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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sparta's "Peculiar" Dining Clubs

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


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

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

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

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

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

There is no 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, it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.

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

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

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

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

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



    

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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Debunking Myths about Sparta: The Absence of Art

Sparta is usually depicted as a bleak place and Spartans, lacking in art, architecture and even decoration. As with almost every other cliche associated with Ancient Sparta, that is wrong.  Contrary to popular legend, Sparta produced both works of art and artists.
 

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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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Debunking Myths: A Nation of Thieves

Every scholar of Sparta knows Xenophon’s descriptions of how Spartan youths and boys were kept hungry so they would learn how to steal and were punished only for being caught rather than for theft itself.  Credible as Xenophon generally is, his commentary on this aspect of Spartan society is very questionable.
 
Admittedly, a nation of thieves may well fit Athenian views about their enemy.  The French referred to the English as “perfidious.” Americans and Soviets routinely attributed treachery to each other throughout the Cold War. The Israelis and Arabs have no end of adjectives to describe the deceitful character of the other side. Rather like calling your enemy’s men “fags” and their women “whores,” attributing sly dishonesty and immorality to the enemy is standard fare in propaganda wars regardless of culture or century.

A nation of thieves does not, however, fit well with a society that even her enemies considered remarkably stable and orderly. How do you keep a society orderly, if the entire male population between the ages of 7 and 20 are actively encouraged to steal? More important, how do you keep an economy functioning at the high levels of efficiency needed to finance a brutal, 30-year war if every farm, shop, house, workshop, and warehouse must be locked and guarded against hoards of desperate, half-starved youth? There are thieves in every society, but high levels of crime are one of the most destructive factors to social stability and political credibility. 

Admittedly, the theft of food alone might not be so devastating to an economy as the theft of all goods, but the accounts usually cited, supplemented with details such as the absurd story of a youth caught stealing a fox (which is not on anyone’s menu), suggest that theft as such was encouraged. It is this picture of Spartan youth which dominates modern portrayals of Sparta.

To his credit, Anton Powell, in his article “Dining Groups, Marriage, Homosexuality,” in Michael Whitby’s Sparta, notes that “theft offended against two ideals of Spartan society: obedience and respect for elders.” (Sparta, p. 102). However, rather than questioning if Xenophon’s account is accurate or complete, Powell tries to argue that the military benefits of teaching youth stealth and deceit outweighed the disadvantages of corrupting their morals.   

The problem with this argument is that such skills were conspicuously not necessary to the phalanx warfare at which Sparta excelled. Powell attempts to make a connection between guerrilla warfare and the custom of theft despite the fact that Thucydides states explicitly that prior to the Pylos campaign the Spartans had little experience of brigandage. Unable to square such a statement with his own image of Sparta, Powell hypothesizes a long history of (completely unrecorded!) helot revolts in which the Spartans learned guerrilla warfare – and so needed training in theft and stealth, but which Thucydides and Herodot knew absolutely nothing about.   

Admittedly, the kryptea was an organization in which the skills of deceit and theft would have been useful, but we are told that only selected Spartan youth ever served in it, not all of them. Furthermore, as Dr. Nic Fields so significantly pointed out, Sparta probably did not have that repulsive institution unit until after the helot revolt of 465.  There is, in fact, no credible indication whatsoever that Sparta had to deal with helot revolts of any kind prior to 465 – unless one counts the Second Messenian War as a major “helot” uprising. Taken all together, the evidence suggests that both helots and perioikoi prospered throughout the archaic period.

Rather than inventing unrecorded wars, I think it makes more sense to examine the presumption that Spartan youth were encouraged to steal.   It is far more likely, as Nigel Kennel argues in The Gymnasium of Virtue, that if Spartan youth were encouraged to learn stealth and theft at all, it was only in a very limited and restricted context, and/or only after the degeneration of Spartan society had set in in the mid-fifth century BC. 

The first book in my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan Agoge based on what we know about Spartan society as a whole and common sense. 

https://www.amazon.com/Leonidas-Sparta-Helena-P-Schrader/dp/1604944749/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466242903&sr=1-1&keywords=a+boy+of+the+agoge



Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Debunking Myths about Sparta: The Myth of Ruthless Mothers

Nothing has shaped the image of Spartan women in the popular imagination more than the alleged admonishment of Spartan mothers to their sons to return from war either with their shield or upon it. The image of brave mothers who would prefer to see their sons dead rather than disgraced has captured the imagination.
Yet like so many aspects of conventional wisdom about Sparta, it is probably a complete fabrication.
 

