Helena Schrader's Reviews > Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta by Alfred S. Bradford
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Jun 30, 2012

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It is human nature that our reactions are often governed by expectations, so I’m willing to admit that my disappointment with Alfred S. Bradford’s history of Sparta, "Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom," was largely my own fault. The title and jacket description, not to mention Bradford’s qualifications as a professor of ancient history at the University of Oklahoma, led me to expect too much. I had hoped for a work that provided more insight on the role of Sparta’s kings in Sparta’s long history, perhaps an analysis of evolving constitutional conflict between the kings had other power centers in Spartan society (Gerousia, Assembly, Ephors), and certainly some descriptions and details about the personalities of Sparta’s most famous kings.

Instead, Bradford has done little more than collect the familiar stories told about Sparta from a wide range of sources and line them up in chronological order. Even this is a tall order, and Bradford is to be commended for having covered nearly a thousand years of history in just 226 pages without for a moment dropping the pace or losing direction. Also to be applauded is Bradford’s care to mention Sparta’s literary and artistic achievements, and his even-handed treatment of the Peloponnesian War. Altogether, his commentary improved in quality with the quality of his (later) sources.

Equally important, Bradford appears to pride himself on his accessibility, and this book is written in an light, modern style that will certainly make it just that to readers looking for an easy introduction to Spartan history. In fact, I suspect that Bradford’s intended audience was not fellow scholars, but rather young people coming to the topic of Sparta for the first time. If this is correct, then his book is a valuable contribution to Spartan history as a transition from comic books and fantasy to serious scholarly work on Sparta.

In this context, I found Bradford’s occasional personal comments perfectly appropriate and engaging. Throughout the book, I sensed his genuine interest in his topic and respect for his subjects. That in itself is very refreshing, and I came away feeling like I’d like to meet Bradford one day and spend an afternoon talking in an outdoor café on the main street of modern Sparti – exchanging views, arguing, laughing – and toasting the memory of the dead.

If am correct and Bradford was writing for an audience without previous knowledge and only superficial interest in Sparta, I image he did not want to “bore” his reader with conflicting theories. Nevertheless, I must admit I was put off by Bradford’s blithe disregard for differing opinions or uncertainty. Although much of the information Bradford presents is highly controversial, Bradford rarely even mentions alternative interpretations of the evidence, much less conflicting opinions.

Equally disturbing, Bradford boldly states his opinions as if they are indisputable fact. For example, he states on page 70 that “Ariston was extremely popular….” Unfortunately, Bradford tells me neither his ancient source for this information, nor does he explain his assessment by describing things Ariston did to win the love of his subjects. In fact, what he does tell us about Ariston is that he tricked his best friend into giving up his wife -- not what I would usually describe as a formula for winning the love and respect of ones subjects.

I was also disappointed by the near absence of analysis, at least in the early parts of the book. Again, let me take a couple of examples. On page 47 Bradford writes: “The Spartans were magnificent specimens, men and women both, the most handsome people in Greece, with the best-behaved children.” Really? All of them? That’s hard to believe, but I suppose it is theoretically possible. But then Bradford continues: “They knew right from wrong and they practiced honor without compromise.” That is little short of amazing, but OK -- except that nine pages later Bradford writes that “Chilon’s world was a world of injustice.” OK. So suddenly, within a hundred years or so, by Bradford’s own account, the Spartans have gone from being men who without exception practiced honor without compromise and all knew right from wrong, to a society full of injustice. How did that happen? Why? Again, I’m not saying this is impossible, but I expect a historian who makes assertions such as these to marshal his arguments and set them out coherently so the reader can follow his logic and come to the same conclusion.

Finally, I found it disconcerting that sources were not readily or consistently identified, even when direct quotes were made. With all due understanding for the desire to avoid cluttering a popular history with a lot of footnotes, I find the use of quotation marks or italics to indicate direct speech without providing a reference on the source incorrect. Just to give one random example, in Chapter 16, Bradford uses quotation marks to indicate verbatim citation of a speaker in no less than eight places, but provides sources for only two quotes in his “Notes.” What about the others? Where did they come and why didn’t they rate a proper citation?

For all my complaints, I confess I liked the book, particularly the conclusion, and for young adults it may be a good introduction to Sparta. However, I would recommend W.G. Forrest’s classic work “A History of Sparta: 950-192 BC,” or Nigel Kennel’s “Spartans: A New History,” before Bradford’s to anyone with a serious interest in Spartan history.

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom by Alfred S. Bradford
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message 1: by Kaye (new)

Kaye Stremke I find that such tripe comes from people who really don't know what they are talking about. Your book is everything that it is suppose to be. His remarks are shallow and petty. He has no real basis. For his ttemark o Me that they wish they would have thought of it. I think you did a great job

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