The myth of Sparta and Athens-

by time news

When he visited it, and it was now a sleepy village under the relentless Greek sun, Joseph Goebbels declared that he felt like in a German city: because Nazi Germany was the new Sparta, the city of conquerors, able for centuries to preserve their purity racial, and therefore unbeatable, 6,000 citizens who had dominated over 360,000 helots. It was not the first time that the Spartan virtues were celebrated with such enthusiasm. For Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Spartans were the model of civil virtue, in terms of a sense of duty and self-sacrifice for the good of the community. Like Leonidas and the fourteenth century, ready to sacrifice themselves in order to defend their homeland from the barbarian invader. In Stalingrad, in the midst of the defeat, even Field Marshal Gring would have found nothing better than to recall the same example. After all, weren’t the Communists the new barbarians, ready to descend on Europe to destroy it? And never mind if the Germans had invaded, not the Russians. Traveler, if you go to Germany (in Sparta), tell them that you saw us fighting in Stalingrad (in Thermopylae), obedient to the law, for the safety of our people !.

The cover of Sparta and Athens. Authoritarianism and democracy by Eva Cantarella (pp. 200, euro 15) to be released on Tuesday 2 February, by Einaudi Stile libero

Not that Athens went any better, after all, as for embezzlement and misrepresentation: I love the Greeks, oh do I love the Greeks…, said Donald Trump a couple of years ago. He was the latest in a long line of American presidents and politicians, ready to praise the United States as the new Athens, the cradle of democracy and freedom. The idea had gained strength at the end of the Second World War, in an anti-Soviet function (always them, the Russians, this time identified with the Spartans). In more recent times it has been exploited to justify unfortunate initiatives. The comparison with Athens continually returns when discussing the need to export democracy to the world. Like Athens, says George W. Bush, America is not an imperial power, a liberating power. Never was a more clumsy example chosen when one thinks of how Athens treated allies: like cows to be milked continuously, wrote a historian a few years ago, so as to guarantee the city an uninterrupted influx of wealth.

Eva Cantarella (photo LaPresse)
Eva Cantarella (photo LaPresse)

It is not easy to tell about Sparta and Athens, without falling into stereotypes that are renewed from generation to generation. In Sparta and Athens. Authoritarianism and democracy (Einaudi Freestyle) Eva Cantarella does it with her usual elegance. The Spartan Mirage and the Athenian Miracle: Sparta, a city we know very little about, shrouded in the mists of a grandiose past – the city that remained faithful to its constitution for seven hundred years – but now lost. Athens, the city of miracles, as Ernest Renan wrote, of the Parthenon and democracy, a thing that existed only once, never seen before, unrepeatable later, with an eternal effect. Reality, as always, is more nuanced. Meanwhile, it is not true that culture was despised in Sparta. Like all Greeks, the importance of words as an instrument of power was clear to the Spartans. But speaking well means getting to the point, without getting lost like a lover unable to control himself (nothing worse for a Spartan): the laconic style, the art of enclosing a wealth of thought in a narrow turn of words. Only the power of Athenian propaganda managed to pass this exercise of control as a manifestation of ignorance. To which ignorance the women of Athens were condemned, whose training was solely aimed at preparing for marriage. There are not even anecdotes about Spartan women, the mysterious object par excellence. For Aristotle, even, the whole city was in their hands. Much more trivially, Sparta was the only city in which some form of education was also provided for women, insofar as they were considered an integral part of the civic project. Something unthinkable for the other Greeks, which had a price for: the cancellation of the private dimension. There is no room for emotional ties between mothers and children, in Sparta only the city counts (Plato would have remembered this in Republic.

Politically, however – and this is the most interesting thesis of the book – the two cities were much closer than we think: both engaged in power politics, and with a balanced organization of internal powers. The solidity of Sparta is always remembered, but also the democracy of Athens, the unstable government par excellence, the domain of a fickle and ignorant mass, was based on a system of counterweights and on an administrative machine capable of guaranteeing its functioning for a long time. And for those who want to question the difference between the two cities, all that remains is to turn to the usual Thucydides, the historian who most of all contributed to the creation of the myth of the two cities, with his account of the conflict – the so-called Peloponnesian war: 431- 404 a. C. – which has divided them forever in the Western imagination. the opposition between movement and stillness. Athens, the city leaning forward, unable to be satisfied and therefore always ready to dare; the city that will be lost for this desire to go further, but which owes its greatness to this desire to always go further. Sparta is the city that knows how to wait, because it is aware of its limits and the limits that hinder every human initiative; the city of strength which, like no other, has understood how weak we are, and which is why we will achieve victory. It is useless to ask who is right, because they both explain something about ourselves. They need each other, Sparta and Athens, and we need both.

January 30, 2021 (change January 30, 2021 | 21:31)

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