Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, September 15, 2018

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


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





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



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



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



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



Polymedes raised his hand and shouted, “Wait!”



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



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



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



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



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



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



“Wet nurse?” Brotus looked around, bewildered.



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



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



“And Polyxo?” Euryleon asked with obvious amusement.



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



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



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



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



“Tell us what happened,” Polymedes urged.



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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




Saturday, September 1, 2018

The World's First Democracy

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Thermopylae Day Three - An Excerpt

Thermopylae - Day Three
An Excerpt from 
A Heroic King


 "My lord!" the helot wailed form a hundred feet away. "My lord! They broke! The Phocians broke! The Immortals are coming down the track! The Phoecians broke!"

The boy reached him, sobbing for breath and from terror. "I tried, my lord. I swear! But in the dark, I lost the track! By the time I reached the Phocian position, the Immortals were already upon them." Leonidas just stared at the helot youth. He ws covered with cuts an scratches. The soles of his feet were raw, his hands bleeding. If he had wanted, he could have just disappeared into the mountains -- without warning the Phocians -- let alone bringing word to him here. No one would have ever known. "You can kill me if you want, my lord, but I wanted you to know...."

Leonidas nodded numbly. They were all going to die. Today.

It had always been a possibility. He had taken that risk. Now it was a certainty. Chi, Euryleon, didn't I tell you you wouldn't have long to wait? Buy why Alkander, too? Why Oliantus? Why Maron and Alpheus?

The camp was waking up to a new day. Gylis' approach had attracted the attention of other. Men started to converge on Leonidas. Men were asking Megistias what was wrong, what the signs had been. Isanor was beside him. 'Do we need to reinforce the Phocians?"

Leonidas shook his head. "It's too late. The Immortals have broken through."

"What? And the Phocians didn't even send for us?"

"They were asleep," Gylis gasped out, still panting, "caught sleeping. I don't think they--"

Demophilus arrived with several other allied commanders. "What has happened? What's the matter?"

"The deserter was telling the truth," Leonidas told them.

They stared at him blankly for a second. Then Demophilus echoed Isanor: "Then we must reinforce at once. I'll have my Thespians--"

"There's no need, Demophilus." Leonidas was utterly calm. In his heart, he was already dead, and that made it easier..  "The Phocians broke. The Immortals are already in our rear. The Pass has been turned. We must send word to Themistocles at once."  Leonidas was looking around for the helot boy who had brought him the ram, while around him the other commanders were cursing and questioning, doubting and denying. "Boy!" Leonidas had caught sight of him. "Fetch me the captain of the Athenian tiaconter at once!"

"We must withdraw immediately!" The Corinthian demanded, seconded by the Mantineans and Tegeans and some of the Arkadians.

"Cowards!" Demophilus countered furiously. "The Pass is still defensible -- we just have to defend both ends! We can hold the West Gate as we have up to now with a thousand men, and put another thousand inside the East Gate."

"Yes, exactly!" the Theban supported him.

"What? All of us crushed together between the two Gates? We have nothing to eat in there! Nowhere to rest! No fresh water!"

Leonidas was thinking it through for himself. If they had two thousand men fighting at any one time, every man would be on the line every other hour. They might hold out for one day, but not the four they needed. He raised his hand, and the others fell silent at once.

"The bulk of the army should withdraw at once. The Immortals will close off your retreat in a matter of hours. You must pull out now and put as much distance between yourselves and Thermopylae as possible -- enough so the Persian cavalry can't overtake you. Abandon everything you can't carry."

His words were met with stunned silence. No one had ever expected the Spartan king to order a withdrawal. But after they recovered from their shock, the Arkadian commanders did not wait to be told twice. The Corinthians and Mantineans were close at their heels. Isanor, Demophilus, and the Theban Leontiades, however, didn't move. They stared at Leonidas, horrified, until Demophilus asked softly, "What about you? What about the Lacedaemonians?"

Leonidas felt weak, yet detached. His emotions were numbed. Kastor had told him he would know when his time had come. It had come. "Someone has to hold the Pass long enough to give the rest of you timem to withdraw. Otherwise, as I said, the Persian cavalry will overtake and slaughter you in the open, where you won't have a chance."

"But you have a city you can defend," Demophilus countered with dignity. "We do not. My Thespians will hold Thermopylae. Take the Lacedaemonians south so they can fight in the days and weeks ahead."

