Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding Gorgo - "...only Spartan women give birth to sons."


If "with it or upon it" is the most famous quote attributed to Spartan women, the claim that only Spartan women "gave birth to men" is the second most famous. It is also materially different from the anonymous and vague versions of the "with-it-or-upon-it" quote.  First, it is specifically attributed to a real historical character (Queen Gorgo, the wife of King Leonidas of Thermopylae fame). Second, the context is explicit. According Plutarch, who recorded the sayings, Gorgo was asked by a woman from Athens "why it was that only Spartan women ruled their men." The greater detail and the fact that the exchange almost certainly took place in Athens (since Athenian women could rarely leave their homes much less their cities), increases the credibility of the quote and the probability that it was said -- if not by Gorgo -- by a real Spartan woman.

But what on earth does it mean? I've had many people dismiss the quip as "sheer nonsense." Yet the answer was far more than a witty retort; it was a profound commentary on the differences between Athenian and Spartan society. 
Readers need to keep in mind that at no time in Spartan history was Sparta “ruled” by women. Spartan women were hardly Amazons who scorned men and took to the battlefield themselves.  Spartan women could not vote in the Spartan Assembly, and they could not be elected to office, not the Gerousia, the ephorate, or other lesser positions. Every contemporary of Gorgo knew this, so the question was never meant to suggest Spartan women had political power, but rather that they had influence over their menfolk to an exceptional, indeed “unnatural,” degree.



As Gorgo’s answer likewise illuminates, Spartan women did not live separate, lesbian lives, disconnected and divorced from their male relations and focused on themselves.  The image of Spartan women living apart and satisfying their sexuality among themselves is a modern myth, based on the patently false misconception that Spartan males were “far away” “most” of the time.  In fact, ancient wars were short affairs and only conducted during the campaign season, so that Spartan husbands were never gone more than a few months of the year and that very rarely. (Not until the Peloponnesian war did Sparta campaign year after year; throughout the archaic period Sparta was at war only sporadically with many years of peace in between.) Furthermore, the barracks and messes at which Spartan men ate were much closer to the temples, markets and public buildings at which the women congregated than the work-places of most modern (commuting) husbands.

On the contrary, Spartan women viewed their role as completely integral and indeed traditional.  As Gorgo’s reply underscores, a Spartan woman’s principal contribution to society – like that of her Athenian counterpart – was to produce the next generation of (male) citizens.  There was nothing odd, offensive or sinister about respectable women in the ancient world identifying with the role of mother.  The idea that women might have other societal functions other than wives and mothers is a relatively new historical phenomenon and far from accepted in many parts of the world from Afghanistan to Africa.



As Gorgo so brilliantly summarizes the situation, the difference between Spartan women and the women in the rest of the ancient world was not one of a fundamentally different role, but rather a difference in the way men viewed that role.  

Athens was a virulently misogynous society. Its greatest philosophers viewed women as “permanent children” and the doctors attributed everything from stomach illness to asthma in women to a “wandering womb,” for which the best cure was sex (with the woman’s owner/husband of course.) Women could not inherit property, nor indeed control more money than was needed to purchase a bushel of grain. They were largely uneducated and almost all were illiterate, so it is hardly surprising that their educated, usually significantly older husbands considered them congenitally stupid. The discrepancy between the education and maturity of husbands and illiteracy and tender age of wives was aggravated by the fact that female children were fed less nutritious food in smaller quantities than their brothers.  They were also denied fresh air and any kind of exercise. The result was females stunted both physically and mentally, married as soon as they became sexually mature, and usually dead by the age of 30 or 35. In short, Athens' laws and customs condemned women to ignorance, stunted grown and an early grave – assuming they were allowed to live at all.



There is little doubt that in Athens far more female infants were exposed than males. As it was aptly put in an Athenian law case, even a poor man would raise a son, while even a rich man would expose a daughter. The archaeological evidence supports the historical record; Athens suffered from a severe demographic imbalance in favor of males, something that is most similar to sex ratios in China and India where the systematic murder of female infants (either as embryos through abortion or after birth through exposure or neglect) is still widespread.

Sparta did not suffer either from the misogyny that created the imbalance in the population or from the consequences. Furthermore, Spartan girls received the same food as their brothers, attended the same school as their brothers until puberty, receiving thereby not only the same level of education but the opportunity to exercise in the fresh air. Spartan law also prohibited the marriage of girls "before they were old enough to enjoy sex," yet encouraged men to marry before the age of thirty ensuring that there was a far smaller age difference between the partners in Spartan marriage than in Athenian ones.

