Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Myth of the Spartan Thief

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. Aside from the fact that thieves in any society can only be punished when caught, and many robbers undoubtedly view punishment as the price of poor performance rather than theft itself, the greater problem with this common depiction of Sparta is the notion that Sparta’s youth were continually stealing just to keep alive.

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 enemies “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 theft are destructive to social stability and political credibility.

Admittedly, the theft of food alone might not be so disruptive as general theft, 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 was so good. 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.

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, or possibly only after the degeneration of Spartan society had set in in the mid-fifth century BC.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Sacrilegious Seducer: Aristomenes of Messenia

Last week I summarized the most dramatic episodes of the legend of Aristomenes that portray him as a heroic, martial figure. In the tales told last week, Aristomenes routed the Spartans in battle repeatedly, devastated their economy and confounded them in the very heart of their city by his daring escapes. These tales are well suited to give a defeated people pride, and to buoy them up even in defeat. But the legend of Aristomenes includes other characteristics that are less obviously “heroic,” albeit very much in the Homeric tradition of fallible heroes.

One of these characteristics, perhaps inevitable in a popular hero, is Aristomenes undeniable sex appeal. On at least two occasions, Aristomenes is freed from captivity by women who fall in love with him. In one instance, he is rescued by the “virgin” daughter of a Messenian farmer, who at Aristomenes’ urgings serves too much wine to Aristomenes’ Cretan guards, and then, when the Cretons are in a drunken stupor, cuts Aristomenes’ bonds so he can kill his erstwhile captors and escape. In a second, more sensational episode of the Aristomenes legend, Aristomenes is shown charming (seducing?) a (presumably virgin) priestess of Demeter.

This second seduction is one of three incidents in the Aristomenes legend in which Aristomenes seeks to to capture unarmed Spartan women and girls for ransom. In the incident referenced above, Aristomenes and his companions try to carry off unarmed women celebrating a festival to Demeter at Aigila in Laconia, but the women defended themselves so effectively with their sacrificial knives and spits that they succeed in either killing or frightening off his companions while capturing Aristomenes himself. Aside from Aristomenes’ prowess as a seducer (since he subsquently seduces the chief priestess), this incident is not terribly heroic. Not only does he attack unarmed women, he fails in his attempt and -- on top of all that -- is himself captured by mere women.

The other two legends about the capture of maidens are more ambiguous. To be sure, in both the other episodes involving the capture of women, Aristomenes’ is successful. In one case he snatches girls dancing in honor of Artemis at Caryae and in the other he snatches fifteen virgins (presumably from Sparta itself) when “the defeated Spartans were celebrating some nocturnal rites called the Hyacinthia.” (See David Ogden, Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis, p. 39) The Messenian version of this latter event significantly recounts how some of Aristomenes men try to rape the girls, but Aristomenes kills his own men rather than let the captive girls be violated, thereby demonstrating his high moral character. Furthermore, he returns the girls "intact" to their fathers after their ransoms are paid, and the grateful girls later plead for his life when he is captured by the Spartans and put on trial. (Note: no further information about when this trial occurred and if whether the Spartans heeded the pleas for mercy by the grateful girls is provided by my source.)

The Spartan version of these epidsodes is (not surprisingly) quite different. The Spartans claim the girls were carried off and raped and then killed themselves from shame. Alternatively, King Teleklos rushed to their defense, only to be killed by the Messenians – and this incident triggered the First Messenian War. Then again, according to another interpretation in Messenian legend, the “girls” were in fact “beardless” youth who attacked the Messenians, and they, in self-defense, killed the youth disguised as girls, but this understandable act of self-defense was wickedly used by King Teleklos as a transparent excuse to attack Messenia, as he had always intended form the start…..

Returning to Aristomenes, there is another aspect of all three of these incidents that would have been more obvious to ancient Greeks than to us: in each case Aristomenes seized (or attempted to seize) the girls when they were in the act of worshiping one or another deity. In short: all three episodes constitute an act of sacrilege. One other legend underlines Aristomenes sacreligious character particularly dramatically.

Ogden provides the following quote from Polyaenus, (Ogden, p. 63):

When the Spartans were making a public sacrifice to the Dioscuri, Aristomenes the Messenian and a friend mounted white horses and put golden stars around their heads. In the course of the night, they manifested themselves at a moderate distance before the Spartans, who were celebrating their festival outside the city with their women and children. They thought there had been an epiphany of the Dioscuri and launched themselves into drinking and great pleasure. But Aristomenes and his friend dismounted from their horses, drew their swords and slaughtered a great many of them before riding off again. (Polyaenus 2.31.4)

This was clearly an act of inexcusable sacrilege. It entails not just attacking unarmed men (with their wives and children present), who were in the act of worshiping the gods, it involves impersonating the gods themselves. If, as Ogden suggests, this incident was intended to explain how Aristomenes incurred the enduring hostility of the Dioscuri, it would have to pre-date the Battle of the Boar’s Grave and so would have occurred at the very start of the Second Messenian War. This in turn suggests that at that time the Messenians could ride right up to the border of Sparta. If combined with the capture of Spartan maidens at another festival, it might have provided the kind of provocation that made the notoriously pious Spartans mad with rage and determined to defeat Aristomenes at all costs. In short, the incident may might significant insight into the roots of the Messenian Wars – or at least the bitterness with which they were apparently pursued.

It is also noteworthy that the conquered Messenians would keep alive legends in which their greatest hero shows decidedly sacrileges tendencies. One explanation would be that they preferred to attribute their defeat to the hostility of the gods than to their own failing. They needed, however, to explain the unrelenting hostility of the gods, and Aristomenes’ impudence did just this. Another explanation might be that, as a conquered people, they felt abandoned by the gods and identified with a hero who was impious. Precisely because the Diosouri were some of Sparta’s most honored gods, being disrespectful of them was in effect being disrespectful to Sparta, so this particular legend might have been particularly popular – especially since it shows the Spartans being duped by such a cheap trick.

Another consistent feature of the Aristomenes legend is the frequency with which the hero is humiliated. Aristomenes is not just captured by women and (lowly) Creton archers, he is wounded in the buttocks, loses his shield (by divine intervention) in the middle of a battle, is turned back during another night raid by Helen (of all martial figures!), forced to retreat to a fortress, then to flee his homeland, and yet he remains defiant and capable of outwitting and escaping his opponents. In short, for all his failings and defeats – or rather because of them – the Legend of Aristomenes is ideally suited to giving a defeated people hope. Aristomenes is defeated – but never killed (unless we want to believe that story with the hairy heart), and so he was an ever-present companion to the Messenians, promising a better future -- just as soon as the bias of the gods in favor of Sparta ended….