Leonidas was moved by the offer. He reached out his hand in gratitude, and Demophilus too it. "You did your best, Leonidas," the Thespian continued. "No one but you could have held them this long. But if Thermophylae is lost, so is Thespiae. We have no home to return to. We might as well die here."

"And so will we," Leontiades spoke for the Thebans as well.

Dienekes and Diodoros ran up. "The allies are spreading rumors and threatening to pull out!" Dienekes announced in evident outrage.

Leonidas shook his head. "They are under orders to pull out--"

"What?"

"The Phocians broke. The Immortals are just hours away from closing off the road south. I've given the order to withdraw."

Diodoros and Dienekes gaped at him, while Kalliteles and Oliantus trotted up. "Sir! Have you heard? The allies are packing up and pulling out. It's total panic out there! We must...." He fell silent and looked at the stunned, lifeless faces of the men standing around his commander. "What is it?"

This time Diodoros provided the explanation. Leonidas was staring at Oliantus."I'm sorry," he mouthed. "I'm so sorry."

"What are you waiting for, Leonidas?" Demophilus urged. "There is very little time. Take your Lacedaemonians out, and we'll make the Persians fight for the Pass and pay dearly for each of us. We'll delay them as long as humanly possible."

"There's no hurry," Leonidas answered with a glance toward the sun, which was now a copper disk already a hand's breadth above the horizon. "I'm not going anywhere -- and whether I like it nor not, my Spartans are not going to abandon me."

"You're damned right, we're not!" Dienekes confirmed.

"That doesn't apply to the Perioikoi," Leonidas pointed out, turning to Isanor. "Take all your men, the helots, and Megistias back to Lacedaemon."

Isanor hesitated. "We're still over eight hundred strong, my lord. We'd almost double your force."

Leonidas was shaking his head. "Whether we're one thousand or five thousand, we're about to be crushed. Take the Perioikoi home with my blessings -- I'll put it in writing if you like, to ensure no one at home tries to twist facts.  I'll also send a messenger to Brotus and Leotychidas to halt the march north of the Isthmus. Have we got a good long-distance runner?" Leonidas looked automatically to Oliantus.

"Yes, I have two runners we can send."

"Good. I'll write and seal the dispatches. And pass the word to the Spartiates," he added to Diodoros, Dienekes, and Kalliteles, "to eat a hearty breakfast, as we'll be dining in Hades." 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Hero of Thermopylae - A Look at Leonidas' Legacy

No Spartan has left a larger footprint in history and art than Leonidas. Not the commander of the Spartan army that actually defeated the Persians, Pausanias, nor the Spartan that eventually defeated Athens after the gruesome thirty-years war, Lysander, are half so well remembered .  Lycurgus and Chilon are familiar names only to classical scholars; Leonidas is a cult and comic-book hero, not to mention there is a chocolate company named for him.



Leonidas was, of course, a legend in his own time. The Spartans built him a monument at Thermopylae, notably separate from the monument to the rest of the 300, and a second monument was built to him at home in Sparta as well. His body was brought home after the Persians had been driven out of Greece.  But, unless it is an accident of archeology, larger monuments were built to the victors Pausanias and Lysander than to Leonidas.  In short, Leonidas’ appeal appears to have been greater in the modern world than the ancient. This might have many explanations – starting with the political agenda of his successors (or those who controlled his immature son) or discomfort with commemorating a devastating defeat.  The modern world, perhaps influenced by the Christian tradition of honoring sacrifice, is impressed by Leonidas’ defiance and devotion to duty more than his defeat.

There is also a modern tendency to assume that Leonidas’ behavior was “typical,” that he was indeed only doing what Spartan society expected of him, or acting “in accordance with the law.” This assumes that Spartans were “never” allowed to retreat and always chose death over either retreat or surrender.  The Spartans, of course, knew better. 

