Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Day at the Olympics -- An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I talked about Sparta's very successful athletes and Sparta's many victories in the Olympics. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," Leonidas and his friends attend the Olympic games -- as spectators.


The boxing was scheduled for immediately after the dolichos, the long-distance race in which the runners had to run twenty-four lengths of the stadium. It was always hard to guess how long the dolichos would last, and since it was a rather boring event, many spectators skipped it to secure better seats for the boxing. The bulk of the Spartan spectators chose this option, because they had no strong entrant in the dolichos but were hoping Cleombrotus would give them a victory in the boxing. Leonidas, however, declared his intention to go to the dolichos.

"But if we go there, we'll never get a good seat for the boxing!" Sperchias protested.

"Why should I fight half of Greece for a place from which to watch my brother beat someone up? I can see that in Sparta without any trouble any day of the week." 

Sperchias opened his mouth three times to find an answer, and finally settled on, "But the dolichos is so boring."

"Not really. You go ahead to the boxing, if  you like."

Sperchias and Euryleon wordlessly followed Leonidas. They joined a small contingent of other Spartans, friends of the one Spartan competitor, Oliantus. No one really thought the young man, who was in the age-cohort ahead of Leonidas, had much of a changce against the Corinthian Aristeas or the Athenians, who were rumored to have not one but two outstanding runners, Pheidippides and Eukles.

Leonidas and his friends made themselves comfortable partway down the slope beside the stadium.  These were not the best seats, but their interest was only moderate. Below them was a large crowd of rowdy Athenians, who at the moment were divided into two factions that were shouting insults at one another. It was hard to hear exactly what was being said, but it sounded as if some of the men invented little rhyming ditties that made rude remarks about their rival. These brought roars of approving laughter from their own faction and counter-insults from the other faction.

There was also a large Corinthian contingent, but this was more orderly, and the front-row seats near the finish line had been cordoned off. Only just before the start of the race did the men for whom these seats were reserved arrive in a small group, escorted by slaves. One man was even carried in on a litter, which the slaves set down so he could sit. The slaves then stood and held an awning over the spectators so they were shaded from the hot sun. Refreshments had evidently been brought as well.

...

The cheers around them grew in intensity. The runners were on their twenty-second lap. Just two more turns. The Spartan seemed to be gaining on the leaders, and the Spartan spectators were standing and cheering him by name. "Oliantus! Oliantus!" Leonidas was gald for him. He was a quiet, rather ugly man who hardly ever drew attention to himself. A conscientious soldier, Leonidas knew, who had been passed over for promotion every year. He felt it would only be fair if Oliantus won a surprise victory here -- and it served the rest of his countrymen right for preferring to secure seats for Brotus' fight rather than support the underdog. 
   

 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sparta's Forgotten Athletes and Artists

Last month I discussed the many public services Spartiates fulfilled, and noted that Spartan society wasn’t quite as simple as it is often made out to be. Continuing that theme, I'd like to look at two other areas of Spartan excellence: sports and art.

The Race "in armor" was an event in the Ancient Olympics that the Spartans generally won.
The quality of Spartan athletes is attested by numerous Lacedaemonian victory dedications at the pan-hellenic sites. Stephen Hodkinson in his essay "An Agonistic Culture?" in Sparta: New Perspectives (Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell, eds, Duckworth, 1999) records over 62 known Olympic victories by Spartans in the period from 720 - 304 BC. Olympia was only one of four sacred, pan-Hellenic games; there were also games held regularly at Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth and Nemea. In order to compete abroad, Spartan athletes would have had to train, and compete, at home first.

But sport helped maintain physical fitness and so could be considered training for soldiering. The evidence of Spartiate sculptors is therefore more surprising and intriguing.

According to Conrad Stibbe in his excellent book Das Andere Sparta (Philipp von Zabern, 1996) no less than nine Lacedaemonian artists are known to have worked in Olympia alone. While the majority of these artists are described as Lacedaemonian, in two cases, Syadras and Chartas, the artists are explicitly referred to as Spartiate. While it is possible these were the only exceptions in Spartan history, it is more likely that they are the tip of the iceberg: the only surviving record over two and a half millennia of other nameless Spartiate artists. 

