‘An Israeli Sparta’ — from Finkelstein to Hecataeus

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Pausanias, victor of Plataea. The author was told at school that without him we’d all be sitting on mats learning Persian

‘An Israeli Sparta’: A pungent phrase, and a long tradition, from Finkelstein to Hecataeus

The pungency of Norman Finkelstein’s phrase ‘an Israeli Sparta, beholden to American power’ has struck many readers and came powerfully back to me when I read a recent exchange on the subject of Sparta (on this site, between our colleagues Shmuel and Obsidian).  The phrase recalls an ideology – I’ll call it ‘the spirit of Plataea’, after Sparta’s greatest victory–which links the ancient and the modern world, more specifically the ancient and the modern Middle East. 

The spirit of Plataea is somewhat conflicted, half proclaiming that the Western or free world needs the sword and shield of an elite military nation, half that such elitism is something that we can well do without. The spirit of Plataea moved and morphed into the spirit first of Ptolemaic Alexandria then of Hasmonean Jerusalem.  In this context the name of Hecataeus of Abdera, principal historian to Ptolemy ‘Saviour’ and first interpreter of the Jewish nation to the Greeks, deserves to be remembered. It was he who around 300 BCE opened the way to interpreting the Jews as the new Spartans.

Finkelstein recalls Hannah Arendt writing in 1948 of the Zionists, in their ‘degeneracy’, becoming one of the ‘warrior tribes of whose possibilities and importance history has informed us since the days of Sparta’.  Her words too are conflicted, seeming to recognise that the Spartans are among the heroes of the West and that the Spartan way brings great allure as well as great danger.  Arendt in her turn alludes to Leo Strauss, who in his 1923 obituary/hatchet job on ‘The Zionism of Max Nordau’ reproaches Nordau for never quite admitting that, as more ‘manly’ principles replaced outdated idealism, Jewish sympathy for Sparta’s victims must give way to fellow-feeling for the Spartans themselves. There was much of the Hasmonean spirit in Strauss.

The militaristic, in fact Spartan-influenced, ideology of the Hasmoneans – that ism of the last two centuries BCE – has been discussed here on Mondoweiss, mainly with reference to Purim, by David Shasha (December 2010) and Avigail Abarbanel (December 2012).

I Maccabees was written around 100 BCE to support the Hasmonean regime in the warm, warlike glow of the highly successful reign of John Hyrcanus.  The most startlingly plain statements of Spartan-Jewish fraternity appear I Macc 12 and 14, written around 100, to be echoed later by Josephus.  But the theme had begun with Hecataeus, who must have been rallying the different ethnic groups of Alexandria around Ptolemy Saviour and for that purpose conversed with Alexandrian Jews, who seem to have imparted good but sketchy information and tended to tell him what he wanted, as Ptolemy’s man, to hear.


‘We find in our books that the Spartans and the Jews are brothers of Abraham’s stock’ wrote Areus, King of Sparta, according to I Macc, in a letter to Oniah the High Priest around 265 BCE.  The letter was treasured, so that in 143 an embassy, commissioned by Jonathan the High Priest (an office now in Maccabean/Hasmonean hands, kingship accruing later) to visit Rome and Sparta, proclaimed friendship in Rome, in Sparta rather more.  They read a letter to the Spartans, reminding them that the Jews ‘regarded them as brothers and held them in their prayers’. Shortly afterwards, the Spartans sent a reply, the third of the series, in appropriate terms.

The idea of a Jewish-Spartan link was not just a passing fad of King John’s time – Jan Bremmer, writing in Abraham, the Nations and the Hagarites (ed. Martin Goodman, 2010) notes that the idea was strong enough for a distinguished rabbinic family of later times to call itself ‘Ben-Lakonia’ – ‘Spartason’ – from ‘Laconia’, Sparta’s other name. The sinister adventurer Eurycles burrowed deep into the intrigues of Herod’s family.  Josephus (Wars, I, 26) makes it seem as if the fraternal way in which Eurycles was received was rather natural, just because he was a Spartan.

