Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Chilon the Wise

It may surprise many modern readers that Plato, writing a history of philosophy in the 4th Century BC, claimed that all early philosophers were “imitators, lovers and disciples of Spartan education.”  Furthermore, the seven “wise men” that Plato considered the fathers of philosophy included two Lacedaemonians, one of which was Spartiate: Chilon the Wise. Although in the 5th century BC it had become common to speak about “seven” wise men, whose selection varied from writer to writer so that a total of 17 are actually named on one list or another, Chilon – like Solon of Athens – is always among the seven.

So just who was Chilon of Sparta?

Based on the stories told about Chilon, which include personally meeting the famous writer of fables, Aesop, and Hippokrates, the father of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, historians conclude that Chilon lived in the first half of the 6th century BC, or – one might say – in the Golden Age of Sparta.  Furthermore, he is said to have been an ephor during the 56. Olympiad, or between 556 and 554 BC, by which time, the sources say, he was “very old.” Modern historians such as Conrad Stibbe suggest he was somewhere between 60 and 75 when he was elected ephor in ca. 555 BC.

Chilon was a Spartiate, but apparently not from a “leading” or royal family. The fact that his descendants married into both royal houses, however, is an indication of just how highly he was regarded by his contemporaries and admired by subsequent generations of Spartans.  Particularly significant is that a great-granddaughter of Chilon was selected by a later college of ephors as the bride for the then childless Agiad King Anaxandridas.  Anaxandridas had been married for many years to his niece, who appeared to be barren, and the ephors after futilely urging the king to set aside his wife and take a new wife, convinced him to take a second wife.  This wife (who is nameless in Herodotus) promptly became pregnant and gave birth to a male child, who later became one of Sparta’s most controversial kings, King Cleomenes I.  What is striking about this particular marriage is less that the college of ephors would put forward the name of a girl descended from one of their own predecessors, than that Anaxandridas, who would have been a reigning king at the time Chilon was an ephor, would accept her as his bride.

The importance of this fact is best understood when we remember that Chilon is credited by ancient and modern historians with raising the status of the ephorate to a body almost as powerful as the kings.  The ephors are not mentioned in the so-called Great Rhetra which allegedly encapsulated Lycurgus’ constitutional reforms, nor do they appear in any of the fragments of Tyrtaeus’ poetry that have survived. Originally, the ephors appear to have been little more than official servants of the kings, charged with executing the kings’ orders. In consequence, the ephors make no particular mark in history prior to the mid-6th century.

The first historical act of the ephors was the already mentioned incident in which they forced a reluctant King Anaxandridas to take a second wife. This interference in the personal life of a king was justified by their concern over the future of the Agiad line and indirectly the Spartan Constitution. It was initiated because, according to Herodotus, the ephors were tasked with observing the heavens at regular intervals and interpreting the stars.  In other words, this first act of interference could be interpreted as more a religious than a political role, in that the ephors were simply interpreting the Will of the Gods, rather than acting in a constitutionally independent role.

In the centuries to follow, however, the ephors increasingly engaged in activities that are unashamedly political. By the late 5th century, the ephors could fine citizens for misdemeanors and bring charges against them for more serious crimes, even those elected to public office.  They controlled relations with the perioikoi and helots (at some point initiating the practice of declaring war on the helots annually.) The ephors drafted bills for presentation to the Assembly and set the agenda at Assembly meetings. They could summon the Assembly and presided at it.  The ephors decided based on their estimate of the comparative volume of the shouted “ayes” and “nays,” whether a motion had passed, and they enforced the decisions taken at Assembly.

The ephors, furthermore, had diplomatic and military roles as well as political and administrative ones. Not only did they receive and dispatch ambassadors, they also named – and recalled – commanders, such as Pausanias and Lysander.  They appointed the three hippagretai, who then each selected one hundred men from among the 21 – 30 year olds to form the royal body guard.  After the Assembly voted for war, it was the ephors, who mobilized the troops, and two ephors accompanied whichever king commanded the Spartan army on campaign.  The latter was clearly intended as a check on the behavior of the kings.  Although the kings commanded absolute obedience while the Spartan army was outside of Lacedaemon, the ephors were expected to keep an eye on them and exercise their right to bring charges against the kings on their return.  If a king was charged with a capital offense, the ephors sat in judgment of him along with the Gerousia.

