Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Thermopylae Day One - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Thermopylae was a three-day battle, and most accounts focus on the final day and the sacrifice of Leonidas, his three hundred Spartiates and the Thespians, but the first two days, before betrayal, were remarkable for their success. Below is an excerpt from "A Heroic King."

The other allies were wild with jubilation. They were jumping up and down, clapping one another on the back, and singing paeans to the Gods. Some had formed lines, arms on each other’s shoulders, and were dancing despite the rain. They had not only survived the day, they had held the entire might of the Persian Empire to a draw. They had stopped the invincible Immortals in their tracks. The Pass was still in Greek hands, and the Gods were clearly on the Greek side. How else explain that Zeus himself with his thunderbolts had driven Xerxes from his viewing platform? How else explain that when the Greeks were in the moment of greatest danger, the rain and wind had forced the invincible Immortals to withdraw?

Leonidas was too tired to join in the rejoicing. He was far more concerned about bringing their wounded and dead off the field, and anxious that every man still alive was properly treated. Meander was hovering around him, anxious to bind up his wounds, but Leonidas wanted the names of the dead. “Where’s Alkander?” he demanded, abruptly noticing the absence of his closest, dearest, oldest friend. No sooner did he miss Alkander than he felt instantly and helplessly lost. He was a little boy again, in that horrible storm during the Phouxironly Alkander wasn’t with him. He couldn’t survive without Alkander! It was a moment before he remembered he wasn’t supposed to survive.

Prokles pointed to the bloody field and growled, “He’s out there looking for Sperchias.”

Sperchias? That was almost as bad. He and Sperchias had been together on Kythera…just like Euryleon. Only now did it sink in.

“Sit down, Leo!” Prokles ordered. “Let Meander look after you. You’re losing a pint of your god-damned royal blood, and for all we know it’s the only pint left from Herakles.” As he spoke, Prokles pushed him into the imperfect shelter of his tent to at least get him out of the drenching rain.

As he sat, Leonidas caught sight of his hoplon. With horror, he registered that the beautiful bronze work was torn, bashed, punctured, and clogged with clotted human remainsa hideous wreck. Only one eye of the lion was recognizable for what it had been. The rest, once so lifelike and defiant, was just junk, beyond repair. Leonidas felt a rush of shame. How could he have been so irresponsible as to take a work of art into battle? Why hadn’t he left the shield at home for Pleistarchos? Men were mortal, meant to die, but artart was meant to be immortal and transcendent. Something as beautiful as this shield should never have been subjected to this kind of violence! It should never have been violated by war. He wanted to weep for what was irretrievably lost to all mankind.

Prokles’ voice snapped him out of his spiraling grief. “You’ll need one of the spare hoplons,” he commented matter-of-factly, and before Leonidas could even answer, Oliantus ducked into the tent to announce, “Fourteen confirmed dead, sir. Five still missing. Twenty two seriously injured, plus Eurytus and Aristodemos. A total of forty three casualties.”

Leonidas stared at him. “At that rate, we have just five more days before we’re wiped out.” For the very first time since he had arrived at Thermopylae, Leonidas seriously wondered whether they could hold the Pass until the Spartan army arrived.

“Our casualties were disproportionately high today because we took the field against the Immortals. The other allied contingents have less severe casualties.”

“What about the Thespians?”

“I don’t have the exact numbers

“Get them. Or wait,” Leonidas tried to stand, but Prokles and Oliantus both shoved him back down. Prokles signaled for one of the helots to fetch Demophilus.

Meanwhile Oliantus continued, “The helots have managed to get a fire going in a long pit behind the hillock and have rigged up canvas covers to protect it from the rain. They are roasting four pigs. The Gods alone know where they found embers and dry wood. As soon as Meander gets you patched up, we should head over. The others won’t start without you.”

“Tell them not to stand on ceremony at a time like this. They can start without

Precisely at a time like this,” Oliantus corrected, “we need to remember who we are and who you are, my lord. At no other time is a Spartan king more important to us than on the eve of battle.”

Leonidas bowed his head in silent acknowledgement, but then asked anxiously, “How badly wounded are Maron and Alpheus?”

This brought a smile to Oliantus’ tired face. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. They swear the Twins appeared and stood on either side of them, fighting with them and protecting them with their divine shields. Alpheus lost an eye, and Maron’s ankles are bloated up like the fetlocks of a plow horse, but they aren’t going to die.”

Demophilus arrived, and Leonidas shook off Meander and Prokles to get to his feet. They gazed at each other silently; then Demophilus put his arms around Leonidas and murmured, “Thank you.”

“Whatever for?”

“Without you, they would have run; they would have let the Persians just flood across Boiotia without even trying to stop them. Now they know it can be done,” he continued, gesturing toward the men singing and dancing around other campfires. “Now I know it can be done. We can beat them!”

