David Frum

09.16.12

David's Bookclub: Persian Fire and Rubicon (Part 2 of 4)

(This is part two of a four part review of author Tom Holland's books Persian Fire and Rubicon. Read part one here and part three here.)

Marathon was an Athenian victory, and because of the extraordinary effusion of Athenian creativity in the half-century after the Persian repulse, we tend to think of the whole conflict as an Athenian war.

Holland reminds us, though, that Marathon was really just a raid; the heavy fighting to beat back the Persians was done by the Sparta, a society wholly organized for war. Has anyone ever produced a more horrifying and terrifying description of Sparta than Holland?

In other states, the poor were skin and bones, and the rich might be nicknamed "the stout" - but not in Sparta. In other states, it was the elite who would indulge themselves with wine and drunken dancing - but not in Sparta. In Sparta, it was the slaves. Sometimes, as the [warriors] ate in their mess, a helot might be dragged in, a stoop-shouldered, bestial thing, dressed in mangy animal pelts, and with an ugly cap of flea-bitten dog skin on his head. For the entertainment and edification of the watching masters, the wretch would be forced to drink neat wine, to gulp it down until the liquor was spilling from his lips onto the skins. Laughing, the Spartans would then order the slave to dance. His cheeks bright red, his chin wet with spittle, the helot would weave and stagger and totter until he passed out in the dirt. His masters would then amuse themselves by pelting him with bones.

(Location 1691-1698)

The Spartan economy was based upon the systematic exploitation of its neighbors of Messenia These were the famous helots, who toiled as serfs to produce the food that Spartans ate in their collective mess halls. Slavery was enforced by terror. Spartan youth, male and female, underwent a rigorous education in cruelty, including anal rape by their elders, to steel them to do whatever was necessary to keep the slaves toiling

To the most promising graduates was granted the honor of one final, bloody challenge. Enrolled into a crack squad known as the Crypteia, they would be sent into the mountains, armed only with a single dagger each, and ordered to live off the land. This period of exile from their city, however, was much more than a mere endurance test. Traveling alone, each member of the Crypteia would inevitably cross the Taygetos [mountain] range and slip into Messenia. There, advancing soundlessly by night, as every graduate ... had been trained to do, they would be expected to prove themselves as killers. ...How else, after all, save by careful pruning of the most able Messenians, could the Spartans hope to breed natural serfs? ... No Spartan could lead his people who had shrunk from killing in cold blood. ... Only once he had smelled for himself the hatred of a hunted Messenian, and seen it in his eyes, could a Spartan truly appreciate the full extent of his city's peril. Only once he had murdered could he truly appreciate what was required to keep it at bay.

(Location 1636-1651)

Compared to this, the Persian empire - with its traditions of rule through local elites, religious toleration, and talent recruitment from subject peoples - looks positively benign. That empire too was based on enslavement and tribute. The taxes of one whole city were devoted to the cost of buying shoes for the princesses of the reigning imperial family. The bridges, roads, and canals that transported Xerxes' army from Asia to the battlefields of mainland Greece were not constructed by willing labor. But Holland reveals enough of other side of the ledger to confound those who follow Lord Byron's interpretation of the Persian wars as a struggle between Oriental despotism and Western freedom.

- more to come-