Arguably Sparta's most famous sculpture; dating from the early 5th century it is affectionately known as "Leonidas" -- although it is unlikely to actually depict him.

Strikingly, Stibbe notes that the known Lacedaemonian artists worked for other states as well as Lacedaemon. That means they were recognized as outstanding artists and worked professionally on commission, not just as amateur artists adorning their own city’s monuments. Four of the nine were said to be students of a famous Cretan sculptor, and several of them engaged apprentices from other cities. Clearly, artistic work at Olympia was “international” not parochial.

Stibbe also notes that the Lacedaemonian sculptors worked not only in stone but in wood, ivory, gold, and bronze. Ivory and gold were used predominantly to decorate wood and therefore even if fragments of ivory and gold are found it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the total work of art. As so often when trying to understand Sparta and Spartan society, we are hampered by a paucity of archeological evidence that may reflect an absence of original material, destruction of the archeological record in earthquakes and flooding, or simply inadequate archeological investigation. Troy, after all, was considered mythical or fictional for almost two thousand years, until one amateur fanatic revolutionized our understanding of the Mycenaean period by insisting on digging in a spot that was not previously investigated. The site of Sparta itself may have been investigated, but much of Lacedaemon has never been systematically subjected to serious archeological study and new discoveries in Sparta’s “outlying” cities and temples may yet yield significant new finds.

An Example of Spartan Bronze Work
An example of this kind of discovery is a particularly beautiful stone sculpture found on Samos that appears to be of Lacedaemonian origin. It portrays a hoplite with long braids (as worn at this time exclusively in Sparta) and with breast-spirals on the breastplate (also typical of Laconian hoplites in art). Although not yet 100% confirmed, the marble also appears to be Laconian. If this statute was indeed Lacedaemonian, it would represent a significant discovery documenting more of Sparta’s almost forgotten artistic golden age. 



Meanwhile, we should not ignore the plethora of smaller art objects from bronze vessels and jewellery to statuettes and figurines found at Spartan sanctuaries which record a thriving industry for domestic craftsmanship if not high art. These are well catalogued by Reinhard Foertsch in his article "Spartan Art: It's Many Deaths," in Sparta in Laconia: Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium, Dec. 1995 (Cavanagh, WG and S.E.C. Walker, eds.) The same publication contains an excellent article by Maria Pipili, "Archaic Laconian Vase-Painting," which highlights the sophistication and high quality of 6th Century Laconian pottery.

Altogether, archeological research suggests that art was more common and more valued in Sparta than is widely acknowledged today. Spartiates certainly bought works of art and dedicated art objects at their sanctuaries. The extent to which they engaged in production of art themselves will never be known but, as noted above with respect to the two sculptors, at least in some cases Spartans were professional artists.

In all my novels set in Sparta I attempt to convey the complexity and sophistication that this fascinating society displayed.


 

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Graduation: An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

Spartan life was marked by rituals of transition -- from boy to youth, from youth to manhood and military service, and from active service to "retirement." When men joined the reserves they were just 31 years old, however, and -- as I pointed out in the entry at the start of this month -- they had many options for pursuing a career in the administration of the Spartan state. 
In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," Leonidas and his friends have just turned over their shields to graduating eirenes, thereby symbolizing that they have left the active army, the life in the barracks, for the life of a "full-citizen," living on their estates and serving Sparta in other ways.


The names were being read out. Gorgo watched her uncles turn over a shield to an eirene one after the other, still wishing she were out there in the square rather than wandering around on the fringes of the crowd feeling superfluous. She was so on the edge, in fact, that she did not even notice when the last name was read out.

