Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

An Evening at the Syssitia - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I discussed the Spartan custom of syssitia, or dining clubs. In today's excerpt from A Peerless Peer we see inside a syssitia. Gorgo, Leonidas' niece, has recently announced that her father intends to marry her to a foreigner, and she has named Leonidas as her preferred husband.



The entire syssitia fell silent as Leonidas entered, and they looked at him expectantly. He frowned. "If you're gossiping about me, I'll leave again so you can carry on."

"You'll do nothing of the sort!" Nikostratos countered.

Leonidas turned on his heel to leave. Nikostratos nodded to two of the youngest members of the mess, and they sprang to their feet to block the door.

"You'll come in and sit down with us and behave like an adult," Nikostratos told off the younger man.

"I'm not going to talk about this nonsense."

"Calm down and have your soup!"

Warily Leonidas eased himself down on the couch and held out his hands to the mess-boys. One of the boys held the bowl while the other poured water over his hands, and then handed him a towel.  Leonidas watched the entire ritual intently as if he were seeing it for the first time. The boys, both eight-year-olds, were very diligent, but just as they finished, one of them risked glancing up at him. Leonidas recognized the look of boyish delight at the prospect of hearing something worth telling their friends. Frowning, he sent the boys scampering back toward the kitchen.

A moment later they were back, rolling in the soup in a deep cauldron. The boys filled individual bowls with the thick stew while a loaf of warm bread was passed around. Leonidas tore off a chunk of bread and dipped it into the steaming-hot soup. Only after he had put the bread in his mouth did Nikostratos open his attack. "You realize your elder brother has outmaneuvered you, don't you?" he asked casually, not even looking at Leonidas -- but there was no question to whom he was speaking.

Leonidas looked up furiously, his mouth too full to retort, while Nikostratos continued, "King Cleomenes was called in to explain himself to the ephors, and he swore solemnly that you were his first choice for his beloved daughter -- but that you wouldn't take her. It was only because you'd already turned him down --"

Leonidas swallowed what was left in his mouth and insisted, "That's complete nonsense! He's lying!"

"Oh, I don't doubt he's lying, Leo. That's not the point. The point is, he has now publicly gone on record saying that you were his first choice as husband for his daughter, and only because you refused has he been forced to look for alternatives. He insisted that his daughter is too intelligent, independent, and precocious -- all of which is patently true -- to give to anyone but a prince or, short of that, a ruler.  He suggested that a Persian satrap would be more suitable than an ordinary ranker."

"That's ridiculous!" Leonidas scoffed.

"Maybe, but he has neatly shifted the blame for seeking a foreign bridegroom from himself to you," Nikostratos pointed out. "And made you look doubly bad, since you are well over thirty, unmarried, and childless, and so in open violation of the law already."

"Meanwhile, your other brother is talking divorce, so he would be free to marry Gorgo," Euryleon joined in.

"Brotus?" Leonidas asked, incredulous. "Brotus wouldn't last a day with Gorgo -- she'd dissect him!"

Euryleon laughed, but retorted. "But she'd do it so intelligently, he might not even notice -- thick as he is." The remark harvested a general laugh from their mess-mates.

Nikostratos, however, insisted seriously, "Well, as next in line to the throne, there is a certain logic to Brotus marrying Gorgo." He wiped the bottom of his bowl clean with his bread.

"There's no logic to it at all!" Leonidas retorted hotly. "Besides, Brotus has no grounds for divorce -- and Sinope will kill him if he even mentions it!"

"Well, in that case, for an Agiad prince there is always the precedent of two wives."

"That would only perpetuate the entire nightmare of two rivals for the throne. Pausanias would naturally claim the throne as the first born, and any child by Gorgo would claim it by right of his double royal blood. The ephors can't be that stupid!"

Nikostratos shrugged and signaled for more soup. "Leonidas, you may well be right. I admit the situation is unprecedented. Ever since the sons of Herakles came to this valley, there has never been a situation exactly like this. But you can't just look on this as a personal matter. There will be consequences to your refusal to marry your niece and not all of them will be to your liking."