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Invincible Loser: Aristomenes of Messenia

Sparta's greatest enemey, Aristomenes of Messenia, was an “invincible” hero that lost the war. As such he provided the defeated Messenians with a hero they could be proud of and admire, while nevertheless transferring the blame for their defeat to others. Here is a short summary of Aristomenes heroic feats.

According to Pausanias, in the first three years of the Second Messenian War, Aristomenes led the Messenian army to victory in three pitched battles against the Spartans, the Battle of Derai, the Battle of the Boar’s Grave and the Battle of the Great Trench. As Pausanias tells the story, Aristomenes won the first of these battles outright and in consequence was offered the crown of Messenia by his grateful compatriots, which he declined. The following year he routed the Spartans so that they took flight “without shame.” Unfortunately, Aristomenes was brought to an abrupt halt in the midst of his pursuit of the defeated foe by the Dioskouroi. These deities, sitting in a pear tree in the middle of the battlefield, with unadulterated pro-Spartan bias made Aristomenes lose his shield as he chased after the fleeing Spartans. Aristomenes stoped to search for it, breaking off his pursuit and (presumably) enabling the frightened Spartans to escape, regroup, and live to fight another day. The following year, having recovered from their shock it seems, the Spartans rallied and again confronted the Messenians in a pitched battle which came to be known as the Battle of the Great Trench. Again, Aristomenes was winning the battle – until Messenia’s allies, the Arkadians, treacherously changed sides. So, due to no fault of their own or that of their leader, the Messenians were forced to take refuge it the fortress of Eira.

With the retreat to Eira, the hero Aristomenes transforms from a battlefield hero like Achilles into a guerrilla leader. In all legends describing the later phases of the Second Messenian War, Aristomenes distinguishes himself not in pitched battles but with daring raids and even more miraculous escapes. In one daylight attack, he is said to have captured dozens of Spartan maidens dancing in honor of Artemis and held them to ransom. In a night raid, he attacked an entire army of Corinthians coming to Sparta’s aid and slaughtered them in their sleep, killing, it is said, more than 100 men personally. Perhaps less heroic but more significant, he was credited with plundering Amyclae and generally making life on the western edge of the Eurotas so uncertain that the Spartans abandoned much of their farmland. This in turn led to food-shortages, civil strife and then revolution. In his most daring raid of all, Aristomenes allegedly slipped under cover of darkness into Sparta’s principle temple, the temple of the Bronzehouse Athena, and there dedicated either a captured shield or his own shield. The dedication of his own shield would be the most prominent kind of “calling card,” but would have deprived him of the very shield he supposedly dedicated later to a different temple (Trophonius in Boeotia), and from which it was later borrowed by the Thebans before confronting the Spartans at Leuktra. The dedication of a captured Spartan shield (one of the kings’ or polemarchs’ shields perhaps?) would have been equally shocking and humiliating to the Spartans.

The legends of Aristomenes miraculous escapes are, if anything, even more spectacular than the stories of his victories and raids. These include (aside from getting out of Sparta unharmed after the above shield dedication): seducing a priestess of Demeter after being captured and bound up by unarmed women and seducing the virgin daughter of a farmer after being captured and bound by Cretan archers. Without doubt the most spectacular and exciting of his escapes, however, followed being knocked out by and brought to Sparta unconscious. Here he and all other captured Messenian troops were thrown off a precipice into a gorge that should have ended in certain death. Aristomenes' companions, we are told, all died, but -- depending on which version of the legend one prefers -- either Aristomenes’ shield itself acted as a primitive parachute to catch the wind and soften his fall or an eagle (possibly the eagle emblem on the face of the shield itself) caught him on its wings and brought him safely to the floor of the gorge. On regaining consciousness, Aristomenes found himself in a dark crevice surrounded by the bones and rotting corpses of those who had been thrown off this precipice before him. Having survived the fall, Aristomenes was still at risk of starving to death in this macbre rock chamber.  According to legend, he spotted a fox feeding on the corpses, and took hold of its tail. The fox (involuntarily and biting Aristomenes the whole way!) led Aristomenes out of the pit, as it fled by the way it entered the crevice.

Yet all these deeds of valor could not halt the inevitable – Sparta’s conquest of Messenia. The ancient Greek sources explain that the gods had (for whatever reason) set their hearts against Messenia. After fourteen years of defying Sparta, eleven of them from the fortress Eira, Aristomenes and his seers received a sign warning them of impending defeat. As the legend makes clear, Aristomenes did not see it as his duty to die in an already lost battle. True to his incarnation as guerrilla leader (rather than his Achillian earlier phase), he ordered “those providing cover in their bravery” to keep fighting, while he led the women and children out of the fortress under cover of darkness (by some accounts, incidentally, with Spartan complicity).

Aristomenes according to legend led the column of refugees to safety in Arkadia with his son commanding the rear guard. Here, so the legend goes, Aristomenes and five hundred of the bravest Messenians conceived a plan to attack Sparta by night (presumably while the bulk of the Spartan army was still besieging a now all-but-abandoned Eira). Unfortunately, the Arkadian king Aristocrates again betrayed the Messenians (one wonders why they fled to Arkadia in the first place?), and so the plan was abandoned. Aristomenes sent the surviving Messenians off to establish a colony on Sicily, while remaining behind to continue his fight against Sparta.

There are two versions of Aristomenes’ end. One version sees him going to Rhodos with his youngest daughter and her husband. There he allegedly died and was buried, and it was from here that the Messenians of the 4th Century retrieved his remains for a shrine in the re-established Messenia. The other version of his end is more obscure. Although it is not explained how, in this version of Aristomene’ life he somehow fell into Spartan hands again and this time they took no chances with throwing him off cliffs. Instead, they dissected him, discovering in the process that he had a “hairy” heart. Unfortunately, no one knows just what this signified, but curiously, according to Ogden, hairy hearts were attributed by the ancient Greeks to six other men including “Aetolia, the beloved of Herakles” and Leonidas I, the hero of Thermopylae!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sparta's Greatest Enemy

Sparta had many opponents over the centuries, but only one man stands out as the consummate enemy. That man was Aristomenes of Messenia, the commander of Messenia’s armies during the Second Messenian war. Aristomenes is credited with routing Spartan armies on three occasions, with killing King Theopompos, with capturing Spartan maidens and carrying them off for ransom, with sneaking into the heart of Sparta to dedicate a shield in the most sacred of Sparta temples, of escaping death after being cast down a chasm, of leading the Messenian civilians out of their besieged fortress of Eira, and ultimately of rising from the dead to fight with the Thebans at Leuctra to ensure Sparta’s final humiliating defeat. This is clearly a hero of Homeric proportions that deserves much more attention than he has received to date.