But returning to Chilon himself, Conrad Stibbe in his excellent work on archaic Sparta Das Andere Sparta (Mainz: 1996) credits Chilon with conceiving of the Peloponnesian League.  As he points up, throughout Sparta’s previous history, complete subjugation of a conquered people followed successful Spartan conquests. This was true for the conquest of the heartland of Lacedaemon, the Eurotas Valley in the 9th century and for the conquest of Messenia in the second half of the 7th century. Yet after a bitter war with Tegea during the first half of the 6th century BC, in which Sparta suffered at least one humiliating defeat resulting in the enslavement of Spartiate hoplites, Sparta chose a different path. Following a decisive victory over Tegea under the leadership of King Anaxandridas, Sparta made the revolutionary decision not to subjugate and occupy Tegea, but rather to form a defensive alliance with its defeated foe. This course was unprecedented in Greek history at the time. (Note: My novel The Olympic Charioteer deals with this period of Spartan history.)  Furthermore, the alliance with Tegea was not a one-off event, but rather signaled a completely new Spartan foreign policy that was pursued throughout the rest of the century. Under both Anaxandridas and his sons, Sparta built up her power and prestige not through direct conquest but through the formation of a system of alliances, first on the Peloponnese (under Anaxandridas and Cleomenes) and with all of Hellas under Leonidas.

Yet while Chilon sought peace and alliances with Sparta’s democratic neighbors, he was according to ancient tradition together with Anaxandridas the driving force behind a series of military actions undertaken by Sparta to depose tyrants in Sikyon, Samos, and Athens. The fact that Chilon and Anaxandridas are mentioned as working together to depose the tyrants is significant because it suggests a joint policy – something that makes the later marriage of Anaxandridas to a great-granddaughter of Chilon more understandable. 

Interestingly, Chilon is described in Herodotus as a seer and Chilon’s first act of extraordinary wisdom was advice that, had it been followed, would have spared Athens the tyranny of Peisistratos in the first place.  Chilon’s wisdom was thus associated with Sparta’s opposition to tyranny.  According to legend, when the father of Peisistratos, Hippokrates, was in Olympia, he received a sign from the Gods.  A cauldron full of sacrificial meat he had donated to the gods boiled over without a fire being lit under it.  Although Hippokrates recognized that this could only be a message from the gods, he could not interpret it, and turned to Chilon for advice.  Chilon told him not to marry and if he was already married to disown any son he already had.

The Spartan Chilon was according to ancient tradition also a contemporary of the fable-writer Aesop.  According to legend, Chilon told the former slave that Zeus’ job was to “humiliate the mighty and rise up the humble.” While this was clearly a reference to Aesop’s own fate, it is a strikingly revolutionary statement nonetheless – heralding the Christian notion that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Likewise with respect to women, Chilon set revolutionary standards of behavior that were uniquely Spartan.  While the Athenian philosopher Socrates showed utter contempt the intellect of his wife, refusing to even take leave of her after he was condemned to death, Chilon was depicted on his grave sitting side-by-side with his wife. Even more impressive, one of his daughters, Chilonis, was recognized by name as a disciple of Pythagoras. In short, while the Athenians contended that women were permanent children with brains incapable of developing rational thought,[i] Sparta’s greatest philosopher encouraged his daughter to study under the greatest of his contemporaries.

But it was hardly for his attitude toward women or former slaves that Chilon attained so much fame among his fellow Greeks. Rather, Chilon was admired and honored by subsequent generations of Greek philosophers and their Roman and modern admirers primarily for his “wisdom.” Chilon was the author of some 600 verses familiar to the ancients that they admired greatly. Unfortunately, none of these have survived into the present, at least none have been identified as the work of Chilon. More famous, however, were three – typically Laconic – sayings that were craved over the entrance to the Delphic oracle and attributed to Chilon. Let me close these brief essay on Chilon by quoting him.  I think many would find his advice relevant even today:

Sponsorship brings misfortune.
Nothing in excess.
Know thyself.