Let’s start by looking at the sources. Plutarch includes no less than seventeen “sayings” that he attributes to “Spartan women”, all of which appear to corroborate a widespread attitude among Spartan matrons consistent with the laconically expressed sentiment “with it or upon it”. In no less than three of these, fiercely patriotic mothers kill, with their own hands, cowardly sons who have failed to live up to their ideal. In others, the mothers revile their sons in insulting language for example, suggesting they crawl back into the womb. In their mildest form, these sayings portray matrons who have lost sons in battle cheerfully going about their business rather than grieving. In two, when a mother learns of the death of a son from another male relative (in one case a second son and in the other her brother), she suggests that he (the relative) join the dead. In one, a woman is even portrayed losing five sons in battle but announcing she is glad because the battle itself was won.

Aside from the fact that undoubtedly many of these sayings are simply different versions derived from the same original source, almost all are anonymous. I am always suspicious of anonymous sources regardless of context, and this fact alone makes me question the veracity of the sayings. Admittedly, since it was considered dishonorable for an (Athenian) woman to be talked about, one might argue that Plutarch did not name names (or his sources didn’t) out of respect for the women involved; but that does not explain why the cowardly sons chastised or murdered by their mothers much less the heroic sons whose deaths are not mourned are not identified. Surely there was no reason not to name cowards and heroes, since this would shame the former and honor the latter in future generations?

In addition to the issue of anonymity, the sayings lack any kind of detail that would enable them to be dated or otherwise put into context. This likewise detracts from their authenticity. They are all vague and generic, as if they are at best apocryphal or at worst bad fiction.

But the sayings are implausible for two concrete reasons as well. First, given the fact that Sparta fought most of her battles far from home, one wonders how the sons of these patriotic matrons managed not only to break the Spartan line and flee the battle, but also to escape the wrath of their comrades and the discipline of their officers? Presumably the Spartan army had very little tolerance for cowards, so the sons had to desert from the army altogether and sneak back to Lacedaemon to seek the aid of their mothers. Here, others sources tell us, they would be treated as “tremblers” and suffer civic sanctions. This begs the question of why any Spartan who failed to do his duty in war would risk being seen in Sparta at all and what they could possibly expect of their mothers?

Second, and even more telling against the probability that these sayings are genuine, is the simple fact that Spartans buried their dead near the field where they fell. This means that the last half of the famous saying “with it [your shield] or upon it” is utter nonsense. Sparta’s battle dead were not brought home on their shields, but as Nigel Kennel puts it in Spartans: A New History (p. 157), “served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project power”. No Spartan mother would have been unaware of this custom.

Turning from the issue of authenticity, let’s reflect more closely on the content of the sayings. At their best, the sayings portray a soldierly ideal of “do or die” being reinforced and shared even by that one element of any society that would be most easily forgiven for not supporting it: the mothers of soldiers. Telling a son in the abstract to return victorious or not at all is certainly not unique to Sparta. Patriotic mothers have allegedly done that in every society caught up in what the women believed to be a just war.

Yet the sayings collected by Plutarch go considerably further. They portray women who are so patriotic that they rejoice at the death of their sons, or tell surviving sons to follow the example of their dead brothers. Worse, in three cases the mothers are so fanatical as to kill their sons with their own hands. Is there anything appealing, attractive, or admirable about such creatures?

The answer is no and, I believe, that is exactly as it was intended to be. I believe these sayings did not originate in Sparta at all.

Why would the Spartans have had an interest in remembering and repeating incidents (five of Plutarch’s sayings) in which Spartan soldiers first failed to absorb the ethos of their society and then fled in the face of the enemy to run home to their mothers? These sayings, after all, don’t just portray ideologically radicalized mothers (who incidentally failed to raise their sons to share their values), but young men who singularly fail to live up to the ideal of their society as a whole. The young men who return alive have ostensibly all gone through the Spartan agoge and are members of Spartan dining clubs and soldiers in her army. And yet, according to these sayings, they still don’t live by the code. In short, these sayings imply, the entire Spartan upbringing was highly ineffective. It hardly seems reasonable that the Spartans would have an interest in recording and remembering such young men no matter how patriotic their mothers were.