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sparta's "Peculiar" Dining Clubs

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meals. These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Today I take a closer look.


Although it was common, popular and indeed a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory precondition for attaining citizenship; failure to be accepted or failure to pay mess fees could cost a man his citizenship.

The origins of this peculiar tradition are controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time from the desirability of men of different ages dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to a conscious desire on the part of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to – and incidentally more successful at – undermining family structures and influence.

The problem with the comparison to 20th Century totalitarian states is two-fold. First, modern anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. They sought to undermine the family because families are inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stresses the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta in his essay. If Sparta was essentially conservative, then no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.

The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is not a particularly good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but most men today nevertheless eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.

I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, to the disappointment of visiting foreigners, syssitia were notorious for the absence of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the traditional Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. In short, attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic destruction of family and individuality reveal an alarming lack of objectivity.

A more appropriate parallel to the modern world might be membership in fraternities. Applicants to syssitia, as to fraternities, had to be accepted by existing members. This meant that far from being uniform, Spartan syssitia had different characters. Some syssitia would have been more intellectual than others, some more musical, some more conservative, and others outright radical. Some syssitia might have had close affiliations to one or the other royal house, and every Spartan with ambition would have expected and relied on support from his “fraternity brothers” throughout his life. 

Spartan syssitia also shared some characteristics of political associations. We know that Spartans scorned the Athenian custom of men hanging around in the agora discussing public affairs. Instead, Spartan men were supposed to discuss affairs of state behind the closed doors of their syssitia where, presumably, no helots, perioikoi or foreigners could hear them. While this may seem indicative of a paranoid or secretive society, it may in fact have been intended to encourage men to speak up more freely and more candidly than was possible in public. There are many people, after all, who shy away from speaking in a crowd or among strangers, yet nevertheless have opinions worth hearing. The syssitia would have provided a context in which such men could debate issues of importance and formed their opinions heard.

Of course, to the extent that members of a syssitia were similar in their interests and inclinations and familiar with one another since childhood, the character of a syssitia may have the closest parallel in the modern world to the German “stammtisch” – that table in the local pub at which a group of men meets night after night to discuss everything from football to fashion and politics to pop-culture. Every “stammtisch” has its own clientele, its own group dynamics, and its own character – and they all get turned out at closing bell and sent home to their families, just as in Sparta.

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



    

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

An Ionian in Sparta - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of this month I discussed how Sparta's culture of "less is more" pervaded Spartan society. But the impact of this philosophy was not the only feature of the Spartan lifestyle that bewildered outsiders. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," an Ionian visitor gets a "shocking" introduction to Sparta.



What impressed Aristagoras most, however, was the behavior of the citizens.  The boys, as he had expected, were shaved, barefoot and scruffy -- but he had never met such well-mannered youth in his whole life! Even the poorest urchins in Miletos were rude and impudent, while the sons of the rich were spoiled and self-centered. Here, all Leonidas had to do was call to any of these boys, and they came and stood at attention before him with their eyes down and their hands at their sides...

The young men...were impressive too. Again, they behaved with marked deference and respect when Leonidas introduced them.... Aristagoras told himself that there had to fat, lazy, weak and ugly Spartans, but they were not in evidence.

What was in evidence everywhere were the women.  Hadn't Homer described Sparta as the 'land of beautiful women'? Evidently he had not been referring to Helen alone. Aristagoras was utterly amazed -- and a little disconcerted -- to discover that women dominated the Spartan agora. In other Greek cities, the agora was not just a place of commerce, but above all the place for men to congregate, exchange news, and discuss everything from politics and court cases to the latest theory of alchemy. In Sparta, in contrast, there were no citizens in evidence at all -- only craftsmen, merchants, farmers selling their good -- and women.