Chilon plays a minor -- but important -- role in my novel: The Olympic Charioteer.








[i] Good sources on Athenian attitudes for women can be found in the Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Waves and Slaves, (New York: 1975), Sue Blundell’s Women in Ancient Greece, (London:1995) and in the chapter on “Citizen Women in Athens,” in Anton Powell’s Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC, (Portland, Oregon: 1988). 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Spartan Education

The image of the Spartan educational system (the "agoge") in most literature is a catalogue of horrors no loving parent would inflict upon his/her children.  Paul Cartledge even makes a great fuss about the word agoge being used for cattle as well as children – although the English word “to raise” is also used for both children and cattle without, to my knowledge, all American, British and Australian children being denigrated to the status of livestock. (Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, London, 2001.)

The assumption in literature and film is that boys (and possibly the girls) were taken from their homes at age seven and never again had anything to do with their parents. Instead they were under the tutelage of the Paidonomos and his assistants, elected herd leaders, “lovers” and eirenes (whatever these were). The boys are described as learning virtually nothing, running around virtually naked, stealing to eat, fighting constantly with their peers, but intimidated and abjectly obedient to their elders.

Yet what we know of Spartan society as whole is not consistent with such an educational system.

First, there is strong evidence that family ties were as strong in Sparta as elsewhere.  No society, in fact, has ever succeeded at destroying the institution of the family -- even when they tried to as in Soviet Union and Communist China.  We know from modern experience that attendance at even a distant boarding school does not inherently indicate a lack of parental interest in a child’s development. Thus, it is ridiculous to think Spartan parents lost interest in their children just because they were enrolled in the agoge.  The agoge, after all, was located in the heart of Sparta. Far from never seeing their families ever again, the children of the agoge would probably have seen their fathers (who had to take part in civic activities and eat at their syssitia) and school- and army-aged siblings daily. 

In addition to the comfort of daily contact with fathers and brothers as desired, we can assume that the agoge was not opened 365 days a year.  Just like every other school in history, the agoge will have had “holidays.”  We know of at least 12 festivals each year.  (See Nikolaos Kouloumpis, “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1.) The Spartans, furthermore, were notorious for taking their religious festivals extremely seriously.  Soldiers on campaign could return home for festivals particularly important to their specific clan, and the entire army was prohibited from marching out during others. (It was because of religious holidays that the Spartan army was late for Marathon and only sent an advance guard to Thermopylae.)  It is not reasonable to assume that what applied to the Spartan army did not apply to the public school. Far more probable is that the agoge closed down for every holiday and like school children everywhere, they gleefully went “home for the holidays” along with their eirenes, herd-leaders, instructors and all other citizens.

The equally common presumption based on fragmentary ancient sources that the boys never got enough to eat and routinely took to stealing to supplement their diet is inconsistent with a functioning economy. No society can function if theft is not the isolated act of criminal individuals but rather a necessity for all youth between the ages of 6 and 21. If all the youth were stealing all the time, the rest of society would have been forced to expend exorbitant amounts of time and resources on protecting their goods.  Every Spartan farm ("kleros") would have been turned into an armed camp, and there would have been nightly battles between hungry youth and helots desperate to save their crops and stores. Nothing of the kind was going on in Sparta, a state known for its internal harmony and low levels of common crime. 

Nigel Kennel argues persuasively that theft was only allowed during a limited period of time at a single stage in a boy’s upbringing (Nigel Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995). As for only being punished for being caught, that is very nature of all punishment seen from the thief’s perspective. No undiscovered crime is ever punished.  Nothing about that has changed in 2,500 years.

The notion that the boys constantly fought among themselves and were encouraged to do so is equally untenable.  Boys of the same age cohort would inevitably serve together in the army. The Spartan army was famous for the exceptional cohesion of its ranks. You don’t attain such cohesion by fostering competition and rivalry to an excessive degree.  A strong emphasis on competition was prevalent throughout ancient Greece.  Spartan youths engaged in team sports, and there would have been natural team spirit and team rivalry.  There can be no question that now and again such competition and rivalry turned bitter and could degenerate into fights.  But Sparta more than other Greek city state needed to ensure that such rivalries did not get out of hand because all citizens had to work together harmoniously in the phalanx.