Furthermore, if the purpose was to reinforce the ethos of “victory or death”, then anonymous women and anonymous sons would have been blunt, indeed useless, instruments. It would have been more effective to name names -- to tell how the survivors of Thermopylae (with name and patronymic) were reviled by their named mothers? If the Spartans wanted to make examples of patriotic mothers, they would have chosen real incidents from real wars and identified the brave women and their abhorrent sons by name. Nor would they have made the mistake of suggesting that Sparta’s victorious dead were brought home on their shields.

Sparta’s enemies, on the other hand, had no need for real names or real battles and no need to be particularly accurate about details (like where one buries one’s dead), because the intended audience was domestic. If the purpose of these sayings was to reinforce the “Feindbild” (the image of the enemy) to make sure that even Sparta’s women were seen as enemies then the more generic the stories were, the better. That way they became applicable to all times, to every battle, to every enemy soldier, to every Spartan mother.

I believe these sayings attributed to Spartan women were, in fact, enemy propaganda. They were intended to portray the women even the “little old ladies” of Sparta as repulsively different from normal (read: good) Athenian/Theban/Arcadian mothers, who naturally all adore their sons. The point is to depict Spartan women (always the object of horrified fascination on the part of other Greek males) as lacking even that most primeval of all instincts: the maternal instinct. Spartan mothers are shown to be unnatural, unfeminine creatures that deserve no sympathy even in their adversity. The sayings tell Sparta’s enemies that there is no need to pity Sparta’s women as one did, for example, the Trojan women. Go ahead, the sayings insinuate, kill their sons; because if we don’t kill them in battle, the abominations in female form who gave them life, the Spartan mothers themselves, will kill them when they get home.

As enemy propaganda against Sparta, these sayings had another even subtler message: namely, that Sparta’s legendary hoplites were really just a bunch of cowardly mama’s boys. Collectively these sayings suggest that Spartan soldiers, far from fighting to the death even in a hopeless situation, would run all the way home to their mothers, if only they got the chance. Why should any normal Athenian/Theban/Arcadian young man fear an army made up of a bunch of mama's boys?

As propaganda devised by Sparta’s enemies, these sayings served a dual purpose. First, they contributed to the overall image of Spartan women as repulsive, because they showed that in addition to being licentious as young women and adulterous as wives, Spartan women were heartless mothers. Second, they counteracted the legendary image of Sparta’s men as the spiritual descendants of Leonidas’ legendary band of 300, ready to fight tooth and nail even in a hopeless situation.

As propaganda intended for a domestic audience, these sayings diminished fear, bolstered courage, and undermined any sense of identification with the foe. And as such, they tell us something about Sparta’s enemies and their need to counter awe of Sparta’s young men and sympathy for Sparta’s mothers. What they do not do is tell us anything whatsoever about Spartan women.

What is tragic is that so many modern readers take them at face value.

The above essay first appeared in "Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History," Vol. 7, Issue 4, 2011, pp.24-26. It is reprinted here with the permission of the editors of "Sparta."

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



    

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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Debunking Myths: Sparta's "Exceptional" Oppression of Helots or Finding Freedom in Lacedaemon

Almost as persistent and widespread as the popular beliefs about Spartan brutality, ignorance, homosexuality and lack of culture is the view that the Spartans were exceptionally brutal and oppressive to their slaves, the helots.
Yet in 413 BC, according to Thucydides, an estimated 20,000 Athenian slaves ran away to the Spartans.  For these oppressed and exploited individuals, the Spartans were liberators. 
 
 Helots enjoyed significant privileges that chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world did not. First and foremost, they lived in family units, could marry at will and raise their own children.  Almost equally significant, they could retain half their earnings.  Such income could be substantial, as is demonstrated by the fact that no less than 6,000 helots were able to raise the significant sum of five attic minae necessary to purchase their freedom in 369 BC, according to Xenophon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Debunking Myths: Spartans Never Retreated

The fate of Spartans found guilty of the “crime” of cowardice has inspired pity in modern readers, and indeed formed the basis of entire novels.   

