(Review) Godfrey Hutchinson, Sparta: Unfit for Empire, (Barnsley, 2014)

A review of a great book, which covers a fascinating period of ancient Spartan history: its decline.

Godfrey Hutchinson, Sparta: Unfit for Empire, (Barnsley, 2014)

The Spartan period of dominance in Greece (the hegemony c.404-371 BCE) has attracted a lot of attention recently, with a subsequent flurry of publications all dedicated to this short period of ancient Greek history. Hutchinson’s book sits within this pop-up genre and has created an easily accessible, concise, yet thorough, historical narrative of the period within which Sparta held power over Greece.

Sparta is set out in a chronological narrative which allows the story to develop in an organic matter, without the need for vast swathes of prior knowledge on behalf of the reader. Hutchinson begins with the crescendo of the Peloponnesian War in 404 and continues, beyond the traditional date of 371 for the end of the hegemony (the battle of Leuctra), into 362 and the 2nd battle of Mantinea. The book is supplemented by 7 appendices which try to offer background information, especially regarding Spartan culture and social history.

The story which Hutchinson has chosen to tell is in line with the traditional scholarly narratives, and he rightfully pays homage to the debt owed to writers like Lazenby (The Spartan Army) and Cartledge (Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta) whom he follows closely. This traditional account of the Spartan hegemony is summed up by Hutchinson’s subtitle, which forms the central thesis of the book: Sparta had power and an opportunity which it wasted due to its own failings, both socially and morally.

This core idea stems from our main, contemporary, source for the period, Xenophon, who considered the Sparta of his own day a corrupt mirage of the, almost mythical, glory days of yesteryear. This emphasis on moral discrepancies does lead the reader to some incorrect conclusions about the Spartans, who are often described as if they were a singular entity, at times. One minor example implies that the Spartans did not commit atrocities in war because it would not be in the Spartan character (p.106), yet we have strong evidence that at least one Spartan commander, Clearchus, committed horrific atrocities in the city of Byzantium toward the end of the Peloponnesian War.

Hutchinson’s chronological approach allows for the discrepancies in modern theories to come to light, this is especially true in the area where Sparta really excels – the battle narratives. Hutchinson seems most content when describing the great battles of the hegemony, which can often be a neglected area during this period (Leuctra aside). Yet he falls foul of making overarching assumptions which do not conform to his own accounts. These include the affirmation that hoplite warfare was (almost) always fought on chosen, even ground – but gives a handful of examples throughout the book which contradict this, and he asserts the innovative military genius of Epaminondas – yet some of his ‘innovations’ have already been shown at Cunaxa (Appendix 7) and he himself was defeated twice in quick succession in 362 due to bad decision making (although this is a contentious point). Perhaps the greatest assertion Hodkinson makes is that the reduction in Spartan population resulted in a drop in military standards for their army. This is in contrast to his own brilliant account of Leuctra where the Spartans are shown to be effective fighters, and wanted to go to battle the next day even after the death of their king, as well as the Spartan success in the Tearless Battle, shortly after the ‘devastating’ defeat at Leuctra, and their resolve in defending Sparta against the Theban invasions through the 360’s.

I do not want to take away from what Hutchinson has achieved with Sparta. His use of varying sources, and overt assessment of them, is laudable and of great benefit for budding Laconophiles. His emphasis on the naval situation during the period (chapter 7), and the need for Sparta to dominate the Aegean, is often neglected by historians and he makes some important points in this regard.

The book’s maps and battle plans are clear, uncluttered, and placed within the relevant text, making them easy to follow – although one battle plan is missing a phase of the battle in question (#2), and another doesn’t seem to illustrate Hutchinson’s description on the placement of cavalry (#5). Sparta also takes time to reconstruct lesser known battles such as at Sardis (395), the Long Walls of Corinth (392), and Tegyra (375), which any military history enthusiast will appreciate.

The book is complimented by a selection of black and white photos, and section of references and a short bibliography which will serve as a good starting point for anyone who may be interested. It is a must read for anyone who wants a good, traditional, and reliable account of a fascinating period in Greek and Spartan history.

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