Suddenly everyone was cheering, and then the whole crowd burst out into the Ode to Kastor. Gorgo noted that an old man nearby was weeping openly, though she couldn't know why. Memories of his own youth? Joy for a son or grandson? Or mourning for a youth who hadn't made it? There were always one or two of those: boys who were killed in accidents, youths who committed serious breaches of the rules and were forced to repeat a year, and -- increasingly -- young men whose families could not pay their agoge fees and so were forced to drop out. 

The crowd was breaking up, dispersing. Younger boys were running to join their families, swept into the arms of mothers and sisters. Youths were going off in groups  or swaggering proudly in front of younger siblings and admiring sisters. Young couples were disappearing around the corners into the darkness. Gorgo felt like going back to the palace and curling up in the straw beside her mare and hound, as she had done when she was a little girl.

"Gorgo! What are you doing? Come here!" The voice cut through her misery, and she looked up to see her Uncle Leo waving to her. He was with his friends, of course, and he was smiling, even though his tone was admonishing. As she joined his little group, he put his arm around her and drew her into his circle, asking in a low voice, "Is something wrong? You look so unhappy?"

"I'm just jealous," Gorgo admitted. "I wish girls got to go through the agoge and graduate like that in public."

One of Leo's friends laughed outright, and another shook his head and remarked, "Believe me, it's not as fun as it looks!"

But Uncle Leo seemed to understand.  He said, "You're right. At least in other Greek cities girls are the center of attention at their weddings, but we don't ever celebrate you, do we?"

"Better less celebration and more freedom," one of the women in the little crowd noted rather sharply.

"Of course," the other woman agreed, then smiled at Gorgo and added, "but what would be wrong with both? I'm Hilaira, by the way," she introduced herself to Gorgo, and the others introduced themselves as well. Gorgo noted the names of Leonidas' friends Alkander and Sperchias and Euryleon.  The latter suggested they go to the banks of the Eurotas, where the cattle had been roasting for hours, and join the feast. Since the other men were with their wives and Leo had none, Gorgo naturally fell in beside him. He chatted with her, asking about Jason and Shadow as if she were still a little girl, but that was better than being left out.

She asked him, "What are you going to do now that you're in the reserves?"

"I'm going to work in the agoge," Leo announced.

"Leo! You can't do that to us!" Euryleon protested, stopping dead in his tracks and gaping at his enomotarch.

"I can and I have. I informed Diodoros this morning."

"Leo! You're mad!" Sperchias exclaimed.

"Why? You want a career in civil administration or diplomacy, not the army! Why is wrong form me to want something similar?"

"Because you're a good officer, Leo -- and an Agiad."

"What does that have to do with anything? Kyranios himself said that war was the failure of diplomacy. You do a good job as a diplomat, Chi, an we won't need a strong army."

"I'm not a diplomat yet, and the minute we lose the capacity to fight better than anyone else, the Messenians and Argives will crush us."

"We'll have a strong army whether I'm in it or not. Now let's enjoy the food," Leonidas ordered, and the others knew better than to try to argue with him when he was in one of his mulish moods, as he obviously was.

Gorgo wasn't sure what to think, except that she wanted her uncle to be happy. Maybe he was right and he would be happier outside the army, but only, she thought, if he could do good for Lacedaemon.  Uncle Leo was more  like her father than he -- or her father -- liked to admit.  Behind his facade of humility, he was actually very ambitious. What was  more, she realized with a kind of awed surprise -- even more than her father, he cared about Sparta, not just himself. 

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Public Administration - Sparta's Hidden Strength


As everyone with even a cursory knowledge of Sparta knows, Spartan citizens were professional soldiers. Spartiates trained for war in the agoge, they spent the first ten years of their adult lives (ages 21-30) on what amounted to “active duty,” and the next thirty years of their lives in the ancient equivalent of the reserves. Not only this, but, we are told, Spartiates were prohibited from learning and pursing other professions and so there were no potters and no carpenters, no shipwrights and no smiths among Spartan citizens.  These undisputed facts have led most people to see Spartan citizens as soldiers only, ignoring the fact that despite their life-long service in the military, Spartan citizens could in fact be much more than soldiers. They were also the administrators of a large, prosperous and exceptionally complex state.