Erich Gruen (Hellenistic Constructs 1997) remarks on a tendency in the late twentieth century to give some credit to the Three Letters story.  However, his own argument that it is a complete fabrication is completely convincing – his next point, that the fabrication was purely Jewish, less so.


On top in Sparta stood the ultra-militaristic ‘Spartiates’, depending on the labour of a complex array of lesser inhabitants, including ‘slight inferiors’, whose status was maddening.  All of these would, suggests Xenophon, reporting (Hellenica, III,3) on a conspiracy led by an Inferior, ‘willingly have eaten the Spartiates raw’.  On the lowest rung came the ‘helots’ of nearby Messenia, which had been Spartan-occupied territory for centuries, even though the first Spartan attack had been repelled by the hero Aristodemus.

Spartan royalty was born to lead armies.  They claimed descent from Danaus, who had established his kingdom in Greece after massacring the princes of Egypt.  At Plataea Prince Pausanias, facing the Iranians, perceived that he had, after long and tense manoeuvres, placed his men just right for the necessary charge through a storm of arrows.  Like a true Spartan, he used theatre as well as tactics, planting his command post in front of a temple, making a solemn sacrifice and offering a final prayer in the seconds before his glittering phalanx, long hair flying, went into action, wall of steel spears against wall of wicker shields.  Two lines of heroic propaganda emerged: first that only the Spartan military elite could have achieved such things, second that eastern emperors and their slave soldiers can never match up to Western men who are invincible not through militarism but through that love of freedom that we all cherish.  These conflicting lines of thought form the spirit of Plataea which still influences our own idea of civilisations in conflict.

The Spartans eventually, after a century of victories, became complacent and let other cities get ahead with new military tactics and technology: hence the startling victory of the Thebans at Leuctra in July 371 with massive loss of life among the Spartiate elite.  Messenia was liberated soon after.

That one hot July day reduced Sparta from great power to regional power, eventually to be overcome by the superior numbers, mercenary soldiers and foreign alliances of a federation of lesser cities, the Achaean League.  In 192 Sparta’s independent existence was ended.  But the Spartans were never eaten raw, as Xenophon had feared. Sparta had a lively afterlife, particularly when Achaea became a Roman province after 146.  The theatre of the old order long flourished – bloody military initiation rituals were re-enacted for tourists. It helped that Sparta’s liberated women had a great reputation: erotically for mud wrestling and, more spiritually, for performing the graceful, mysteriously religious lyrics of Alcman and others.  Behind the city and the high-end tourist trap lay something much more serious, a mighty reputation for saving the Western world in its darkest hour.  This was a baton worth picking up and appropriating as soon as the Spartans themselves had to let it go.

Over in Jerusalem, at the dawn of the Hasmonean era around 170, one of the contenders for High Priesthood was called by the Spartan royal name of Menelaus.  This Menelaus must have been born and named in an important Jerusalem family just as Sparta was in sharp decline, as must his rival Jason.  This Jason eventually sought refuge in Sparta ‘because of the family relationship’, according to II Macc 5.  So the idea that the mighty men of Jerusalem should be part of the afterlife of Sparta must have arisen, at least vaguely and wishfully, almost immediately that the old Sparta ceased to be independent. 

Jewish and Spartan thought ran in some respects on parallel lines.  Had the Messenians, so long subjected, displeased the gods? In pro-Spartan stories (Pausanias’ Description of GreeceBook IV), they are duly stereotyped as rash, prone to shocking extremes, including terrorism in the later, more ‘historical’ phases.  In the earlier, more ‘mythical’ phase Aristodemus defends his citadel by desperate resort to abominable magic, sacrificing his own daughter to release supernatural forces against the Spartans. Similarly Mesha the Moabite (II Kings 3) sacrifices his son ‘against the wall’ of his citadel and so released ‘great wrath’ on the Israelites: this, the first crack in the power of the great but suspect dynasty of Samaria, is achieved by an enemy using abominable means.  Thus we have Greek and Jewish versions, probably independently created, of the idea that though imperialists who conquer can be questionable, terrorists who resist can be demonic. Moreover, the theme of endless war crops up both with Sparta against Messenia and with Israel against Amalek. The unending status of the Messenian War was what justified the terrifying ‘Krypteia’ counter-terrorism system, whereby young Spartans infiltrated Messenian villages to detect and target-kill potential resisters.   Ideas for our times!

