Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Marathon - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

There is a tendency to forget that, while Marathon was a great Athenian-Platean victory, it was in fact only half a victory: half the Persian army and fleet had already departed Marathon when Miltiades made the brilliant decision to attack the rest. It is likewise usually forgotten that Eukles ran the original "Marathon" from Marathon to Athens not merely to bring word of a victory but to warn about the other half of the Persian army that was approaching Athens by sea -- while all her fighting men were miles away, victorious but exhausted, at Marathon. That Athens was not seized by the Persians is one of those little, forgotten mysteries of history.

In the excerpt below, the only fighting men left in Athens -- the ephebes (youths not yet citizens) and old reservists -- prepare to defend Piraeus against the massive force aboard a Persian fleet. Among them is Kimon, son of Athen's commander at Marathon, Militiades.

Persian ships were clogging the narrows at the mouth of the harbor. "And something is going on out there too! A trireme arrived from the west, and now there is activity aboard every ship. They are preparing something. Look!" Kimon's commander pointed to the coastline to the west. "Do you see?"

Kimon shook his head.

"Something's moving along the coastal road. Either the Persians have landed troops to our west -- or the Spartans are coming."

"It's too soon for the Spartans," Kimon protested.

"Well, I sure the hell don't like the alternative!" the old man snapped back. "Instead of just sitting there on that fancy horse of yours, why don't you take your ass over there and find out?"

Kimon drew a deep breath to protest such language, but the man had already turned away. Kimon swallowed his protest and turned his colt around to start working his way through the maze of streets toward the western road.

Finding his way occupied so much of his attention that it was only after he'd left the congested part of the port that Kimon could focus on his task. Since there was no way the Spartans could be here in less than three days, he was pre-occupied with the idea of riding to warn his father that the Persians had landed to the west.

He drew up and looked along the coast, squinting in an effort to see better. He could see nothing -- except the sunlight glittering on the blue waters of the bay, heat waves shimmering upward from the nearest fields, and dust drifting off to the north. The dust must have been stirred up by men on the road.  He better find out more before he reported back to his father, he decided, and kept riding. After another quarter hour, he was convinced that a large body of troops was indeed approaching. Wasn't that enough information? How much further should he go?

With shock, Kimon recognized that he was afraid. He did not want to go any closer. He wanted to gallop in the opposite direction, and it was precisely this realization that made him urge his colt forward, his lips pressed together unconsciously. He kept his eyes on the coastal road until they watered from the strain. Then he blinked and wiped sweat from his eyes with the back of his naked arm. Keep riding, he ordered himself, reminding himself that his colt was the direct descendant of one of the four mares with which his grandfather won the Olympic chariot race three times. The colt would bring him to safety. 

But what if the colt stumbled? Or was killed by an arrow?

Or could it really be the Spartans?

It penetrated Kimon's terrified brain that there were no mounted officers with the approaching troops. Persian noblemen never walked. These troops could be neither Persian nor Mede. Ionian allies of the Persians? But how could the Persians trust them not to join the Athenians? Certainly if they were Ionains, it would be worth appealing to their patriotism. Kimon urged his horse forward a little more hopefully.

Abruptly he caught a wisp of what sounded like singing. He pulled up and held his breath, his ear cocked. When the wind fell away, it came again: men's voices raised in song. The approaching troops were singing as they marched.

Spartans! Only Spartans sang as they marched!

He started cantering forward in relief. 


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Marathon and Sparta

Marathon was an Athenian-Plataean victory.  Although Athens fielded her maximum force and the Plataeans sent every available man, the Persians still significantly outnumbered their combined strength. Yet when Miltiades finally led the assault, the victory went to the Athenians and Plataeans.  According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persian soldiers lost their lives on the plain of Marathon, at the price of just 192 Athenians and an unnamed, but certainly smaller, number of Plataeans. The Spartans were nowhere to be seen.

