You are here

A Companion to Sparta

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

A Companion to Sparta

Edited by Anton Powell (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World). 2 vols. Vol. 1, pp. xviii + 422; vol. 2, pp. xii + 383. $400. Wiley, Hoboken, N.J. 2018. ISBN 978-1-405-18869-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Nafissi states in the volume under review, “Like Lykourgos, Spartan history is a continuing ‘invention of tradition’ of which the book is the latest attempt” (94). The volume itself, however, to modify Nafissi’s statement, aims less to “invent” tradition than to grapple with the significance of, and the continued and growing interest in, the tradition of scholarship on Spartan history. At two volumes and over 800 pages, the Companion covers extensive ground with a combination of introductions to and in-depth discussions of topics as wide-ranging as Laconian quarries to the post-ancient reception of Sparta. Cartledge, in his introduction, notes that the Companion is a “worthy successor” (xiii) to the collections stemming from the Classical Press of Wales and edited by Powell and Hodkinson, and indeed, the scholarly line from those volumes to these is clear. The nationalities represented in the Companion are an eclectic mix, and that serves to introduce the reader to a broad theoretical underpinning of non-English-speaking (translated) European-American scholarship. This breadth is particularly visible in the four final papers of the collection, which focus on the reception of Sparta by European and American scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There is overlap in many of the chronologically based and thematically framed articles in the volume. Explicit conversation between articles—such as that seen between Hodkinson and Hansen in Sparta: Comparative Approaches (Swansea 2009), edited by Hodkinson—would have foregrounded these overlapping areas. Scholarship in the volume also highlights change within Sparta, although Powell notes (xvii), as do others, that the Spartans preferred to think of themselves as timeless and unchanging. Indeed, almost all the articles note the difficulty of dealing with Sparta through ancient literary sources since the literary sources are rarely Spartan or contemporary with what they discuss. The archaeology of Sparta and Laconia can be particularly helpful for interpreting those sources, adding new information and pathways of research or fleshing out earlier thoughts with new and different material, despite limits in accessible published materials. For the scope of this review, I concentrate on those articles that are explicitly archaeological.

In his overview of Spartan archaeology, Cavanagh paints in broad brushstrokes what we do know and where and when we are still lacking in evidence of material culture. His picture begins to demonstrate that the material culture of Sparta and Laconia approaches that of its neighbors, changing over time, despite literary claims of stasis, difference, and conservatism. To demonstrate this, he cites examples of diachronic change in grave construction and grave goods as well as in sanctuary dedications. As more excavation results are made available for the region, he notes that our understanding of ancient Sparta will continue to expand and get closer to an archaeology of the region.

Pipili’s and Prost’s articles use the artistic production of ancient Sparta as a proxy for other aspects of Laconian culture, retaining traditional boundaries for exploring their presumed mandate. Pipili highlights the appearance and use of figured pottery from excavated contexts at Laconian sites of the Archaic period. She also notes the ways in which newer deposits have changed older assumptions both about the painters and about the shapes that appear outside Laconia. The narrow spectrum of shapes of the figured pottery is also juxtaposed with the popular black-slip shapes. Further exploration of those relationships would be interesting since, as Pipili notes, a number of vessels have distinctly Laconian names in our ancient literary sources, implying a connection between Laconia and pot making.

Prost’s article centers on the appearance of a distinct artistic style within Laconian art, focusing largely on the Archaic and Classical periods. He then moves to a discussion of its contextual environment, the reconstruction of which he believes is problematic. He grapples briefly with the varying scholarly chronologies for the disappearance of artistic work in different materials and the implications this has for how we interpret the consumption, or not, of artistic production in Laconia. One note: a mistake on page 168 lists the throne of Athena rather than of Apollo at Amyklai.

Christien splits her contribution into two distinct sections: roads and quarries. In the former, her focus is on land routes and the ways in which movement over land is inscribed on the landscape throughout Laconia and into Spartiate-controlled territory for more than just the army. The importance of this embedded overland movement to Sparta, which scholars have previously acknowledged, serves as a balance against the sea movement usually considered for both Athens and Corinth. The latter part of the article focuses on Laconian quarries in use between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E. What Christien stresses is the variety of stone being quarried within Spartiate-controlled territory, combined with the restricted ways in which each type of stone is used. Higher-quality images for an article focused on the landscape would have been useful.

The individual scholars have been permitted some freedom to structure their contributions to the volume. This means that different papers have different citation systems and that some papers have summary scholarship at the end while others do not. The differences in the systems will not trouble advanced scholars, but for those unfamiliar with Sparta, or for undergraduate audiences in particular, having brief summaries of scholarship at the end of papers would have been helpful.

This volume will be a key resource both for scholars of Sparta and for those teaching advanced or focused classes on Sparta. The contributing scholars are thoughtful in their engagement with the literary sources and with previous scholarship. While there are certainly more avenues to pursue with the archaeology, especially considering the broad range of Spartan territory, it is a credit to these volumes that they suggest new paths to follow rather than demonstrating a need to retread those paths followed capably in earlier studies.

Elizabeth Langridge-Noti
University of California, Davis

Book Review of A Companion to Sparta, edited by Anton Powell

Reviewed by Elizabeth Langridge-Noti

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.langridgenoti

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.