To my knowledge, the most extensive, modern study of Aristomenes is provided by David Ogden in his concise yet comprehensive study, Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis (published by the Classical Press of Wales in 2004). This short but dense book provides an excellent analysis of the known legends about the almost forgotten Messenian hero and his historical roots. While many modern historians prefer to think of Aristomenes as an invention of the (re-)founders of Messenia in the mid-fourth century BC, Ogden argues convincingly that Aristomenes was at least in part a legend kept alive by oral traditions in exiled and enslaved communities. It seems reasonable to me that Aristomenes, much like King Arthur, was a real historical figure, whose legend was embellished and expanded over the centuries by story-tellers. Perhaps some deeds subsequently attributed to Aristomenes had been committed by other, now nameless, men, and surely the most fantastical adventures were pure fabrications, but that does not make the legend of Aristomenes less interesting to students of Sparta.

On the contrary, it can be extremely productive and educational to examine the complicated relationship between Sparta and Messenia through the lens of legend. Before turning to Aristomenes’ legend itself, therefore, I want to first review the importance of the conquest of Messenia for Sparta.

As far as we can make out based on the historical and archeological record, Sparta was founded sometime in the 9th or 10th century BC by invading “Dorians” from the north. The invading Dorian tribes settled in what is called Laconia after first subduing a population already occupying the fertile Eurotas valley. Several things are notable about this subjugation. First, although it must have involved bloodshed and violence, the ultimate solution was amazingly mild. The pre-inhabitants, rather than being driven out altogether (like the American Indians), massacred and enslaved (like the Trojans by the Achaeans or later the inhabitants of Melos by the Athenians), were allowed to continue living by their own laws in freedom on the edges of the valley, while the invaders took control of the heartland and established a city there. Thus, an entire body of “second class” citizens was from the very start a feature of Spartan society. While it is never pleasant to be “second class,” the perioikoi, as these non-Dorian, pre-inhabitants of Laconia were called, knew that things could have been much worse (extermination, exile) and rewarded the Spartans with roughly 1,000 years of astonishing loyalty.

Second, there was apparently a second group of conquered people in the Eurotas valley when the Dorians arrived. One theory based on linguistic studies (that makes a great deal of sense to me) is that these peoples, ethnically different from the perioikoi, were descendants of a yet earlier population that had, in unrecorded history, been conquered by those peoples that became Sparta’s perioikoi. The name given to these people, the helots, is probably derived from the a word that meant “capture,” and the helots were very probably already slaves – the slaves of the perioikoi – at the time of the Dorian invasion. This explains why they had even less privileges than the perioikoi, but comparatively more privileges than chattel slaves in the rest of the Greek world. Conceivably, the perioikoi (about whose society prior to the Dorian invasion we know nothing) had instituted the curious system of slavery more akin to serfdom than chattel slavery that the Spartans continued. But this is pure speculation.

What seems certain is that the Spartans had control of the entire Eurotas valley by the start of the 8th century BC and then, like every other successful, city state of the age, started to expand. Meanwhile, however, the valleys to the northeast and to the west of Laconia, had also been conquered and settled by Dorian tribes. To the northeast were the Argives and to the west the Messenians.

Geographically, the Paron range to the east of the Eurotas valley is a less formidable barrier than mighty Taygetos, and it is probable that the Spartans first tried to expand to the northeast. The Argives, however, proved a hard nut to crack, and so the Spartans turned their attentions to the west, probably outflanking Taygetos and crossing into Messenia via the Mani peninsula and then advancing up the eastern coast of the Gulf of Messenia.

What is absolutely certain is that the Messenians, like the Argives, resisted the Spartan invasion. What is more, they resisted so effectively that at least one and possibly two very long wars ensued. The “First Messenian War” is assumed to have lasted 19-20 years based on fragments of a poem by Tyrtaios, a participant in the Second Messenian War. The Second Messenian War is believed to have lasted almost as long (14-15 years), so that the entire armed conflict with Messenia lasted roughly 35 years with a break of one or two generations somewhere in the middle. This alone is evidence not only of the fierce resistance put up by the Messenians, but also of near parity of forces.

It seems to me that too little attention has been paid to the question of why the Spartans gave up against Argos, but persisted so bitterly in their war against Messenia. A number of explanations are possible: simply greater riches in Messenia, sheer stubbornness on the part of the Spartans, or even invasion attempts by the Messenians. Perhaps, after winning the first war, the Messenians became agressive and brought the Seconde Messenian War to Sparta? After all, Spartans would not have been fighting fully pitched battles in the Second Messenian War (as Tyrtaios unquestionably describes), if the Messenians had already been defeated and subjugated in the First Messenian War.

In short, it is far more likely that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and that this defeat led to a domestic crisis that resulted in the introduction of a new constitution and a complete reorganization of society. In short, the loss of the First Messenian War led to the changes in Spartan society that made it so unique – and these changes laid the foundation for victory in the second clash with Messenia that followed a generation or two later. (See "Sparta's Forgotton Defeat" for a detailed description and explanation of this thesis.)

There is no doubt, however, that Sparta won the Second Messenian War, and imposed a notoriously brutal regime on the defeated Messenians. The primary source and evidence of Sparta’s “exceptionally” oppressive regime in Messenia (although how it could be more oppressive than Athens on Melos no one has yet been able to explain to me) is a fragment of poetry from Tyrtaios in which he describes the Messenians “like asses exhausted under great loads to bring their masters fully half the fruit their ploughed land produced.” (Tyrtaios, fr. 6). This vivid image is repeated in nearly every book on Sparta, particularly by those that like to portray Sparta as particularly brutal and unjust. Undoubtedly, this fascination with the phrase comes from the fact that it stems from a Spartan poet, and so can be assumed to be genuine (not just propaganda). In addition, the vivid image conjured up by the phrase “assess exhausted under great loads” catches the imagination and is easily remembered.

