Historian Helena P. Schrader discusses ancient Spartan society and culture, seeking to rectify a number of misconceptions. She will also review recent books on Sparta or set in Ancient Greece as well as discuss her published novels on archaic Sparta, and her three part biographical novel on Leonidas and Gorgo.
Fans of “300” may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a
diplomat. In the Hollywood cartoon,
Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally
throws a Persian ambassador down a well.
But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this
crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as
it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brut, Leonidas was probably a
very savvy diplomat.
The evidence for Leonidas’ diplomatic talent is indirect
rather than explicit. It is evident in what he did, rather than what is said
about him. Quite simply: During his
brief reign, Leonidas managed to forge a coalition of Greek states willing to
oppose the Persian invasion and to convince this loose coalition
of independent and proud city-states to agree to a unified command. The significance of such an achievement can
be measured by the fact that ten years earlier Athens didn’t place her army
even under the unified command of a single Athenian; no less than ten generals
shared command of the Athenian army at Marathon. Equally notable, while Leonidas’ brother Cleomenes
alienated Lacedaemon’s Peloponnesian allies to the point of provoking revolt,
Leonidas won over new Allies such as Mycenae and Tiryns.
As for the incident with the Persian ambassadors, Herodotus
tells us that the Spartans shared the guilt for the murder of the ambassadors. According to Herodotus, the entire city was
threatened by ill-omens and the Spartan Assembly met repeatedly in order to
find volunteers from among the citizens willing to appease the Gods by dying in
atonement for the murdered Persian ambassadors.
If, as when Cleomenes’ burned the Sacred Wood near Argos, the crime had
been committed by either of the Spartan kings, the Spartans would have
expected/demanded that the king bear responsibility. Whoever killed the Persian ambassadors, the
entire Spartiate population felt collectively guilty about it – something that
suggests the Persian emissaries had not been the victims of a spontaneous act of
violence but rather condemned by the Spartan Assembly. (Something which in turn suggests that
Spartan Assemblies could be quite rowdy affairs, but that is a subject for
another day….) Leonidas' sophisticated diplomacy is an important theme in the third book of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas: A Heroic King.
It has become fashionable to denigrate the memory of
Leonidas by associating him with suicide bombers (Cartledge) or by accusing him
of murdering his brother. Thus Dr. Nic Fields in Thermopylae 480 BC: Last stand of the 300 dismisses Herodotus’
version of King Kleomenes’ death on the grounds that “the Spartans were
notoriously abstemious” and concludes instead that: “It seems more likely that
Kleomenes’ reign was cut short [sic] by murder, arranged and hushed up, on the
orders of the man who succeeded him on the Agiad throne.” (p. 14)
There are a large number of problems with this thesis. First and foremost, of course, is that there
is not a shred of historical evidence for it. Not one ancient source accuses Leonidas of fratricide. Herodotus, as Fields notes, has a completely
different version of events. So we are talking about nothing more than a modern
Fields feels justified fabricating this story because,
according to him, all Spartans (every last single one of them over hundreds of
years) were “abstemious” and since none ever drank in excess, a Spartan king
who drank too much is a historical (physical?) impossibility. Frankly, that’s a
little much. Even Spartans were human beings, and human beings are
fallible. Furthermore, we are talking
here about one of Sparta’s kings. Even if one could argue that peer pressure on
an ordinary citizen would have been too great in Sparta’s overweening society
to ever allow anyone to deviate too far from the norms, a Spartan king clearly
did have more leeway. The fact that Herodotos mentions the Spartans blamed his
madness on his drinking habits underlines the facts that Kleomenes’ behavior
was not considered normal in Sparta.
Spartans as a rule were abstemious, Kleomenes was not. Fields’ argument is
Of course, Fields is not the first historian to conclude
that the hero of Thermopylae was really a murderer on the run. Most accept the
fact that Kleomenes might have had a drinking problem, but cannot believe that
anyone would try to flay themselves alive.
