Ancient History And Modern Strategy: Paul Rahe On The Spartan Regime

Monday, January 23, 2017

A historian by training who has devoted his career to the study of republican political thought and self-government, Paul Rahe’s CV lists page after page of work on topics ranging from Thucydides to Jefferson and from the ephors to the Electoral College. When he writes about history, however, he does so with the modern strategist and political scientist in mind.

Rahe earned a PhD from Yale in ancient history after reading Litterae Humaniores at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s taught at Cornell, Franklin and Marshall College, and the University of Tulsa. Today he is a professor of history at Hillsdale College, where he holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in Western Heritage.

Rahe also spent the 2013/14 academic year at Hoover in the W. Glenn Campbell and Rita-Ricardo Campbell National Fellows Program, which lets scholars pause their primary academic commitments to pursue innovative research and publishing projects. Rahe took the opportunity to research grand strategy in the ancient world, forming the basis for a projected trilogy on that topic titled The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta.

Last year Rahe, who is still a close friend and colleague at Hoover, brought us up to speed on the first volume of that trilogy subtitled The Persian Challenge, which Yale University Press released in 2015. A second volume on The Athenian Challenge is forthcoming. In the interim Rahe has released a new prelude to the series titled The Spartan Regime, which he describes as “an attempt to see the Spartans as a whole.”

Rahe’s approach to that task clearly reflects his commitment to what he calls regime analysis. He argues that to understand a regime’s grand strategy—its actions and objectives in the international arena—you must understand its political structure and the social values that shape it. Regime analysis, according to Rahe, was a common thread in the work of historians in the ancient world. Yet he argues it’s been lost in the “realist” paradigm that dominates the thinking of contemporary strategists and international relations theorists. Rahe hopes The Spartan Regime will help “resurrect this largely forgotten political science and demonstrate its power.”

During a recent visit to the Hoover Institution for a conference of the Working Group on the Role of Military History in Contemporary Conflict, Rahe sat down to discuss regime analysis and how it relates to his new book. “Political communities don’t all seek interest understood as power,” said Rahe, who argues that realism falsely conceptualizes all regimes as identically driven by that imperative. “They’re not all power maximizers. Some are, some are not. Sparta wasn’t.”

“One moral of the story is that you cannot deal with Shi’ite Iran in the way you deal with commercial Britain,” he continued. “They’re very different. You can’t deal with Russia the way you deal with France.”

To be effective, strategy and policy must be tailored to the unique motivations and imperatives that drive the international behaviors of regimes. “You’ve got to know the history,” said Rahe. “You’ve got to know the culture. You’ve got to know their way of life and how they think of themselves.”

According to Rahe, failing to appreciate the diversity of political communities is skewing our perception of the ancient world as well. In a post at the Yale Books Unbound blog, Rahe argues that a “Spartan mirage,” a misrepresentation of the ancient society, has emerged as a result of modern historians mistrusting their ancient counterparts. Rahe isn’t so quick to dismiss the ancient sources.

“I believe what Aristotle, Plato, Xenophon, Herodotus, and Plutarch had to say about Sparta,” said Rahe. “And I think that the popularity of the notion that they’re not reliable is a reflection of a kind of incredulity that has to do with the fact that we are bourgeois. We are not military. We don’t understand the Spartans and we can’t believe they exist.”

“Sparta is a reminder to us that other peoples had an understanding of the good life very different from our own,” he explained. But he also stressed that if we look at military academies such as West Point or athletes volunteering for rigorous physical training and the threat of injury, we may see more Spartan in ourselves than we would have thought.

“This book’s likely to be controversial because it is appreciative of Sparta,” he said. “I don’t mean I prefer their way of life to ours. But I think it has its allure. . . . Have you ever heard of a football team named after the Athenians?”

“If I were to die and go up to heaven,” he joked, “I would give a lecture at a Michigan State game on what it means to be a Spartan. I’d probably bore the audience to death!”

If there is one lesson of Rahe’s recent work, it’s the crucial place of regime analysis in developing coherent strategy and good history. By applying this singular philosophy with all the skill and integrity of a first-rate historian, Rahe is offering new perspectives on the ancient Spartans and their counterparts that readers will be eager to absorb. At only 139 pages excluding notes and back matter, The Spartan Regime is an ideal place for them to start.

The Spartan Regime is available from or through Yale University Press. The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge, the first volume in Rahe’s projected trilogy, is also available through Amazon or Yale.

Rahe also recently authored a Hoover Institution essay titled A Future for NATO and the European Union. That essay is part of the new series, The Unraveling of the EU and NATO, sparked by the Working Group on Military History in Contemporary Conflict conference that he attended before this interview.