Sparta had suffered many severe defeats before Thermopylae, and in no other did an entire fighting force die to the last man for a lost cause. For example, there is good reason to believe that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and it was ensuing economic and social dislocation that led to unrest and revolution.  Certainly, Sparta was given a resounding thrashing by the Argives at Hysiai in 669 BC, but even so the Spartans retreated rather than die to the last man.  Roughly one hundred years later, Sparta again over-reached herself in an attempt to conquer Tegea, and again there were survivors; they were enslaved in Tegea and forced to do agricultural labor for Tegean masters. In 525 BC, a Spartan expedition against Samos likewise ended in humiliating defeat, but not the extermination of the expeditionary force.  Finally, in the reign of Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes, a Spartan force under Anchimolius was attacked by Thessalian cavalry 1000 strong at Phalerum, and, according to Herodotus, “many Lacedaemonians were killed…and the survivors driven back to their ships.”  Note, again, the survivors were driven back to their ships, which they presumably boarded and used to return to Lacedaemon. There is not a word about dying to the last man.

Nor did “death rather than surrender” become the standard for future Spartan commanders after Thermopylae. The history of the Peloponnesian war is littered with Spartan defeats; none were massacres.  Even in the infamous case of 120 Spartiates trapped on the island of Sphakteria, the record shows that they surrendered and were taken off into (brutal!) Athenian captivity.  Nor were they written off by an indignant population as cowards, "tremblers" or otherwise disgraced and worthless.  Had they been so viewed, Sparta would not have sued for peace and made serious concessions to Athens to have them returned. Even their collective degradation from full-citizen status on their return is not indicative of disapproval of surrender. On the contrary, it more likely reflects fear that men who had been in Athens for almost four years might have become subverted (brainwashed, is the Cold War term) by Athenian democracy.  After an unknown period, they were collectively reinstated, and some even ran for public office. That would not have been possible, if the majority of Spartans had felt they should have committed suicide rather than surrender.

Leonidas’ legacy was not one of blind, mindless self-sacrifice. His example was one of devotion to duty, even unto death, for a good cause.  Leonidas did not die for the sake of dying – much less take his comrades with him to a senseless death.  He had clear military objectives that he hoped to achieve by his last stand: 1) giving the other Greek contingents time to withdraw and live to fight another day, and 2) increasing Persian respect for/fear of Spartans.  Once the pass at Thermopylae was turned, Leonidas knew the Persian army would advance unopposed into Central Greece. He could not know where it would next be confronted by land-forces, but he must have feared that it might sweep through Central Greece to the Isthmus of Corinth. He must have feared that Sparta might find herself virtually alone facing the onslaught.  Anything he could do to make Xerxes hesitate to take on a Spartan army must have seemed worthwhile.  That is a legacy worth preserving.

Last but not least, as a devout Spartan, Leonidas undoubtedly believed he had to fulfill the Delphic Oracle. He knew he had to die, if Sparta was to be saved. In that sense, he was from the start a sacrificial lamb, but not until the position at Thermopylae was betrayed, did his sacrifice inherently encompass defeat as well.  He probably hoped when he set out for Thermopylae that he could die in a victorious battle – or at least an indecisive one. He certainly hoped and expected that alive or dead his advance force over 6,000 strong could hold the Hot Gates until Sparta’s full army could reinforce the advance guard. 

When it became clear he would die in a hopeless situation, he tried to minimize the losses by ordering the withdrawal of the allied contingents (and almost certainly all the Perioikoi troops that would have been with him).  He even tried to save some of the Spartiates by giving them dispatches for delivery somewhere. They saw through him and refused. They refused out of loyalty, out of friendship, out of personal affection for Leonidas, both the man and the king. They did not act for military reasons but for personal ones. Yet their legacy too is worth honoring.


Sparta's culture and military ethos are a fundamental focus of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas.




    
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Sunday, July 15, 2018

An Untenable Situation: An Excerpt

In my last entry, I discussed the importance of the Messenian War(s) in the creation of Sparta, noting that a lost war was far more likely to have provoked unrest, rebellion, and reform. Today, I present an excerpt from "Are They Singing in Sparta?" in which a young Spartiate describes the situation in Sparta to a young woman who had been sent to Athens for her safety by her father and is now on her way home. Euryanax represents the "revolutionaries" who supported Lycurgus and a change in the Spartan constitution.

The young Spartiate's expression was grim.  "The situation is--" he paused, clearly searching for the right word, "untenable. The Disinherited -- as they call themselves -- have become bolder and stronger and they stop at nothing to disrupt and threaten the security and stability of the City. They have even tried to incite the Messenians to revolt. Certainly, the lawless elements have all taken advantage of the situation and the poorest helots have nothing to lose anyway." He shook his head in apparent despair. "Nothing is sacred to desperate men and no one is safe from them."