In the 5th Century BC, Lacedaemon stretched from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea and had an estimated population of 60,000 or more. It had at least three classes of inhabitants (helots, perioikoi and Spartiates). It had a public school – unlike any other city of its age. It had a great number of public festivals with complex rituals involving choral, dance and athletic competitions. It successfully competed in the pan-hellenic games. It pursued extensive diplomacy throughout the then known world. And all this in addition to pursuing a brutal war that dragged out over generations in the second half of the fifth and early fourth century.  In short, Sparta was a highly sophisticated society, which could not have been managed by two bickering kings, 28 men in their dotage and five amateurs elected for a single year.  Sparta’s centuries of pre-eminence in the ancient world – and its reputation for good governance and order – can only be explained by hypothesizing a well-functioning administration that kept Sparta’s institutions operating.

This logical conclusion is supported by various sources which make oblique reference to ill-defined dignitaries that evidently supported the known institutions of the Spartan state. For example, the Paidonomos and his assistants, priests, “magistrates,” and “heralds.”  While there is no explicit evidence (except with respect to the Paidonomos) that these positions were filled by Spartiates, it is unlikely that the Spartans would have entrusted the education of their children, their relationship with the Gods, communication with the enemy or the enforcement of their laws to perioikoi, much less helots.  In short, there were many tasks and responsibilities in addition to soldiering that must have been performed by full-citizens after they went off active duty. 

Let’s start with the agoge.  Although Xenophon and others speak only of “the” Paidagogos, as if one man alone controlled the entire agoge, such a notion is illogical.  We know that effective education requires low ratios of instructors to pupils, and even taking into account an age cohort of eirenes providing a degree of internal discipline each year, it is not credible that there were no other agoge officials.  It is far more likely, given the size and importance of the agoge to Spartan society, that there was a relatively large college of instructors, or at least Deputy and Assistant Paidagogoi, maybe the Mastigophoroi. Admittedly, these are usually portrayed as a bunch of whip-wielding thugs, but it is more probable, given the complexity of Spartan education, that they were responsible and respected educators.

Descriptions of Spartan life suggest a variety of other activities that would also have been performed by Spartan citizens if not “professionally” then, nevertheless, with the conscientiousness expected of full or part-time public servants.  For example, Sparta was famous for its choruses and dance performances. Anyone who has engaged in either activity knows that large groups of people cannot be brought to perform harmoniously together without someone choreographing, directing, and conducting. Sparta undoubtedly had chorus masters, and it is seems highly unlikely that choral and dance masters would have been drawn from the ranks of the helots or perioikoi.  Just as with the agoge instructors, it is far more probable that these were adult citizens.

We also know that the Spartan kings kept records and maintained archives.  Control of such delicate material as oracles from Delphi, communication between the kings and their permanent representatives, correspondence between the ephors and commanders in the field or ambassadors to foreign capitals would hardly have been entrusted to anyone but Spartiates.  In all probability, therefore, there was at least one “archivist” for each royal house, and this position was probably filled by a Spartiate, who was either appointed or elected. He probably had deputies and assistants as well.

Then there is the issue of taxation. Taxation was particularly important in Sparta because citizenship itself depended on paying two kinds of tax: the agoge fees when immature, and the syssitia fees after attaining citizenship.  Someone had to keep track of who paid how much, and they had to do that each and every month.  Maybe each syssitia had a part time “treasurer” to keep track of fees, but the agoge was large and would have required at least one (and probably more) full-time “treasurers.” It is not credible that perioikoi would have been entrusted with control of records that revealed (and in part determined) the strength of the citizen body and so the army in future generations. 