Because they cannot imagine something so appalling and hence cannot
accept Herodotus at face value, they feel justified in accusing Kleomenes’
successor of regicide, fratricide and patricide (since Kleomenes was not only
Leonidas’ king, but also his brother and father-in-law) all at once.
Yet, as W. G. Forrest points out in his excellent, concise
work A History of Sparta: 950 – 192 BC
: “A recent psychological study has pointed out that the details of
[Kleomenes’] final self-mutilation are in fact consistent with a paranoid
As so often, the evidence is with Herodotus – not those, who
lack the imagination to believe him.
Yet even if we were to dismiss Herodotus’ version of Kleomenes’
death as implausible, would that justify pointing the finger at Leonidas?
W. P. Wallace in his excellent article, “Kleomenes,
Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia” (The
Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35), suggests
some plausible reasons why the Spartan state might have wanted to rid itself of
Kleomenes. Wallace presents some weak
but nonetheless cogent evidence that an Arkadian league formed at about this
time and Herodotus also speaks of Kleomenes stirring up trouble in
Arkadia. Wallace argues that if
Kleomenes was being successful in turning some of the Arkadian states against
Sparta, than the Spartans may have felt he had to be taken out of circulation
once and for all. But even this does not justify putting the blame for any
surreptitious regicide on Leonidas.
People, who subscribe to this theory, argue that because
Leonidas succeeded to the throne, he had to have the most to gain from
murdering his brother, and so he must have been the man behind it.But Leonidas was Kleomenes’ heir at the
latest from the day his elder brother Dorieus died, possibly from the day Dorieus
departed Sparta. Why would he have waited almost 40 years until he was over 50
years of age to suddenly become ambitious and covet his brother’s throne? Did
he, after serving Kleomenes almost his entire life, suddenly turn against him
because of “troubles” in Arkadia? Surely Kleomenes had made other, more
dramatic blunders, from Athens to Argos, that would have given him a pretext
for murder -- had he been so inclined. But we hear nothing of Leonidas being
disloyal after Kleomenes’ earlier debacles.
Another thing I would like to know from those who charge
Leonidas with murder is what Gorgo was doing while her husband murdered her
father? Gorgo, of all Greek women, is known for being out-spoken. Are we to
believe that she just stood by and let her husband kill her father without a
word of protest? More: that after her husband murdered her father, she
continued to be a loyal wife, assisting him and asking for his instructions as
he marched out to his death? Surely, the
woman, who as a child had told her father not to take bribes, would have gone
on record protesting her father’s murder and then avenging his death or
scorning the murderer? (Think of the wrath of the Spartan princess Kleitamestra!)
Or are we to believe she was an accomplice? That she
supported her murderous husband like some ancient Lady MacBeth?
If so, someone needs to provide an explanation of why
Kleomenes’ only child and heir, evidently greatly favored by him as a child,
suddenly wanted him murdered in a barbaric fashion. Trouble in Arkadia hardly
seems a sufficient reason for such an appallingly unnatural sentiment. Indeed,
explaining why Gorgo allowed her husband to kill her father is psychologically
a great deal more difficult than explaining how a man as consistently instable
as Kleomenes came to commit suicide!
Last but not least, what action or statement by the
historical Leonidas and/or Gorgo justifies imputing to them the level of moral
perversion inherit in fratricide and patricide?
What did Leonidas or Gorgo ever do or say to give historians the right
to dismiss them as brutal, self-serving criminals? The arrogance is staggering.
It is sad that modern
commentators feel compelled to propagate errant nonsense about a historical
figure. To be sure, we know too little about the real Leonidas to know what
sort of man he was, but that hardly justifies untenable accusations of sadistic
fratricide just because we are uncomfortable with the disturbing but completely
plausible explanation provided by Herodotus. Leonidas' relationship with his half-brother and father-in-law is portrayed in depth in my novel: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer.