There is, however, a problem. Tyrtaios here makes explicit that the Messenians had to surrender one half (50%) (“fully half” as he words it) of their produce. Slaves everywhere else in the world surrendered all (100%) of the fruits of their labor. In short, Tyrtaois’ poem, far from being evidence of an excessively oppressive regime, is evidence of an astonishingly mild form of slavery – and of the wealth of Messenia. Another way of reading this passage is: “although only surrendering one half of the fruit of their ploughed fields, they were like assess exhausted under the great loads.” Messenia was rich, and once Sparta had control of it, they could not “afford” to let it go again.

In summary, the conquest of Messenia was a defining moment in Spartan history that had at least three profound effects on Spartan society and history. 1) the conquest itself caused the unrest that led to revolution and the introduction of a new constitution; 2) the conquest made Sparta and all Lacadaemon self-sufficient in food and so uninterested in trade and colonies to the same extent as other Greek cities, and 3) it created a subject population unlike the perioikoi and Laconian helots. It was a population that retained a memory of independence -- and heroic deeds.

This is where Aristomenes comes in. The legends of Aristomenes preserved traditions of a free and heroic Messenia. The tales bolstered Messenian pride and fostered hope of regaining independencein the future. In short, the legend of Aristomenes helped make the Messenians dissatisfied with their current status; it made Messenians more rebellious.

Spartan treatment of Messenians might have been objectively better than that of chattel slaves, but subjectively it was an intolerable indignity because the Messenians retained their national identity. While chattel slaves were uprooted and cut off from even their families, Messenian helots remained on the land of their forefathers with unbroken ties to their gods and heroes. People with proud, martial traditions are more likely to rebel, and the need to keep the Messenian under control in turn made Sparta over time increasingly militaristic and paranoid.

Given the importance of Messenia in defining Sparta’s development and character, it is useful to look more closely at Messenia’s greatest hero even – or especially – if he was only apocryphal. Next week, I will look more closely at specific aspects of the Aristomenes legend in the hope of shedding some more like on Sparta’s relationship with Messenia and helots.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Loving Life in Lacedaemon

Sparta’s enemies allegedly joked that it was no wonder the Spartans were willing to die in battle -- because no one would have liked to live the way they did. Aside from the fact that these commentators probably knew very little about the way Spartans actually lived, the assumption is that lack of luxury and the pervasive deprivation to which Spartans were condemned by their laws made them unhappy men.

Yet Xenophon, a noted Laconophile who lived and campaigned with Spartans for decades, argued the other way around: that precisely because the Spartans learned to get along with very little, they were actually happier. Certainly modern efforts to measure happiness have produced various indexes which prove that there is no direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Unscientifically, I would add that in my personal experience the Nigerians, surrounded by corruption, pollution and collapsing infrastructures, are much happier and have a greater joie de vivre than do the Norwegians, who have one of the highest standards of living and enjoy one of the most equitable and developed societies on earth.

Without getting too deeply into the philosophical topic of what constitutes happiness, I would like to suggest that happiness has less to do with objective circumstances and more to do with a state of mind. We all know that whether a glass is described as half empty or half full depends on whether the observer is a pessimist or an optimist. However, as my father pointed out: the optimist and the pessimist are both wrong – but the optimist is happier.

When outsiders looked at Spartiate society and (based on what they knew) decided such a life wasn’t worth living, they may indeed have accurately described how they would have felt if forced to live the way the Spartans did. However, they tell us nothing about the way the Spartans themselves felt. They are describing Spartan society as “half empty” – but that is not necessarily the way the Spartans saw it. The historian has to look beyond the opinion of outsiders and search for hints about Spartans attitudes toward their society.

Returning to the opening comment, I would argue that, in fact, men are very rarely willing to die for something they don’t think work preserving. Troops notoriously break, run and surrender when they have lost faith in what they are fighting for. If Spartan rankers thought that their way of life wasn’t worth living, then they would have welcomed defeat as a way of introducing revolution and constitutional reform. Indeed, if young Spartans thought the Spartan way of life was so abdominal that it was better to die than live as they were supposed to live, then idealistic young Spartans would have deserted to the Athenians in droves, helped defeat the oppressive regime they hated, and introduced Athenian-style democracy. In short, witty as the Athenian joke is – and it made me laugh out loud – it does not describe the Spartan frame of mind.

So how do we come closer to the Spartan attitude toward life? What made Spartans willing to die for Sparta? Was it really just a mindless fear of showing fear? A fanatical devotion to a code of honor? Or was Xenophon on the right track when he suggested that the Spartans learned to enjoy life – and love it better – by learning self-control and restraint?

As evidence of a certain, if not joie de vivre, at least contentment, I would like to first draw attention to those pieces of Spartan art that we have to date uncovered. Unlike the art of some warlike cultures (notably the Aztecs), Spartan art depicts many peaceful scenes: farm animals, lions and mythical beasts, bulls and horses (lots of horses!), riders with and without hunting dogs, chariots with horses and charioteers, girls running, married couples side-by-side, a king watching the correct weighing of goods for export, youths and maidens and hoplites, lots of hoplites. It is notable that the facial expressions on the human figures are uniformly benign. A convention certainly, but I would argue that a society that rarely smiled would not have conventionalized the smile as the expression in its art.

As witness to Sparta’s love of life I would also like to call Sparta’s most famous philosopher, Chilon. According to a variety of ancient sources, Chilon was the origin of the quintessential laconic advice “Know Thyself” – inscribed in the forecourt to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Maria Papadopoulos points out in her contribution to “Sparta: A city-state of Philosophers: Lycurgus in Montaigne’s essais” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 7, No. 1, July 2011), however, that this expression is a condensation of the longer command from Apollo to “know that you are not a God, know that you are mortal, know that the finitude called death is an irreducible component of life. Live accordingly.” If Papadopoulos is correct, then Chilon’s admonishment to “know thyself” was not so much advice to know one’s own abilities and limitations, but advice to live each day in anticipation of death.  In short, it meant much the same thing as “Carpe Diem,” a phrase usually translated as “use each day.” Arguably “using” each day is not the same as enjoying each day, and yet as Papadopoulos goes on to note: “The ancient Spartans trained hard but they enjoyed themselves [too]: feasts, dancing and singing, creative imagination and satirical banter and a temple dedicated to the God of Laughter….”

Combined, these fragments of evidence suggest that the Spartans themselves did not find their lifestyle so burdensome and certainly not intolerable. The “deprivations” and hard work that strangers found so depressing were in contrast of little importance in a society that learned to love life itself in full consciousness of its transience. A man who keeps in mind the alternative (death) loves even the simplest things in life. This, I postulate, was the secret of Spartan attitudes that can be interpreted as a very deep-seated love of life.