Furthermore, taxes also had to be collected from the helots and perioikoi.  Spartiates who collected too much from their helots were subject to sanctions, so someone – and it had to be one of their peers – must have been keeping track of how much was due and how much collected.  Even if not explicit, it is also fair to assume that the perioikoi were subject to taxation, just as metics in Athens. Again, an institutionalized means of assessing and collecting those taxes would have been necessary to ensure everything functioned properly, and -- at least until Sparta’s population decline became critical -- such an apparatus would have been headed by Spartiates.  Given the size and expanse of Lacedaemon, my guess is there would have been many more than one citizen engaged in tax collection!

Once taxes were collected, they had to be put to work, so we come next to the business of financial management.  Sparta would have needed some mechanism to allocate funding to various state expenditures.  Money was needed for the army, of course, but also for the fleet, and for public works like roads and fountains and drainage systems and for public buildings from temples to theaters, and monuments to barracks. Managing such projects requires full-time public servants committed to ensuring that the intentions of the state (as expressed, one assumes, by the Assembly via the ephors) are fulfilled and that funds are not allocated incorrectly.

And finally there was the Spartan army.  Friend and foe alike admired the Spartan army not only for its relatively good performance on the battlefield but also for its organization and professionalism.  Yet as most soldiers will tell you, an army’s effectiveness is not simply a matter of fighting capacity. A good army is well fed, well equipped, and well-supplied. It has effective command-and-control mechanisms, efficient lines of communication, as well as adequate and flexible transport.   A good army has a medical corps and, in centuries past, good veterinarians as well. In short, there is a great deal more to creating an effective fighting force than drill with weapons.  Sparta’s army must have had not just good soldiers and officers, but good quartermasters as well.

While all these various positions were “honorary” in the sense that they were without remuneration, they were nevertheless jobs requiring considerable time, energy, dedication and skill. Spartiates may not have earned a living from these jobs, since they all had their estates, but they probably viewed their performance in such jobs as honorable public service. Whether elected or appointed, ambitious Spartiates would undoubtedly have competed for these positions, and a man's performance in such public service would have contributed to his reputation and prestige. Men in these positions would in turn have been influential, becoming part of the complex network of “leading” citizens that helped shape Spartan policy behind the scenes.  

There is nothing sinister about this. It happens in every society – including our own.

The diverse occupations of adult Spartiates is reflected in the latter two books of the Leonidas trilogy:


 

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Sparta Through Persian Eyes - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

At the start of the month I speculated on the way Sparta might have looked in Leonidas' time. This is another way of looking at Sparta, this time through the eyes of a Persian interpreter, used to the great, walled cities, magnificent palaces and planned gardens of the Persian empire.


"And this is it?" The Persian interpreter Zopyrus asked incredulously. "This is Sparta?" He looked around, baffled, as his chariot drew up in front of a modest, whitewashed building with a sober portico on a pleasant, but far from grandiose, square."

...

Traveling in easy stages, it had taken four months to reach their destination, and Zorypus had been looking forward to staying in one place for a month or more.  Now that he was here, however, he found Sparta so disappointing that he was no longer certain he wanted to stay for long.

There was no denying that the capital of Lacedaemon lay in beautiful surroundings. It sat cupped in the hands of a fertile valley enclosed on three sides by mountains. The majestic peaks of Taygetos rose up to the west, and the Parnon range provided protection to the east. The two ranges met in the north so that as the Persian convoy worked its way up from the port of Gytheon on the Gulf of Laconia toward the city, the valley narrowed more and more.

But Sparta itself made no sense to Zopyrus. Throughout the rest of the known world, cities were surrounded by massive walls. In the more primitive countries, these might be little more than mounds of earth surrounded by ditches, but in the more civilized parts of the world, the walls were of quarried stone and fired brick. Major cities often had walls twenty yards thick and fifty yards high, strengthened with towers that stood even higher, and many walls nowadays were faced with polished stone or glazed tiles.  While more prosperous cities spread beyond their walls, so that dwellings, stalls, shops and other semi-urban structures cluttered the surrounding countryside in ever greater density, all the important civic buildings and palaces of every metropolis Zopryus had seen up to now lay behind defensible walls with ramparts and fortified gates manned by soldiers.