Although Helen, the ultimate femme fatale, was undoubtedly a
child of Sparta, few people nowadays think of love when they think of Sparta. Certainly,
Spartan art lacks the plethora of explicitly erotic art that is found elsewhere
in Greece. Yet the historical record suggests that love – in contrast to lust –
was indeed a feature of Spartan society. Herodotus, for example, explicitly states that
King Anaxandridas refused to divorce his apparently barren wife out of
affection for her, and only reluctantly agreed to take a second wife. Likewise, Spartan sculpture has a tradition
of showing man and wife side-by-side in harmony and near equality (and strongly
reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, by the way).
Last but not least, Spartan law was the least misogynous among the
ancient Greek city-states, and so it was the city-state in which women were
most likely to be loved rather than despised.
A Spartan Couple -- Side by Side
Before this general background we have two historical
figures, uncle and niece, man and wife, Leonidas and Gorgo. What can we glean about them from the
historical record? Is there any indication of what their relationship might
While we know that Leonidas was
Gorgo’s uncle, we do not know when either was born and so do not know the age
difference between them. Herodotus states
that Leonidas was born only “shortly” after his brother Doreius, in which case
he would have been roughly 60 years old at Thermopylae. Likewise, according to Herodotus, Gorgo was
only about eight years old in 500, which would have made her 28 when Leonidas
died at Thermopylae, or 32 years younger than he. Such an age difference would have been
unusual in Sparta, and there are several reasons why I believe this is
unlikely. First, Leonidas’ performance at Thermopylae in the forefront of the
most bitterly fought phalanx battles of history is improbable for a man of
sixty. Hoplite fighting was grueling
even if it lasted only a few hours on a single day. Second, it would mean
Leonidas had been nearly 50 when he married, again something that violated
Spartan law and custom. Finally, it would mean that Cleomenes’ only child had
not been born to him until he was over thirty, something which was also
unlikely for a ruling king.
It is far more likely that
Leonidas was not much more than 45 at Thermopylae, 45 being the age at which
Spartan reservists were no longer called-up for front-line service (i.e. the age at which they were considered no longer fit enough for the rigors of hoplite battles.) Likewise, it is very probable that Herodotus
underestimated Gorgo’s age in his depiction of her encounter with Aristagoras, either
intentionally (in order to discredit Cleomenes), or unintentionally (because he
was unaware that Spartan girls did not marry until their late teens). (In the rest of Greece, a girl was married as
soon as possible after her first period, so any girl still in her father’s home
was per definition a “child.”) It is far more likely, however, that Gorgo was a
teenager rather than a small child in 500 BC. This would mean that about 15
years separated Leonidas from Gorgo.
While less unusual than a 32 year
age difference, the age gap is still enough to mean that Leonidas would already
have been in school by the time Gorgo was born, and make it unlikely that they
spent much time together as children. The relationship would have been further
complicated by the fact that Cleomenes was the son of Anaxandridas’ second
wife, while Leonidas the son of his first. Leonidas’ full brother Doreius
refused to serve Cleomenes and twice led expeditions abroad to set up colonies.
While Leonidas appears to have been singularly loyal to Cleomenes, there is no
indication that he was particularly favored or close to Cleomenes – except the
The fact that Leonidas was, after
the departure of Doreius, Cleomenes’ heir apparent provides the most logical
explanation of Leonidas’ marriage to Gorgo.
Gorgo clearly presented the Spartan state with a problem since the most
important duty of Sparta’s kings was to lead her hoplite army – something no woman, not even a Spartan woman, could do.
This does not, however, mean that the throne could not be transferred –
like other property – from an heiress to her husband or son. Sparta’s inheritance laws were notoriously
woman-friendly, allowing for heiresses to inherit. Therefore, the Spartans must have worried
that any man who married Gorgo would claim the Agiad throne, if not for himself
then for his sons by Gorgo. By marrying Gorgo to his half-brother and closest
male relative, Cleomenes avoided any of these potential problems.