Thursday, September 1, 2016

300 - Thermopylae's Monuments

Herodotus refers to three separate monuments erected before his time to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. There was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. There was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas,” and a special monument erected by the Spartans with a dedication that in one common translation ran: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, in obedience to the laws, we lie.”

This simple epitaph has, I believe, been the source of much confusion about Sparta down the ages. It is widely interpreted to mean that the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae had no option of retreating. Allegedly, these men lay buried in the Pass at Thermopylae, so far from home, because Sparta’s “laws” forbade retreat regardless of the odds or the certainty of death.

But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both surrendered and retreated in a variety of other engagements over the centuries. The Spartans didn’t seem to think there was a “law” against retreat even under far less threatening and less hopeless situations than that presented to Leonidas at Thermopylae. Are we to believe Leonidas and his 300 were the only Spartans who lived and died by Sparta’s laws? Or could there be another explanation of the epitaph?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the fact that there were, in fact, two Spartan monuments: the one to Leonidas and the one to the other Spartiates. If we separate the two, then we see the glimmer of an answer because it suggests that the “law” that the 300 obeyed may not have applied to Leonidas at all.

Leonidas had an option. Leonidas could have decided to pull-out of the Pass as soon as it became indefensible. Leonidas would not have broken any “law” if he had done so, because there was no law that required Spartans to “fight until death rather than retreat one step.”

But there was a law that required obedience to Sparta’s kings as long as they were beyond the borders of Lacedaemon in command of Sparta’s armies. This law is documented and was widely respected.  Sparta’s kings could be charged, tried and exiled once they were at home, but not during war, not abroad. As long as they were abroad on campaign, their troops were bound to obey them, and for the most part did. 

What this means is that once Leonidas decided to stay and die – as he no doubt believed was his destiny based on the oracle from Delphi – his body guard had no option but to stay with him. There is anecdotal evidence recorded by Plutarch that Leonidas tried to save some of his companions by asking them to deliver dispatches, but the “older men” saw through him and refused. This is consistent with a king determined to face his destiny, but distressed by the knowledge that his decision will drag three hundred of Sparta’s finest with him.

The erection of two separate monuments and the epitaph makes sense in this context as well. Leonidas was the lion, who decided to go down fighting defiantly rather than live to fight a second day. After he had made that courageous decision, however, his bodyguard had no choice and for them, therefore, they lay buried in a foreign pass not as particular heroes but simply “in obedience to the laws.” 

Leonidas the King, his companions and their stand at Thermopylae is the subject of:

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Alternative Views of Spartan Sexuality - Excerpts from "A Peerless Peer"

Welcome to the Rave Reviews Book Club 2016 Book and Blog Party. Helena P. Schrader is delighted to participate in this an event featuring a wide-range of talent from all genres from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

If you leave a comment on this blog entry, you will qualify for a free ebook copy of "A Peerless Peer."  As I discussed in the last entry, Sparta differed significantly from other Greek cities with respect to it's laws against pederasty and attitudes toward women. In the following excerpts from "A Peerless Peer" I offer some alternative -- I believe far more plausible -- depictions of Spartan attitudes toward sex.

The first excerpt looks at reaching puberty in Sparta, starting with a helot mother's reflections and sliding into the views of a Spartan maiden and her grandmother:

Laodice had lived in Laconia long enough to know that the sexually active youths of the agoge considered helot girls “fair game.” Not that many of the youths of the agoge would actually rape the girls (though it happened now and again); most knew that using force against the helots working for another Spartiate could get them into serious trouble. The fact that Laodice’s girls were Leonidas’ helots made the situation even clearer. It was well known that Leonidas would not tolerate any abuse of his helots, and any youth who went too far would lose his hide.

The problem was that Laodice’s girls seemed to have picked up the Laconian attitude toward these youths—namely, that it was an honor to be deflowered by a true Spartiate. The neighbor girls candidly argued that there could be nothing better than a Spartiate lover who paid you in game he had hunted or trapped, or even made the girls pretty trinkets with rolled stones and carved figurines.

Their mothers had nothing to say against the practice. It seemed they had all done it in their youth, and could point proudly to this or that item that had been a gift of this or that Spartiate—now respectable citizens with wives and children and honors. So the mothers encouraged their daughters’ promiscuousness, saying that it added to the family diet and income, while the girls themselves loved being courted and bedded by the “golden” youth of the agoge.

The smarter girls even built up a dowry from the gifts of their Spartiate lovers to make them more attractive to their own class. To Laodice’s incomprehension, the offspring of such unions carried no particular stigma. They were simply raised like other helot children, either by the girl’s family or by the girl herself after she married.

