It was my first visit to Greece and I wanted to see Sparta. For years I had read about the heroic Spartans and I wanted to see what remained of their famous city, so I rented a car in Athens and drove out the Corinth road and across the deep gash of the Canal and into the Peloponnese. I had with me the very thick (almost 800-page) Blue Guide to Greece, whose information was more timeless than timely -- which meant that I was well-informed on local conditions two thousand years ago, if rather less so on current accommodations.
I drove over the mountains to Sparta. I didn't expect much there. Sparta alone of the great cities had no walls. Its infantry, it said, were its walls. An ancient had said that if all Greece were reduced to ruins that people would judge that Athens had been a great city but think that Sparta had been much less important than it actually was. And I had reminded myself not to expect modern Spartans to be clanking about in armor, a helmet pushed back on their head, or exercising in the nude or being carried back slain on their shield, so I was not disappointed when I found the place pleasant and unremarkable and not particularly warlike.
In a coffee shop across from a park I looked out on a group of Greek men sitting at a table and thought first of a vase painting of Ajax and Achilles leaning forward taking counsel, their helmet pushed back on their head and spear at their side, and then I saw these modern Spartans taking counsel, as present as cats. Later, in the park, I met a young woman as confident and self-possessed as the ancients had told us that Spartan women famously were.
In Athens, I had not noticed women driving cars, but here, in the socially-conservative Peloponnese, I noticed many of them. Perhaps social conservatism meant something different here, though this was some years ago and I am sure everywhere we are now more modern.
In a famous story it was told how, at the games at Olympia, an old man was struggling through the crowd of seated spectators and no one offered him a place to sit, but when he came to where the Spartans were sitting everyone jumped up to offer him their seat, which prompted someone to remark that all Greeks knew what was right, but only the Spartans actually did it. Others have pointed out that what we know about the Spartans is almost entirely based on what other Greeks said about them, as they themselves wrote little, and these others may have projected the virtues they felt absent from their own communities upon the Spartans. This is fine with me. I have no problem with Sparta as a construct of our imagination, the receptacle of our longings and our dreams of our better selves.