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Brasidas and the Myth of the Un-Spartan Spartan

Matthew A. Sears

University of New Brunswick

The Spartan general Brasidas is one of the heroes of Thucydides’ History (Harley 1941; Daverio Rocchi 1985; Wylie 1992; Hornblower 1996: 38–61; Boëldieu-Trevet 1997; Hoffmann 2000; Howie 2005; Bosworth 2009; Nichols 2014: 78–106).  Aside from receiving a literary portrayal as a virtually Homeric figure, Brasidas seems to captivate Thucydides by being so unlike his fellow Spartans.  In fact, Brasidas’ energy, creativity, and adaptability place him firmly within Thucydides’ characterization of the Athenians in the early phases of the war, unlike the Spartans who are habitually hesitant, conservative, and easily flustered (Sears 2011).  If only more Spartans were like Brasidas, Thucydides implies, Sparta would defeat the Athenians handily – a notion with which many readers of Thucydides agree.  Yet, as this paper argues, Brasidas should be seen not as an “un-Spartan Spartan,” but rather a typical Spartan military leader.  The more one considers Archaic and Classical Greek history, the more Brasidas-figures one finds, to the point that Brasidas’ uniqueness vanishes.

The most influential statement on Brasidas’ un-Spartan characterization at the hands Thucydides comes from Westlake, who emphasizes Brasidas’ strategic boldness and reliance on effective diplomacy as he took the war to Athens’ allies in Thrace (Westlake 1968: 150).  Westlake seizes on the Brasidean un-Spartan Spartan as a type as he goes on to treat Gylippus as a “worthy successor to Brasidas” (Westlake 1968: 277-289; see also Westlake 1980).  In his thoughtful discussion of the literary Brasidas, however, Hornblower cautions in the case of another Brasidas successor, Clearidas, that “we cannot keep reduplicating Brasidas-types indefinitely or we will end with Brasidas as the conventional Spartan” (Hornblower 1996: 59).  This warning is repeated by Cartledge and Debnar in their own discussion of Gylippus (Cartledge and Debnar 2006: 581).  But both Hornblower and Cartledge and Debnar proceed to discuss their respective Brasidas-figures in any case, carefully reminding their readers that the careers of Clearidas and Gylippus are not exactly parallel to Brasidas’ but do share many similarities.  The ultimate successor of Brasidas was of course Lysander, who took the strategic policies and personal prestige of Brasidas to unheard of extremes.  Rawlings argues that Thucydides meant to parallel the two leaders, and had the historian survived to complete his work, he would have included a portrait of Lysander to mirror his famous one of Brasidas, if only to highlight the magnanimity of the latter as opposed to the arrogance of the former (Rawlings 1981: 234-243).  Brasidas sought to use his qualities for generally good purposes, even if setting a dangerous precedent.  Most important is the idea that Brasidas, by being an un-Spartan Spartan, paved the way for Lysander, the most un-Spartan Spartan of all.

This paper contends that Hornblower’s words of caution really point to an important and underappreciated truth, namely that Brasidas, though surely more formidable than many of his compatriots, was in fact a conventional Spartan, and not merely a harbinger of a new generation of leaders such as Lysander.  In the late sixth and early fifth centuries, for example, Sparta produced two leaders that behaved in many ways like Brasidas: Cleomenes and Pausanias.  Where Cleomenes established Spartan hegemony in the Peloponnese and made strides to extend it elsewhere, all while championing causes such as Greek freedom and (at times) anti-tyranny, Pausanias aimed at increasing Sparta’s – and his own – power across the Aegean.  Both figures met with decidedly mixed results, and their historical reputations have suffered a great deal with the benefit of hindsight (see Cawkwell 1993, especially for Cleomenes’ treatment by Herodotus).  Rather than seeing Cleomenes and Pausanias as aberrations, perhaps they should be grouped along with Brasidas, Clearidas, Gylippus, Lysander, and later Agesilaus as a common type of Spartan leader, one full of imperialistic ambitions and well versed in effective propaganda that was sometimes, but by no means always or even usually, kept in check by the more conservative elements of the Spartan government.

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Historiography and Identity

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