As for the youth of the agoge being abjectly respectful and obedient to their elders, such behavior is incompatible with high-spirited, self-confident youth – yet this is what the agoge set out to produce. Spartan discipline appears to have produced exceptionally polite young men by ancient standards.  Since observations about Spartan youth at, say, the pan-Hellenic games or on visits to Sparta does not require inside knowledge of Spartan society, we can assume that these reports have a certain validity. But there is a vast difference between being polite and respectful on the surface and being cowed, intimidated and obedient to an exceptional extent. English school-boys of the 19th and early 20th Century also had a reputation for politeness that had nothing to do with being beaten down or docile.

The thesis that Spartan youth learned almost nothing (except endurance, theft, competition and manners) is untenable for a society that for hundreds of years dominated Greek politics and whose school was admired by many Athenian intellectuals and philosophers.  Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic manoeuvring, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them. Ancient sources stress the Spartan emphasis on musical education and on dance, and Spartans certainly knew their laws by heart.  They could -- and effectively -- did debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries. 

Indeed, some sources claim that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus:20)  Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by the many contests and festivals for poetry, particularly in the form of lyrics. The abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read!  

Last but not least, while everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers, the skills needed by a good soldier included far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience. A good soldier also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognise poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more. All this knowledge was probably transmitted to Spartan youth in the agoge.

Finally, let me turn to the most offensive aspect of this common picture: institutionalized pederasty. Without getting into a fight about the dating and nationality of the sources alleging institutionalized pederasty to Spartan society, one indisputable fact is that modern psychology shows that abused boys grow up to despise women. Whatever else one can accuse the Spartans of doing, despising women was not one of them. Athenians, notably Aristophanes and Hesiod, on the contrary, very clearly did despise women and it was in Athens and Corinth that the archeological evidence likewise suggests widespread pederasty. In Sparta the situation was so different that Aristotle fumed against the power of women and attributed it to militaristic society in which homosexual love was not common. Sparta stands out as the exception, which is probably why it was so profoundly misunderstood.

Stripped of common misperceptions about the nature of the Spartan agoge, the institution starts to look not only tolerable but even admirable – something that would be consistent with the historical record.  We know that many men we admire for their intellect, including Socrates himself, were admirers of the Spartan agoge. It is time that modern observers of Spartan society stopped relying on familiar but illogical commentary and used common sense to assess the Spartan agoge.


My novel Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge hypothesizes and portrays an agoge consistent with the above insights. 





Monday, September 1, 2014

Ancient vs. Modern Perspectives on Sparta

This month I’m pleased to have W. Lindsey Wheeler as a guest blogger. He brings a refreshing perspective through meticulous analysis that contradicts the conventional sophistry that has been taught about Sparta over the last 400 years. He is the author of numerous articles and a book on Sparta. For us he simply compares ancient with modern commentary on Sparta and the Spartan culture.


The magisterial scholar of the Doric Greeks, Prof, Karl Otfried Mueller, in the 1820s, wrote that the academics of his day considered the Spartans “a horde of half-savages”.  In the Twentieth century, it is much of the same.  The renowned American classicist Edith Hamilton described Sparta as a backwater  and writes, “The Spartans have left the world nothing in the way of art or literature or science.”

On the other hand, Herodotus records that Anacharsis the Scythian had visited the different states of Greece, and lived among them all, quipped that ‘all wanted leisure and tranquility for wisdom, except the Lacedæmonians, for these were the only persons with whom it was possible to hold a rational conversation’.”

One of the leading modern experts on Sparta, Paul Cartledge notes their lack of “high cultural achievement”.

But Socrates said:  “…namely that to be Spartan implies a taste for intellectual rather than physical exercise, for they realize that to frame such utterances is of the highest culture”. In other words, Socrates, who the Delphic Oracle said was “the wisest man in Greece,” notices that the Spartans had “the highest culture”.

Elizabeth Rawson condemns the heritage of Sparta in her very first line of her work as “a militaristic and totalitarian state, holding down an enslaved population, the helots, by terror and violence.”

