'End Of Sparta' Mixes History With Invention While films have popularized some of the most important battles of ancient Greece, one of the most stunning military victories of all time, the Battle of Leuktra, has remained shrouded in mystery. In his first work of historical fiction, historian Victor Davis Hanson re-imagines the epic defeat.
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'End Of Sparta' Mixes History With Invention

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'End Of Sparta' Mixes History With Invention

'End Of Sparta' Mixes History With Invention

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Students of military tactics will remember Epaminondas as the originator of the oblique approach, who won a battle against the dreaded Spartans. Students of strategy will remember the Theban general as the commander who then won the war which ended Sparta's dominance of ancient Greece. And students of history will remember that he accomplished that not in a bloody assault or a lengthy siege, but by liberating Sparta's slaves.

In a departure, historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson has a new novel out set in the fourth century B.C. that tells that story through the eyes of a farmer who stands with Epaminondas in the Theban phalanx. It's called "The End of Sparta." And the author joins us from a studio at Stanford University, where he's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Victor, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Thank you for having me again, Neal.

CONAN: And you've told this story before in a book called "The Soul of Battle." Why again and why in a novel?

HANSON: Two reasons. We don't have - we have very little information. Xenophon, the really only extant source, contemporary source, didn't like Epaminondas for a variety of reasons and sort of Trotskyized him out of his narrative. Other contemporary historians are lost, Epirus. And the life of Plutarch - that was a great tragedy - was - of Epaminondas was lost as well. So we have some of the outlines, but I wanted to fill it up, so to speak.

And I wanted to do it in a different way than most novels I read about the ancient world. I wanted to immerse the reader in the philosophy, religion, linguistics, philology, material circumstances, farming, fighting, armor; every detail I could, and then write it in a style which an ancient Greek would have written it in, the syntax, the grammar. And so it was an experiment to sort of immerse somebody into the fourth century in Greece.

CONAN: I wanted to focus on a couple of those things. For one thing, we think of religion in Greece, and everybody knows about the gods of Olympus. You bring out a different kind of god, if you will, and that is a philosopher by the name of - well, a guy we remember mostly for being right about the right triangle.


HANSON: Yeah, the Pythagorean triangle. But in the fourth century, especially, and especially in Thebes, there's a movement to - for monotheism and for idealism. They did quirky things. They were vegetarians. They favored their left hands. But they were also idealists; equality of women is juxtaposed to either Asian cults or the traditional Olympian gods. And in this novel, the moral force that guides Epaminondas - and indeed the people around him - is this new god. I use that term. I use that living philosopher, but he's become a god, Pythagoras. And trying to assess what they're doing in moral terms I think would be somewhat familiar to a modern audience.

CONAN: Yet as we begin the novel, Melon, the - and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, but he's the farmer whose eyes we see the story unfold. He is a slave owner. That's hardly equality.

HANSON: Yes. And he's going to be told that by the Spartans because I'm trying to - I'm a little bit ambiguous about this, you see, because Sparta saved Greece at Thermopylae. Sparta was the traditional bulwark of Hellas. It had a constitutional government, oligarchic, but it was constitutional. And when it was destroyed - and it would be by Epaminondas and people like Melon, the central character - they could make an argument, well, you, too, have slaves, and they do throughout the novel. So what's so wrong with having serfs when you have slaves? And what's so good about democracy when democracy itself at Athens, for example, has over perhaps 20 to 40,000 slaves? And so - and this is personified in this weird character Lichas, who is pretty foul and vile, but he seems to say things that, in terms of being hypocritical, that sting the Thebans.

CONAN: I've seen Spartans speak lately in the film "300" and some of its parodies and that sort of thing. Lichas, though, I've never heard anybody speak like that. What - a little unbearable.

HANSON: Yeah, he is. And we don't really know too much about how Spartans speak because they didn't speak. That's where we get much. That's where we get the idea of laconic. And - but I try to go through ancient speeches and see how they would be recorded in the assembly, and I've done that most of my life. And we do know something about Spartan values, and they were laconic. They put a premium on valor in battle. And they had this sense that to make everybody equal would be to make people who were by nature not equal the same as people who were better by nature. It's a very foul concept to the modern mind, but to the Spartans they wanted to institutionalize hierarchy.

And what Epaminondas represented, at least to them, was the destruction of hierarchy, and they didn't like that at all. And they said it would be bad for Greece as a whole.

CONAN: Unleashing chaos upon the world. There is an order now. We enforce it. And if you destroy it, this ridiculous nonsense that all men and even women are equal, well, what comes after that?

HANSON: Yeah. It's especially a contemporary - we see things in the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan - and the idea that we're going to want to do good and we can do good, it requires a thought process that goes to the nth degree about what follows. And this is what the Thebans are discovering, that even though that Messenia is a wonderful free city and the Helots are amazingly energetic, today if you go to Greece and look at the Helot city of Messenia and the scant remains of Sparta, you can see that pent-up energy.