At first Aristagoras was not entirely certain just who these women were. On the one hand they wore old-fashioned peplos, which meant they showed quite a lot of leg when moving rapidly, but there was nothing lewd about them. They generally wore a himation up over their head (though not shrouding their faces), and they appeared more intent on striking a bargain with the salesmen than on attracting attention to themselves. In other words, they were not whores. Because they were shopping and wore neither gold nor silver, they might have been household slaves, he thought, but most wore very expensive fabrics beautifully dyed in rich colors, set off with bold borders, and clasped with heavy bronze, silver or ivory pins. Furthermore, they walked upright and seemed very self-confident. "Who are these women?" Aristagoras asked at last.

"Mostly citizen's wives."

"Your wives have to do the daily shopping?" Aristagoras gasped in shock. He would never have let his wife go down to the agora and haggle with craftsmen and other charlatans. She couldn't add two and two together, anyway. "You own wife comes here?" Aristagoras pressed him.

"Of course." When she was in Sparta, Leonidas added mentally with a sigh.

"Have you no slaves?"

"The helots do the heavy work, but it is usual for a Spartiate wife to make most household purchases."

"So your women have driven the men out," Aristagoras concluded, because obviously, men would not willingly congregate where they would be surrounded by a bunch of gossiping women.

"It is considered bad manners for a young man to loiter around the agora," Leonidas replied.

"Why? What can be bad about meeting with one's fellows and discussing the developments of the world?"

"We can do that in our syssitia -- not here in the open where helots, perioikoi, and strangers may see and hear.  Besides, there is a prohibition against Spartiates having coins and 'engaging in trade,' which some of our more conservative citizens interpret to mean even daily shopping. Our wives are not subject to the same prohibitions, because they have control of the household finances and must be able to both buy and sell goods as needed."

"But -- that is madness! You let women run your finances?"

"For the most part, yes, our domestic finances. They city has an elected treasurer, of course -- a highly respected man of great knowledge in mathematics and accounting."

"Yes, but how can you let your women run your private affairs? Their brains are underdeveloped, and they are not -- no matter how much they try -- capable of understanding higher principles. Why, if I let my wife run my household, we would have noting but sweets and pretty baubles, and we would all starve."

Leonidas shrugged, "We've been letting our wives run our households for the last forty Olympiads, and our prosperity is unimpaired."

The evidence appeared to support Leonidas. Lacedaemon was certainly prosperous, but Aristagoras could not believe women had anything to do with it....

While the mature women were baffling and incomprehensible to Aristagoras, the girls were delectable -- and they appeared to run around everywhere.  He could hardly credit his eyes when he first spotted them watching the boys at drill outside the city, dismissing them as younger boys watching their elders. But at the baths and then the racecourse, there could no longer be any doubt. Nubile and even younger prostitutes were put on display in a most unusual way. Namely, they were allowed to strip completely naked and then take part in sports alongside the young men. Apparently, by the time they got to be sexually mature they were sequestered away for their paying clients, but the young one were evidently put on display like this to encourage youths and men to bid for first rights or the like. It was an intriguing custom, and Aristagoras was about to ask more about it, when one of the girls walked right up to them.

She had just finished bathing, come ashore, dried herself down in full view of everyone, and then pulled on a simple chiton. She was still rubbing dry her bright red hair when she came over to them. "Excuse me," she said shortly to the stranger, and then turned at once to his companion. "Uncle Leo, may I ride Cyclone in the Gymnopaedia?" Then before he could get a word in edgewise, she hastened to assure him. "I know it's my own fault that Shadow isn't up to it anymore, but she's couldn't have won even without the accident. She's sweet, but she's not really fast. Not like Cyclone. If you let me ride her, I'll bring you the laurels! Cyclone is the best mare in all of Lacedaemon! You won't be riding her yourself, will you? I asked Eirana last time I saw her, but she said she didn't ride anymore. Please let me ride her!" 

"I'm not going to make a decision now," Leondias told his neice simply because he was embarrassed by the way she had plunged in, ignoring the stranger. Pointedly he added,"This is your father's guest, Aristagoras of Miletos."