And yet, Marathon is a significant chapter in Spartan history.  First, the Athenian request is an indication that they believed halting Persian incursions in Greece was sufficiently important to Sparta to override any other considerations arising from their less than harmonious past relations. Second, Sparta agreed to send help -- despite the fact Persian wrath was directed exclusively at Athens and Eretria at this point in time. .In short. Sparta would have been perfectly justified in telling the Athenians to face the consequences of their support for Aristagoras’ revolt alone.  Yet Sparta did nothing of the kind.  

Sparta, according to Herodotus, was “moved by the appeal [for help], and willing to send help to Athens,” but was unable to respond immediately because they “did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full.” (Herodotus, 6:107).  Most historians interpret this to mean that Sparta was at the time celebrating the Carneia, a ten-day festival, and could not march until it was over. 

That the promise was not empty is evidenced by the fact that, again according to Herodotus, after the full moon “two thousand Spartans set off for Athens.”  They covered roughly 120 miles of in part very rugged terrain to reach Athens on the third day after leaving Sparta – a notable achievement for an army on foot. They arrived in Athens allegedly on the day following the Battle of Marathon and continued on to Marathon to see the bodies of the slain.

The fact that Sparta delayed responding to the Athenian call for help has occupied historians for generations.  Given the urgency of the request and the evidently genuine desire to help, modern readers find it hard to believe the phase of the moon or a festival would have been allowed to get in the way.  Speculation about a possible helot revolt has been particularly popular. Yet I find it hard to believe a revolt could be of such a predictable nature that the Spartans could know in advance it would be over by the full-moon -- and then in fact be so completely subdued that 2,000 men – the entire active army by some accounts - could march out exactly on schedule. Hints of a revolt prior to the major insurrection of 460 may be credible, but are insufficiently precise to prove a revolt took place at exactly this point in history, in my opinion.

Equally significant but, to my knowledge, less frequently noted, is that Herodotus does not identify the Spartan commander of the 2,000 Spartans that arrived in Athens too late.  Up to this point, Sparta’s armies abroad were commanded invariably by her kings jointly or, after the debacle of Cleomenes and Demaratus quarreling openly while campaigning against Athens at the end of the previous century, by one of the kings.  It seems very odd, that suddenly, for such an important confrontation, no king is mentioned.
The absence of a king is particularly odd given the large numbers involved.  Herodotus speaks of 2000 “Spartans.”  While this need not necessarily mean Spartiates and could, at a stretch, include perioikoi, it certainly excludes Allies. Furthermore, based on the assumption that the force of 5,000 Spartiates sent to Plataea represented the maximum strength of a citizen force including 15-20 age-cohorts of reservists, 2,000 men probably represents the size of Sparta’s standing army, the citizens aged 21-30, at this time. Such a force represented the very flower of Spartan manhood and would hardly be entrusted to anyone less than a king. 

But in the summer of 490, Sparta was in the midst of a dynastic crisis. The Eurypontid Demaratus had been denounced as a usurper and dethroned by a judgment of Delphi only a couple years earlier. After being humiliated by his successor Leotychidas, Demaratus fled Sparta, only for it to then come to light that Delphi’s judgment had been purchased by King Cleomenes. This cast grave doubts on the legitimacy of Leotychidas in the eyes of most Spartans, yet it appears to have been impossible to recall Demaratus.  Meanwhile, Cleomenes himself had gone mad and was in self-imposed exile.  Thus in the summer of 490, the Spartans literally had no king to whom they could entrust their army.

This situation might not have been revealed to the outside world, if the Persians had not chosen to launch their invasion of Attica at precisely this time.  Under the circumstances, the Spartan government recognized the need to confront the Persians, but, without a king to take command, Sparta was in no position to respond at once. The Spartans first had to agree among themselves how to deal with this unprecedented situation by appointing a non-royal commander. The delay in responding can, therefore, best be explained by the time needed to find a consensus candidate, which undoubtedly entailed debating the issue in the Gerousia, drafting a bill for the ephors to present to the Assembly, and calling an extraordinary Assembly. It was possible to calculate how many days that would take, and easier to blame religion than confess to the Athenians that the Spartans had a dynastic/leadership crisis. After all was said and done, the Spartan army marched out under someone other than one of the kings.