Sparta was different. It had hundreds of temples, shrines, monuments and public buildings. It had fountains, broad avenues, gynasiums and palaestra, stoas and baths, and an amphitheater below the acropolis. It was undoubtedly urban, but because it had no walls, it seemed to sprawl across the plain as if some giant had spilled a basket full of buildings. It was haphazard. There was no urban planning. There was no gridwork of streets running at right angles to one another, and there was no logical organization into quarters for administration, trade, worship, finance and dwelling. There wasn't even any separation of rich and poor.

Furthermore, the royal palaces were primitive. Rather than sitting above the city surrounded by gardens fed by streams and encased in high, glistening walls, they were located right in the heart of the city, crowded by other buildings that had grown up around them over time.  They were too cramped to be comfortable or have pretty grounds, and they were completely indefensible.  


Thursday, August 31, 2017

A City Like No Other - Sparta's Unique Architecture


Acropolis of Athens, 2012, Photo by author.
The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides made a prediction in his History of the Peloponnesian War that has come true with a vengeance.  He wrote that “…[if] Sparta were to become deserted and only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies beyond its frontiers. Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, 10, 2.)



This statement was as much a criticism of Athens’ building program under Pericles (that had diverted contributions from the Delian League, intended for defense against the Persians, to building extravagant temples in Athens) as a critique of Sparta.  Yet it has misled modern scholars and novelists to portray Sparta as if it were a primitive village of dirt and mud. 
 


For example, in his best-selling novel Gates of Fire, Stephen Pressfield calls Sparta “a village” adding: “The whole stinking place would fit, with room to spare, within His Majesty’s [Xerxes of Persia’s] strolling garden at Persepolis. It is … a pile of stones. It contains no temples or treasures of note, no gold; it is a barnyard of leeks and onions, with soil so thin a man may kick through it with one strike of the foot.” (p.188).



Modern writers are often guilty of both a too hasty reading of Thucydides, and a failure to consider other evidence.  Thucydides complains that Sparta “is not regularly planned” – but then nor is London. And he says it is “simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way.”  This is not the same thing as saying Sparta was not a cosmopolitan city, it only means that Sparta had no plan and no walls and hence grew haphazardly -- as all major European cities did after their confining medieval walls were torn down. No one today would call Paris, Berlin or Rome “a collection of villages” simply because they are in fact many villages which have grown into a single metropolis after the need for fortifications disappeared and economic growth fueled urbanization. Why should we assume that just because Sparta was made up of five distinct villages in pre-Archaic times that it was not – in its years of glory – a cohesive, dynamic city?   


Sparta, April 2016, Photo by Author

Likewise, when Thucydides writes Sparta “contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence” he is not denying the existence of temples and monuments, only ones “of great magnificence” – such as Pericles built with stolen funds from Athens satellite states without their consent. In short, Thucydides never claimed that Sparta was not a major, metropolitan city, nor did he deny it had notable monuments, he was only making the astute statement that, judged by its buildings alone, future generations would over-estimate the power of Athens and under-estimate that of Sparta.

The assessment of Sparta's architecture has been aggravated for modern observers by the fact that today we cannot see what Thucydides did. Sparta was destroyed by earthquakes many times over the centuries. It was flooded by the Eurotas. It was abandoned. Nothing destroys architectural monuments so completely as abandonment.  Nor should it be forgotten that Sparta has not been systematically subjected to archeological excavation in almost a century. 
 
The Spartan Amphitheater, 2012, Photo by Author

Nevertheless, what has come to light demonstrates definitively that far from being a place full of primitive, mud structures, Spartan architecture was substantial, monumental (not the same as “magnificent”!), and very, very typical of Doric architecture throughout the ancient world. Sparta was, in fact, the ultimate Doric power. It attained it greatest artistic flourishing in the 6th rather than the 5th century BC, and consequently its greatest monuments were archaic not classical or Hellenistic. But they existed! We can still see some of the foundations and remnants to this day. Sparta was not just a heap of peasant hits, as Pressfield and other modern novelists would like us to believe. 