Returning to Gorgo's retort, her wit was razor sharp in noting that it was Spartan society as a whole, but particularly the men who had created the Spartan constitution, that had enabled women to enjoy the freedoms they did. This is how I put this exchange n context in Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King:

Eukoline shoved her veil off her head and turned on Gorgo to ask in a tone that mixed disapproval with amazement, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule your men?” She did not mean it as a compliment.

“Because we are the only women who give birth to men!” Gorgo snapped back.

“As if I hadn’t given birth to two sons?” Eukoline retorted indignantly. “Athens has five times the number of citizens Sparta has!” she added proudly.

“Athens has 40,000 males who think that making clever speeches is the pinnacle of manliness.” All Gorgo’s pent-up anger at what she had seen since her arrival [in Athens] boiled over. “That’s why they are afraid to educate their daughters and keep their women in the dark ― physically and mentally!” Gorgo could not resist adding, “Sparta’s men prove their manhood with their spears and need not dismiss good advice just because it comes from the mouths of women!”


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Thursday, November 1, 2018

"With it or Upon it!" - Ruthless Mothers -- or Ruthless Propaganda?



Nothing has shaped the image of Spartan women in the popular imagination more than the alleged admonishment of Spartan mothers to their sons to return from war either with their shield or upon it. The image of brave mothers who would prefer to see their sons dead rather than disgraced has captured the imagination. Hollywood gave this supposed tradition a prominent place in the film “Three Hundred Spartans”, and Steven Pressfield eulogized Spartan mothers for this attitude in his blog on warriors. 

Yet there are a number of oddities about this stalwart feature of the popular view of Spartan society which suggest that it like so many aspects of conventional wisdom about Sparta may be a complete fabrication.

Let’s start by looking at the sources. Plutarch includes no less than seventeen “sayings” that he attributes to “Spartan women”, all of which appear to corroborate a widespread attitude among Spartan matrons consistent with the laconically expressed sentiment “with it or upon it”. In no less than three of these, fiercely patriotic mothers kill, with their own hands, cowardly sons who have failed to live up to their ideal. In others, the mothers revile their sons in insulting language for example, suggesting they crawl back into the womb. In their mildest form, these sayings portray matrons who have lost sons in battle cheerfully going about their business rather than grieving. In two, when a mother learns of the death of a son from another male relative (in one case a second son and in the other her brother), she suggests that he (the relative) join the dead. In one, a woman is even portrayed losing five sons in battle but announcing she is glad because the battle itself was won.

Aside from the fact that undoubtedly many of these sayings are simply different versions derived from the same original source, almost all are anonymous. I am always suspicious of anonymous sources regardless of context, and this fact alone makes me question the veracity of the sayings. Admittedly, since it was considered dishonorable for an (Athenian) woman to be talked about, one might argue that Plutarch did not name names (or his sources didn’t) out of respect for the women involved; but that does not explain why the cowardly sons chastised or murdered by their mothers much less the heroic sons whose deaths are not mourned are not identified. Surely there was no reason not to name cowards and heroes, since this would shame the former and honor the latter in future generations?

In addition to the issue of anonymity, the sayings lack any kind of detail that would enable them to be dated or otherwise put into context. This likewise detracts from their authenticity. They are all vague and generic, as if they are at best apocryphal or at worst bad fiction.

But the sayings are implausible for two concrete reasons as well. First, given the fact that Sparta fought most of her battles far from home, one wonders how the sons of these patriotic matrons managed not only to break the Spartan line and flee the battle, but also to escape the wrath of their comrades and the discipline of their officers? Presumably the Spartan army had very little tolerance for cowards, so the sons had to desert from the army altogether and sneak back to Lacedaemon to seek the aid of their mothers. Here, others sources tell us, they would be treated as “tremblers” and suffer civic sanctions. This begs the question of why any Spartan who failed to do his duty in war would risk being seen in Sparta at all and what they could possibly expect of their mothers?

Second, and even more telling against the probability that these sayings are genuine, is the simple fact that Spartans buried their dead near the field where they fell. This means that the last half of the famous saying “with it [your shield] or upon it” is utter nonsense. Sparta’s battle dead were not brought home on their shields, but as Nigel Kennel puts it in Spartans: A New History (p. 157), “served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project power”. No Spartan mother would have been unaware of this custom.

Turning from the issue of authenticity, let’s reflect more closely on the content of the sayings. At their best, the sayings portray a soldierly ideal of “do or die” being reinforced and shared even by that one element of any society that would be most easily forgiven for not supporting it: the mothers of soldiers. Telling a son in the abstract to return victorious or not at all is certainly not unique to Sparta. Patriotic mothers have allegedly done that in every society caught up in what the women believed to be a just war.