Too late, Gorgo realized that the man with her uncle was someone important. She had been so determined to make her case to Leonidas that she had dismissed the man with him as "some stranger." Now she turned her attention to Aristagoras, frowning slightly, and noticed his gold rings and bracelets, his woven chiton -- and the scandalized look on his face. Embarrassed, she realized her hair was a mess and her chiton was falling off one shoulder. Self-consciously she pulled the chiton back in place and reached up to comb her fingers through her hair. "I'm sorry to have interrupted, sir," she stammered, then turned and darted away.

"Who -- who -- was that -- girl?" Aristagoras stammered in utter confusion. It was one thing for a girl-whore to address a favored customer as "uncle," but to be told he was her father's guest was outrageous. He was here to see a king!

"That was my niece Gorgo. My brother's only child, since his son and heir died in a accident five years ago. He spoils her, I'm afraid." Leonidas paused, laughed, and added. "We all do."

"Your brother's child? A Spartiate's daughter? By a slave girl, then?"

"No, by his wife." Leonidas turned and looked at Aristagoras straight in the eye. "You didn't think these girls were slaves, did you?" Aristagoras' expression was answer enough, and Leonidas continued firmly. "They are all the daughters of citizens. They are dressed simply and barefoot only because they are in the public upbringing." Leonidas was angry because he could tell how shocked Aristagoras was, but he was angry with himself, too. He should have known how the foreigner would react. He should have made a point of telling him about the girls.  And Gorgo didn't make things better by being so bold. But it was too late now. "I think it is time I took you to my brother."

"Your brother?"

"King Cleomenes."

Aristagoras stared at him.





Saturday, March 31, 2018

Nothing in Excess - A Pervasive Spartan Philosophy

It was the Spartan statesman Chilon "the Wise" who coined the laconic phrase “nothing in excess.” Yet the degree to which this philosophy dominated Spartan culture is often overlooked. Today Dr. Schrader looks at this aspect of Spartan society.



Chilon's saying translated either as "nothing in excess" or "everything in moderation" was carved in stone at the sacred pan-Hellenic site of Delphi. It was recognized as wise advice to all Greeks. Yet it was only in his native Sparta that the concept of avoiding excess was internalized and enshrined in daily behavior. Spartan culture proscribed, for example, economy in the use of words, in drinking, in eating, in making love and in dress and decoration.  

The Spartan disdain for excessive drinking was legendary to the point where Spartans were willing to blame the madness of a king (Cleomenes I) on nothing more than drinking his wine "neat" (i.e. unmixed with water). When it comes to food, Xenophon claimed that boys of the agoge received short rations, while grown men in the syssitia were fed a restricted diet. According to Plutarch even sex was inhibited in Sparta, with newlyweds forced to engage in various tricks and deceit in order to come together. By the end of the fifth century BC, the Spartans were infamous for the lack of decoration on their clothes and homes. Meanwhile, their preference for pithy, precise expression rather than verbose eloquence, had given rise to a contemporary cult of “Laconic” expression.  

Most ancient commentators praise Sparta’s culture of “less is more.”  Xenophon claims that the short rations of the agoge helped boys to grow tall, while the syssitia’s rigid regime kept men from growing fat.  Plutarch suggests that Spartan marriage customs increased affection between young couples by restricting their ability to sate passion, apparently on the assumption that too much sex leads to disinterest.  Certainly, Spartan prudery was viewed by philosophers as more admirable than the reverse.  The benefits of teaching children silence were, of course, widely eulogized and Laconic speech particularly praised by Plato and the philosophers.

Modern commentators, in contrast, are more likely to focus on the harshness of Spartan society. Sparta is frequently compared to totalitarian societies in which freedom is sacrificed for conformity and the state is ever-present.  The emphasis is on children torn away from their parents, on young men confined to barracks rather than living with their wives, on adults with no choice of profession, and soldiers expected to die rather than retreat even in hopeless situations.

Yet Chilon’s admonishment applied to excessive cruelty, brutality, rigidity, hatred and violence as much as to excessive luxury, food or sex!  Nothing in excess means exactly that.  Sparta was no Taliban state in which pleasure, music and sport were forbidden. On the contrary, in Sparta music and dance were valued nearly as much as valor on the battlefield.  