Saturday, November 19, 2011

New Review of "A Peerless Peer"

The following review of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer was recently published. Thank you, Geoffrey!


Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, by Helena Schrader, picks up where her first book about his childhood leaves off. She writes about relationships he built over his life, his life coming up in the ranks as he served in the military, and his exploits in battle against enemies, wildlife, and natural disasters. He learns about diplomacy, maritime warfare, and other cultures. During this period, Leonidas continues to learn and grow in the Spartan culture. He even marries and starts his own family. Since he is an Agiad prince, he has family complexity that he skillfully considers, and then navigates his life and career accordingly.

I have never been a fan of historical fiction, but these books really bring history to life. While it is not a story of fact, it contextualizes what we know with what might have been about that time and place. If you want to learn about Sparta during the fifth century BC, this book is a worthwhile read.

In the book’s historical notes section, Schrader explains why she routes the story in the manor she does, and she makes a lot of sense. She does not fear going against commonly accepted conjecture about Sparta, and calls out unsupported myths for what they are. Her challenges are supported with her own hypothesizes using what she and others know about that period. She shares a refreshing perspective.

The author is writing a third and final book about Leonidas, and I cannot wait for its completion and release. I have not been this excited about a book for as long as I can remember. Quite a strange feeling, so I am compelled to cheer Schrader on in her endeavors. I believe this author and historian deserves more notoriety than she gets. Read these books if you want to learn while being entertained at the same time.”

Geoffrey Smigun




Friday, November 11, 2011

Infanticide in Sparta -- and Athens

Taygetos: The alleged location of Spartan Infanticide
One of the ugliest aspects of ancient Sparta to capture the modern imagination is the idea of “unworthy” infants being tossed off a precipitous cliff to their death by cold-hearted elders. I recently stumbled across another blog where the outraged comments about this custom far outweighed all other comments about the “weird” Spartans.

The tradition of Spartan infanticide has its roots in Plutarch, who specifically describes this cruel custom (Lycurgus: 16), but I personally have number problems with the way the custom is handled in modern literature.

First, of course, is the simple fact that the alleged site of these murders on Taygetos has indeed revealed many skeletons – but only of adult males not infants. In short, there appears to be some truth to the notion that people were executed by being thrown off a particular cliff, but no evidence whatever that infants were killed in this way. That said, the actual method of murder is a more-or-less irrelevant detail; the issue is the systematic murder of infants deemed unlikely to grow up healthy and hardy enough to survive the agoge and be good hoplites.

My second problem with Plutarch’s account is King Agesilaus II. Agesilaus was King Agis’s brother, and allegedly attended the agoge because he was not heir apparent. He was also “lame.” So how did an infant that was lame and not the heir apparent to the throne avoid being murdered as an infant and survive the agoge? Did his lameness develop later? Possibly, but the historical record makes no reference to an accident or injury. It appears that at least by the late 5th century the definition of “unworthy” could be very subjective and even lameness was not necessarily grounds for elimination.

Still, neither the lack of infant skeletons nor the singular case of Agesilas II actual refute or disprove Plutarch either. So we must admit the possibility that he is correct. Nevertheless, I still have a major problem with the modern discussion of Sparta’s policy, and it is the lack of context.


Most ancient Greek families were small. We do not hear of families with dozens of children as in the Middle Ages. Contemporary literature from comic opera to court documents make the notion of widespread sexual abstinence an unlikely explanation of the low birthrates. On the contrary, despite the ready availability of slaves, prostitutes and concubines, Greek literature, comedy, philosophy and legal proceedings assume frequent sexual contact between men and their wives. Birth control therefore had to come from contraception or infanticide. The documentary evidence is that infanticide in the form of abortions and exposure of unwanted infants after birth were the only effective contraceptive known in ancient Greece.


Historians hypothesize that at a woman in ancient Greece would have borne on average 4 to 6 children – and watched 2 to 4 of them die either due to intentional exposure or due to neglect. Most of those neglected/murdered infants would have been female because ancient Greek society was misogynous. Women were considered mentally and physically inferior to men, and they were a financial burden because they required dowries. In societies today with similar attitudes (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, east Africa, traditional China), female fetuses are more likely to be aborted, and female infants are more likely to die of neglect. It is estimated that 2 million female infants die each year because they are unwanted. The Greek comic poet Posidippus put it this way: “Everybody raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.”


In short, exposing unwanted children was a common (not to say universal) practice in ancient Greece. What shocked male commentators from the rest of Greece about the Spartan practice was that 1) it applied to males rather than (worthless) females, and 2) it was left to the state (elders of the tribe) rather than the father to decide a infant’s fate. It was not the fact of murdering children that other Greeks found offensive, but the fact that a father did not have absolute control over the fate of his sons. In Sparta and Sparta alone, an outsider (a tribal elder) could interfere in a father’s despotic control over his own family.


None of this makes the Spartan practice of murdering “unworthy” infants more palatable. It is and remains an aspect of Spartan society that I too find alienating. But I would welcome more recognition of the fact that infanticide was not one of the aspects of Spartan society that made it “weird” and different from the rest of Greece. Infanticide was the norm throughout ancient Greece – including in “enlightened” Athens.

The Sparta of my novels reflects the above reality rather than the artificial brutality of most modern writers. Read:


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Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Headlong God of War: A Tale of Ancient Greece and the Battle of Marathon

Peter Krentz in The Battle of Marathon (Yale Library of Military History) describes in detail the equipment, terrain and tactics that shaped the Battle of Marathon, but he singularly fails to make Maraton an exciting story or to bring the characters to life. While his facts and analysis make an important contribution to understanding Marathon -- a battle that was arguably more significant than Thermopylae, his failure to excite our emotions as well as inform our minds detracts significantly from the impact of the book. Martin's The Headlong God of War makes up for these deficits and is as a result an excellent companion to Krentz's book for the scholar while being far more accessible to the laymen. If I could recommend only one book on Marathon, I would prefer Martin's account to Krentz' because it is both good history and a good story.

Particularly impressive is Martin's ability to make Miltiades, the Athenian commander at Marathon, comprehensible and likeable. The historical Miltiades is at best complex and at worst a shady character. His relationship to both the Persians and Athenian democracy was ambivalent, not to say treacherous. Yet Martin succeeds in turning him into a character that the reader can readily identify with. I especially liked the way Martin portrayed his relationship to his sons, something that is based on the historical record and described with great sympathy.