It may be a coincidence that the distinctively Spartan word for a system of education, ‘agoge’, so much resembles ‘synagogue’, the word for a place where Judaism is taught: or there may have been some cultural influence.


‘Abominable sacrifice’ is one of many themes common to Israelite and Spartan stories – ancient stories weave in and out of each other in all sorts of baffling ways.  The theme of flight from Egypt and vengeance on Egyptian pursuers is common to the stories of Moses and of Danaus.  Gershon Hepner in his adventurous study of Israelite identity politics Legal Friction (2009, p. 518) countenances the idea of a link between Danaus and the Israelite tribe of Dan and even between the ‘Dinah’ of Genesis and the ‘Danaids’ of Greek myth.  Samson sprang from the tribe of Dan: which is intriguing because the Spartiates, like Samson, favoured long hair.

It is still, for all that, inconceivable that a Spartan king in 265 would have proclaimed that he was of Abraham’s race: as Gruen argues, no one in Greece had heard of Abraham then. But even by 265 Hecataeus and others were sowing seed that would flower by 100 in the claims of I Macc.

Hecataeus claimed that Moses and Danaus were linked in religion, presumably noting and probably over-interpreting some common elements in their stories.  Both, he says,were driven from Egypt in the same outbreak of religious hostility in time of plague.  Moses, ‘a wise and courageous’ leader and lawgiver, took a mixed bag of foreigners in Egypt and from them forged (this story leaves no room for Abraham!) the new Jewish nation. ‘At the end of their laws’, says Hecataeus, seeming to show knowledge of Deuteronomy 29: 1, ‘it is even written that Moses spoke these things having heard them from God’.   Bremmer notes this sign of authenticity and also notes that Hecataeus shows Moses calling for rigorous military training of Jewish youth in Spartan fashion. Berthelot (Hecataeus and Jewish Misanthropy 2008) notes the general prevalence of Spartan imagery in the Hecataeus-based picture of the Jews.  Bremmer sees this as a way of accepting, while slightly regretting, the Jews’ stern separateness.  But I think it was more than this and must be connected with Hecataeus’ – and Ptolemy’s – political agenda.

The first level of that agenda was practical.  As the 200s, the golden Ptolemaic century, dawned Ptolemy Saviour needed all the support he could get, particularly for his legally dubious claim to Palestine. He surely needed reliable local forces, some perhaps trained to Spartan standards.  Here Jewish support must have been welcome and may have been crucial.  After all, Jewish military units had served great empires before: we know of the Jewish garrison in Iranian service around 400 at Elephantine on the remote Sudanese frontier.  Ptolemy would have been just as interested as his Iranian predecessors in this source of support and the Jewish leaders, perhaps High Priests, presumably just as interested in offering it.  Hecataeus makes a point of saying that the Jews were not desirous of a King of their own; their High Priest represented them: music to Ptolemy’s ears.  At this rate, the Jews are portrayed not just as ‘more Spartans’ but as ‘our Spartans’, not merely acceptable but useful, a part of the system. Hecataeus does not mention Sparta by name, but his linkage between Moses and Danaus, father of the Spartan kings, was surely what opened the way to the later Jewish elaboration of the Spartan theme in I Macc.  The Three Letters are, as per Gruen, a Jewish fabrication, but are made from Greek cloth.