Even war itself was not adored, but rather seen as a dangerous passion that-- just  like appetite and lust –- needed to be controlled. This attitude was symbolized by a temple in which Ares was chained. Spartans feared an unleashed God of War as much –- if not more –- than they feared an uninhibited Aphrodite. The cult of Aphrodite, after all, first took root in Lacedaemon, on Kythera, and according to some sources the Spartans sacrificed to Eros on the eve of battle – not to Ares.

Yet arguably the greatest evidence that Spartan society was not grim was the fact that Sparta had a temple to laughter and so a cult of happiness. To my knowledge, no other ancient city-state shared this open and explicit adulation of happiness. To be sure, Sparta also had a temple to fear, and it would be wrong to argue that Spartans “adored” fear.

Rather, temples were built to all supernatural forces which mortals needed to respect. The Spartans knew that fear was powerful and could seize control of even the bravest heart, therefore it was a force to reckoned with and respected, like death itself.  The significance of a temple to laughter is that it shows that Spartans, far from scorning the light side of life, joy and humor, recognized the power of laughter no less than that of fear.  Unlike any other ancient society that I know of, it placed enjoying life on a par with the undeniably dark forces of death and fear. (See also: Loving Life inLacedaemon.)

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


    
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Friday, March 23, 2018

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"...not like we Messenians..." - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I provided a short comparison of Athenian chattel slaves and Spartan helots. In this excerpt, Leonidas' Messenian helot-attendant points out yet other differences between the two slave populations.



Leonidas gladly submitted to Mantiklos’ barbering. The Messenian had become quite good at it. Besides, it was a good opportunity to gather more intelligence. “What else have you seen here?” 

“The slaves live rotten lives,” Mantiklos told him bluntly. 

“Don’t tell me worse than Messenians?” Leonidas opened one eye to observe his squire. 

Mantiklos grimaced. “I hate to admit it, but they do. Can you believe it? Slaves are not allowed to testify at a trial of a citizen unless they have been tortured! So anytime a citizen gets accused of one thing or another—as they are all the time around here—the slaves of the household are tortured either by the prosecution to make them testify against their masters, or by their own masters to make them vindicate him! Everyone in the household is terrified that in these unsettled times that their master will get into some lawsuit, and they will be put on the rack and stretched until they come apart at the joints or hung over a fire until the skin falls off their feet. The former housekeeper was put to the rack a couple of Olympiads ago, and he can hardly walk anymore. It’s the most barbaric custom I’ve ever heard of! At least you Spartans only kill us or what we have done or not done, not for what you accuse each other of doing!” 

Leonidas laughed at this conclusion, but Mantiklos only glowered at him more furiously and continued, “None of them are allowed to marry. They are locked up at night to keep them apart from the women—like animals.” 

“I don’t expect that’s terribly effective,” Leonidas remarked, thinking how easy it was for lovers to meet at other times and locations. 

“But if a slave girl gets pregnant, the child belongs to the master, not the father. Usually, if the master doesn’t want it, he leaves it in the agora for anyone who does, or puts it to death right away. And the young Athenian men are no better about keeping away from the slave girls than the Spartans in Messenia. The young master here has had all the women at one time or another, except his old nurse.” 

“I thought you said his wife lived here.” 

“She does, but that doesn’t stop him from taking his pleasure with the slaves.” 

“She must be a singularly stupid woman. Imagine what Hilaira would do to Alkander if he looked sideways at one of the helots on her kleros!” Leonidas laughed at the thought, because it was unimaginable that Alkander would look at another woman—but if he did, Hilaira would make his life hell! 

Mantiklos, however, only shrugged. “What should the poor girl do? She’s only just turned fifteen, and according to the slaves she hardly dares say a word to anyone, though she’s been here almost two years. I caught a glimpse of her and she is very frail and sickly looking—pale white skin and an enormous belly. In fact, she seemed to be all eyes and belly. I don’t expect she’ll survive childbirth. She’s too little and weak for it.” 

