Beyond the Boundaries of Fantasia: An ancient imagining of the future of leadership

The Song Remains the Same

                                     Spartan Leadership: ideals and realities

In 425 BCE, 292 Spartans, beaten, surrounded and with little hope of support surrendered to Athenian forces on the island of Sphakteria. With their capitulation the image of that ideal Spartan warrior from Thermopylae was shattered. “The General impression,” writes Thucydides, “had been that Spartans would never surrender their arms whether because of hunger or any other form of compulsion; instead they would keep them to the last and die fighting as best they could” (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 4.40.1-2).

The event on the island of Sphakteria remains one of the more memorable moments in Spartan history because of the contradiction in the Spartan ethos, one that stands in sharp contrast to Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae. We could compare it to the shock that the king of Thebes Oedipus experiences when he realizes he is not the great savior of the city he had imagined himself to be but rather the source of its devastation (see "Stranger than Fiction").
But how do we separate fact from fiction when reading about ancient leadership, particularly when it comes to the Spartans? What tools can we use to analyze Spartan leadership when our sources are biased, ill-informed or struck by that same mirage of the Spartan warrior that has even captivated modern audiences?
Studying Spartan leadership is a wonderful entry into the world of historiography; we must find and use tools to discern the optics of the author and disentangle the truth from its presentation.
For similar attempts to reconstruct history as it was check out "Golden Years", "I Know What Boys Like", "Money Talks", and "Spirits in the Material World."
                    The goals of this module are to answer the following questions :
  1. How does context influence the relationship between followers and leaders?
  2. How do leaders balance the pressures of the political, social and military realities of their times with the pressures to serve as an ideal image of a culture’s ethos?
  3. How can we separate fact from fiction: that is, when leadership elicits strong reactions and audiences (writers, media, public) become biased or are poorly informed, what methods can we use to get closer to the truth? How close can we actually get?


This Steps in this Module:

This module will take us through the following stages as we begin to untangle the complexities of Spartan leadership in the fifth century: In step 1, we will examine the surrender of the Spartan forces at Sphakteria and how political realities and context influences leadership and followership. In step 2, we study the Spartan warrior code from the primary sources and compare Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae to those leaders and followers at Sphakteria. We will also consider how modern and ancient authors represent Spartan leadership and what we can do to separate fact from fiction. In step 3, we will continue to examine the relationship between context, leaders and followers and use as our example the Spartan leader Brasidas. Finally, in Deeper Cuts, we will look at how two different writers measured the leadership of King Agesilaos II.

The Steps:

  1. Why surrender: what happened at Sphakteria?  [2:00]
  2. Leonidas at the "Gates of Fire"​ [2:00]
  3. Brasidas: Contextual Intelligence and Spartan Leadership [1:30]
  4. Deeper Cuts: “The Song remains the same:”  Agesilaos II  [1:30]
  5. Learn some Greek (and a little Latin)

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