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The end of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:35

'No man a slave'

Very many years ago – I might still have been at school – when I first read about the exploits of the Theban statesman and general, Epaminondas and his masterly defeat of the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, I thought this would make a tremendous plot for a novel. I even thought, vainly, that I might write it myself.

No need now, as Hanson has written the perfect novel of the events around the Boeotian victory at Leuctra, truly one of history’s turning points, as it led to the immediate decline in Spartan fortunes and the end of the Spartan reputation for invincibility. I enjoyed this immensely.

The first third focuses on the night before the battle and the battle itself. Epaminondas and his supporters have the task of persuading thousands of part time farmer soldiers to change the martial habits of many lifetimes and adopt a new, potentially suicidal, strategy in the next day’s battle. It is Hanson’s genius to make his tactician an historical figure, the mercenary Aineias, who later wrote a partly surviving handbook on war strategy. The second third follows the victory and the death of the Spartan king, and the attempts of Epaminondas and other liberating democrats to persuade the Thebans to do something else never attempted before – an invasion of the Peloponnese and a direct attack on Sparta itself. The third part follows the invasion. Among these is the philosopher, Alcidamas, the author of the quotation at the head of this review.

Woven through the narrative and in fact at the centre of things is the story of a frontier family from the higher slopes of Mt Helikon and the part they play in these momentous events. Their story is moving, at times gruesome, but also inspiring, as they help mould the liberation of the Greek city states from the malign control of Sparta. At the same time, a minor character, a young hostage prince of Macedon, observes and learns and later returns to deny the Greeks once again their freedom.

Post script: It did occur to me that genuine Classicist though Hanson is, he may also have had another story to tell in this novel: frontier family, liberating democrats inspired by philosophical ideas, constant reference to the Spartans as Red Cloaks, the Spartan defence of their imperialistic behaviour as protection from other external forces – is this 371 BC, or is it in fact AD 1775 and another war of national independence?

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