Athenian soldiers safeguarded their own democracy while warding off from Greece as a whole the “day of slavery” at the hands of the Persians (even though Athens, like Sparta, had sizeable enslaved populations of their own). Athenian commemoration was couched in the terms of liberation and was Panhellenic—that is, it stressed that the Athenians did not fight for themselves alone but altruistically for all the other Greek states.

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After the Persian Wars, the glory-seeking Spartans actually fought less often, for shorter periods, and at less cost than the freedom-fighter Athenians did. The difference is readily quantifiable. While the Spartans fought in a handful of limited conflicts in the 50 years after the Persian Wars, the Athenians fought in virtually every one of those years, often far from home and with bloody results.

This discrepancy is no mere quirk of history. The Athenians actively used their freedom-fighting credentials to justify imperial expansion, and grew to become the first Greek state to build an empire by subjugating other Greek states. Democracy and empire went hand-in-hand. In most Greek states, every citizen engaged in military service. Citizen-soldiers were the norm, whereas Sparta was nearly unique in having anything resembling a force of professional soldiers. But not all citizen-soldiers had the same appetite for military adventurism. The elite Spartan soldier could rest on his laurels, happy with the reputation his infrequent fighting earned and having his needs met by the large number of subject laborers the Spartans ruled at home. By contrast, the lower classes of Athenian citizens, who were the fiercest supporters of the democracy that gave them political rights, received regular pay and livelihoods by serving in the fleet, the prime instrument of imperial expansion. For the Athenian poor, war provided money and increased their political standing even further.   

The connection between imperialistic war and democracy is even deeper, given that Athens forced its new subjects to adopt democratic forms of government whether they liked it or not. The Spartans were content with their reputation as glorious fighters; they didn’t claim to have liberated anyone, and left the imperialistic military adventures to democratic Athens.

Sparta won the Peloponnesian War, the 27-year-long conflict Athenian expansion brought on between 431-404 BCE, and the only event that finally dragged the Spartans into prolonged military action. Yet Sparta weakened itself critically in the years following by acting more like the Athenians had, as self-styled liberators who took on more and more military entanglements abroad. This earned the Spartans many enemies since once they liberated their fellow Greeks from Athenian control and Athenian-imposed democracies, they forced the newly liberated to adopt pro-Spartan governments (typically oligarchies). Eventually, constant interventionism led to Sparta’s downfall in 371 BCE at the hands of its rival, Thebes. Liberation rhetoric and continuous warfare went hand-in-hand for Sparta, as it had for Athens, with dire consequences.

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In the end, war is hell. But how we frame military service and then commemorate war matters. Fighting for glory is the opposite of why we honor veterans today. Instead, we emphasize the war dead’s selfless sacrifice and efforts to secure the freedom of their own country and that of others. But, such liberation rhetoric can also be used to justify wars that might have less savory objectives, or that are prosecuted in such a way that brings instability and suffering. Being a democracy is also no safeguard against a propensity to go to war. There are many traits of Spartan soldiers we shouldn’t emulate, including their macho asceticism, eagerness for fame won by combat, and brutal domination of the majority of their own population. But there might be a lesson in their careful avoidance of military adventures abroad for the sake of “freedom.”   

Matthew A. Sears is professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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