Yet in the Protagoras (§347e-§348a), Plato writes “The best people avoid such discussions and entertain each other with their own resources…These are the people, in my opinion, whom you and I should follow”. These “best people” are the Spartans that he is alluding to.

Xenophon puts this speech in Socrates’ mouth:
“Lycurgus the Lacedæmonian now—have you realized that he would not have made Sparta to differ from other cities in any respect, had he not established obedience to the laws most securely in her? Among rulers in cities, are you not aware that those who do most to make the citizens obey the laws are the best….For those cities whose citizens abide by them prove strongest and enjoy [the] most happiness” (Mem., IV, iv, 15-16; Loeb 317 ª; Laced., viii, 1.)

The Bible states that whenever two or more witnesses speak on a condition as the same, we are to accept the statement as true. Plato and Xenophon are two different witnesses to Spartan culture and both use the adjective “the best” to describe the Spartans on two different occasions; one on their intellectual system and on their law-abiding.
The classical scholar, A. H. M. Jones writes that: “Sparta produced no art and no literature and played no part in the intellectual life of Greece” and notes Sparta’s “cultural sterility.”

On the other hand, Socrates had this to say in the Protagoras: “The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are to be found more sophists than anywhere on earth.”

Plutarch, in his biography of Lycurgus, writes that Lycurgus formed a “complete philosophic state”.

Paul Cartledge compares Lycurgus as “a mixture of George Washington – and Pol Pot
This is what Polybius said of Lycurgus: “…for securing unity among the citizens, for safeguarding the Laconian territory and preserving the liberty of Sparta inviolate, the legislation and provisions of Lycurgus were so excellent that I am forced to regard his wisdom as something superhuman” (Polibius 1959: 493).

Cicero admired the Spartans and as a young man visited their city. The ancient Romans had high regard for the Spartans.

As one can see there is a major disconnect between the ancient perception of Sparta and the modern perception of Sparta. All the ancients had a great respect and admiration for Sparta. Socrates, Pythagoras and the Seven Sages of Greece were all emulators, disciples and admirers of Sparta. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The sign of imitation of these people along with the admiration of Plato, Xenophon and Cicero show that Sparta was recognized in ancient times for having the highest, most vibrant and most authentic Greek spirit in the Classical world. 

Could all the ancients have been wrong? Does modern academia know more about Ancient Greek Culture and standards than the Ancient Greeks themselves? I call that hybris!

To explore the topic more fully and for the references of the above quotes please read Part I, The Case of the Barefoot Socrates at:


Friday, August 1, 2014

Sparta and Marathon

This is the month in which Marathon was probably fought, and so a good time to reflect on what happened there -- and what it meant for Sparta.

Marathon was an Athenian-Plataean victory.  Although Athens fielded her maximum force and the Plataeans sent every available man, the Persians still significantly outnumbered their combined strength. Yet when Miltiades finally led the assault, the victory went to the Athenians and Plataeans.  According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persian soldiers lost their lives on the plain of Marathon, at the price of just 192 Athenians and an unnamed, but certainly smaller, number of Plataeans. The Spartans were nowhere to be seen.

And yet, Marathon is a significant chapter in Spartan history.  First, the Athenian request is an indication that they believed halting Persian incursions in Greece was sufficiently important to Sparta to override any other considerations arising from their less than harmonious past relations. Second, Sparta agreed to send help, although Persian wrath was directed exclusively at Athens and Eretria at this point in time, and Sparta would have been justified telling the Athenians to face the consequences of their support for Aristagoras’ revolt alone.  Yet Sparta did nothing of the kind. 

Sparta, according to Herodotus, was “moved by the appeal [for help], and willing to send help to Athens,” but was unable to respond immediately because they “did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full.” (Herodotus, 6:107).  Most historians interpret this to mean that Sparta was at the time celebrating the Carneia, a ten-day festival, and could not march until it was over.

That the promise was not empty is evidenced by the fact that, again according to Herodotus, after the full moon “two thousand Spartans set off for Athens.”  They covered roughly 120 miles of in part very rugged terrain to reach Athens on the third day after leaving Sparta – a notable achievement for an army on foot. They arrived in Athens allegedly on the day following the Battle of Marathon and continued on to Marathon to see the bodies of the slain.