"But there must be some way of pacifying them..." Alethea said softly. She so wanted to go home -- but home to the peaceful Laconia of her early childhood, not to an insecure Laconia ....

"Yes. Land."

"What?" 

"Land. They must be given back the land they lost. It is wrong that some men -- Aristodemos, your uncle Polymachos, my own father Leotychidas -- have estates larger than they can ride about in one day, and other men own nothing.  It is wrong that some men spend more money to feed their horses or their hounds than other men have to feed their families. It is wrong that some men have a thousand helots to do their bidding, and other men must sell their very bodies for enough to eat!"

Alethea had never heard a man talk with so much passion about injustice. She was fascinated and a little frightened too. "But there have always been rich and poor. And slaves."

"Why?" Euryanax challenged. "Why should any man have the right to treat another man -- or woman -- as a beast? Lycurgus has traveled all over the world and he says there are different laws and customs. There is no single way to make a city work. In Asia, the kings are considered gods and they rule without law, entirely at their whim and inclination. They have done so for generations. Does that make such a system right? Of course not! Something is not right just because our grandparents and their grandparents did it. Are we not men with minds and reason? with hearts and hands to change things? Are we not free to make our own laws? Why shouldn't we make new laws that are better than what has been before -- laws that are truly just?"

Why not indeed? Alethea asked herself excited. "But who would do the work if there were no slaves?"

"We must all work. Each man -- and woman -- must do what he -- or she -- is best at doing. Just as women are made to bear and rear children, men are made to fight and protect them. That is the most basic of all human distinctions -- but does it make the man better than the woman? Is fighting to protect his offspring better or more important than feeding and nurturing them? Of course not!

"In the same way, there is nothing nobler about planting a field than tending a flock of sheep. Both tasks are essential. Wouldn't you agree?"

Alethea nodded vigorously.

"All people who contribute to a society should be treated with equal respect and should recognize their own dependence on the contributions and labor of others."

"But then--" Alethea started, but bit her tongue confused. At home, she had always spoken her mind, but Euryanax was a man of a different family.

"Yes?" Euryanax prompted, looking directly at her with an alert, tense expression.

"I -- I  was just going to say that a woman, who can produce something as useful and necessary as a length of cloth should be respected too."

"Of course!" Euryanax agreed enthusiastically. "Of course! That's just my point."

Alethea was thinking of Xenokrateia sitting at her loom day after day, making virtually everything her husband wore, and her only reward was her husband's contempt for her uselessness.

"Look," Euryanax was continuing, "if I need a pair of sandals, then what right have I to look down on the man who makes them for me? If I wear a chiton or himation with pride," he held out his arms to show the very fine cloth he was indeed wearing, "then I should admire the man -- or woman -- who clothed me! It's not the cobbler alone who makes my shoes, but the tanner who made the leather, and the herdsman who kept the cows and the butcher who slaughtered and skinned the carcass.

"Wealth is the source of all injustice because it allows those with too much to take advantage of those with too little! What we need to do is give everyone the same amount of land and then make them wear the same clothes and eat the same things and then the only things that will distinguish between them is their character. A fool will no longer be able to buy votes nor an embezzler to bride the jury. An ugly man will no longer be able to hide behind silk and gold to seduce women away from better men."

Alethea timidly ventured to point out that Euryanax' father was one of the wealthiest men in Laconia. 

"My father has stolen from the poor! He has literally thrown starving women and children out of the pitiable huts they lived in. He has been so merciless that his own brother has broken with him. My uncle Leobotas won't speak to him or set foot in his house anymore."

So this was the Laconia she would return to: one in which the Unrest had become so terrible and the controversy about its causes and its cures so bitter it was tearing families apart.

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Making of Sparta

The road from Sparta to Messenia is through a dramatic pass.
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 a 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 with Messenia.

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 capable of financing hoards of hoplites and fielding entire hoplite armies within just two generations.

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.

What if, following a period of increasing prosperity, productivity and population growth, 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 adopt 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 a presumed helot revolt in 465. Yet, if true, 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, Greek-Turkish, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. I believe it was more likely the trauma of a lost war -- rather than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army -- that sparked the revolution that made Sparta the unique society it was.