To be sure, helot youths sometimes resented the deflowering of their future brides by their masters if they already fancied a girl, but there wasn’t much they could do to stop it. Mantiklos had gotten into a terrible fight because he caught the girl he was courting with a meleirene. He’d attacked her in his rage, provoking her brothers to come to her defense. Mantiklos had ended up with a broken nose, several cracked ribs, and more simmering hatred toward the Spartiates than ever. But Laodice knew that the more mercenary helot youths actively encouraged their sweethearts to get as much material gain from their lovers as possible.


As the summer progressed, even the Eurotas shrank to a ghost of its normal self. With baskets of washing on their heads, the helot women had to cross the mud flats left behind on the riverbed as the water retreated. The mud clung to their legs and drew them deeper into the morass with each precarious step. When finished, they had to trudge back with the wet laundry on their heads, and sometimes women lost their balance in the treacherous quagmire, spilled their laundry, and had to start all over again.

For the youths of the agoge, the low water meant they had to wade through the stinking mud just to go for a swim at all—and then wade through the mud again afterward, getting dirty and sweaty again. The boys therefore chopped down trees and built a precarious walkway across the mud to the deeper parts of the river; but this only led to fierce fights between gangs of boys defending the bridge and those trying to take it. Generally they all ended up in the mud flats on either side of the bridge, coated in mud like piglets.

Disgusted, the teenage girls withdrew and found their own swimming hole farther downstream. The currents of the river, flowing over the roots of some ancient plane trees on a little island, had carved out a deep pool. The girls could reach the island with dry feet, because the channel on the eastern shore had dried up and the girls could leap across the narrow gully. The maidens stripped down, hanging their chitons on the trees, and with squeals and giggles of delight slipped into the cool water. They sank under the surface and let the water sweep their long hair downstream, then popped up again to catch their breath and wring the water from their hair. Their high-pitched chattering and giggling seemed to carry for miles.

The girls were soon discovered by some off-duty meleirenes, who didn’t bother with the detour around the eastern shore and plunged right into the river, chasing the girls back to their island and their clothes. It was a silly game, as far as Gorgo could see. Disgusted with the brainless behavior of her friends, she grabbed her things and fled.

One of the meleirenes tried to cut her off at the gully, but she gave him a kick in the direction of his groin that he just managed to deflect and told him bluntly, “I’m not interested!” Her tone of voice was too decisive for him to mistake it as flirting. He let her go.

Gorgo ran barefoot across the floodplain, which was now starting to bake and crack, and scrambled up the far bank, pulling herself up on dusty saplings. Only when she reached the road did she untie her sandals from around her neck and put them on her feet. She started tramping at a good marching pace in the direction of her grandmother’s kleros.

When she arrived half an hour later, the staff greeted her with exclamations of dismay. She usually rode over, and today she looked much the worse for wear. “Good heavens, girl! You look like something the cat dragged in!” her grandmother’s old housekeeper exclaimed with humor.

Gorgo was reminded of the way her mother had always said that to her. She snapped unkindly at the old helot woman, “Maybe I am something the cat dragged in! Leave me alone!”

Overhearing this remark as she arrived, Chilonis exclaimed sharply, “Gorgo! You’ve no right to use that tone of voice to poor Irene! Apologize at once!”

Gorgo was in no mood to apologize to anyone. “Why should I?” she retorted. “She says I looked like something the cat dragged in, and all I said—”

“I heard what you said! It’s not what you said but the way you said it! What on earth has got into you? Apologize to Irene and then come with me.”

Gorgo had been late to mature. At thirteen, many had mistaken her for a child of ten or eleven. She had not started her monthly flux until this past spring, as she turned fifteen, and her breasts were only just starting to develop. Chilonis had therefore already diagnosed teenage moodiness and insolence, and she doubted if there were much she could do but wait for Gorgo to grow out of this unpleasant phase.

Gorgo turned to the helot and said in an angry, uncontrite voice, “I’m sorry if I was rude to you, but I don’t think it’s particularly nice to call someone ‘something the cat dragged in.’ I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if I said it to you!”

The woman opened her mouth, flabbergasted, and then looked at her mistress, who sighed and said simply, “I’ll deal with her, Irene. You go back to your work.”

Chilonis then led the way out of the kitchen to her own study and sat down to face the now sullen Gorgo. “If you’re going to go around dressed like a boy of the agoge, with your hair hanging unkempt about your shoulders and your feet filthy, you deserve to be told what you look like.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? Sit around combing out my hair and oiling my skin for all the boys to see, like Nausica and Alkyone and Phaenna?”

Chilonis noted that now Phaenna, Gorgo’s one and only friend, had apparently joined the clique of girls who were taking a pronounced interest in the opposite sex. That was normal. But she understood Gorgo, too.