Yet the sayings collected by Plutarch go considerably further. They portray women who are so patriotic that they rejoice at the death of their sons, or tell surviving sons to follow the example of their dead brothers. Worse, in three cases the mothers are so fanatical as to kill their sons with their own hands. Is there anything appealing, attractive, or admirable about such creatures?

The answer is no and, I believe, that is exactly as it was intended to be. I believe these sayings did not originate in Sparta at all.

Why would the Spartans have had an interest in remembering and repeating incidents (five of Plutarch’s sayings) in which Spartan soldiers first failed to absorb the ethos of their society and then fled in the face of the enemy to run home to their mothers? These sayings, after all, don’t just portray ideologically radicalized mothers (who incidentally failed to raise their sons to share their values), but young men who singularly fail to live up to the ideal of their society as a whole. The young men who return alive have ostensibly all gone through the Spartan agoge and are members of Spartan dining clubs and soldiers in her army. And yet, according to these sayings, they still don’t live by the code. In short, these sayings imply, the entire Spartan upbringing was highly ineffective. It hardly seems reasonable that the Spartans would have an interest in recording and remembering such young men no matter how patriotic their mothers were.

Furthermore, if the purpose was to reinforce the ethos of “victory or death”, then anonymous women and anonymous sons would have been blunt, indeed useless, instruments. It would have been more effective to name names -- to tell how the survivors of Thermopylae (with name and patronymic) were reviled by their named mothers? If the Spartans wanted to make examples of patriotic mothers, they would have chosen real incidents from real wars and identified the brave women and their abhorrent sons by name. Nor would they have made the mistake of suggesting that Sparta’s victorious dead were brought home on their shields.

Sparta’s enemies, on the other hand, had no need for real names or real battles and no need to be particularly accurate about details (like where one buries one’s dead), because the intended audience was domestic. If the purpose of these sayings was to reinforce the “Feindbild” (the image of the enemy) to make sure that even Sparta’s women were seen as enemies then the more generic the stories were, the better. That way they became applicable to all times, to every battle, to every enemy soldier, to every Spartan mother.

I believe these sayings attributed to Spartan women were, in fact, enemy propaganda. They were intended to portray the women even the “little old ladies” of Sparta as repulsively different from normal (read: good) Athenian/Theban/Arcadian mothers, who naturally all adore their sons. The point is to depict Spartan women (always the object of horrified fascination on the part of other Greek males) as lacking even that most primeval of all instincts: the maternal instinct. Spartan mothers are shown to be unnatural, unfeminine creatures that deserve no sympathy even in their adversity. The sayings tell Sparta’s enemies that there is no need to pity Sparta’s women as one did, for example, the Trojan women. Go ahead, the sayings insinuate, kill their sons; because if we don’t kill them in battle, the abominations in female form who gave them life, the Spartan mothers themselves, will kill them when they get home.

As enemy propaganda against Sparta, these sayings had another even subtler message: namely, that Sparta’s legendary hoplites were really just a bunch of cowardly mama’s boys. Collectively these sayings suggest that Spartan soldiers, far from fighting to the death even in a hopeless situation, would run all the way home to their mothers, if only they got the chance. Why should any normal Athenian/Theban/Arcadian young man fear an army made up of a bunch of mama's boys?

As propaganda devised by Sparta’s enemies, these sayings served a dual purpose. First, they contributed to the overall image of Spartan women as repulsive, because they showed that in addition to being licentious as young women and adulterous as wives, Spartan women were heartless mothers. Second, they counteracted the legendary image of Sparta’s men as the spiritual descendants of Leonidas’ legendary band of 300, ready to fight tooth and nail even in a hopeless situation.

As propaganda intended for a domestic audience, these sayings diminished fear, bolstered courage, and undermined any sense of identification with the foe. And as such, they tell us something about Sparta’s enemies and their need to counter awe of Sparta’s young men and sympathy for Sparta’s mothers. What they do not do is tell us anything whatsoever about Spartan women.

What is tragic is that so many modern readers take them at face value.

The above essay first appeared in "Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History," Vol. 7, Issue 4, 2011, pp.24-26. It is reprinted here with the permission of the editors of "Sparta."

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:



    

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Scorned Honors - An Excerpt from "The Olympic Charioteer"

In this excerpt from The Olympic Charioteer, the Tegean aristocrat and horse-breeder, Antyllus, announces to his slave Philip that the latter is to have the honor of driving his team at the next Olympics. Philip is a comparatively new purchase, a quarry slave who was in very poor condition when Antyllus acquired him.  He has displayed an astonishing aptitude for handling horses, however, due to his barbarian background -- or so Antyllus thinks.


