An Interview with Alina Nowicka-Jeżowa by Przemysław Kaniecki. Before the Nineteenth Century: Shaping the Stereotype of Sparta in Old Polish Literature (summary)

(Rozmowa z Aliną Nowicką-Jeżową. Przed wiekiem XIX. Kształtowanie się stereotypu Sparty w literaturze staropolskiej, in: Sparta w kulturze polskiej, vol. 2, Warszawa 2015, Wydział Artes Liberales UW, SubLupa, p. 11-28).

In the conversation, Spartan themes in Old Polish literature are presented and discussed in the context of European and Polish interests in antiquity during the Renaissance and Baroque. Compared to numerous and varied references to Greek culture, in the Polish Renaissance Spartan themes appear rarely, mainly on the occasion of legal and martial deliberations. Sparta is presented as an exemplary state of law (A. Frycz Modrzewski, K. Siemek). The references establish a model of a citizen who serves the fatherland according to its needs, as an orator, farmer, victorious fighter, or a dictator. One of Jan Kochanowski’s epigrams sets the tone for similar 17th-century poems as it pays tribute to the bravery of Lacedaemonian sons, fighting heroically in the defense of the fatherland. In this short epigram it is also suggested that Sparta should be distinguished from other poleis since it is the homeland of invincible soldiers.

Greek cities that appear in Old Polish poetry turn into various literary topoi. The progressing regionalization of the Greek construct may be connected to the sensitivity of the 17th-century readers to “little fatherlands”.

In the 17th century, when Sarmatism shifted its focus from intellectual to military virtues, the reception of Sparta intensified as the martial themes focused on Sparta and the knightly ethos was exemplified in Spartan aphorisms. In the first half of the century, references to Sparta were of optimist overtone, while after the consecutive disasters of the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, the themes of martyrdom started to dominate. The sanctification of Thermopylae becomes an ideologically important discovery. It should be noticed, however, that Thermopylae is described as a place of glorious death as early as in the 16th century. Similarly, the model of the Polish mother, which is based on associations with Sparta, is earlier than it is typically assumed: while usually connected to romanticism, it is in fact an integral part of the Sarmatian construct and was disseminated in the 17th century.

In Old Polish literature a positive attitude towards Sparta predominates. The fact that Sparta was used as a metonymy for the fatherland, i.e. the Polish Commonwealth, expresses the extent to which Spartan imagery adhered to the patriotic paradigm. The main asset of the Spartan stereotype – a vision of Sparta as a state of law, pure mores, and obedient patriotism – was its axiological aspect. In this ideology an educational project was rooted, based on the virtues most precious for the Polish nobility: the sacrifice of life in a heroic battle in defense of the fatherland, the ethos of family (with the most important role of the mother), and the dignity of everyday life (Sarbiewski: decorum consuetudinis). Moralization that referred to the vision of Sparta easily merged into Old Polish political rhetoric, which used mainly ethical, not pragmatic discourse. Moreover, the example of Sparta became more suggestive as the splendor of the Polish Commonwealth faded. References to the successes of the Roman Empire became painful, and the eternal glory of the Athenian ingenuity did not provide a fruitful context for the citizens of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yet, the tragedy that took place in the Thermopylae passage brought consolation and compensation in the 17th century, as well as later on.