In short, the marriage of Gorgo
and Leonidas was almost certainly dynastic; the marriage need not have involved
any kind of inclination or affection on either side. But the case is not quite that simple. First, as the closest male relative of
Cleomenes, Leonidas would have been well positioned to claim the throne without taking Gorgo to wife, if he had
found the marriage objectionable.
Certainly, if he were the kind of man, as some historians claim, who was capable of committing fratricide and regicide to
lay claim to the throne in 480, than he need not have gone to the trouble of
marrying Cleomenes’ daughter. He would have found ways of disposing of her as
well as her father. Second, while Spartan
law did not give women any official say over their husbands, it hardly seems
likely that Gorgo, who went down in history as outspoken even in matters that
did not directly concern her, was going to meekly accept a man she did not
want. In short, while there is no evidence of strong mutual attraction, there
is good reason to believe that both parties to the marriage found it acceptable.
There are two incidents in the historical record, however,
that hint at something more than a marriage of convenience. The first of these is the famous
scene in which Gorgo deciphers the significance of the apparently blank writing
tablets sent by Demaratus. The way the
scene is written, it is clear that Demaratus has sent a message to the Spartan
state – not to Leonidas personally. But “no one” could figure out what the blank
tablets meant until Gorgo suggested scraping the wax off them. The importance of this scene is two-fold.
First, it is further evidence of Gorgo’s cleverness, but secondly, it shows that Gorgo was present when affairs
of state were being discussed. A message to Sparta
would most likely have been sent to the ephors or the Gerusia. If Gorgo was
present when either of these bodies were meeting, it could only have been
because Leonidas was willing to let her be present – a clear sign of respect.
And Gorgo returned the compliment. When asked by a foreign woman why Spartan
women were the only women in the world who “ruled their men,” Gorgo allegedly
said it was because Spartans were the only women who gave birth to men. Her classically Laconic answer went straight
to the heart of the matter, accurately diagnosing the low status of women
elsewhere in the Greek world as the product of misogyny. Only Spartan men, Gorgo implied, were man
enough not to be intimidated by strong, out-spoken women. That is not the
answer of a woman, who thinks little of her own husband.
This second incident is revealing for another reason as
well. Since most Greek women were
confined to the back of their own houses and rarely set foot
outside except for weddings, funerals and assisting in the childbirth of relatives, it is hardly likely that
Gorgo’s allegedly Attican interrogator was outside of her own four walls, much
less outside her city. The woman who
asked Gorgo about the strange power of Spartan woman was in her own
environment; Gorgo was the visitor. That means that Leonidas took Gorgo with
him when he travelled abroad. That in
turn suggests a far closer relationship than a conventional marriage.
Unfortunately, the only exchange between Leonidas and Gorgo that has been passed down to us it is
little more than ideological drivel.
Allegedly, Gorgo asked Leonidas
for his “instructions” or “orders” as he marched away to his death and he told
Gorgo to do her eugenic duty to “marry a good man and have good children.” This text-book exchange is so stereotypical
that it is very probably spurious, intended to give greater credence to the
ideology contained by putting it into the mouths of heroes centuries after both
Leonidas and Gorgo were long dead.
In summary, Leonidas was the son of a man who defied the
ephors for love of his mother. He married voluntarily a young woman, who had
already established a reputation for being out-spoken and politically acute. He
included her in contexts where affairs of state were being handled. He travelled
with her abroad. He had at least one child with her. And he may have explicitly
urged her to marry again and found a new family after his own death. A love
story? Not necessarily, but it has the makings of one….
Leonidas' relationship and marriage with Gorgo is an important component of the second book in my Leonidas Trilogy: A Peerless Peer.
Although Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae is widely viewed as
the epitome of “Spartan” behavior, it was in fact unique in Spartan history. No king had ever died in battle before
Thermopylae, and famously, less than hundred years later in 425 BC, several
hundred Spartans trapped on the island of Sphacteria surrendered rather than
die to the last man.Nor was this later
incident the act of isolated, dishonorable individuals. The Spartan government
was so anxious to recover the men who surrendered that it sued for peace.