 

“You don’t expect me to drive this team in competition, do you?” Philip asked.



“Of course. What do you think we’ve been training for?”



Philip did not have a ready answer to that, but after a moment he said, “We’re training your team for the Olympics, but you’ll hire a driver for the competition.”



“Why should I have a hired driver, when I can have you?”



“Because I won’t drive your team at Olympia.” The insolence was back in his voice for the first time in months ― for the first time since he’d started training.



“What’s the matter with you?” Antyllus stared at Philip, flabbergasted. It was not his tone of voice alone that astonished Antyllus, but that the gifted driver would refuse the most coveted athletic prize ― a chance to compete at Olympia.



“I won’t drive your team at Olympia or in any competition,” Philip insisted stubbornly.



“I’m offering you an honor that no Greek would dream of turning down! Do you know how many young men throughout Hellas dream of nothing else but an opportunity like this? It is an honor, Philip!”



“I know it’s an honor.”



“Then what is it?” Antyllus was getting exasperated.



“I can’t.” Philip declared definitively.



“Of course you can!” Antyllus countered. He had never imagined that this insolent, self-assured young man would have self-doubts. It seemed utterly out of character, and he tried to reassure him. “We have a good eight months to strain still. By the time you go to Olympia, you’ll be the finest driver in all Hellas!”



Philip’s lips twitched. “Maybe, but that doesn’t change things.”



“Have you gone mad? I’m offering you the chance to drive in an Olympic event! By all the Gods, I’m offering you more than that! I’m offering you the chance to win an Olympic event. Not even the Gods would turn down such a chance!”



“The victory in equestrian events goes to the owner, not the rider or driver,” Philip observed dryly.



“So what? You’re the one who’ll have the thrill of the race itself.” Antyllus told him, suddenly aware of how much he envied the young man. “You’re the one who will see the finish line ahead of you ― and no other chariot between you and it. You’re the one they’ll cheer.” Antyllus spoke with open envy. “You have no idea what an ecstatic sensation that is ― galloping down the home stretch past thousands of shouting, waving, cheering men with an Olympic victory coming nearer with each thundering hoofbeat!”



“YES I DO!” Philip shouted at him.



Stunned silence. They stared at each other.



Philip was so flushed, he looked as if he’d just run the course on foot. “You were there,” he whispered.



“When?”



“At the last Olympics.”



“Yes. So what? I lost.”



“Don’t you remember who won?”



“How could I forget! Teleklos, son of Apollonides.”



“Who was driving his team?”



“His son, Ly ― Ly ― Lysander.”



“Lysandridas.”



“Yes, that’s right, Lysandridas, who was killed just afterward. That’s why Teleklos lost at the Pythian Games. He had a different driver, I think it was his nephew―”



“Teleklos was at the Pythian Games?” Philip asked, and his face was now drained of blood. The anger and arrogance of just a moment ago were gone so abruptly that Antyllus was beginning to think he had imagined it.



“Yes, as I said, with the same team but a different driver. Lysandridas had got his wish and been selected for the Spartan Guard. He was killed defending his King against our cavalry.”



Philip was shaking his head, his eyes opaque and blind, the color of molten lead under the livid scar.



“What is it?” Antyllus demanded, vaguely alarmed. Things were happening too fast. First, the slave was stubborn and arrogant, then he was angry, now he looked as if he would be sick any second.



“Not killed ― wounded, captured, enslaved.”



Antyllus stared at him. “But ― Sparta ransomed all the captives.”



“No. The families ransomed the captives. My family didn’t.”



“That can’t be.” Antyllus stared at the slave but felt dizzy. He turned and stumbled back toward the house. He could picture the end of that Olympic race all too clearly: his own team trailing by two lengths despite the whip cracking over their heads.  His heart had fallen gently but steadily, with each thundering stride, as he realized it was absolutely hopeless. They were defeated. Fairly and soundly. And then he had been utterly alone as he stood among the cheering crowds gone wild for a charioteer who had scorned 1,000 drachmae for this moment. He remembered, too, the victory celebration: Teleklos pulling his son into the circle of revelers, placing his arm over his shoulders, crowning him with the victor’s wreath, saying, again and again, it was his son’s victory, Lysandridas’ victory, not his own. He remembered Polycritus sneering at the young man with a contemptuous wave at his crown of olives and his ribbons. “They won’t buy you even a pair of sandals when you’re old and crippled. What good is an Olympic victory to the likes of you?”