My novel Are They Singing in Sparta? is set in the later part of the Messenian Wars and is based on a legend: that the Spartans asked Delphi what they should do and were told to send to Athens (then a rival and hostile to Sparta) for a polemarch. According to the legend, the Athenians (since they sided with the Messenians) sent an old, lame schoolmaster by the name of Tyrtaios.....

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Some Kleros More Equal than Others: An Excerpt

At the start of the month I talked about the Spartan land reform, an effort to ensure every Spartan citizen had enough land to ensure his independence, i.e. his ability to devote himself to the profession of arms. Each kleros had to sufficient produce for 50% of the harvest to pay the citizen's contribution to his syssitia and the agoge fees for any sons he had.  But while every Spartiate had a kleros, many had more than a kleros, and, as this excerpt underlines, not all kleros were equally productive -- and much depended on the ability of a man's wife to manage his estate effectively.


They left by the back door and went along the path behind the kennels and stables toward the rushing stream. The ruins of the mill were still charred and ominous amidst chestnut trees that, despite the fire which had shorn them nearly two years ago, were now sprouting buds. "Aren't you going to rebuild?" Agesandros asked, nodding to the ruins.

"I don't know. I can't afford to right now. Maybe I'll let someone else rebuild.  Orsippos came to me the other day and says he knows a man who'd be willing to rebuild at his own expense if I give him a 10% discount on the subsequent rents. That would be a very good deal for him, of course." Alethea cast Agesandros a little, bemused smile. "He'd be able to pay off his investment in five years or so, and be perpetually better off thereafter. I hesitate to make such a bad deal on Niko's behalf -- even if it means going without the mill income for another couple of years."

Agesandros looked at her sidelong. She spoke of these economic considerations with a self-assurance he would not have had -- not to mention his mother or sister. ...

He focused his thoughts on the present again by focusing on the mill ruins and was reminded of what his own kleros was like. There was no mill there to supplement his income. Nor were there any orchards or vineyards. The old resentments filled him for a moment, but he did not want to resent Alethea. He was tired of being bitter.

Alethea noted his change of mood, but she hesitated to ask what was wrong.

Agesandros pulled himself together, nodding shortly at the mill again to remark in as neutral a tone as he could manage, "my father got a piece of bad land cut out of a large estate without even a house on it -- much less a mill. It was pastureland on a steep incline. We've had to terrace it stone-by-stone to make it support barley. We don't have a single tree for shade, much less olive oil or fruit. And there's no wine either."

Alethea listened with a growing sense of helplessness. She knew Agesandros was a New Citizen. Euryanax had lectured her at length about the imperfection of the Land Reform precisely because the land plots were equal in size but not in productivity. "I -- I know the Land Reform wasn't entirely fair," she told Agesandros anxiously.  "But what would have been better? You couldn't cut houses in half or draw the borders squiggling through the countryside. Many men wouldn't have voted for the Reform at all, if they'd thought they would lose their very homes...." Her arguments sounded weak to her, and her voice trailed off.

Agesandros considered her earnestly, realizing that he hadn't expected even this much understanding. Then again, intuitively he had known she was not a woman who was indifferent to the sufferings of others. He had only to think of Leon.  "I didn't mean to complain. Where else in the world have men without anything been given land at all? Besides, a city-rat like me wouldn't know how to manage all this." He gestured vaguely toward her vineyards and orchards. "I've barely learned the essence of planting barley." He offered the latter with a short laugh.

"But your wife should manage things for you," Alethea remarked, flushing at her own boldness, and not daring to meet his eyes when she flirted so shamelessly.

"True. That's why I need to marry a woman who understands something of -- barley."

"More than that!" Alethea insisted looking up and seeing -- too late -- the glint of amusement in his green-gold eyes. 

"I only have barely."

"But I'm sure that's not all your kleros could produce,"  Alethea countered, adding eagerly, "look at this. You don't think this kleros was always this diverse, do you? When the reforms came we had only the olives and a strip of barely. We'd lost our pastures and vineyards and fruit orchards, the flax fields and--" She stopped herself recognizing too late that in listing all Euryanax had lost she only emphasized how rich he had once been.

But Agesandros knew how rich Euryanax had been and he was not offended, only surprised.

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