But Miltiades is not the only historical character Martin effectively brings to life in this novel. His portrayal of the tyrant Aristagoras is likewise excellent -- and chilling. Few scenes from any novel have stayed with me as long as Marin's description of the arrival of Histiaios' messenger at Aristagoras' court. Likewise, his Persian characters have greater depth and differentiation than is common. For the sake of a good, historically accurate story with believable characters, I'm willing to overlook the occassional typos and editing errors.

Of Martin's three books on ancient Greece this is my favorite. I recommend it to anyone interested in Marathon specifically or ancient Greece generally.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Physical Appearance of Spartan Women

 
On September 10, I speculated about the physical appearance of Spartan men. I'd like to expand that discussion today with some thoughts on Spartan women.

Admittedly, we known even less about what Spartan women might have looked like than we know about their men.  To my knowledge, no human remains that can be definatively identified as Spartan women have yet been uncovered. There are also far fewer contemporary portrayals of women in ancient art than men. Furthermore, unlike the images of men,  women in ancient sculpture and pottery are almost invariably shown well clothed. Aside from debunking modern voyeuristic fantasies about adult Spartan women going about very thinly clad, these do not reveal much about the real women they are intended to depict.

The written record is hardly more satisfying. Obviously, we have the Iliad and the tradition of Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth, a demi-goddess, and a Spartan. Herodotus tells of other beautiful Spartan women as well, notably the wife of King Ariston. But beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder and individual women, no matter how legendary their beauty, tell us nothing about the general appearance of Spartan women. 

More revealing is Aristophanes description of Lampito, the Spartan female character in his farse Lysistrata.  This play from the late 5th century BC intended to amuse Athenian males after their devastating defeat at Syracuse, reflects Athenian steriotypes of contemporary Spartan women. As such, it tells us almost nothing about what Spartan women actually looked like since the audience didn't have a clue either. In a sense, Aristophanes description is no more relevant to reality than depictions of Russian women in American movies from the Cold War as brawny tractor-drivers and factory workers. Still, even the most exaggerated caricatures usually have a grain of truth, and therefore I would like to quote Aristophanes:

Lysistrata: Dear Spartan girl with a delightful face, washed with the rosy spring, how fresh you look in the easy stride of your sleek slenderness.  Why you could strangle a bull!
Lampito: I think I could. It's from exercise and kicking my arse.
Lysistrata: What lovely breasts you have!

What this description suggests is that while Athenians, perhaps in deference to the tradition of Helen, were willing to concede Spartan women might have a pretty face, they presumed Spartan women, because they were known to exercise, developed massive, muscular bodies so unfeminine that they looked like they could "strangle a bull." I would note that portraying enemy women as masculine and non-vulnerable is a useful tool in reducing/eliminating any latent pity men might otherwise have felt for the women of the foe, and so this description may also serve overall propaganda purposes of making Spartan women repulsive to the Athenian audience.

Turning to the grain of truth this description might provide, as I noted in my earlier essay on Spartan appearance, Spartans were apparently generally taller than their contemporaries, which is probably the result of more meat in their diet.  Since one of the most striking differences about the rearing of girls in Sparta compared to treatment of female infants and children elsewhere is Greece was that they received the same food as their brothers, this meat-heavy diet would have been fed Spartan girls too. Yet elsewhere in Greece, girls and women were fed a different, "simpler" diet with no "extras," (to use Xenophon's words) than their brothers. In short, the difference in height between Spartans and the citizens from other cities would have been even more extreme when comparing women to women than men to men.

In addition, Spartan girls were expected to run and even race -- hence Aristophanes' reference to  Lampito's "easy stride."  Indeed, if we are to believe Xenophon and Plutarch, Spartan girls were taught wrestling, and were expected to master the bow and javelin, and certainly to master horses -- all things that might make a comedian compare them to women capable of "strangling a bull." 


Certainly, Spartan girls could run, swim and dance. They took part in races both on foot and driving chariots, and they took part in public dances.  All this entailed spending a good deal of time outside in the fresh air, and that meant that Spartan girls were exposed to the elements and their skin would have tanned the Greek sun.  It also meant that they grew up getting a great deal of exercise -- probably more than most girls get today, and they would very likely have been sleek and lean like their brothers, at least while growing up and in the agoge. After all, Xenophon and Plutarch stress that the girls were being treated like their brothers that regime produced the tall, lean youth of the agoge.

Girls in other Greek cities were, in contrast, not allowed to set foot outside their houses and were expected to be "sedentary." So while the Spartan girls grew tall and fit, women in the rest of Greece grew up stunted from a diet short on protein, rarely had access to fresh air, and did not exercise.  The impact on physical appearance of other Greek women would have been women significantly shorter than their own men (much less Spartans) and without muscles -- though not necessarily thin. (A girl who eats too much of a carbohydrate-intensive diet and does not move more than a few feet in the course of a day can still grow fat, but she is not likely to be lean much less strong.) In short, the contrast between the physical appearance of Spartan and other Greek girls and maidens would have been much more striking than between Spartan and other Greek boys and men. 



Admittedly, after marriage Spartan women, unlike their husbands, were no longer compelled to exercise or to eat at common messes, so they might have become comparatively soft and fat.  However, they still had responsibility for their households and this entailed considerable amounts of outside work and exposure to fresh air and sunlight so that it seems unlikely that Spartan women completely lost their physical condition. Furthermore, because Spartan women did not marry until their late teens/early twenties, they would have been brought to childbed at the optimal age, while girls in other Greek cities generally married much younger and bore their first child at 15 or 16, with all the known negative consequences for their health.

Finally, I would like to suggest that Spartan women's education, literacy and economic power also had an impact on their appearance. Women who are raised to think they are important to their society, who are literate and encouraged to voice their opinions, women who have real power tend to stand straighter, hold their head high and move with confidence. I find it hard to image Spartan women sitting hunched over with bowed heads as the women of Athenian pottery do.  



In conclusion, Spartan women would generally have been taller than other women, more physically fit, tanned, and over time they would have aged better -- indeed the very probably had a much longer life expectancy than women elsewhere in Greece! In addition, they would have held themselves with self-assurance and moved with greater confidence. Perhaps the combination of these things would indeed have made them seem strong (and brave) enough to "strangle a bull" when compared to their contemporaries.