Thus, far from doing only what he had been raised to do,
Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae was a very personal one. To understand it, it is useful to look at him
as an individual – starting with his childhood. For the next seven months, I will be looking at Leonidas' biography to trace how he came to make his stand at Thermopylae. I start with his childhood and youth.
Two aspects of Leonidas’
childhood may shed light on his later life: the bitter rift within his family and
his education in the agoge.
By the time Leonidas was born, his father had – very much
against Spartan custom – taken a second wife. The circumstances were
notable. King Anaxandridas, according to
Herodotus, was “devoted” to his wife, the daughter of his sister, but their
marriage was childless for years. The ephors, concerned about the extinction of
one of the royal houses, urged Anaxandridas to put aside his apparently barren
wife and marry again. Anaxandridas
flatly refused. Not only that, he explicitly stated that his wife was
“blameless,” and he called a divorce “improper.” (A Spartan way of saying “absolutely
unthinkable.”) The ephors reconsidered and came back with a new proposal; they suggested
Anaxandridas to take a second wife
for the sake of the dynasty. A key aspect of this deal was clearly that the
former princess and now queen was allowed to retain her status not only as wife
but as queen and that she almost certainly remained in the royal palace.
Anaxandridas’ second wife was a “child of the people” – probably
selected by the ephors because she was the direct descendent of Chilon the
Wise, the man usually attributed with greatly increasing the power of the
ephors, effectively turning them from mere agents of the kings into
independently powerful representatives of the Assembly. Anaxandridas “did his duty” and sired a son on
this second wife, but it is unlikely that she lived under the same roof as his
favored, first wife, or that she enjoyed his affections or attentions after she
had performed her dynastic function. Certainly, she bore no children except the
one son, Anaxandridas’ eldest son and heir, Cleomenes.
On the other hand, Anaxandridas’
first, allegedly barren, wife became pregnant shortly after the birth of
Cleomenes. Despite suspicions that this was a trick of some kind, she gave birth
-- in the presence of the ephors -- to a healthy son, Doreius. What is more,
she went on to give Anaxandridas two additional sons: Leonidas and Cleombrotus.
In short, Anaxandridas continued to
cohabitate with is first, beloved wife, while his second consort was apparently
ignored and neglected.
The importance for
Leonidas is that although he would initially have grown up in an apparently in
tact family unit, he would soon have been confronted with the underlying
rivalries between his older brothers, Cleomenes and Doreius. While we cannot know what Anaxandridas’ first
wife felt about his second (or the fact that her husband allowed himself to be
persuaded into sharing her bed), we can be certain that she favored her own son
over her rival’s. Because Cleomenes had been born first, however, he was
technically the heir apparent. Herodotus further claims that even as a child
Cleomenes showed signs of mental instability (“was not quite right in the
head”). Dorieus, in conctrast, was the
“finest young man of his generation.” This undoubtedly fed the hopes of his
mother – and Doreius himself -- that he would take his father’s place on the
Agiad throne when the time came. Herodotus records that Doreius was “confident”
he would succeed his father, and was correspondingly “indignant” when “the
Spartans” (the ephors? The Gerousia? The Assembly?) made Cleomenes king
instead. So indignant, we are told, that he could not bear to remain in Sparta under
his half-brother’s rule. Instead, he set
off with men and ships – but without the approval of Delphi – to set up a
colony in Africa.
Notably, Leonidas did not go with him. Nor did Leonidas go
with Doreius on his second, sanctioned adventure to Sicily, several years
later. There could be any number of reasons why not, but one plausible
explanation is that Leonidas was more at loggerheads with his older brother
Doreius than his half-brother Cleomenes.
Assuming that Cleonmenes was raised in a separate household and did not
attend the agoge, Leonidas may not have known Cleomenes very well at all.
Doreius, on the other hand, would have been constantly in front of him, the
“perfect” elder brother, who did everything right (as the finest in his
generation) and very likely his mother’s darling as well. Leonidas, on the
other hand, would have been the middle child of three same-sex children born to
his mother. Such children commonly
display distinct characteristics.
