Playing by the rules?

BRIHC Scholar George Harrold reviews a BRIHC lecture by Dr Andrew Bayliss of CAHA, on the importance of obedience in Spartan society.

A woman giving her shield

In his lecture, Dr Bayliss discussed the importance of obedience and of following rules in ancient Sparta. He began with the famous example of the Battle of Thermopylae, where Leonidas and three-hundred Spartans (alongside their more numerous yet oft-forgotten allies) bravely and resolutely withstood the invading Persian army. Dr Bayliss highlighted that the Spartans here resolved to stand their ground, not because of glory or honour, but due to their obedience in following their commands. Indeed, the epitaph on their burial mound at Thermopylae reads, “Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that · we lie here, obedient to their words” (Herodotus VII.228).

This example reflects a trend in our ancient sources, which provide many examples and anecdotes about Spartan obedience. These literary sources, which are mostly Athenian, seem to readily accept all these anecdotes, as have many modern scholars. Recently, however, there has been a surge of scholarship on Sparta, with many scholars questioning and doubting the accuracy and reliability of our sources.

Throughout the Classical Period, relations between Athens and Sparta tended to be hostile, and therefore we should retain a healthy dose of scepticism when considering the Athenian sources on Sparta. Dr Bayliss suggested that the stubbornly obedient Spartan portrayed in these Athenian sources was a negative stereotype, intended to contrast the daring courage of the Athenians with the dull obedience of the Spartans.

Andrew Bayliss delivering the lecture

This supposedly negative stereotype, however, seems to have been welcomed and promoted in Sparta. The Spartans were an isolated society, geographically and metaphorically, and they did not welcome foreigners. And it seems that the image of themselves which they chose to display to the external world was rather different from the internal reality.

These historiographical issues were acknowledged by Dr Bayliss, but he also stressed that rules were fundamental to Spartan society. In particular, the ancient historian Xenophon states that the agōgē – the strict Spartan education system for young boys – methodically instilled obedience. The intense competition between the boys, and the severe hardships endured by them (agōgē is the origin of the English word ‘agony’), were governed by strict rules that fostered conformity and obedience. Furthermore, the Spartans believed that their obedience to rules upheld their freedom, rather than hindered it.

Dr Bayliss concluded by arguing for the merits of understanding and interpreting Spartan society within the sociological model of a ‘total institution’. A total institution is an enclosed community that erodes self-autonomy and privacy and demands total loyalty, all accomplished through mutual surveillance. Sparta clearly fits this description, and it shares other features that are characteristic of total institutions, such as seclusion and collective ritualistic activities. Dr Bayliss demonstrated how using this ‘total institution’ model can explain the importance of obeying the rules in Spartan society.

George Harrold is a BRIHC Scholar with a particular interest in warfare in the ancient world, currently researching the Peloponnesian War.