Spartan women play a dynamic and important role in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scenes from a Spartan Marriage


When modern man tries to imagine Spartan society and institutions, he is immediately confronted with the problem of sources. Quite aside from the usual catalogue of problems – incompleteness, unreliable transcriptions, poor translations, and the like – sources on Sparta are notorious for coming from foreigners and for dating from a period long after the institutions and society allegedly described. Worst of all, many of the most famous depictions are a conscious attempt to describe the ideal society created by a legendary figure (Lycourgos) rather than an observed society. This is rather like taking Marx’s vision of socialist society as a guide for what life was like in the “real existing socialism” of the Soviet Union.

Arguably, nothing about Spartan society was so radically different from the rest of the Greek world as the role of women and so, ipso facto, marital relations. Yet none of our sources on Spartan marriages were participants in one. Rather, the observers upon which historians must rely for a description for this inherently private and intimate sphere are men who came from a radically different culture. In short, relying on the historical account of Spartan marriage is rather like trusting a member of Iran’s Islamic Council to describe marriage in America. Recognizing this fact, it is useful for anyone seriously interested in trying to understand Spartan society to try to think “outside the box,” to venture into the uncharted areas beyond the written record and use common sense to hypothesize realistic modes of behavior consistent with the known facts.

A classic example of the need for common sense in viewing the Spartan marriage is provided by Plutarch’s “Life of Lycurgus.” First Plutarch describes how girls were required to “run and wrestle and throw the discus and javelin,” stressing that “young girls no less than young men grow used to walking nude in processions, as well as to dancing and singing at certain festivals with the young men present and looking on.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus: 14) He goes on to describe the way girls watched the boys and youths in their exercises, making fun of the inept and composing songs of praise for their favorites. In short, he paints a picture of young people growing up together in close proximity and actively involved in observing and performing for one another. He even underlines the point that the interest of youth in the opposite sex was consciously and intentionally sexual. Then in the next section, he claims that because men married while on active service and were required to sleep in their barracks, that some men “might have children before they saw their own wives in daylight.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus: 15). What? Spartiate men married the very same girls they had seen racing, swimming, singing and dancing at festivals, the girls who had cheered or jeered their own accomplishments; they had seen each other in full daylight – and in the nude! - innumerable times before they even got married!


Furthermore, while the young men on active service (aged 21-30) might have been required to spend the night in barracks, they were not imprisoned. The young men were expected to exercise, swim, and hunt. They were free to take part in chorus, certain team sports, ride, race and presumably had responsibility for their estates or at least took an interest in breeding Lacedaemon’s famous horses and dogs. Is it reasonable to expect that two young people who married at least in part due to sexual attraction did not use their free time to meet with one another? Plutarch himself says that “the bride…devised schemes and helped plan how they might meet each other unobserved at suitable moments.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus: 15) 


Using a little common sense, therefore, it seems most likely that because of the requirement for men on active duty to sleep in their barracks, young Spartan couples were most likely to meet during the day. It was probably a lot more risky for a young Spartiate to be AWOL from his barracks at night than to tryst with his bride while out “hunting” or exercising his horses or checking up on his estate. The fact that Plutarch could not imagine this and slips into the assumption that all the “trysting” was done in the dark of night is simply a function of his own cultural bias.

Because women elsewhere in Greece could not cross the threshold of their homes without disgrace, were physically unfit, and neither knew how to ride nor drive and so were dependent on men for any kind of mobility, Plutarch imagines all a young couple’s trysts taking place in the home. Since it might indeed be hard for a young man to go to his wife’s home unseen except at night, Plutarch concludes most of these trysts took place in the dark of night. But Spartan women had no restrictions on their movement. On the contrary, they were expected and required to leave their homes for a variety of reasons, and observers noted with shock that they were everywhere in evidence. Furthermore, they could ride and drive chariots. No one was going to stop them from meeting up with their husband at a designated place such as a rural estate or a favorite glen at will. 

In the valley of the Eurotas; photo by author
As for eating dinner at the syssitia, most men nowadays eat the mid-day meal – which can also be called dinner and is in many societies the main meal of the day - away from their wives every day of their working lives too. This has not made modern wives notably lesbian or induced them to seize control of their husband’s affairs. Why should it have had that effect on Spartan women?


The rhythm of a Spartan day was undoubtedly different from ours. To avoid the oppressive head of mid-day, vigorous activity – whether drill for the army or strenuous sport – was more likely to be conducted early in the morning or later in the evening, at least in the summer months. The same heat would dictate that markets and much agricultural activity also halted during the hottest part of the day. Most probably, all people, rich and poor, male and female, slowed down their activity, sought out the shade, and refreshed themselves during that period when the sun was at its zenith. Very likely then, this was the period in which families came together, probably for a common meal, talked about common interests and, when inclined, made love.

Let us suppose this was the case: that Spartan wives went about the business of running their husband’s estate, purchasing necessary materials and selling surpluses during the “business day” from dawn to mid-morning and again from mid-afternoon to dusk. This would still leave them a lengthy and leisurely mid-day period in their homes with their husbands, who would likewise have a break in their routine of drill and sport before returning to the city for dinner. Was the time a Spartan couple spent together in these circumstances substantially less than what a modern couple with two careers and active children has? 


Many modern couples complain that the demands of jobs, commuting, and child-rearing leave too little time for interacting with one’s spouse. Marriage counsellors recommend spending “at least one hour” a day exclusively with one’s partner. It is hard to imagine that Spartan couples did not manage at least one hour together every day in a society less dominated by instant communication and the ever-present boss. Why then should Spartan marriages have been less viable or less balanced than our own?

For the full text and the references see Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1, Markoulakis Publications, pp. 46-49.


Leonidas' marriage to Gorgo is a central element in the latter two books of my biographical novel about Leonidas:

 




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Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Reviews of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

Excellent description of difficult period
by Brenda Miller (North Carolina), Sept. 30, 2011


Helena Schrader has done it again, amazingly. In this, her second volume in the Leonidas trilogy, she has brought an admittedly difficult period in Leonidas' life to a level of sustained reader interest. The earlier volume covering the agoge period had an easily identifiable theme and historical framework, and the last volume, which will emphasize Thermopylae, also has an identifiable historical framework to build on. It is this interim period, about which very little is actually known, where Ms Schrader shows her skills as an historical novelist. It bears repeating here that Ms Schrader does and has done, her "homework" on ancient Sparta in this period. Her research is beyond reproach and although she embellishes (as she must),she does not make up her own facts. Although my own field of Greek historical interest is a much earlier period, I know enough about 5th Century Sparta to recognize the accuracy of her descriptions. I can also state that based on my 23 years as an Infantry officer in the US Army, Ms Schrader has clearly done a significant amount of research on armies, soldiers, and what motivates them and makes them cohesive winners.