Herodotus is silent on who led the 2,000 men to Marathon. We will never know for sure. But one candidate stands out as the most likely commander: Leonidas.  Leonidas was an Agiad. He was heir to the throne. He was a mature man, probably with considerable military experience by this point in time. At a minimum, he would have fought at Sepeia against Argos just four years earlier. It is hard to imagine that anyone else in Sparta at the time could claim equal right to lead the Spartan army in the absence of her ruling kings.

If Leonidas indeed led the Spartan army that arrived in Athens one day too late for the Battle of Marathon, it would have given him the opportunity for him to meet Athenian leaders – and win their trust. This may in turn have been a contributing factor to Leonidas’ election as commander of the joint Greek forces ten years later.  Perhaps equally significant, arriving one day too late for Marathon may have left a psychological scar that made Leonidas determined not to come too late to Thermopylae. In 480, Leonidas refused to await the end of the Carneia and took his advance guard out of Sparta before the end of the festival.  I think Leonidas was determined not to be late again.

Marathon is an important incident in "A Heroic King" 

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Importance of Being Pretty - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

In Greek mythology, Helen of Sparta was the most beautiful woman on earth and ancient Greek literature likewise often attributed particular beauty to Spartan women. Yet while no other historical Spartan woman is more quoted than Gorgo, the wife and queen of Leonidas, no source attributes particular beauty to her -- leading me to suspect she was not.  In the following excerpt from "A Peerless Peer" I describe Gorgo's discovery that she is not particularly pretty and what it means for the Agiad princess. 

Gorgo was seven when she was confronted by the fact that she was not considered pretty. The priestesses from the shrine to Helen at Therapne had all the girls between the ages of seven and fourteen muster on the Dancing Floor in order to select which ones would take part in the Heleneia this year. The selected maidens would be garlanded in flowers and walk in the procession, followed by flower-studded straw chariots carrying the prettiest maiden from each of the five villages of the city, to the shrine. There were usually twenty girls chosen as “flower girls,” and Gorgo was eagerly looking forward to taking part now that she was at last old enough. It never occurred to Gorgo that she might not be chosen; but when the priestesses walked along the rows of eager and expectant girls, pointing a finger at the girls they found worthy, they walked past her without a glance. The look on their faces was indifferently dismissive—as if she were no more worthy of consideration than a mule among horses. Gorgo was stunned.

She ran to the fountain house, clambered up on the stone trough, and gazed at her reflection in the water. But her image was shattered by the next helot girl who plunged an amphora into the water to fill it. She ran out again, starting for home, but at the agora she paused to look at her reflection on the burnished bronze face of a massive hoplon hung up for sale. Her face was distorted in the hammered, convex surface, and she ran on, frightened. She reached the Agiad royal palace by the back entrance and scampered into the stable yard, deftly dodging the men offloading hay from a wagon in the alley and ducking under the belly of one of her father’s chariot horses, who was being groomed at a spot that blocked her path to the kitchen stairway.

“You’re old enough to know better than that!” the startled groom scolded, frightened to think what would happen if the king’s precious child were kicked by the powerful beast. Fortunately the stallion was dozing contentedly in the sun, only barely interested in flicking at flies with his tail.

Meanwhile, Gorgo was already halfway up the stairs and running (now a little breathlessly) down the corridor of the helots’ quarters toward the inner courtyard and the private dwellings of the royal family. “Mama! Mama!” Gorgo called as she skidded around the corner into her mother’s chamber.

