Actually, the Spartans Weren’t All That Great

Sci-fi author Myke Cole recently turned his hand to military history with his 2018 book Legion Versus Phalanx. In a follow-up volume, The Bronze Lie, he takes a skeptical look at the myth of ancient Sparta.

“I analyze Sparta’s complete military record, and prove that they were not the super-warriors that they’re reputed to be, and that most people believe they were based on Frank Miller’s hit comic 300, which was then made into an even bigger movie by Zack Snyder,” Cole says in Episode 407 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

The military record of ancient Sparta might seem like an academic curiosity, but Cole says the subject has taken on new urgency in the current cultural context. “The symbology of the Spartans as the world’s ultimate badasses has been appropriated by the extreme right,” he says. “They’re used as this cult-like symbol of the far right, and I show how disastrously unhealthy that is.”

Last year Cole addressed the issue in his New Republic article “The Sparta Fetish is a Cultural Cancer,” which generated a strong backlash. “It really underscored to me that I’m doing the right thing, that people feel so strongly about this myth of Spartan military supremacy,” he says. “It showed me that I’m really mining a vein here that needs to be explored. So it only made me dig in and want to push on with it.”

He hopes The Bronze Lie will reclaim Sparta from the far right, and show that everyone can draw lessons from the actual history.

“They were cowards just like we are, they were greedy just like we are, they showed fear just like we do, they lost just like we do, and they also were capable of heroics and great things,” he says. “I think flawed humans are so much easier to connect with and take inspiration from than this crazy idea of mythical super-warriors, which nobody ever was, let alone the Spartans.”

Listen to the complete interview with Myke Cole in Episode 407 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Myke cole on his novel Sixteenth Watch:

“One of the things I noticed with military science fiction is it’s focused almost exclusively on the war-fighting branches of military service—the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Army—and most importantly on their war-fighting functions. One of the things that’s been a big, instrumental part of my own military experience is that there’s a lot more to warriors than war. The military—especially now, but really always—does a lot of other stuff than fighting, and I’ve never seen a military science fiction book that emphasizes it. In the United States we have this unique military branch, the US Coast Guard, which I had the privilege of being an officer in. … And I thought that would be a really cool direction in which we could push military science fiction.”

Myke Cole on hosting the TV show Contact:

“The show is entertainment. They’re trying to tell a story, they’re trying to entertain. For every hour we shoot, maybe a minute makes it into the final cut, over which I have no input and no control. When you’re offered the lead in a major network television show, you say yes. I went into it as a hardened skeptic, I remained a hardened skeptic throughout the entire show, I am a hardened skeptic now. I certainly think we made a wonderful, incredibly entertaining show that a lot of people really enjoyed. I loved doing it, I loved working with everyone at Karga Seven and Discovery. It was a blast, I would do it again, I love doing television. But I am dead, dead on the line that we have not made contact with extraterrestrials.”

Myke Cole on his comic book Hundred Wolves:

“If the Ottomans had succeeded in taking Vienna, the argument can be made that the Ottoman Empire might have stretched eventually all the way to the shores of France, which is an amazing thing to contemplate. It was a touch-and-go thing. Vienna almost fell, and it was this unprecedented working together effort of a lot of different nations. It culminated in this charge of these Polish winged knights—and they really did wear fake wings on their backs back then, so it really was a charging army of angels, which is an incredible visual sight. And when you look at the visuals here—Turkish janissaries, Cossacks with what we would consider these punk rock hairdos, and these winged knights—the visuals are amazing, which is why I wanted to do it as a comic book.”

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