“It means I’ll stand in front of my king in battle,” Lysandridas had tossed back.



Antyllus walked blindly across the slaves’ courtyard, tripping on the cobbles, stumbling over his own feet. The images were clear ― so clear that he could not grasp how he had failed to recognize him despite his scars.  Then again, Antyllus pictured the slave he had purchased, his head shaved, his body wasted away to practically nothing. He had nothing in common with the Olympic charioteer in peak physical condition. He had been magnificent. There had not been a scar on his body anywhere. Certainly not the ugly scars marring his forehead or mutilating his thigh.



Trampled! He had been trampled! When the Tegean cavalry broke the Spartan phalanx, they had trampled down half the Spartan Guard. The Guard had flung themselves forward against the horses to give their King a chance to escape! They had killed Phaedolos. They had stabbed him eight times.



And Lysandridas’ father had not ransomed him.  No wonder Lysandridas had tried to kill himself! But how could his father have left the son who had given him an Olympic victory in slavery? Antyllus couldn’t grasp it. He couldn’t imagine it. How could any father let a son ― no matter how disobedient or apparently worthless ― languish in slavery?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The World's First Non-Agression Pact

Despite the undoubted effectiveness of Sparta's professional army, its foreign policy relied on diplomacy as much as the force of arms to solve its differences with neighboring city-states.  In fact, the Spartans demonstrated an acute appreciation of the limits of their power and of their vulnerability, which in turn gave rise to a cautious foreign policy that relied heavily on effective diplomacy. Among other astonishing accomplishments, Sparta produced the first known permanent alliance system in history, comparable to NATO: the Peloponnesian League. It all began with Tegea...


Herodotus records that sometime before the Persian invasion and probably in the mid-6th Century BC as we reckon time, the Spartans became restless and wanted to conquer their northern neighbors in Arkadia. As the Spartans were wont to do, they sent to Delphi for advice and received the following Oracle:

Arkadia? Great is the thing you ask. I will not grant it.
In Arkadia are many men, acorn-eaters,
And they will keep you out. Yet, for I am not grudging.
I will give you Tegea to dance in with stamping feet
And her fair plain to measure out with the line.

Taking this to mean that they would be successful, the Spartan army invaded Tegea only to suffer a devastating defeat. As Herodotus explains: “…and those who were taken prisoner were forced to wear on their own legs the chains they had brought, and to ‘measure out with the line’ the plain of Tegea as laborers. In my own lifetime, the fetters they were bound with were still preserved in Tegea, hanging up around the temple of Athene Alea.” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, 66)

Although Herodotus does not tell us just how many Spartiates were killed or captured, it is clear that Sparta was both defeated and that a significant number of citizens surrendered. (Incidentally demonstrating that Sparta did not have any kind of a “do or die” mentality!) Indeed, Herodotus suggests that Sparta suffered more than one defeat saying they “continually” had the worst of it against Tegea and “a long series of reverses” until the reigns of Anaxandridas and Ariston. These kings certainly lived in the second half of the 6th century and under their leadership, Sparta sent for a second oracle from Delphi.  This told them:
In Arkadia lies Tegea in the level plain,
Where under strong constraints two winds are blowing;
Smiting in there and counter-smiting, and woe on woe;
The earth, the giver of life, holds Agamemnon’s son.
Bring him home, and you will prevail over Tegea.

At this point, a clever Spartiate, Lichas, learned that a smith in Tegea had discovered a coffin ten feet long with a skeleton inside that was just as large. Interpreting this as the body of Orestes, Lichas reported what he had heard to the Gerousia. The Spartans pretended he had committed some crime and exiled him. He returned to the forge, explained what had happened and leased the plot of land with the bones. In secret, he then dug up the bones and brought them back to Sparta, and, according to Herodotus, “ever since that day the Lacedaemonians in any trial of strength had by far the better of it.”

But that is only half the story, for -- despite having recovered what was believed to be Orestes’ bones -- Sparta refrained from launching a new war against Tegea and negotiated a non-aggression pact instead.

Why? Herodotus is silent on this, so we are left to speculate.

We know Sparta opted to negotiate with Tegea rather than to resort to arms. We also know that the resulting “non-aggression” pact became a pro-type of all subsequent agreements with other cities in the Peloponnese, and so the core of the Peloponnesian League. We also know that a key feature of this agreement was that Sparta agreed to assist Tegea against external enemies (presumably they were thinking of Argos), but also that Tegea agreed to assist Sparta against internal revolts. This suggests that recognition of the threats inherent in a large subject population may have induced Sparta to seek an alliance in place of conquest. A number of historians point out that the end of the Tegean conflict probably fell in the lifetime and possibly the Ephorate of Chilon the Wise, and postulate that this universally respected Spartan leader may have been the voice of reason that held Sparta back from new aggression.