“Hush!” her mother admonished angrily. “You’ll wake your baby brother!” Her mother, as usual, was hanging over the cradle of her youngest child. Gorgo had lost two younger siblings already: one when he was a toddler and the other when he was just a few weeks old. The latter had been so sickly that everyone shook their heads and whispered that the elders wouldn’t accept him anyway. Now there was another baby brother in the cradle, and Gorgo found it hard to take an interest in him. To her he did not look any different from the others, red andwrinkled and squalling all the time. She did not really think he would live very long, either, so why should she pay him much attention? Obedient to her mother, however, she lowered her voice and whispered loudly, “Mama! They didn’t pick me.”

“For what? What are you babbling about?”

“To be a flower girl!” Gorgo insisted, utterly uncomprehending how her mother could forget something as important as this. “For the Heleneia!”

“Oh, that! I thought I told you not to bother? Besides, this year Demaratus will be making the sacrifice. It wouldn’t be seemly for you to be among the maidens in the procession.”
Gorgo frowned. She understood about the eternal rivalry between the two royal families of Sparta, and that it was important never to suggest that the rival line had some sort of precedence over her own house; but her mother was missing the whole point. “But mother, they didn’t even want me!”

“Of course not; something like that is only for pretty girls. Why, even that hussy Percalus did it.” Percalus was the Eurypontid queen, and Gorgo’s mother hated her with a bitterness that far exceeded the everyday rivalry between the Agiad and the Eurypontid rulers. As soon as the name Percalus arose in connection with the flower girls, Gorgo knew she would get no sympathy from her mother; so she gave up and ran down the hall to her grandmother’s chamber.

She was relieved to find her grandmother at her loom. Chilonis was an active woman and often away from the palace during the day. “Grandmama!” Gorgo called out as she rushed to fling herself at her grandmother, certain of a receptive hug.

Chilonis was caught a little off guard by the unexpected arrival of her granddaughter, but she managed to open her arms just in time. The impact of the seven-year-old was enough to almost knock her off the stool, however, and she found herself admonishing the child, “Not so rough! You’re too old for that!”

But Gorgo felt her grandmother’s warm arms close around her skinny body, and she knew the older woman was not really angry with her. She ignored the scolding, looked up into her grandmother’s square face, and pleaded hopefully, “Grandmama, I’m not ugly, am I?”

“No, of course not,” Chilonis assured her firmly. “Have some of the boys from the agoge been teasing you or something?” Chilonis, confident that this was just a childhood misunderstanding, even dropped her arms and turned back to her loom.

“It wasn’t the boys,” Gorgo told her urgently. “It was the priestesses of the shrine of Helen. They didn’t even look at me—for the flower girls for the Heleneia!” Gorgo’s distress, as well as her words, drew her grandmother’s attention back to her. She was looking up at her grandmother with wide-set eyes, and Chilonis registered that the child understood fully the difference between the taunting of children and the judgment of grown women. She sighed and took Gorgo back into her arms.

Gorgo understood that, too. It meant it was true: she was ugly. She clung to her grandmother in fright. She knew it was terrible for a girl to be ugly. Hadn’t her mother become queen because she was the prettiest maiden in Sparta at the time? And the same was said of Queen Percalus—that she was the prettiest maiden of the next “crop,” so pretty that King Demaratus had taken her without a dowry.

Chilonis could read Gorgo’s thoughts, and she freed one hand to ruffle the top of Gorgo’s head of unruly bright-red hair. “It’s all my fault, Little One. You take after me.”

Gorgo frowned and looked up in indignation. “But you’re not ugly!”

Chilonis smiled faintly. “Thank you, but that’s not what your grandfather thought. Your grandfather would not have been half so reluctant to take me to wife if he had found me more attractive. And had I been a beauty like your mother or Percalus, then he would no doubt have visited my bed more often—no matter how difficult his first wife, Taygete, made life for him at home. No, my child, there is no point denying it: I was never considered a beauty, and you seem to have taken after me rather than your own lovely mother.”