For anyone whose imagination is too weak to mentally reconstruct a great city from the remnants left in Sparta today, we have the meticulous record of an ancient travel guide. Pausanias traveled to Greece in the 2nd Century AD, long after Sparta’s decline from prominence and more than half a century after its “golden era” in the 6th Century BC.  Yet he needs 26 sections and more than 60 pages to describe the city! And that, although he claims he has not described everything but rather has selected and discussed only “the really memorable things.” (Pausanias, III.10. p. 37)

I would also like to point out that no Spartan has left a written description of his/her city that has survived to our time. Would a Spartan have found the Acropolis in Athens “magnificent” or simply “distant, intellectual and arrogant”? Would a Spartan necessarily have admired the altar at Pergamon?  Or found it “gaudy” and “busy”-- as many people see rococo architecture today?  Sparta was different from other cities of its age, particularly Athens. Does that necessarily mean it was less attractive?
Let me be heretical. We know that in ancient Greece most statues and temples were painted vivid colors and the statues of the gods were dressed in robes, ivory, gold and jewels. What if Spartan austerity indeed extended to temples, statues and monuments and these were adorned only with natural beauty – i.e. naked stone and marble sculptures set amidst flowering trees and running water? Isn’t that what we find strikingly beautiful in Greek architecture and sculpture today? The perfection of proportion, symmetry and form in beautiful natural settings? Isn’t it the lifelike poses, gestures and expressions that appeal to us? Would we rather see Venus de Milo painted in flesh tones with red lips and blond hair? Would we admire the Parthenon in Athens as much if it was dressed in bright paint?

Ancient Nemea Today, Photo by Author
What if Spartan homes were indeed devoid of elaborate interior paintings because, unlike their Athenian counterparts, they were not crammed into an over-crowded city and surrounded by high-walls that blocked out almost all daylight? Spartan houses could be built on a generous plan because the city had no plan. They could incorporate interior courtyards planted with fruit trees and herbs, they could surround themselves with gardens and orchards, they could sparkle not with gold and silver but the glinting of sunlight on water in internal fountains. Spartan homes could have windows that let in the light and they might have decorated their homes, as they did themselves, with things of nature: cut flowers, bowls of fruits, running water. Such things are transient; they rarely leave an archeological record.

Spartan homes would have had views like this from the windows. Who needs wall paintings? Photo by Auhthor
Sparta, far from being a “stinking village” full of pigsties and mud-huts as modern novelists portray it, was a city – as Pausanias describes -- full of marble monuments, pure Doric temples, sun-soaked theaters and imposing stoas. It was a city with large villas set in blooming gardens. And it was a city where the barracks and civic buildings were interspersed between sunny open spaces set aside for running, ball-games and horse-racing. It was a city decorated with fountains and flowering trees. In short, it was a city much as we would plan one today.

The Sparta of my novels is this attractive city rather than the "stinking village" of Pressfield.


 

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Farwell to Lacedaemon - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

In remembering the stand of Leonidas, the Three Hundred and the Thespeians at Thermopylae, we often forget the impact of their loss on those who loved them. 
In this excerpt from “A Heroic King” Leonidas’ daughter and wife face his impending departure.



Agiatis was sitting at the end of the pier, clutching her knees and holding her face down on top of them. Gorgo eased herself down beside her daughter and pulled Agiatis into her arms.

“Why?” Agiatis burst out instantly, coming up for air, then burying her face again, this time in her mother’s lap to wail like a little child.

Gorgo held her close. Agiatis’ sobbing shook her whole body and her tears soaked through Gorgo’s skirts. Gorgo started to rock back and forth in an age-old gesture of motherly love. “Hush, sweetheart, hush.”

“But why does he have to do it? Doesn’t he love us even a little? Why does Sparta always have to come first? Why?”

“Oh, sweetheart! Do you really not see?” Gorgo was genuinely surprised by her daughter’s misunderstanding. “This isn’t about Sparta at allit is about us.”