 

The latter appear to have been based on Xenophon’s description of the fate of Spartan cowards. Xenophon writes:

…at Sparta everyone would be ashamed to be associated with a coward in is mess or to have him as a wrestling partner. When sides are being picked for a ball game, that sort of man is often left out, with no position assigned, and in dances he is banished to the insulting places. Moreover, in the streets he is required to give way, as well as to give up his seat even to younger men. The girls of his family he has to support at home, and must explain to them why they cannot get husbands. He must endure having a household with no wife, and at the same time has to pay a fine for this. He must not walk around with a cheerful face, nor must he imitate men of impeccable reputation: otherwise he must submit to being beaten by his betters. When disgrace of this kind is imposed on cowards, I am certainly not surprised that death is preferred [in Sparta] to a life of such dishonor and ignominy. (Xenophon, Spartan Society, 9.)
Interestingly, Xenophon’s description of the treatment of cowards is an expanded version of Herodotus’ description of the fate of Aristodemos, the sole Spartiate survivor of Thermopylae.  According to Herodotus, “.. [Aristodemos] was met upon his return with reproach and disgrace; no Spartan would give him a light to kindle his fire, or speak to him, and he was called a Trembler.”(Herodotus, The Histories, Book Seven: 231)
Yet while the ancient sources on Sparta agree on what the treatment of “cowards” was, many modern writers jump to incorrect conclusions about just how Sparta defined “coward.” Not every man, who had the misfortune to fall into enemy hands, was in Spartan eyes a coward. The best evidence of this is the surrender of 120 Spartiates to the Athenians in 425 BC, after being cut off by the Athenian fleet on the island of Sphakteria.

Had Sparta believed that these men ought to have died rather than surrender, then Sparta would have treated the men as dead. In short, Sparta would have written them off and continued to pursue the war, as if they had all died.  Yet quite the reverse happened. Instead of continuing as if the men were dead, Sparta sued for peace again and again. The sole objective of these peace offers was to obtain the release of the captive “cowards.” The increasing desperation with which Sparta sought to have these captive Spartiates returned to Sparta is the most eloquent evidence that these men were not disgraced. 

On the contrary, as Anton Powell underscores in Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC, (London:1988), although the captive Spartiates were degraded from full-citizenship status to lesser citizenship on their return from Athens, this was not because of a presumption of wrong-doing.  Rather, fear that they might have been infected by Athenian ideas, after three years in Athenian captivity, motivated Spartan sanctions.  Furthermore, they were later completely reinstated, and some were even elected to public office! Such treatment is not consistent with the social ostracism described by Herodotus and Xenophon.
The key to understanding the situation is a verbal exchange, recorded by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book IV, 40), between an Athenian and one of the captured Spartiates. The Athenian mocked the prisoners by saying that the “real Spartans” were the dead. The Spartan answered: “spindles (by which he meant arrows) would be worth a great deal, if they distinguish brave men from cowards.” As Thucydides stressed, “the whole Greek world” was amazed that Spartiates surrendered, precisely because they failed to understand – as do most modern commentators – that Spartans did not admire senseless sacrifice.

There was a world of difference – at least to professional soldiers like the Spartans – between Leonidas’ position at Thermopylae, and the situation faced by the Lacedaemonian troops trapped on Sphakteria in 425 BC. Leonidas learned that he was out-flanked and the Pass at Thermopylae no longer defensible only after daybreak on the morning of the third day of the battle. In that moment, the most important strategic concern became saving the lives of as many Greek hoplites as possible. Leonidas was not interested in glory – much less futile gestures.  He was interested in preserving Spartan independence from Persia, and this in turn depended on ensuring that Sparta and her allies had the means to fight the Persians at another place on another day. Leonidas had a very clear strategic objective when he sacrificed himself and his troops: giving the rest of the Greek forces time to withdraw.  Leonidas and his 300 Spartiates, along with the Thespians and Thebans, remained in the pass not to die, but to delay the advance of the Persians long enough for the rest of the Greek forces to get away.
The Spartiates at Sphakteria, on the other hand, could gain nothing whatsoever by dying where they were trapped. The Spartan high command, the Gerousia, and the kings all recognized that fact. The fact that the Spartan leadership pointedly refused to give orders to the local commander indicates that no higher strategic aims were at stake. The commander on the ground was given instructions (according to Thucydides) to “make your own decision about yourselves, so long as you do nothing dishonorable;” he was told to act at his discretion.  (Note: this is evidence that the Sparta's leaders expected junior commanders to be able think and act in accordance with sound military principles about when and what sacrifice was commensurate to the tactical objective.) The fact that the commander at Sphakteria, after consultation with his men, chose to surrender – despite the admonishment not to do anything “dishonorable,” demonstrates that these Spartiates in no way considered their actions “dishonorable” or “cowardly.” They were acting reasonably to prevent unnecessary casualties in a situation, where no military utility could be gained by further sacrifice.