But there's some chaos. And Philip of Macedon, who's a character in the book, will take advantages of that. Well, Sparta just simply won't show up at Kyrenia. It's not able to, and that'll be...

CONAN: The battle at the end, yes.

HANSON: Yes, the battle to keep Greece free from Philip of Macedon and Alexander.

CONAN: Because oddly, one of the goals of the Pythagoreans was a single polis, all of Hellas, all of Greece as a single country, which is, in a perverse way, wrought out of iron by Philip.

HANSON: Yes, it was, although I think the vision of Epaminondas was sort of lead from behind. It was the idea that he was going to allow all of these city-states to become autonomous. And once they got the taste of democracy or constitutional government free of Sparta, they would have these enormous citadels at places like Mantinia and Megalopolis, still there, and then they would be a community of rivals, so to speak.

Whereas Philip, I think you can make the argument, was trying for propaganda purposes to unite all of Greece under his thumb and then say that the reason was they had to unite against Persia, where they wanted to go loot Babylon or something.

CONAN: Which his son then did, of course, Alexander.

HANSON: Yes, he did, even more so than the father ever imagined.

CONAN: Philip, of course, was a - as a youth the real Philip was indeed a hostage for a year in Thebes at the time of Epaminondas.

HANSON: He was. And people have argued in bits and pieces throughout classical literature that much of the Macedonian phalanx, some of its tactics, came from his stewardship as a young boy under the wings, so to speak, of Epaminondas. So in the book, he's sort of a weird little character that carries their shields, carries their baggage, but he's always gabbing and talking and noticing terrain. And at the end, when his tenure is up, he's a hostage.

He can be sent back. Then he sort of announces, you don't really know who I was, but I was - I'm heir to the king, and I learned a lot here, and you're not quite going to like what I learned.

CONAN: Because he learned to marry...

HANSON: Alexander the Great leveled Thebes, so that's sort of a motif in this character later.

CONAN: And married the Thebe in phalanx, if you will, with the Macedonian cavalry, yeah. The other part about it that I wanted to ask you about, in the course of this, you grew up on a farm...

HANSON: Yes. I live there today.

CONAN: ...in California and live there today. And in the course of writing this novel, you get to set up this sort of ideal farm on the slopes of Mount Helicon.

HANSON: I do. I wrote a book called "The Other Greeks," which was a history of Greek agriculture, so I knew the academic aspect in Greece. And then I lived in Greece three years, and I've hiked a lot over Mount Helicon, so I try to combine that with what I knew about it. And I wrote a book called "Fields without Dreams" and "Letters from an American Farmer."

So I tried to put all of that together into this one character. And then sort of a 19th century style, it's not very practical or common today, I guess in novels, but I wanted to have a flashback where he explains what it's like to be a farmer and what an ancient farmer thinks in producing food, and his values, his code, his protocols.

CONAN: And uses every microclimate, every variation and temperature on that hill, in part to put his vines up on trellises, I guess, and...

HANSON: Yes, it's a model farm. And he's very affluent, and he's sort of - the people in his household, many of them slaves or Pythagoreans, he's not quite a Pythagorean, but it's - there's a long tradition in Ancient Greece, Pythagorean-based agriculture and sophisticated agronomy, and he's all that. And he's very reluctant to give all that up and join Epaminondas. But as the novel progresses, he not only joins it, he becomes the most zealot of all the adherents of Epaminondas.

CONAN: Yet, at one point he says no farmer can actually make a living farming even though they say they do.

HANSON: Yeah. Well, that's one place...

CONAN: I heard your voice there, Victor.


HANSON: Yeah, although I should say raisin prices this year are sky high.

CONAN: That's a raisin farm you grew up on and indeed still live on in Fresno. And it was, of course, sort of interesting to see that. There is also the conflict between a society. At one point one of the characters describes the gods of Olympus as childlike and that this is moving into a more serious, more intellectually serious kind of theology. At the same time we are moving into a more intellectually serious form of warfare - enough with this sort of mob of the phalanx. One of your characters, Aeneas, says this is warfare as a science.

HANSON: Yes, you put it very well because one of the motifs of the novel is that modernism of the late 4th century is on the horizon, so almost everything is changing. The way that people make war, it's more science than honor. Catapults are on the horizon. Sophisticated tactics - Aeneas' tactics is one of the characters who represents - he's going to write a book on it, and he actually did do that. And then religion is changing. People want more than just big humans that don't die.

