Modern autocracies are benefiting from the Sparta spin.
In an EconTalk episode, Russ Roberts evoked a fascinating response from University of North Carolina historian Bret Devereaux when he asked why, considering that the Spartans were so evil by today’s standards and also mediocre at warfare, they’ve enjoyed such a positive legend:
The Spartans get really good press in our ancient sources. And part of the reason is who is writing our ancient sources and why. Our first set of sources about the Spartans–we’ll put Herodotus to the side for a second–our first big set of them are written by Athenians. Of course, Athens is the enemy of Sparta, and so you’d say, ‘These guys will be hostile.’ But, who writes history in Athens? It’s the elite. It is the wealthy class. People who, in a Greek city that was as unequal as Sparta, would be in charge. But Athens is a democracy. And so, these men must serve the people; and they’re terribly sore about it. And so, Sparta becomes the go-to comparison point for Athenian oligarchs to complain about the democracy. Much the same way, by the by, modern autocracies are the sort of go-to point for American technocrats to complain about the democracy. Whether that is left-wing or right-wing modern autocracies, one sees that tendency.
Sparta naturally gets good press from these fellows. Xenophon stands out sort-of in front of them. Xenophon is quite hostile to the Athenian democracy, and he’s very friendly with Sparta because he sees it–Sparta, after all, is a place where an aristocratic warrior sort-of fellow like Xenophon would be in charge. And the Spartans were in charge in their society in a way that no other Greek was.