The Spartan attitude can be illustrated by the alleged retort of a Spartiate offered a fighting cock “willing to die.” Reportedly, the Spartan replied that he preferred a cock “willing to kill.” Likewise, the following quote of the Eurypontid king Agesilaus is relevant here. When asked which of the two virtues, courage or justice, was the better, Agesilaus allegedly answered: “Courage has no value, if justice is not in evidence too; but if everyone were to be just, then no one would need courage.”
The Spartans did not expect men to sacrifice themselves senselessly.  The primary purpose of Spartan arms was to inflict damage on the enemy, not to die.  Yes, Sparta expected their men to be willing to die – if it would further Sparta’s interests, but not to die for no purpose, as would have been the case at Sphakteria.  Thus there was no approbation associated with the surrender of the 120 on Sphakteria, and the men who surrendered were not viewed as cowards – particularly since the majority of them were only following orders.

The fate described by Herodotus and Xenophon was reserved for individuals, who failed to follow orders or, like Aristodemus, deserted comrades, who were engaged in a military action. Not the act of surrender was abhorrent to the Spartans, but the rather the failure to stand by one’s comrades and  Sparta's kings.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Debunking Myths about Sparta: Institutionalized Pederasty

No myth about Sparta is as persistent or controversial as the claim that pederasty and homosexuality dominated Spartan society. Even highly reputable historians such as Paul Cartledge subscribe to this theory. 
However, the evidence against it is far more compelling than for it.

Achilles and Patrokles - Ancient Lovers

Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge (his sons attended it!), states explicitly: "… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys, just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters."  It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this and from the most credible source.  To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.

Xenophon adds: "It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys."  This is the crux of the matter.  All of our written sources on Sparta come from these other cities, where pederasty was rampant.  In short, the bulk of the written record on Sparta stems from men who could not imagine a world without homosexual love and pederasty. But then, they also could not imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful, who were not also licentious and lewd.  Modern readers ought to recognize that pederasty is not inherent in society – particularly not in a society where women are well integrated.

 Artemis is depicted here wearing the peplos that remained popular in Sparta long after it was out of use in other cities in Greece. Spartan women allegedly learned how to use the bow.

My position is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta's ills on the fact that the women were in control of things – a fact that he attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society generally. In this Aristotle exhibits an astonishing appreciation of psychology.  Modern research conclusively shows that male victims of child abuse generally grow into misogynous men.  The status of women in Athens fits this pattern perfectly, while the status of women in Sparta completely contradicts – indeed, refutes – the thesis that Spartan men were systematically subjected to sexual abuse by their elders as children. (An excellent discussion of child abuse in ancient Greece can be found in Enid Bloch's "Sex Between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was it Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?," in Journal of Men's Studies, January 2001.)

Finally, Herodotus, who was always happy to provide some juicy little story about a man who covets a close friend's wife, or one who steals a rival's bride just before the wedding, has not a single tale in which there is mention of a Spartan with a male lover – either boy or man. This omission is significant and should not be ignored.

The archaeological evidence from Sparta likewise demonstrates an almost complete absence of pornographic images on artifacts.  This is in sharp contrast to the plethora of explicitly pornographic art from both Athens and Corinth.  While pederasty is as frequently depicted in Athenian and Corinthian art as heterosexual sex, no homoerotic art originating in Sparta has -- to my knowledge -- been found or identified. (Please correct me, if I am wrong!)




On the other hand, some of the most important and lovely pieces of Spartan sculpture depict couples sitting side by side.  Regardless of whom the figures were intended to depict (Helen and Menelaos, Chilon and his wife, a Spartan king, and his queen), what is significant is the greater importance given to depictions of a man and wife sitting side by side – that is, in partnership – compared to depictions of sexual intercourse.