The fact that Sparta delayed responding to the Athenian call for help has occupied historians for generations.  Given the urgency of the request and the evidently genuine desire to help, modern readers find it hard to believe the phase of the moon or a festival would have been allowed to get in the way.  Speculation about a possible helot revolt has been particularly popular. Yet I find it hard to believe a revolt could be of such a predictable nature that the Spartans could know in advance it would be over by the full-moon -- and then in fact be so completely subdued that 2,000 men – the entire active army by some accounts - could march out exactly on schedule. Hints of a revolt prior to the major insurrection of 460 may be credible, but are insufficiently precise to prove a revolt took place at exactly this point in history, in my opinion.

Equally significant but, to my knowledge, less frequently noted, is that Herodotus does not identify the Spartan commander of the 2,000 Spartans that arrived in Athens too late.  Up to this point, Sparta’s armies abroad were commanded invariably by her kings jointly or, after the debacle of Cleomenes and Demaratus quarrelling openly while campaigning against Athens at the end of the previous century, by one of the kings.  It seems very odd, that suddenly, for such an important confrontation, no king is mentioned.

The absence of a king is particularly odd given the large numbers involved.  Herodotus speaks of 2000 “Spartans.”  While this need not necessarily mean Spartiates and could, at a stretch, include perioikoi, it certainly excludes Allies. Furthermore, based on the assumption that the force of 5,000 Spartiates sent to Plataea represented the maximum strength of a citizen force including 15-20 age-cohorts of reservists, 2,000 men probably represents the size of Sparta’s standing army, the citizens aged 21-30, at this time. Such a force represented the very flower of Spartan manhood and would hardly be entrusted to anyone less than a king.

But in the summer of 490, Sparta was in the midst of a dynastic crisis. The Eurypontid Demaratus had been denounced as a usurper and dethroned by a judgment of Delphi only a couple years earlier. After being humiliated by his successor Leotychidas, Demaratus fled Sparta, only for it to then come to light that Delphi’s judgment had been bought by King Cleomenes. This cast grave doubts on the legitimacy of Leotychidas in the eyes of most Spartans, yet it appears to have been impossible to recall Demaratus.  Meanwhile, Cleomenes himself had gone mad and was in self-imposed exile.  Thus in the summer of 490, the Spartans literally had no king to whom they could entrust their army.

This situation might not have been revealed to the outside world, if the Persians had not chosen to launch their invasion of Attica at precisely this time.  Under the circumstances, the Spartan government recognized the need to confront the Persians, but, without a king to take command, Sparta was in no position to respond at once. The Spartans first had to agree among themselves how to deal with this unprecedented situation by appointing a non-royal commander. The delay in responding can, therefore, best be explained by the time needed to find a consensus candidate, which undoubtedly entailed debating the issue in the Gerousia, drafting a bill for the ephors to present to the Assembly, and calling an extraordinary Assembly. It was possible to calculate how many days that would take, and easier to blame religion than confess to the Athenians that the Spartans had a dynastic/leadership crisis. After all was said and done, the Spartan army marched out under someone other than one of the kings.

Herodotus is silent on who led the 2,000 men to Marathon. We will never know for sure. But one candidate stands out as the most likely commander: Leonidas.  Leonidas was an Agiad. He was heir to the throne. He was a mature man, probably with considerable military experience by this point in time. At a minimum, he would have fought at Sepeia against Argos just four years earlier. It is hard to imagine that anyone else in Sparta at the time could claim equal right to lead the Spartan army in the absence of her ruling kings.


If Leonidas indeed led the Spartan army that arrived in Athens one day too late for the Battle of Marathon, it would have given him the opportunity for him to meet Athenian leaders – and win their trust. This may in turn have been a contributing factor to Leonidas’ election as commander of the joint Greek forces in 480.  Perhaps equally significant, arriving one day too late for Marathon may have left a psychological scar that made Leonidas determined not to come too late to Thermopylae. In 480, Leonidas refused to await the end of the Carneia and took his advance guard out of Sparta before the end of the festival.  I think Leonidas was determined not to be late again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spartan Hegemony

In his introduction to Persian Fire Tom Holland argues that “Sparta’s greatness…rested upon the merciless exploitation of her neighbors.”  The sentence made me stumble. Is Holland truly unaware that the Peloponnesian League at this point in history gave every city-state an equal vote in the League Council? Is Holland unaware that some city-states in the League chose to march north with Sparta to fight the Persians at Thermopylae and Plataea?

