Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta - A Review
By Owain Williams
Early studies had, as Hodkinson writes, a “superficiality of analysis” (2000, p. 1), as scholars treated all our available evidence as equally reliable accounts of Spartan society. As Flower notes, “A traditional approach to the study of Sparta is to attempt to give a comprehensive description of Spartan political, social, and educational institutions during the 5th century BC, by combining evidence from every period and from diverse authors, all of it taken more or less at face value” (2002, p. 192). Of course, earlier scholars, such as Starr, had recognised the flaws inherent in the earlier approach, writing that “We are, I fear, sometimes in danger of becoming Hellenistic rumor-mongering historians” (1965, p. 258). However, it is not until the 1980s that scholars, Hodkinson among them, begin to seriously conceive of alternative methods of study, one that which treats the sources individually, questioning their reliability, and dispelling with entrenched narratives.
Stephen Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta is the culmination of this movement in Spartan Studies, the first book-length study of Sparta utilising the new approach. Indeed, Hodkinson’s book continues to be the foundation from which modern studies of ancient, especially Classical, Sparta build upon. First published in 2000 as a hardback, it was published in paperback in 2009. Now, over ten year later, Bloomsbury has republished the book in paperback so a new generation of students of Spartan history can read this highly influential book. Of course, this does not mean we should leap at the chance to read this work. It is not a book for everyone.
First, it should be noted that this is not a new edition. Rather, it is simply a reprinting. The book has not been updated to account for the vast amount of work that has subsequently been undertaken in the more than 20 years since its first publication, including the author’s own work. Hodkinson certainly anticipated these later studies, for the kernels of many influential essays, such as Flower’s ‘The invention of tradition in classical and hellenistic Sparta’ (2002), can be found within this book. However, Hodkinson’s work has been expanded upon in many places. That is not to say that this book has been replaced. It remains one of the few book-length treatments of Spartan society.
It should be noted, however, that this book is not a comprehensive study of each element of Spartan society, from the agoge to the syssitia and the perioikoi, that one might find in a textbook. Rather, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta is an examination of the pervasive idea in the communal-minded, egalitarian image of Classical Spartan society, ca. 550–350 BC, that pervaded earlier studies (and is still often mentioned in modern, popular discussions of Sparta). In this regard, Hodkinson undoubtedly succeeds. Marshalling an impressive amount of evidence, both literary and archaeological, Hodkinson systematically studies various aspects of Spartan society and carefully demonstrates just how central wealth was to Sparta and how economically stratified the body of Spartan citizens was. The book begins (ch. 1) with an overview of the development of the image of egalitarian Sparta in modern thought, from Thomas More’s Utopia to studies of the 20th century, clearly identifying Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus as the source of this idea. Hodkinson then goes on to trace the development of the same idea in the ancient sources (ch. 2), from Herodotus to Plutarch, with the latter receiving the largest treatment of any source, for “the vast bulk of the surviving post-classical evidence concerning Spartan society has come down to us in the writings of Plutarch” (Hodkinson, 2000, pp. 37–38). In these two chapters, Hodkinson effectively dismantles the image of an egalitarian Sparta, demonstrating how this idea was born in the third-century reforms in Sparta and was not the reality for Classical Sparta.
Consequently, having established that the idea of egalitarian Sparta was a third-century fiction, Hodkinson devotes the rest of the book to examining different elements of Spartan society, focusing on how the acquisition and expenditure of wealth was utilised. Of course, given the centrality of wealth to Spartan society, with Spartan citizenship being reliant upon an individual’s ability to provide a minimum monthly contribution of the produce of their estates to the syssitia, or common messes (Aristotle, Politics 1271a26–37), as Hodkinson notes, “In studying property and wealth, one is consequently penetrating into almost every facet of Spartan life” (2000, p. 4). Thus, Hodkinson’s analysis encompasses a wide variety of areas of Spartan society, from the communal upbringing to the army and the status of women, all the while keeping a tight focus on wealth and property in Spartan society.
Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, however, is not without its flaws. There are minor editing errors throughout the book, such as a frequent flip-flopping between the endings –ise and –ize and a lack of indentation at the beginning of some paragraphs, especially when the text was wrapping around an image. It should be noted that these are inconsequential for the quality of the scholarship presented.
Throughout the book, Hodkinson’s analysis is nearly airtight with every possible avenue of interpretation accounted for. There are, however, moments where Hodkinson’s work stumbles. The perioikoi, for example, the free but unenfranchised citizens of Lakedaimon, the state which Sparta headed, are not discussed in any great detail. Of course, they are hardly central to the discussion of wealth in Spartan society, not being Spartans themselves, but three were moments when they seem to have been overlooked, such as in Hodkinson’s calculations of available land for Spartan cultivation.
There is a similar seeming lack of care in Hodkinson’s translation of homoioi, the name that the Spartans gave for themselves. Traditionally, homoioi is translated as ‘Peers’, as Hodkinson does so, giving it a meaning of equality. However, homoioi is best translated as ‘the similars’ (Flower, 2002, p. 197) or ‘those alike’ (Murray, 1993, p. 175). Considering just how central the idea of economic stratification within the Spartan citizen body is to Hodkinson’s argument, it is strange that he did not address this issue of translation and the assumption that the traditional translation is based upon.
The biggest weakness of Hodkinson’s work, though, is his treatment of the Helots. Much of his analysis is sound, such as that of the status of the Helots (although there is no mention of the Tainaron inscriptions, which are possible records of manumission) and the Spartans’ use of sharecropping to gather the produce from their Helot-worked estates. Yet there are occasions where Hodkinson’s analysis of helotage is somewhat shaky. For example, he seems to suggest that because the Helots who were permitted to leave Spartan territory did so “with their children and their wives” (Thucydides, 1.103), then Helot families “were recognised by the polis” (2000, p. 116). There is nothing to suggest that there was a de jure recognition of Helot families by the Spartans in this passage, rather it simply attests to the existence of de facto Helot families. Indeed, Hodkinson suggests that Spartans could be moved about a Spartan’s various landholdings or even sold. It is hard to imagine a Spartan would be concerned with honouring Helot familial groups in such a scenario. Another example is his attempt to calculate the Helot population using Herodotus’ ratio of seven Helots to one Spartan at Plataea (9.10, 28–29). Hodkinson accepts this ratio rather uncritically, not entertaining the idea that it could be a generalising statement nor acknowledging that there is no way to know if this ratio was applicable to the number of Helots left within Spartan territory, given that this is the only example of any kind of data for Helot population numbers.
Despite these issues, this is an incredibly impressive work of scholarship. Its subject matter can make the reading somewhat dense at times, given the necessity to scrutinise every piece of evidence in meticulous detail. However, Hodkinson’s argument throughout is solid and his conclusions are convincing. Reading this book, it is obvious why it was so transformative and how it remains a foundational work. That said, I would not recommend this book for general readers. It is not written as an introductory work, but for readers familiar with the evidence for Classical Sparta. For readers who are well-versed in Classical Sparta, however, this book is eye-opening.
M. Flower, ‘The invention of tradition in classical and hellenistic Sparta’, in A. Powell and S. Hodkinson (eds.) Sparta: Beyond the Mirage (2002, Swansea), 191–219.
S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Swansea, 2000).
O. Murray, Early Greece. Second Edition (London, 1993).
C.G. Starr, ‘The Credibility of Early Spartan History’, Historia 14 (1965), 257–272.