This is because marriage in Sparta was a partnership, not a tyranny as in the rest of Greece. Nor was a Spartan marriage merely for reproduction, it was also consciously intended to bring sexual satisfaction to both partners. Xenophon explains that Spartan laws required men and women to marry in their physical prime and not when too young (for girls) or too old (for men) and that they should be initially restricted in their sexual contact so as to not to become satiated, but rather to enjoy sex together.  Note that there is an explicit emphasis on the desirability of the female partner enjoying sex as much as the male.

Thus, rather than being something frightful and dangerous that male relatives needed to vigilantly guard (as in the rest of Greece), female sexuality was perceived in Sparta as a positive factor that contributed to a good marriage, to healthy children, and so to the well-being of the state.

 

This acceptance of women's sexuality is further underlined by the fact that while Athenian plays demean and insult women (see any of Euripides' plays), the poems of Alkman, considered the most Spartan of all poets by the ancient Greeks, openly admire women.  His poems, written in the second half of the 7th century BC, were the lyrics of songs performed at public festivals by girls' choruses. Alkman also wrote poetry expressing his own adoration of the Spartan girls he worked with.  He was considered by ancient scholars to be the first love poet – a notable distinction for the poet whom the ancients viewed as "the most Spartan"!

None of Alkman's texts can be classed as pornographic, but many modern commentators assert – because the texts of the lyrics, designed to be sung by girls' choruses, praise the girls' beauty – that the songs were lesbian in nature.  This is nonsense.  Boys' and men's choruses sang about bravery and girls about beauty because those were the virtues admired in each respective group.  What the texts (and the fact that Alkman was so revered in Sparta) tell us is that the Spartans enjoyed light-hearted music and tributes to female beauty in a public context -- not merely in the back alleys of the red-light district.

 Furthermore, while female sexuality was recognized and respected, Spartan males were expected to find sexual satisfaction within marriage.  Thus Sparta was reputed to have no brothels at all within the city limits, and Spartans claimed to know neither whores nor adultery.  To date, the archaeological evidence supports the assertion that there were no brothels in Sparta, and the absence of heterosexual (as with homosexual) pornographic artwork further supports the thesis that in contrast to other cities, sex in Sparta was a private – rather than a public – affair. 

Given the fact that Spartan sexuality was so different from that of the other Greeks, it is not surprising that foreign observers of Sparta in the archaic and classical periods have a great deal to say about Spartan sexual relations.  The fact that the most famous adulteress of ancient myth, Helen of Troy, was Spartan contributed to the general view of Spartan women as licentious, a view explicitly underlined by Aristotle in his diatribe against Spartan women.  The legal right to "wife sharing" further influenced the view of women as sexually uncontrolled – even though the law was clearly designed to serve the state's need for new generations of citizens, not women's lust, and could only occur with the husband's consent.

Likewise, the fact that Spartan women were educated, outspoken, and seen in public elicited universal condemnation from other Greeks.  Thus Euripides says in Andromache: "Spartan girls could not be chaste even if they wanted to. They leave home, and with naked thighs and their dresses loosened, they share the running tracks and gymnasiums with the young men."  It was inconceivable to an Athenian that a woman could go to school with boys and engage in sports in front of boys without becoming sexually degraded as well.  Modern readers, however, should not lose sight of the fact that Athenian playwrights were attacking their enemy when they described Spartans.  Describing the wives of an enemy as whores and the men as "faggots" was (and still is) a common – if juvenile – means of belittling a foe. 

In conclusion, contemporary sources suggest that Sparta was not a particularly homoerotic society, and certainly there was no institutionalized pederasty or homosexual behavior prior to the mid-5th century BC. On the contrary, in Sparta women's sexuality was not only recognized but respected and to a degree encouraged.  Spartan artifacts furthermore suggest that Sparta was indeed more prudish than other Greek societies.  The evidence suggests that sex in Sparta was a private matter, sought inside marriage, rather than public entertainment pursued at symposia and on the streets as in Athens. The Spartan ideal of sex was an activity between equals, not an act of domination by an adult male upon a child, a slave, or an illiterate and powerless wife.

My depiction of Spartan society in the Leonidas Trilogy is based on the above analysis and pederasty plays no role in the agoge.



    

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