Leonidas stared at Mantiklos.... Mantiklos, however, had moved on to the next subject. “The worst thing about the slaves here is that they are all cut off from their families. They have been bought and sold—sometimes more than once. They don’t know who their fathers or brothers are. They don’t know the stories of their ancestors or the names of their household Gods. They are all just individuals struggling to survive in a strange place. They don’t even all speak the same language. There’s a slave here who came from someplace in the far north and knows only a few broken phrases of Greek, and another who is from Africa and talks to himself all the time in his own barbarian tongue. It drives the others crazy, because he is vicious and they are afraid of him. They say he once carved up a man—first killed him and then carved up his body into little pieces and cooked them in a big pot.” 

“Here in this house?” Leonidas asked in horror, sitting bolt upright. 

“No, before he came here; but they swear it is true.” Leonidas looked skeptical, and Mantiklos let it go. Although he was now finished with Leonidas’ haircut and shave, they were content to continue gossiping, sitting side by side in the only patch of sun available in the courtyard. 

“Because they all come from different places, they are always bickering among themselves. The Greeks think they are much better than the rest, of course, but some of the barbarians are just as proud. That is why, although they all hate the Athenians, they will never be a threat to Athens as we Messenians are to Sparta.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, if you go out into the streets you’ll see. There are many times as many slaves and metoikoi as Athenians, but they are so different from one another that they would never unite against the Athenians. We Messenians, on the other hand—” 

Leonidas knew about Messenia. He wanted to understand more about Athens. “What are metoikoi?” 

Mantiklos scratched his head and thought about it. “They’re free men from somewhere else in the world. Athens seems to attract human rubbish. I was told they have to find a patron and get themselves registered with a community if they want to live here permanently, and they have to pay a special tax. Anyone who lives here without being registered or who fails to pay the taxes is arrested and sold into slavery. The paidagogos here is an old Thespian who moved here to set up a school for boys but somehow fell on hard times and couldn’t pay his taxes, so he was sold into slavery.” 

“The Paidonomos?” Leonidas asked, horrified—thinking of the headmaster of the agoge, one of the most revered and powerful of all Spartiates. 

“No, the paidagogos. I was told all the wealthy men here in Athens have them: slaves that look after their school-aged boys. You know, escort them places, carry their things for them, recite the Iliad to them, and the like.”  

  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Of Slaves and Helots -- A Short Comparison



In 413 BC, according to Thucydides, an estimated 20,000 Athenian slaves ran away to the Spartans, who had established a permanent fortress at Dekeleia.  For these oppressed and exploited individuals, the Spartans were liberators.  Their story, however, is virtually ignored by the usual depictions of Sparta that stress the “exceptionally harsh” lot of Sparta’s helots. 

As I have tried to point out in earlier posts, helots enjoyed significant privileges that chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world did not. First and foremost, they lived in family units, could marry at will and raise their own children.  Almost equally significant, they could retain half their earnings.  Such income could be substantial, as is demonstrated by the fact that no less than 6,000 helots were able to raise the significant sum of five attic minae necessary to purchase their freedom in 369 BC, according to Xenophon.

In contrast, chattel slaves had no family life and their children belonged – literally – not to them but their masters.  As to the fruits of their labor, these accrued exclusively to their masters, and even freed slaves (at least in the case of former prostitutes) had to surrender some of their earnings in perpetuity to their former masters after their manumission. In Athens, furthermore, slaves could be tortured for evidence in trials against their masters, because the Athenians believed a slave’s word was worthless unless obtained under torture – a bizarre and chilling attitude to fellow human beings.

I would like to note, further, that Athens’ economy was no less dependent on slaves than Sparta’s was on helots. Slaves worked Athens silver mines -- under appalling and dehumanizing conditions worse than any horror story told of helots even by Sparta’s worst enemies. Slaves also provided essential agricultural labor and manned the workshops that made Athens famous for its handcrafts. Even the statues on the acropolis, the wonder of all the world to this day, were largely the work of slaves, who earned “wages” only for their master’s pockets and had to make do with whatever scraps he deigned to give them.