The course of history: the attack, defeat, new appeal to Delphi, successful relocation of “Orestes” and then the astonishing restraint demonstrated by Sparta in not attacking again suggest that Spartan society was probably divided between “hawks” and “doves.” Far from being a monolithic society with a single will and a robot-like population, Sparta was a complex society inherently vulnerable to internal division by the peculiar institution of the dual kingship. Since the Kings were equal in all things, any fundamental policy differences between the kings led inevitably to political strife. Each king could be assured support from his own relatives, friends, and clients in both the Gerousia and Assembly. This means that each king would seek to win majorities by various means of persuasion and the same kind of political maneuvering we are familiar with today in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. The “hawks” won the first round; the “doves” – very probably led by Chilon the Wise – won the second round.

The above hypothesis is the basis for my novel The Olympic Charioteer. The novel opens in Tegea, after Sparta’s defeat. In the absence of any historical record about the political system in Tegea at this time, I have used Tegea to portray one of the characteristic political developments of the period: the rise of tyrants on the backs of increasing political demands by the hoplite-class against the aristocratic elite. The novel moves from Tegea to Sparta, where the internal divisions between two factions in Sparta are revealed. The central character of the novel is one of the Spartiates taken captive in the Spartan defeat: a young man, who just before the start of the war had driven his father’s chariot to victory at the Olympic games.

For more visit my website: http://schradershistoricalfiction.com

Two cities at war
Two men with Olympic ambitions
And one slave
The finest charioteer in all Hellas.

This is the story of a young man’s journey from tragedy to triumph, and the founding of the first non-aggression pact in recorded history.


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Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Fateful Assembly – An Excerpt from “A Heroic King”


As I noted at the start of this month, the Spartan Assembly was far from docile or powerless. Here’s a fictional account of what a Spartan Assembly might have been like.





Polymedes called for order. The paean was sung, the sacrifice made, a priest read the entrails and declared all was in order: the Assembly could proceed.



Polymedes cleared his throat. “King Cleomenes died without a direct male heir. Since women cannot inherit, the Agiad throne passes by right to Cleomenes’ closest male relative, his eldest half-brother on his father’s side ―”



A cheer went up from Brotus’ faction, dissolving into a chant of “Brotus!”



Brotus, with a look of triumph in Leonidas’ direction, started toward to join the Council.



Polymedes raised his hand and shouted, “Wait!”



Although Polymedes could hardly be heard above the enthusiastic cheers of Brotus’ friends, his gesture was unmistakable.  Meanwhile, from the back of the Assembly, a counter-chant of “Vote! Vote! We demand a Vote!” went up.



Brotus turned to his followers and gestured for them to calm down. “We will, of course, await the vote of this sacred Assembly. According to the law, the Assembly has the final say!” He said this pointedly to Leonidas.



“Of course,” Leonidas agreed, speaking to be heard even to the outer fringes of the crowd. “The Assembly’s vote is final ― which is why the proposal needs to be debated. The Council has ruled that no woman can be king of Sparta and that my brother Cleomenes should be followed by his closest male relative. The question is who that is.”



“The Council ruled that it was his eldest half-brother,” Brotus corrected smugly.



“But who is that?” Alkander asked, looking ― to Leonidas’ bafflement ― no less smug than Brotus.



“I demand to hear the testimony of the wet nurse!” Euryleon shouted.



“Wet nurse?” Brotus looked around, bewildered.



“Your wet nurse.” Euryleon faced Brotus, looking him straight in the eye, confronting him defiantly with obvious pleasure.



“If you’ve dredged up Dido out of a slum someplace to lie on Leo’s behalf, don’t think it will work!” Brotus flung his remark at Leo to show his utter contempt for Euryleon. To the rest of the Assembly, he announced. “Dido was Leonidas’ wet nurse. Of course, she’ll lie for him. Her word is worthless.”



“And Polyxo?” Euryleon asked with obvious amusement.



“She nursed me. She knows the truth!” Brotus confirmed.



Euryleon turned and beckoned to Aristodemos and Eurytus. The two meleirenes had been standing in the doorway to the Temple of Athena of Counsel as if on guard duty. Now, however, they disappeared inside the temple to re-emerge on either side of a fat, frightened helot woman.  Leonidas would not have recognized her as Brotus’ nurse.  Her round face was flabby, her white hair thin. Her eyes, half lost in the folds of skin around them, darted nervously without fixing on anything, while her shallow, gasping breath was audible.



