Boris Johnson recently delved into the annals of ancient history to create a spurious argument against the control of immigration. He cited the Spartans and the Athenians claiming that Sparta had declined because it sent people away and Athens prospered because it let people in.
According to my recollection of Hellenic history this misrepresents the facts of the ancient past to make a flawed, 21st Century political point. Sparta was for several centuries the pre-eminent military power in ancient Greece. In the protracted Peloponnesian War of the 5th Century BC it was Sparta which decisively defeated Athens.
Despite its military prowess and this great victory Sparta declined over the succeeding two centuries. This was not because of an anti-immigrant policy but because it operated a highly stratified society and fought a series of aggressive and costly wars.
Sparta employed many thousands of slaves known as helots who were badly treated even by the standards of ancient times. Intermarriage between Spartans and helots – and indeed with anyone who was not regarded as of pure Spartan blood – was comprehensively forbidden. There was therefore virtually no infusion of new blood into the Spartan caste. This lead inexorably to a decline in the quantity and quality of Spartan warriors and the eclipse of Spartan military might. At the height of its powers Sparta could call on warriors in their thousands. At its demise it could muster no more than a few hundred.
This was nothing to do with policy on immigration but everything to do with a long standing, rigid caste structure which fatally weakened the Spartan state. This was the polar opposite of the open and measured approach taken by the British during our own long development as a nation state – a tradition which the policies of the last Labour Government and the EU’s blind insistence on freedom of movement have woefully undermined .
I hesitate to challenge a classically educated scholar such as Boris Johnson but on this occasion he has allowed the short term demands of a political point to compromise the facts of recorded history.