Defenders of Athens are apt to point out that Athens’ laws prohibited the execution of slaves and no one but the slave’s own master was allowed to flog a slave.  In contrast, war was declared on Spartan slaves annually and an organization, the kryptea, allegedly existed solely for the purpose of eliminating potentially rebellious helots.  These Spartan customs are indeed harsh, but they should also be viewed in perspective.

First, according to Plutarch, both the annual declaration of war and the creation of the kyrptea post-date the helot revolt of 465 and have no place in the Golden Age of Sparta, the archaic period.  Second, even after the helot revolt and the onset of Spartan decline, we know of only a single incident in which helots were in fact executed without cause.  According to Thucydides, in ca. 425/424, 2,000 helots were led to believe they would be freed, were garlanded and paraded through the city, only to then “disappear.” Everyone presumes they were killed.  

If this really happened as described, it was an unprecedented atrocity. If true, it besmirches the record of Sparta for eternity. It would nonetheless also still be only an isolated incident. Beside this atrocity, I would like to place as exhibit B the slaughter of the entire male population of island city-state of Melos by Athens in 416. Melos was a free city. It’s only “crime” was to remain neutral in the Peloponnesian war. Yet Athens subjugated the city, slaughtered the adult males and made all the women and children chattel slaves. I’d call that an atrocity too – and every bit as bad as the disappearance of 2,000 helots.

There is no doubt about what happened to Melos. We have many sources and know the fate of many individuals that further verify and illuminate the brutality of the event.  But the story of the 2,000 helots has only a single – albeit usually reliable – source: Thucydides.  As Nigel Kennell in his book Spartans: A New History notes, Thucydides’ dating of the incident must be off because at exactly the same time (425/4) Brasidas was recruiting helots to fight with him – something he did successfully.  Why would young men have been willing to volunteer to fight with Brasidas (which they most certainly did), if they had just seen 2,000 of their fellows slaughtered? It is so unreasonable to believe helots would have volunteered if the alleged massacre had just taken place, that Kennel concludes that Thucydides was referring to an incident that had occurred at some vague/unknown time in the past.

That is surely one explanation, since after Brasidas’ helots had proved their worth as soldiers, i.e. after they had proved just how dangerous they could be to the Spartiates, no less than 700 of them were liberated by a vote in the Spartan Assembly. This means that, if Thucydides is correct and the Spartans had once been so afraid of strong, healthy helots that they slaughtered 2,000 of them before they were trained to bear arms, by 421 a majority of Spartan citizens had no qualms about freeing 700 helots, who were not only healthy, but trained and experienced fighting men. Why would they free these 700 hundred after killing 2,000 others? It doesn’t add up, and so the story of the murder of the 2000 has to be questioned.

While it is possible Thucydides was describing an earlier event, it is almost certain that the only evidence he had was hearsay. The modern historian should not exclude the possibility that the entire “atrocity” was either a gross exaggeration or outright propaganda.

And who would have a greater interest in spreading rumors of such an atrocity than Athens itself? An Athens, whose slaves were deserting in droves by 413.  One thing is clear: those 20,000 Athenian slaves, who turned themselves over to Spartan mercy, did not expect to be slaughtered. Either they had not heard the “truth” about how the Spartans “really” treated their helots, or they didn’t believe the stories they were told by their Athenian masters.

Thucydides is silent on what happened to those 20,000 former Athenian slaves, either because he doesn’t know – or it wouldn’t fit into his neat polemic against Spartan brutality.  We know, however, that Sparta’s citizen population had already declined dramatically by the end of the 5th Century BC and yet Sparta kept fighting and winning battles. It did so by relying more and more on non-citizen soldiers, and a fleet manned by non-Spartiates. It is also in this period that the first references to a curious new class of people, the “Neodamodeis,” emerge in literature.  The most common interpretation of this term is that these “New Citizens” were freed helots or the children of Spartiate men by helot women.  There is, however, no reason to assume that some of these new citizens were not freed Athenian slaves as well. If so, then these men surely found freedom in Lacedaemon.

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

    

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