Since Holland goes on to contend that “to people who had suffered under Spartan oppression for generations, Xerxes rule might almost have felt like liberty."  He apparently believes that the helots and perioikoi and other Peloponnesians, who fought with the Spartans at Plataea, were all “mercilessly oppressed” Spartan slaves fighting against their own best interests. One wonders how 5,000 Spartans managed to keep 40,000 oppressed slaves under control and prevented them from defecting to their Persian liberators, while simultaneous defeating the Persians on the battlefield? Spartans must have been truly superhuman indeed to succeed at such a feat!

It is a particularly notable feat when one considers that the mere proximity of a potential liberator induced 20,000 Athenian slaves to defect in 413. The freedom loving, benevolent and ever democratic Athenians apparently didn’t treat their slaves as well as the “merciless oppressors” of Sparta or 20,000 Athenian slaves would not have “voted with their feet” by abandoning Athens for Sparta. 

It also seems incredible that Sparta would have been elected to supreme command of the Greek forces opposing the Persian invasion – including Athens, if at that time it was widely perceived as a brutal oppressor of its neighbors.  Would the United States at any time in its history have elected Nazi Germany to lead a joint coalition? Would we have asked the Soviet Union to assume command of joint NATO and Warsaw Pact forces to fight a common enemy? It tries my imagination.

Whatever else one says about Sparta’s treatment of helots (and I firmly believe they were far better off than chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, not to mention Persian), to suggest that Sparta “mercilessly oppressed” its neighbors  as well is a gross distortion of the historical record. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spartan Fraternities and Spartan Families

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 meal.  These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. The Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar in the ancient world because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship and failure to make the designated fixed contributions to the mess could cost a man his citizenship.
 
Yet while the fact of these ancient fraternities is well established, the reason(s) the Spartans instituted and maintained this peculiar tradition is controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different age cohorts dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire 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 much more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to undermine family structures and influence.
The problem with the comparison between 20th Century totalitarian states and Sparta is two-fold. First, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. The reason they sought to undermine the family was because they recognized families as inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stressed the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta! If Sparta was essentially conservative, than no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. The experience of 5,000 years of history supports this fact. 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 hardly a good way to undermine family structure! It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but also a fact that most men in the Western world today also 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 among their work colleagues rather than their family. 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, syssitia were not noted for the entertainment of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the tradition of 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.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Missing Mothers -- The Cause of Sparta's Decline?

The dramatic decline in the Spartiate population between Thermopylae (480 BC) and Leuktra (371) has often been cited as the cause of Sparta’s political decline as well. At Thermopylae, a full call-up of all citizens over the age of 20 and under the age of 55, enabled Sparta to field an army of 6,000 citizens (Spartiates) – not counting perioikoi or helots. Yet at Leuktra, when again there was a full call-up of 35 age cohorts, the Spartan army consisted of only 700 citizens.
This dramatic decline in manpower was not only a serious disadvantage on the battlefield, where Sparta’s enemies could deploy (as they did at Leuktra) forces 50 deep to Sparta’s 12-man-deep line, it was also a disadvantage in economics and politics.  Because, evidently, the subject population of perioikoi and helots was not declining at the same rate, a shrinking ruling class of Spartiates was trying to dominate an ever larger body of disenfranchised inhabitants. Like apartheid or feudalism, regimes dominated by too tiny elites generally collapse sooner or later. This is the reason Sparta’s population decline has long been a focus of scholars.

While some scholars (e.g. Chimes (1)) have questioned the magnitude of the decline, most accept the numbers and prefer to concentrate on blaming the Spartan’s for their problems.  Aristotle, of course, blamed Sparta’s women for everything since they could inherit property, and women are, according to him, inherently greedy, grasping and irrational. Hodkinson (2) ran demographic models to demonstrate how female inheritance leads to concentrations of wealth over seven generations. Other historians focus less on how wealth became concentrated in a few hands and more on the fact that as increasing numbers of Spartans lost their citizenship due to poverty, the Spartan state failed to respond adequately to the resulting crisis by opening the citizenship ranks. 