They want a moral sense. They want their gods to be better than men, not worse. And Pythagoras offers to this group of frenzied and idealistic Thebans something of transcendence in a way they don't find with traditional Olympian gods. And yet, that said, there's a lot of characters in the novel who say you're betraying the Olympians. We're gonna lose something. War is no longer the way it was. Likus(ph) and the Spartans are courageous, and they'd adjudicate fight by their muscle and their sword and spears, and that's honorable in a way. So there's a dichotomy there.

CONAN: We're talking with Victor Davis Hanson. His first novel is titled "The End of Sparta." In chapter six we find Melon on the frontlines in full battle with the Spartans. He wakes after a moment of darkness after the crash of the army. Spartans everywhere, Victor Davis Hanson writes, horsehair and braids and plate bronze and a sea of red tunics and wooden shields. The lambdas on their shields eyeing him.

You can read what happens next in an excerpt on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there is an eternal mystery, which you I don't think try to simplify. We still don't understand quite why it was that that Epaminondas wanted not merely to defeat the Spartans and drive them back into the Peloponnesus, but to destroy their culture once and for all, a culture that allowed them to prepare for warfare 24/7 because they did not have to grow their own food. They had that grown for them by their slaves, the Helots.

HANSON: You're absolutely right. And even classicists, the esteemed historian Buckler, who wrote a very good book "The Theban Hegemony," even our experts in the field are not quite sure what happened, because either A) he was a realpolitik Bismarckian character who said, you know what, free the Helots, these people, then they have no economic basis to support perennial training and then pretty soon they'll die in a vine. Or he was a - he really was an idealist, and he did get tired of the Peloponnesian War and he saw that he could do in two years what Athens could not do in 27. Athens had tried to free Helots, but they didn't pursue it very well at Pylos and he had studied that. So the modern scholarly community, because of the dearth of sources, isn't quite convinced one way or the other. And I try to bring both those elements, but I erred on the side that he was an idealist, I think.

CONAN: And you had to even invent what he looked like because there was an iron statue of him erected at one of the cities he created for the Helots, the Messenians, but it doesn't exist anymore.

HANSON: Yeah. It's one of the great tragedies of the ancient world that although Cicero said he was princeps Graecia, the foremost man of Greece, and I think up until the end of the Roman Empire most people thought that; today he's an obscure nobody. Although I noticed in one of the private letters of George Patton he said I want to aspire to be like Epaminondas. So he least knew who he was. But exactly, we don't know how he looked except throughout Plutarch's "Moralia" there's all sorts of little tidbits that suggest that as Pythagorean he did not eat much. He had only one cloak. He dress sparingly, and he embraced voluntarily - voluntarily he embraced poverty, so I tried to really bring that out in his appearance.

CONAN: There is also the fact that he his from Thebes, a city, as you say, we tend to look at ancient Greece, in the bifocal lens of Spartans and Athens.

HANSON: Absolutely. And that was one of the purposes I wrote it. Because with the "300," the novel, and "The Gates of Fire," a very good novel by Steven Pressfield, the emphasis has been on heroism and the martial order of Sparta and then we have a whole corpus of being Americans, of idealism, especially lately of Athens. But nobody quite has ever said, well, wait a minute, Thebes seems to be some transition between the discipline of Sparta and the freewheeling chaos of Athens because it was a democracy, but it was a democracy of conservative small landowners, and it was very powerful. And how could it do, as I said earlier, in two years what Athens couldn't do in 27? There had to be something about Thebans and Thebes and their form of government and their values, and that's sort of what I tried to bring out in the novel.

CONAN: It could beat Sparta at its own game. Sparta, though it was frustrated by Athens' maritime power, as long as its army was never defeated, it could not be defeated.

HANSON: Absolutely. In the speech whether to go down or not, debated at Thebes, Epaminondas at one point gets in front of the Athenian ambassadors and really tells them, you know, if you get in my way, I'm going to go up and dismantle the Propylaea on my way down to Sparta, so just be quiet. And then he tells everybody, they may look mean, they may be tough, but we are the better fighters, and they'll soon learn that, and that's sort of what - exactly what happened.

CONAN: And interestingly, too, we had Athens pre-eminent destroyed in the Peloponnesian War, though obviously Athens come back. Sparta then becomes preeminent, destroyed by Epaminondas. Thebes becomes preeminent, and it too will be destroyed?

HANSON: And that's - there are echoes of that in the book that — in the novel - that various characters at symposia and as they're walking back and as they're - they lose - many of the people get killed, and they're asking themselves as they go home, you know, Sparta, Athens, is it going to be us next and what's going to happen? And then, finally, when they hear Philip, this little baggage-carrier, claim that he's Philip of Macedon and what he's going to do to them, they start to worry about that. And finally the philosopher Archedemus says, don't worry. Each - we can only do each according to our station and the challenge of our own time, but he adds the theme that it's - death is looming for the Thebans as well.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, thanks very much and good luck with the novel.

HANSON: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His new book is "The End of Sparta." He joins us from a studio at Stanford.

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