The middle child of three same-sex children is often
rebellious, difficult, irresponsible, and a brilliant under-achiever.
Alternatively, they can be the “peace-makers,” sensitive but secretive, more
focused on peer-groups than family. The most consistent characteristic of
middle-children is that they are almost always the opposite of their older
This might explain a key feature of Leonidas’ personality.
Because his older brother was rebellious and convinced of his superiority and
destiny to lead, Leonidas might have become obsessively loyal, the
quintessential “team player.” He might have been the “peace-maker” between the
two, antagonized branches of the family, and as such been rewarded with the
physical symbol of reconciliation, the hand of Cleomenes’ daughter Gorgo.
in the agoge, on the other hand, united him with his subjects in a unique way.
The hardships of the agoge were designed to make youth bond together. A common upbringing, shared hardships and
follies, can even today create a sense of belonging between class-mates that bridges
political differences and is more powerful than business partnerships. The more difficult, rigorous and elitist such
“school ties” are, the most enduring they are likely to be. The Spartan agoge
appears to have worked remarkably well in giving Spartan citizens a sense of
common identity and responsibility for one another. Usually, the kings and
future kings were excluded from this
close-knit society, however, because the heirs to the throne (in
Leonidas’ generation Cleomenes) did not attend the agoge. But Leonidas, like
Doreius, did. He would have forged close bonds with his classmates, and been
accepted as “one of the boys” even by those who did not particularly know or
Furthermore, Leonidas did not became king until later in
life. Certainly he was a full citizen. Possibly he had been an “ordinary”
Spartan for almost half a century before he ascended the throne. Most of his life he was therefore remained
“one of the boys.” He belonged to the
club, but he wasn’t the leader, not like Doreius. This might have undermined
his authority at one level. One quote is recorded in which allegedly someone
challenged him saying: “Except for being king, you are no better than the rest
of us.” This quote reinforces the image of Leonidas as having being “ordinary,”
rather than “extraordinary” before he came to his brother’s throne. It would also fit in with the pattern of an underachieving
But once he was king,
Leonidas could count upon double loyalty from his subjects. He could count upon
not only the loyalty Spartans owed their kings as descendents of Heracles and
demi-gods, but also upon the more visceral, emotional, blind loyalty of his
comrades. Leonidas was both a king and
one of the boys.
I think this is an important aspect of Leonidas’ appeal. At
Thermopylae, he was not so much commanding subordinates or subjects as rallying
comrades. The paid him back in the highest currency known to man: with their
loyalty unto death. The first book in my Leonidas trilogy, A Boy of the Agoge, hypothesizes in fiction form about Leonidas' childhood.
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 labourers. In my own
lifetime the fetter they were bound with were still preserved in Tegea, hanging
up round the temple of Athene Alea.” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, 66)
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 at this time!) 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 is that
Sparta opted to negotiate with Tegea rather than to resort to arms. We also
know that the resulting “non-aggression” pact became to 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 Tegean conflict probably
fell in the life-time 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 re-location 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.
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
Modern histories of Sparta
tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without
providing a great deal of detail. The
reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the
few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the early history), the
literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous.
Indeed, he describes Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us
only in fragments, as the only "reliable" [sic!] literary source, while pointing out
that the ancient sources Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.
Yet, arguably, nothing was
more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a radically
unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia. W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the
conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant
colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis
of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue
that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire
people resulted in permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a
militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from
the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict
The facts of conquest which
are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by
the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th
Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter
struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one
involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore
refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is
usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two
generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years.
Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little
more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that
it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long
as the conquest of Troy.
Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence
into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.
We also know that in the first
quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to
Lycurgus. (I know there has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the
Spartan constitution, but I find W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan
revolution to the period between 700 and 670 cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp.
55-58.) Furthermore, we know that
Sparta’s only colony was established at the turn or very end of the 8th
Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new
constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony
are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.