In short, the Spartans, due to their abnormal laws (female inheritance and polyandry) and their fanatical and irrational adherence to these laws, are to blame for their own decline. But as Figueira (3) has pointed out, Sparta’s population was growing or at least stable throughout the archaic period.  Either the laws on female inheritance and polyandry did not exist in the archaic period, or they cannot be made responsible for the decline in Sparta’s population in the classical.

The Great Earthquake of 464, on the other hand, is an event which allegedly took 20,000 lives in Sparta alone, and its role in Sparta’s decline needs to be re-examined. The accounts of the earthquake are nothing if not dramatic. Pliny claims only five houses were left standing, and there are less credible tales of youths surviving because they ran out of a gymnasium to chase a hare, while the army was saved by being marched out in time. While the details may be hard to credit, I think it is safe to say the earthquake was catastrophic without, notably, impacting the strength of the army. 

Meanwhile, while some historians dismiss the ancient accounts as incredible, Hodkinson goes to the other extreme of dismissing “modern guesswork” about women and children being more heavily impacted by the earthquake simply because it is not mentioned in ancient sources. Given the misogynous bias of our ancient sources and the focus of most ancient accounts on Sparta’s military strength, I have no problem using common sense in the absence of a specific reference. Ancient sources rarely mention women or children in any other context either!

Following Figueira’s overall thesis that the Great Earthquake was the catalyst that set off a chain reaction ending in Sparta’s decline, I’d like to suggest that the impact might have been even more dramatic than Figueira contends.  My thinking is as follows: If  – as is reasonable – women and young children were killed in disproportional numbers, then the size of the Spartan army would not been seen to decline for almost thirty years.  This is because the youth of the agoge were not disproportionally affected, so youths would have continued to graduate from the agoge and fill the ranks of the army for at least 14 years after the earthquake. Thereafter, for at least another 10 to 15 years, it would have been easy to maintain front-line strength by retaining men who would normally have gone off active service, i.e. by increasing the number of reserve age-cohorts on active duty.  Only when the age of the reservists made it unpractical to retain them, would the dramatically reduced numbers of graduates from the agoge become evident in the army.

The number of children entering the agoge, on the other hand, would have declined dramatically in the first seven years because of the children killed outright and thereafter because of the missing mothers -- or more acutely, the missing wives. The men already married, who marched to safety, would have lost their wives, while the youth in the agoge would have lost their future brides.  Obviously, some women survived, but if the number of surviving women was significantly disproportionate to the number of men, then the situation might have fostered the introduction of polyandry. It is significant that polyandry is not mentioned in Herodotus. The hypothesis of disproportionate casualties among women, maidens and girls would help explain not only the population decline of the second half of the 5th Century but also the evolution of such a peculiar custom for this part of the world at this period.

The shortage of Spartiate women would also explain the emergence of new-classes of quasi-citizens such as mothakes/mothones, nothoi, and neodameis. If there was a shortage of Spartiate female sexual partners following the earthquake, it would be only natural for the men, particularly the bachelors, to take perioikoi, helot or even foreign women – if not to wife – at least to their beds. They would then, particularly in face of the increasingly acute military manpower shortage, have had a strong interest in seeing the sons of these unions educated and at least partially integrated into the system. The fact that none of the above terms is found in reference to pre-earthquake individuals suggests to me that such classes of quasi-citizens either had not existed before or had not existed in sufficient numbers to be worthy of mention.

All in all, the thesis of “missing mothers” seems to explain more about Sparta’s decline in the later 5th Century BC than any other theory I have seen put forward.

 
(1)    K.M.T. Chimes, Ancient Sparta: A Re-Examinaton of the Evidence, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1952.
(2)    Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, The Classical Press of Wales, London, 2000.
(3)    Thomas Figueira, “Population Patterns in Late Archaic and Classical Sparta,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 116 (1986), pp.165-213.