Gorgo plopped herself down on the bench by the door, her long, lovely legs thrust out in front of her, but with her shoulders hunched and her head hanging as she picked absently at her frayed belt, and complained, “The only thing they can talk about is boys, boys, boys—who’s won what race, who’s had to go down to the pits, who’s been caught with some helot girl. It drives me crazy!”

“Um,” Chilonis commented. It could indeed be tedious—but it was also biological and inevitable. “Aren’t you interested in any of them?”

“The meleirenes?” Gorgo asked, horrified. “A bunch of pimply little runts, whose only interest in us is sex! And they don’t care which of us they get their hands on, either!” Gorgo shot back.

Chilonis laughed—because it was so true.

“I don’t see what’s so funny!” Gorgo demanded, her green eyes flashing and her lips thrust out in a stubborn pout. “You’re the one who always said a woman isn’t just a bedmate or a breeding factory—not to use the language they do!”

Chilonis sighed. It wasn’t easy being fifteen.

In this second excerpt,  Leonidas and a Corinthian youth Lycos, who has been partially crippled in an accident, discuss the difference in cultures after precipitously leaving an Athenian symposium.

They caused a small commotion when they reached the ship, and at first the helmsman was angry. He insisted on sending a crewman to tell Archilochos where his son was; but eventually the crew calmed down and went back to sleep, while Leonidas and Lychos settled on the deck between the steering oars. Leonidas accepted wine in his water, and they talked while the stars turned slowly overhead.

Lycos asked, “Why aren’t you married?” 

“I’m still on active service and have to live in barracks,” Leonidas answered, hoping Lychos had not heard that many Spartiates married anyway.

“That sounds horrible,” Lychos admitted candidly.

Leonidas thought about it. “You’ll laugh, but in a way it makes me enjoy the rest of life more.”

Lychos did laugh, but remarked, “Now, perhaps, you understand about my pain! It is horrible, but it reminds me that I am alive. And without it, if I were dead, I would not be sitting on this warm deck with a cooling breeze and my first real friend beside me.”

“I’m honored. But what of Chambias?”

“Chambias?” Lychos looked up at the stars. “Chambias has always been my friend because our fathers want it; but, you see, tonight he would have been like the Athenians—”

“And Euryleon!” Leonidas snorted.

“Yes, and Euryleon. He would have justified staying and drinking until he couldn’t walk in a straight line and had to vomit in the street while slaves guided him home. That’s what they’re all doing now, you know? They will drink until they can’t see straight or stand upright, and then they will stagger home, feeling miserable but telling themselves they are ‘real men.’ What does being pissing drunk have to do with manhood? I don’t understand it.”

Leonidas didn’t understand it either, so they were comfortably silent together until Lychos remarked, “When Kallixenos was my lover, he often hurt me. He knew he was doing it, yet he did it intentionally—just to see how far he could go, to test just how great my love for him was.”

“Then Kallixenos is more than an ass, he is a bastard.”

“He will be a very powerful bastard,” Lychos reflected. “He is the kind of man who would be a tyrant if he could be.”

“You know that in Sparta the sexual misuse of a child, male or female, is against our laws, don’t you?” Leonidas asked.

“And do all Spartans live by your laws?”

“Of course not. There are as many cruel and selfish men in Sparta as anywhere; but at least they have to do it in secret and fear the scorn of their neighbors and officers if they are discovered. If a child’s parents find out, for example, they can demand terrible punishment.”

Lychos thought about that and nodded. “You know, it sometimes seems as if you Spartans live your whole lives in fear of your neighbors and officers. You have so little chance to be yourselves, for better or for worse. You must all wear the same clothes. You even have to wear your hair and beards the same way! And you must behave in set ways and follow the same profession.”

Leonidas thought about this carefully, because there had been times when he had resented all these things; but he asked back, “Is it really all that different in Corinth and Athens? Don’t potters’ sons become potters and tinkers’ sons tinkers? And it seems to me the dictates of fashion are as stringent as our traditions.

“On the whole, yes, but there is no compulsion about it. I think what horrifies outsiders about Sparta is that it is all enforced by law and custom and is so, well, brutal.”

“But it was Kallixenos who hurt you,” Leonidas pointed out. “And Spartans aren’t really all the same. In fact, the reasoning behind us all having a kleros of the same size and all dressing in the same manner is that then the real differences—those of character rather than mere wealth or station—are more evident. On the surface, Kallixenos is a well-educated, well-mannered young man. I imagine that his good clothes and good looks deceive many about his true nature.”

“Yes,” Lychos admitted; “but so do your clothes and looks deceive, Leonidas. When we see you, muscular and tanned and standing straight as a spear, we see only a stupid Spartan hoplite, but you are far more subtle and complex than you appear to be.”

“I suppose we all are,” Leonidas concluded. They left it at that and drifted off to sleep.

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