“Then let Leotychidas die! No one would even miss him!”

“Of course not, but no one would follow him, either,” Gorgo reminded her daughter.

“The army has to!” Agiatis spat back furiously. “He’s a king, too!”

“Many of our citizens think he’s not. They think Demaratus is the rightful king. And even if they obeyed Leotychidas out of respect for our laws, the Confederation would notand so everyone would fight alone and would be defeated alone, and then the Persians would keep coming, unstoppable, to destroy us.”

Agiatis sat upright, revealing her puffy, red face. She wiped her running nose on the back of her armas if she were four rather than fourteenand argued, “But if Leotychidas were killed fighting up north, then Dad could lead the defense here successfully, because the prophecy would already be fulfilled.”

“Oh, sweetheart, why do you think Leotychidas would die just because he went north? He is far more likely to accept a Persian bribe or just run away. And if he’s not Sparta’s rightful king, then even his death would not appease Zeus. Either way, your father would be left to rally what is left of our forces in a hopeless situation, and his life would still be forfeitor we would be destroyed. Maybe both. Surely you see that he needs to make his sacrifice militarily meaningful to ensure his death brings us safety and freedom?”

Agiatis stared at her mother stubbornly, unwilling to admit that she could see her mother’s point. Gorgo understood her silence, and pulled her daughter back into her arms to hold her. They clung to each other for a few moments in silence; then Gorgo loosed her hold a little to stroke her daughter’s soft, slender arms and comb her tangled, tear-wet hair out of her face. “Agiatis, you have to apologize to your father.”

Agiatis didn’t answer, but she squirmed defiantly in Gorgo’s arms and shook her head. She pressed her face into Gorgo’s lap again.

“You have to,” Gorgo insisted gently but firmly, “not for his sakehe knows how much you love him, and he will forgive you whether you ask it of him or not. You have to go back and tell him how much you love him because if you don’t, you will hate yourself for the rest of your life.” Agiatis went dead still and Gorgo continued, “You do not want to live with the memory that the last words you said to your father before he died for you were, ‘I hate you.’”

“My last words were, ‘I’ll never forgive you. Never,’” Agiatis corrected her mother.

“Is that better? Is that what you want to remember as your last exchange with your father? Do you want your last memory of him to be his wounded face when you flung those words at him?”

Agiatis sat up again and looked straight at her mother. Tears were brimming in her eyes. “Oh, Mom, it’s not fair!”

That was too much for Gorgo. Her own throat was already cramping from trying to hold back tears, and suddenly she couldn’t anymore. She pulled Agiatis back into her arms and surrendered to her own emotions, sobbing almost as hard as her daughter had only a few moments earlier.

Gorgo’s self-indulgence did not last long. After a little while she drew back, wiped the tears from her face, and turned Agiatis to face her. “We have to pull ourselves together and make sure that your father’s last memories of us are comforting onesimages to warm and cheer him not only as he marches into battle, but into the darkness of the underworld itself.”

This time Agiatis nodded. In fact, she took a deep breath and announced, “You’re right, Mom. We will. We will be better than Andromache for Hektor, because there are two of usand Dad’s going to win. Sparta isn’t going to fall like Troy. You will never be a foreign prince’s slave, and no Persian will rape me and make me serve him like a whore! And no one would dare mutilate Dad’s corpse, because the Guard will defend it and bring it home, and he will be buried right here on the banks of the Eurotas he loved. And we’ll put up a monument to him, like the one over Kastor’s grave, and we’ll visit him there, and talk to him, and tell him how happy we are. How good Lakrates is to mehe is a good man, isn’t he?”

“He’s a delightful young man,” Gorgo assured her. “With a wonderful sense of humor, as well as being a brilliant armed runner and javelin thrower.”

Agiatis nodded, satisfied. “All right. Then we’d better go fix ourselves up so Dad can’t tell we’ve been crying.”

“Exactly,” Gorgo agreed. They helped each other up and, hand in hand, walked down the pier and headed back for the house.

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