The woman was brought to the front of the Canopy, while the men at the back craned their necks to get a look at her and one asked another what was going on.  Polymedes asked her name, her patronymic, her profession, and then if she had anything to say that was relevant to the debate. “I ― I ―” she started in a breathy voice no one could hear and Polymede ordered her to speak up.



“I was there ― at the birth of the twins!” she squealed in a high-pitched voice that now reached the back of the crowd.



“Tell us what happened,” Polymedes urged.



“I was standing beside the midwife. The queen was having a terrible time and the first baby, when it came, seemed lifeless. The midwife cut the cord in haste and handed it to me because she could see the second baby was already on the way. I thought the first baby was dead, so I handed it off to my cousin Dido in order to help with the second baby. The second baby was much bigger and stronger than the first, and he screamed lustily when we cut the cord. I put him to my breast at once and cherished him like he was my own little boy.” Tears were by now streaming down her face. Although her account was by no means audible at the back, it was very audible to the Council, the ephors, and those in the front rows, including Brotus and Leonidas.



Brotus leaped forward as if he would strike the old woman, roaring out: “Traitor! Liar! Filthy helot slut!”



Leonidas only stared at the woman, stunned. Then he looked from Alkander to Euryleon and back to Polyxo. The old woman was blubbering, holding out her hands to Brotus, and calling him by his baby names. “My little puppy! My baby bull! I loved you! I loved you!” she wailed.



“I'll kill you!” Brotus screamed and had to be held back by his own supporters.



Polymedes was calling for order, while the gist of Polyxo’s message was relayed to the back of the Assembly from those in front. When the citizens at the back realized what Polyxo had said, the commotion in the Canopy grew louder and louder. Leonidas couldn’t hear what was being said by everyone, but the exclamations sounded more amazed than outraged. Here and there someone whooped as if in triumph. That would be one of the young men, most likely one of last year’s eirenes; they had become his staunchest admirers.



Meanwhile, the smooth Talthybiades was asking for the floor. Polymedes demanded order, and eventually, an uneasy, anticipatory silence spread across the floor of the Canopy. He nodded to Talthybiades.



“The testimony of this woman, who claims to be Cleombrotus’ wet nurse, is very dramatic. My compliments to my fellow citizens,” Talthybiades bowed to Alkander and Euryleon with a supercilious smile on his thin lips, “for dredging her up and for ― shall we say? ― persuading her to tell such a ― how should I word it? ― plausible but transparently partisan tale.”



There were grunts and nods of assent from Brotus’ faction, but farther away a young man shouted: “Just because it doesn’t suit you, Talthybiades, doesn’t make it false!” This remark also won an audible share of approving comments.



Talthybiades ignored them and continued in his precise, magistrate's voice, “Has Leonidas no credible witness to bring forward? Does no one other than a Kytheran whore and a blubbering helot woman speak on his behalf?”



“Do you consider me a credible witness, Talthybiads?” The question came from Epidydes, the youngest councilman and former headmaster.



Talthybiades was genuinely astonished by the question. He agreed instantly, “No one could doubt your credibility and integrity, Epidydes ― but with all due respect, you were not in the birthing chamber when the Agiad twins were born.”



“No, but I was present when King Anaxandridas brought his twin sons to the agoge for enrollment.” Epidydes got to his feet and moved front and center. Polymedes instantly and instinctively took a step back to make way for him.



Epidydes raised his voice and his eyes swept the crowd.  He had been headmaster of the agoge for more than thirty years, and in that time most of the citizens now assembled had passed through his upbringing. Some, like Leonidas and Brotus, had known no other headmaster and would never be entirely free of their awe of him.  The elder men, in contrast, respected him precisely because they had known his infamous predecessor, while the younger citizens had suffered under his successor and remembered Epidydes with nostalgia.  There could be no question that if one man had influence in this Assembly it was Epidydes.



The silence that gripped the Assembly was correspondingly profound. The sound of some helot workman hammering in the distance could be heard distinctly. A light breeze from the invisible Eurotas was a breath of sweetness among the sweating men. No one dared move or even breathe as they waited for Epidydes to continue.



“King Anaxandridas came to me, flanked by his boys,” Epidydes continued. “Brotus was noticeably bigger and stronger, making him look a year older than Leonidas.” Leonidas remembered that, too, and Brotus was grinning again ― or rather, leering at Leonidas with malicious satisfaction. But the old headmaster wasn’t finished. He added, “Leonidas was on the king’s right.”



