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Laconophiles are those who have a love of Lacedaemon or Sparta, in Laconia, and its culture and laws. Those who admire the Spartans praise their valor in war, their military success, their aristocratic and virtuous ways, the stable order of their political life and their constitution, with its tripartite mixed government. "Many of the noblest and best of the Athenians always considered the Spartan state nearly as an ideal theory realised in practice;..." [Mueller:Dorians II, 192].


Laconophilia began as a current of thought and feeling in Athens, after the Persian Wars. Some, like Cimon son of Miltiades, believed that Athens should ally with Sparta against the Persian Empire. Cimon persuaded the Athenians to send soldiers to aid Sparta, when the Helots revolted and fortified Mount Ithome. The Spartan sent the Athenians home again with thanks, lest the democratic Athenian ideas influence the Helots or the perioikoi.

Some Athenians, especially those who disliked commerce, preferred a closed society and the rule of the few, believed that Sparta was a better system than they had at Athens. Some went so far as to imitate Spartan manners: going around Athens long-haired and unwashed, like the Spartiates. (Of course, these categories overlapped; Cimon was representative of the Spartans at Athens, and named one of his sons Lacedaemonius.)

The extreme Laconophile oligarchs seized power in Athens in 404 BC, and held it for eleven months, with the assistance of a Spartan army. They are known as the Thirty Tyrants; they governed by exile, arbitrary arrests, and judicial murder.

In the Battle of Leuctra, in 371 BC, the Spartans were defeated. As a result of that single battle, Sparta's allies revolted, and the helots of Messenia were freed. After this, the Spartan economy became less able to support professional soldiers, and the inequalities between the supposedly Equal citizens increased.

As a result, the reputation of Sparta, either as a military success, or as a guide in domestic affairs, diminished greatly. One important group of Laconophiles remained, however.


Many (it is uncertain how many) of the young men who paid Socrates to teach them had been Laconophiles. One of them had been Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants; another was to fight with the Spartans against Athens (when Socrates was accused of corrupting the young, the jury was expected to remember this kind of thing). Yet another was Plato, Critias's nephew.

Greek philosophy, therefore, inherited a tradition of praising Sparta. This was only reinforced when Agis IV and Cleomenes III attempted to "restore the ancestral constitution" at Sparta, which no man then living had seen. This attempt ended with the collapse of the institutions of Lycurgus, and one Nabis established a tyranny in Laconia.

In later centuries, Greek philosophers, especially Platonists, would often describe Sparta as an ideal state, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money. These descriptions, of which Plutarch's is the most complete, vary in many details. Whole books have been written, arguing what parts of these utopias are the actual customs of Classical Sparta, what parts are Cleomenes' reconstructions, and what parts are sheer imagination.

(It became fashionable for the Romans to visit Lacedaemon and see the rites of Artemis Orthia, as a sort of tourist attraction - the nearest Greece had to offer to gladiatorial games.)

This tradition continued into the Renaissance; indeed into the nineteenth century. For example, John Aylmer compared the mixed government of Tudor England with the Spartan republic. He described "Lacedemonia, (sic) the noblest and best city governed that ever was"; and commended it to England. The Victorians explained the primitive and brutal conditions of the public schools and the Ivy League universities by citing the Spartan crypteia. Walter Pater wrote a prose-poem on the lovely singing of the Spartan youth. Meanwhile a new element had been added.

Mueller and the Dorians

The Greek Laconophiles praised the Spartans, not the whole Dorian race. In fact, it became part of the Laconophile tradition, as in Plutarch, that Lycurgus found the inherited, Dorian institutions of Sparta in the worst possible condition. After all, Argos, the traditional enemy of Sparta, was also a Dorian state; so were Corinth, Rhodes, and Syracuse, three of the most commercial states in Greece.

In 1824, however, Karl Otfried Müller wrote Die Dorier, a history of the Dorian "race". It has been described as a "thousand-page fantasia", and has dated badly; but this is not entirely Müller's fault. He wrote when archaeology did not yet exist as a science; comparative linguistics and source-criticism were just being established, and had not been applied to his problem.

Contrary views

Laconophilia is a tendency, not an absolute. None of the contemporaries of the Lycurgan Constitution praised Sparta without reservations, except the Spartans themselves.

Herodotus of Dorian Halicarnassus, consistently portrays the Spartans, except when actually facing battle, as rustic, hesitant, uncooperative, corrupt, and naïve. Plato had Socrates argue that a state which really followed the simple life would not need a warrior class; one which was luxurious and aggressive would need a group of philosophers, like Plato himself, to guide and deceive the guardians. Even Xenophon's encomium of the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians is not unalloyed praise.

Aristotle has a long passage (Politics II,9) criticizing the Spartans: the Helots keep rebelling; the Spartan women are luxurious; the magistrates (and especially the ephors) are irresponsible; reaching decisions by the loudest yell in the apella is silly; the wealth of the citizens is unequal (so that too many are losing the resources necessary to be a citizen and a hoplite); and the Spartiates let each other evade taxes, so the City is poor and the individual citizens greedy. (Above all, the Spartans know no other arts than war, so in peace they are incompetent and corrupt.) The Cretan institutions, he says, are even worse.

Even after the collapse, and idealization, of Sparta, Polybius wrote, "My object, then, in this digression is to make it manifest by actual facts that, for guarding their own country with absolute safety, and for preserving their own freedom, the legislation of Lycurgus was entirely sufficient; and for those who are content with these objects we must concede that there neither exists not ever has existed a constitution and civil order preferable to that of Sparta." (Histories VI, 50) Niccolò Machiavelli agreed that Sparta was noteworthy for her long and static existence; but for virtú and glory, Rome was much preferable (Discourses. I,6}

See also


Related Works

  • The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, Frank Turner, New Haven & London
  • The Victorians and Ancient Greece, R. Jenkyns, Oxford
  • The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, E. Rawson, Oxford,

  • Paideia, Werner Jaeger.
  • The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, Paul Cartledge,
  • Sparta, Paul Cartledge
  • The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race, Karl Otfried Müller, trans. fr. the German by Henry Tufnell, ESQ. & Georg Cornewall Lewis, ESQ., A.M., publisher: John Murray, London, 2nd ed. rev. 1839.
  • Dangerous Positions; Mixed Government, the Estates of the Realm, and the Making of the "Answer to the xix propositions", Michael Mendle, University of Alabama Press, 1985. .
  • The Greeks, H. D. F. Kitto, Pelican (div of Penguin Books, Ltd.), Middlesex, England, 1st 1951, 1970. pg

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