Conventionally, these facts
are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the
late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This
conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that
led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan
reforms. The later, however, are usually seen as contemporary with Tyrataios
and were, therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with
Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that
Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a
revolt of some kind. So the allegedly brutally oppressed Messenians were within just two generations capable of financing hoards of hoplites and
fielding entire hoplite armies.
This taxes my imagination.
Periods of intense domestic unrest rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have
greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve
pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.
The history of modern
revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises
or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions
occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly
in a crisis that threatens recent gains.
If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting
hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.
following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s
kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia, invaded – and then
got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to
obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the
poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver
on that promise? What if, as the war
dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What
if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the
war to Laconia?
Such a situation would have
produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the
domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the
founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new,
revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict
with organized, well-armed Messenian forces.
Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least
in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three
generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why
Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual
threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so
singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.
The paranoid excesses of late
classical Sparta (krypteia, mass executions, etc.) followed the Helot Revolt of
465, but they probably took the disproportionate form they did because there was
still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized
Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward
the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how
memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish
relations today. I believe it was more likely the trauma of a lost war than an
unbroken series of victories by an invincible army sparked the revolution that made Sparta the unique society it was.
Sparta – What Homer’s Helen tells us about Sparta
Raphael Sealey in his study Women
and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: 1990) makes a strong case that
the marriage customs and status of women as portrayed in the works of Homer are
incompatible with customs in classical Athens. He argues that: “The Athenian
and Homeric concepts of marriage are so markedly different that one cannot have
developed from the other.” (p. 126)
Sealey furthermore argues that the depiction of Helen in both Iliad and Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of the Athenian
theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her
“dear child,” while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy
and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen. In the Odyssey, Helen is depicted in Sparta apparently
enjoying the respect of the entire population and providing wise advice to her
husband. It is striking that such a
portrayal of Helen is consistent with Spartan tradition, where Helen was
honored alongside Menelaos, temples were built to her and an annual holiday was
celebrated in her honor.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the Helen portrayed by Homer
in the Odyssey is that she, like
Gorgo, is shown to be cleverer than her men! She is the first to recognize
Telemachos (Odyssey 4:138:32), and it is Helen who deciphers the significance
of an eagle carrying a goose (Odyssey
This begs the question if Homeric traditions with respect to women
had a stronger influence on Sparta, particularly Archaic and pre-revolutionary
Sparta, than they did on Athens. Is it possible that Doric traditions generally
owed more to the world described in the works of Homer than did Ionian
traditions? Admittedly, we do not know
just what society the Iliad and Odyssey actually describe and many argue that
the world of Homer, like Homer himself, are completely fictional. Yet repeatedly, archeological evidence has
come to light that verifies elements of the great epics previously dismissed as
“fiction” (e.g. helmets with boars tusks).
We know that women in Sparta enjoyed exceptional freedom and
status compared, particularly, to women in Athens. While this difference is
traditionally attributed to the laws of Lycurgus, it is unreasonable to presume
that something as fundamental as attitudes toward women would change
abruptly. It is far more likely that
women in Sparta already enjoyed higher status and that the revolution in Sparta
that followed the First Messenian War only codified, institutionalized and developed
to new levels pre-existing tendencies. The fact that Cretan women, Achaian
women and women in Gortyn also had notably more freedom and status than women
in classical Athens is further evidence that there was a wider, pre-classical
tradition which contrasted sharply to the misogynous practices and laws of classical
It would be interesting to know if Doric traditions differed
markedly to Ionic traditions in other spheres as well – and equally intriguing
to investigate to what extent (if any) Ionic traditions were influenced by
Asiatic customs. Is it possible that Athenian misogyny had more to do with the
influence of the East – of Babylon and Persia – than with the roots of Greek
civilization? Was Sparta’s comparatively greater respect for women perhaps more
“Greek”? If so, was Sparta's entire society and ethos closer to its "Greek" roots than those of Athens?