If Jerusalem was a Spartan strong point useful to the Ptolemies, Alexandria, the Ptolemaic cultural centre, could offer something useful to the Jews in return. The Ptolemies are sometimes thought to have been patrons of the Septuagint, the Greek or Alexandrian version of the Scriptures produced in stages over the 200s, rather as King James was patron of the English Bible.  Though the actual degree of their involvement is highly unclear it would seem that any feature specifically introduced into this version would surely have been acceptable to them. One such feature is the sound of the first shots in the campaign by Jewish intellectuals, proceeding to this day, against the very names ‘Palestine/Palestinian/Philistine’.  From Judges onward, the point where the Philistines play a bigger part, their name disappears and the term ‘allophyloi’, ‘assorted foreigners’- the same word as Hecataeus uses of those whom Moses found in Egypt and made into Jews – is substituted.  The verse in I Chronicles 1 that fits the Palestinians into the genealogy of the human race is editorially omitted.  The words of Zephaniah 2: 5 form, in both language traditions, a curse on Canaan, called in Hebrew ‘land of the Philistines’, but become even darker and sharper if we read the Greek ‘land full of foreigners’. 

These words reflect a campaign, presumably supported by the Ptolemies, to classify the Jewish people of Palestine as authentic, others as intrusive.  Which connects with the claim that Moses led the newly-formed Jewish nation to an empty territory: Hecataeus effectively reaches the idea of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ two millennia ahead of everyone else.

These promotions of Jewish nationalism never amounted, as Gruen notes, to a rejection of international culture: the Jews of Alexandria were taking care to spread knowledge of Jewish ideas and were thus cementing the Jewish place within the international ‘Hellenistic’ system.  Even King John, whose forced conversions to Judaism a century later represented such a decisive step towards making Palestine Jewish in fact, called himself ‘philhellene’, i.e. a man of Greek culture. 

So on another level the legend, set to develop over three centuries from Hecataeus to I Macc and onward to Josephus, concerns two-way spiritual kinship, creating a zone of comfort within which both highly nationalist Jews and Ptolemaic Greeks, working at the cutting edge of Western culture, could accept each other at some expense to the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Thus Jews with their separate lives and their military prowess belonged intimately – just as the Spartans had belonged, for all their peculiar characteristics, in the earlier ‘classical’ Greek world – in the vibrant political and intellectual world of Alexandria and of Hellenism.


Friendly fraternity with another nation – ‘we read of you in our books; we hold you in our prayers’ – has been firmly claimed for Spartans and by Jews, but only with reference to each other: a remarkable fact of literary history.  The fiction was soon accepted (Antony Spawforth, Hellenistic Sparta and Rome (2002, p.100)) and treated as truth, bringing some Spartan glamour and allure to successive Jewish regimes.  It was to become a root both of philo- and of anti-Semitism.

Finkelstein’s pungent phrase shows the conflicted spirit of Plataea still at work in the West, with recurrent calls for a Spartan sword mingled with nagging uneasiness over the Spartan way.  In one of its moods the Plataean spirit makes us very uneasy over the Palestinian plight: we cherish a tradition of freedom.  Do free people hold other peoples in servitude?  In another mood the same spirit calls not just on the Israeli front-line elite but on all Western nations to concentrate on keeping their swords sharp and stabbing eastwards: thus it is the United States drone campaign that offers the most dramatic counterpart to the Spartan Krypteia, with the same potential to be endless.  The Spartans were a cultured people with a commitment to constitutional government who must sometimes have asked themselves whether there was a way, without ever finding one, out of an endless series of lawless killings.   They must have found, as we too may find, that each strike calls forth about as many new enemies as it kills existing ones and therefore makes another and yet another strike necessary.   Meanwhile the Israelis in Spartan style remind the Palestinians every day at every checkpoint of their maddening, much more than ‘slight’, inferiority.  Those on the receiving end of these Spartan treatments must of course desire in their turn to eat us raw.  That is the cost of following the still alluring Spartan way.  But as the situation changes the desire for revenge can fade, as the Spartans were lucky enough to find.  Similar luck may come to the modern West and Middle East. Let’s hope.

See also Peter Schafer, Judeophobia (1997), Jan Assmann, Moses the Eygptian (1999),  Lydia Langerwerf, No Freer than the Helots (2010).

Finkelstein’s words come from p. 24 of the 2001 Verso paperback edition of ‘The Holocaust Industry’

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