Spartan Myths


by  14 February 2013 originally published at London Review of Books Blog

In the early hours of Thursday 17 January, 26-year-old Shehzad Luqman rode his bicycle from the Peristeri suburb of Athens to the farmers’ market (or bakery, according to other reports) in Petralona, not far from the Acropolis, where he’d been working for several months. He was paid 20 euros a day, most of which he sent back to his family in Pakistan. He’d been in Greece for six years, and now had a ‘pink card’, granting him temporary residence. Not far from the market, he was knifed to death by two young Greek men on a motorbike. They then unscrewed their number plate, put it under the seat and drove calmly towards Syntagma Square.

A taxi driver who witnessed the incident took a note of their number plate and called the police. The men were arrested shortly afterwards and, according to press reports, their racist feelings became immediately clear. Their story was that Luqman blocked their way with his bike. The police raided their homes and found several folding knives and penknives, air rifles, metal pellets, slingshots, brass knuckles and, in the words of the police report, ‘50 pre-election leaflets of a certain political party’ – i.e. the far-right Golden Dawn, which won 18 seats with just under 7 per cent of the vote in last summer’s general election. Their current poll showing is at 10 to 12 per cent.

Two days later, the two men, one serving in the fire brigade and one unemployed, were charged with murder, but not racially motivated murder. Legislation on racially motivated crimes has been in place since 2008 but is very rarely acted on. The president of the Pakistani Community in Greece said that his members have been the victims of more than 800 attacks in the last six months. Under public pressure, the police gave a press conference announcing that they are launching a phone number citizens can call to report racist attacks. They made it clear, however, that immigrant callers who are found to be in Greece without legal documentation will be deported.

On 26 July 2008, at the Golden Dawn’s annual gathering at Thermopylae, one of the speakers said:

We look forward to the moment of great counter-attack, walking on the footsteps of ancient krypteia, which involved silent strikes, in the darkness and quietness of the night, against the city’s internal enemies.

Krypteia was the ancient Spartan rite of passage that supposedly involved going out at night armed with nothing but a knife and killing helots. The perceived militarism of ancient Spartan society has an obvious appeal for the Golden Dawn, as it did for the Third Reich and for Ioannis Metaxas, one of their heroes. It was during Metaxas’ regime, in 1939, that the site of Thermopylae was excavated. The dictator visited the dig, and the first report on it was published in his ideological mouthpiece, Neon Kratos (‘New State’).

Ancient historians have demonstrated time and again that though militarism was a significant factor in Spartan society, it was not the dominant one. Nor did the Spartans glorify their war dead in the way that some of their present-day admirers would have us believe. One of the Golden Dawn’s favourite mottos is ‘ή ταν ή επί τας’ (‘Either this [shield] or on it’), supposedly the Spartan mothers’ farewell to their sons who were departing for the battle: come back victorious or dead. But the phrase comes to us from later sources, of the Roman period. And in any case the classical Spartan dead were not brought back home for burial.

It’s not clear whether there is a direct connection between the Golden Dawn’s evocation of krypteia and the attack on and killing of immigrants. But the myth of Sparta is still more potent that it should be, with political implications, and still in urgent need of debunking.

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