Gorgo, still frowning, thought about that. She had never thought of her grandmother as in any way deficient. She certainly wasn’t ugly the way some old women were. She was not pock-marked, she had all her teeth, and she had no warts or birthmarks or other deformities. She had a pleasant face and hair the color of bay horses, now streaked with gray. Gorgo did not think it was so bad taking after her grandmother, if it meant she was like her in other ways as well. “Am I as clever as you are, too, Grandmama?”

Chilonis laughed at that and ruffled her hair again. “You are twice as clever as I ever was, child.”

Gorgo broke free of her grandmother’s arms, but only in order to be able to face her more firmly. “Don’t make fun of me!” she demanded, frowning more fiercely than ever. “Papa says you can write poetry and do geometry and read the language of the Egyptians!”

Chilonis laughed again. “I tried to learn hieroglyphics from an Egyptian merchant one winter, but without much success, I fear. And I can teach you geometry if you like, but it was my mother who was really clever at mathematics. She was a student of the great scholar Pythagoras.”

“Daddy says all his brains come from your side of the family,” Gorgo insisted, still trying to come to terms with not being pretty, talking herself into being proud that she took after her not-pretty grandmother.

Chilonis understood, and so she did not contradict this statement. Instead, she suggested that Gorgo and she go out for an excursion. Gorgo eagerly agreed.

It was a hot, sunny day and the air over the city was laden with fine dust: stirred up by the supply wagons trundling through the narrow lanes, kicked up by the herds of boys at play, and blown in desultory clouds from the drill fields across the river. Chilonis turned the chariot away from the river and headed north, past the ball field surrounded by its moat and plane trees. She took the northwest road leading gently up into the narrows of the Eurotas valley. As Chilonis drove she explained to her granddaughter, who had fallen silent and appeared to be brooding again, “The fate of pretty women is not always pretty. Take the most famous of all Spartan princesses, Helen. When she was still a girl, she was abducted by Theseus and had to be rescued by her brothers. Then she was coveted by so many men that her father held a contest among her suitors to auction her off to the one who found his favor. Because of her irresistible beauty she was abducted yet again, this time by a foolish foreign prince, and held captive for ten years in Asia. Even if she was, as some say, seduced rather than abducted, she must still have suffered to see the horrible war she caused. 

"In contrast, her less attractive cousin, Penelope, was courted by and married to the good Odysseus, the man of her own choice. You see,” Chilonis continued, as she drew up the chariot before a small and ancient monument showing a woman wrapped in a himation, “it is said that on this very spot Penelope pulled her shawl up over her head to indicate to her pursuing father that she went willingly with Odysseus.”

Gorgo stared with new interest at the ancient statue in the shade of the simple Doric temple. “Is that how our custom of stealing brides started?” she wanted to know.

Chilonis smiled, pleased by the notion. “Yes, maybe. I don’t think anyone knows, but it could go back to Penelope. After all, Helen was given to the man of her father’s choice and then turned adulterous—whether by force or free will. Penelope married the man of her own choice and was true to him—a much more Spartan pattern.” This said, she clicked her tongue to the team, and they continued on their way out of the city into the surrounding well-cultivated countryside. …

Gorgo seemed to consider everything very carefully, her brows drawn together in concentration. Then she nodded solemnly. “You don’t act unhappy. And I cannot change it, can I?” She looked up as if hoping for one last promise of things getting better.

Chilonis shook her head and laid a hand on her granddaughter’s fragile shoulder. “No, you cannot change the color of your hair or your eyes, nor can you make your mouth small and full and red. You will never be a great beauty; but if you have the sense to know that a woman is more than a fa├žade and that her value is not in the beauty of her exterior but in the soundness of her mind, body, and character, then you will discover that men who share these qualities—like the good Odysseus—will recognize those qualities in you.”