The Assembly erupted. Bortus was shouting again, first “Liar!” and then, after Orthryades rebuked him, “It was just chance. Chance! It meant nothing!” Meanwhile, from the back, other men started cheering, calling, and chanting, “Leonidas! Leonidas! Leonidas!”



For the second time this morning, Leonidas was stunned. He could picture the scene from more than thirty years ago as if it were yesterday; his own anxiety, the way the instructors had fawned over Brotus because he was so big and strong, and then the way Epidydes came around his desk to approach him, saying, “Then you must be Leonidas.” But because, at the time, he did not know the significance of standing on the right, he had taken no notice of the fact ― until now.



With a sense of amazement, he realized he had indeed been on his father’s right. And no Spartan king was unaware of the significance of such a position; his father had given him the place of honor.



Polymedes moved for a vote. Brotus was furiously protesting, denying that Leonidas was the firstborn, but the roar of “ayes” for the motion was deafening, and the “nays” came out like embarrassed whimpers form men too tied to Brotus to risk abandoning him despite the evidence.




Saturday, September 1, 2018

The World's First Democracy

The Spartan constitution, commonly dated to the early 7th century BC, is the first known constitution that vested supreme power in the hands of an Assembly composed of all citizens.  Thus, Sparta was the first known functioning democracy – roughly 150 years before the introduction of democracy in Athens.


 
As is typical of early, innovative institutions, later modifications introduced in other cities made the Spartan democracy appear conservative as time went by.  Sparta, for example, never entirely freed itself of its kings.  Two jointly ruling hereditary monarchs from different families held restricted and mostly ceremonial functions throughout Sparta's history as an independent state – very much as the English monarchy functions today.

Another notoriously conservative aspect of the Spartan constitution was the Council of Elders, or Gerousia.  Although this body was elected, as were similar institutions in other cities, the Elders had to be over 60 years of age and were elected for life.  In consequence, they were not subject to the most effective of democratic censures: the need to be re-elected.

Nevertheless, Sparta's constitution clearly gave precedence to the Assembly.  The Assembly, which is believed to have met on a monthly basis, was composed of all adult male citizens.  Although it could vote only on the bills presented by the Council, the common misconception that the Assembly could only vote yes or no is belied by accounts of lively (not to say rowdy) debates.  (Note, also, that modern legislatures also vote on bills presented and do not evolve legislation spontaneously during debate.)  Certainly, the Spartan Assembly was powerful enough to exile kings.  Nevertheless, the Spartan Assembly never attained the absolute tyranny of the Athenian Assembly – a point praised widely by ancient writers, who saw in Sparta's more balanced (bicameral) democracy a means of controlling the fickleness of the mob.  Most people today, used to representational democracy, would feel more comfortable in Sparta's democracy than in that of Athens, where many officials were chosen by lottery and the votes of illiterate and impoverished citizens were easily manipulated and purchased by demagogues.


Nevertheless, the Spartan Assembly is often disparaged today as a body of dumb, illiterate, automatons, a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Kings, Gerousia and ephors.  This view of the Spartan Assembly is based on constitutional provisions that appear to have restricted debate, the absence of secret ballots, and the assumption that Sparta’s notoriously obedient soldiers would “take orders” in the Assembly just as they did on the battlefield. 

However, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not automatons who wait for orders, but instead thinking, self-confident men who take the initiative and act without – or even against – orders, if necessary.  Furthermore, the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea is a dramatic case in point demonstrating that Spartans didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield.  It further highlights the fact that commanders in the Spartan army did not command obedience:  Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Last but not least, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out to act as advisers to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.

Second, the Assembly had real powers, officially more than the kings.  The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia, whenever vacancies occurred in the latter due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation.  The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions such as Pausanius and Phoebidas.  Thus, despite the inability to introduce legislation and the public nature of the vote, the Spartan Assembly did exercise real power.

Most important, however, the Spartan Assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite is unlikely to have been docile. The men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world rose through the ranks of the army – and all had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Even if some citizens were indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there would have been ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority.  Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as is demonstrated by the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” = not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well!

What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment.  Sparta’s citizens were not docile or mindless pawns, but thinking and responsible citizens with a say in the policies of their city-state. The differences between Athenian and Spartan democracy were many, and both were imperfect from the modern standpoint, but the Spartan citizen’s individual status within his polity should not be denigrated. Sparta was very much a democracy in any sense of the word.

The Spartan Assembly plays a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


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