As she states in her prefaces, Ms Schrader aims to correct general opinion of Sparta as being some sort of brutal producer of robot-like ironmen. She succeeds, to the point where I and I suspect other, at least male, readers, might say that she has gone a bit too far in describing Sparta as a "touchy-feely", sensitive, place where a straight-arrow, incorruptible, nice guy, like Leonidas could even survive, much less become a King and army commander. But there is no arguing with Ms Schrader's research and if such is the Sparta she has uncovered, then so be it.My only disappointment is that I have to wait now for a seemingly interminable period for the final volume of this trilogy!

Ms Schrader has done a superb job here putting flesh on the few historical bones that we have of Leonidas. She has written an absolutely excellent historical novel which should have widespread appeal and which, with the other two volumes, would make a fascinating movie. I would not hesitate to buy the completed trilogy as a gift for members of my own family of very different ages.

An extremely readable historical/biography
by M. Lignor (New York, NY), Oct. 7, 2011


A good start for a review concerning Sparta might be for the layman to know just where Sparta is located. Sparta is on a plain, completely surrounded by mountain ranges. It was a Greek city/state but not fortified as most of the cities of Greece were at that time. Sparta was a collection of small villages built over a large rural area and six very low hills. The highest served as the acropolis and location of the Temple of Athena. Sadly, there's not much of it left to see.

Now on to Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer. The Administrators of the Spartan government tried to get the King of Sparta to set aside his wife and take another as she had not produced a child. The King refused and in an attempt to get an heir, the Administrators agreed to allow the King to take a second wife without putting aside his first. The new wife soon had a son, Cleomenes.

A year after the birth of Cleomenes, the King's first wife gave birth to a son, Dorieus, followed by twin sons, Leonidas and Cleombrotus. As Leonidas was considered to be her third son, he didn't have a chance to become King so he had to go to the agoge (a public school that all Spartan sons had to complete in order to qualify for citizenship).

King Cleomenes has to deal with a co-monarch, King Demaratus, and this King is a fighter while Cleomenes is more interested in sticking his nose into the affairs of Athens. Demaratus is against this move and soon the kings are at odds. Trading on this conflict, the Corinthians are challenging the Spartan's control of the area. At the same time, other Greek cities are asking for aid from Sparta in a rebellion against Persia.

Leonidas, if you remember, is the youngest half-brother of Cleomenes and is not really interested in politics. He has just obtained his citizenship from the school and doesn't think that this revolt by his countrymen will affect him in the slightest. He is an ordinary soldier in the Spartan army and a lot more interested in taking care of his own life. His biggest concerns are to find people to take care of his ruined estate and looking around for a suitable woman to become his bride.

He sets his cap for Gorgo; she is intelligent and tough - qualities that were not the norm for marriageable women in Ancient Sparta. They get married, and they are a good team. Gorgo is extremely clever and this helps Leonidas to take care of his people and the pair become very well thought of monarchs. But, that is for the next book in this very readable series to cover. This book is book two in the Leonidas saga. The first volume: Leonidas of Sparta, A Boy of the Agoge, deals with Leonidas' birth, growing up in Sparta and his schooling at the Agoge. This second volume is about his citizenship before he became ruler, his marriage, the battles (which were frequent) that he fought, and the politics that he learned to handle.

Readers will enjoy this book even if they have not read the first in the series. A Peerless Peer will definitely stand alone and is also a good lead-in to the final book in the series. When readers finish this story they will be anxious to see what happens to Leonidas and Gorgo when his fortunes change for the better.

The author is a superb writer of Historical/Fiction/Biography. The story was very readable and Ancient History buffs will be able to put themselves in the middle of these great battles and the politics that brought them to the attention of the author.
















4.0 out of 5 stars





4.0 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Helen of Sparta - What Homer's Helen Tells Us About Sparta

Raphael Sealey in his study Women and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: 1990) makes a strong case that the marriage customs and status of women as portrayed in the works of Homer are incompatible with customs in classical Athens. He argues that: “The Athenian and Homeric concepts of marriage are so markedly different that one cannot have developed from the other.” (p. 126)
 
Sealey furthermore argues that the depiction of Helen in both the Iliad and the Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of Athenian theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her “dear child,” while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen. In the Odyssey, Helen is depicted in Sparta apparently enjoying the respect of the entire population and providing wise advice to her husband. It is striking that such a portrayal of Helen is consistent with Spartan tradition, where Helen was honored alongside Menelaos, temples were built to her and an annual holiday was celebrated in her honor.
 
One particularly intriguing aspect of the Helen portrayed by Homer in the Odyssey is that she, like Gorgo, is shown to be cleverer than the men around her! She is the first to recognize Telemachos (Odyssey 4:138:32), and it is Helen who deciphers the significance of an eagle carrying a goose (Odyssey 15:160:78).
 
This begs the question if Homeric traditions with respect to women had a stronger influence on Sparta, particularly Archaic and pre-revolutionary Sparta, than they did on Athens. Is it possible that Doric traditions generally owed more to the world described in the works of Homer than did Ionian traditions? Admittedly, we do not know just what society the Iliad and Odyssey actually describe and many argue that the world of Homer, like Homer himself, is completely fictional. Yet repeatedly, archeological evidence has come to light that verifies elements of the great epics previously dismissed as “fiction” (e.g. helmets with boars tusks).
 
We know that women in Sparta enjoyed exceptional freedom and status compared, particularly, to women in Athens. While this difference is traditionally attributed to the laws of Lycurgus, it is unreasonable to presume that something as fundamental as attitudes toward women would change over night. It is far more likely that women in Sparta already enjoyed higher status and that the revolution in Sparta that followed the First Messenian War only codified, institutionalized and developed to new levels pre-existing tendencies. The fact that Cretan women, Achaian women and women in Gortyn also had notably more freedom and status than women in classical Athens is further evidence that at least in Doric societies there was a wider, pre-classical tradition which contrasted sharply to the misogynous practices and laws of classical Athens.
 
It would be interesting to know if Doric traditions differed markedly to Ionic traditions in other spheres as well – and equally intriguing to investigate to what extent (if any) Ionic traditions were influenced by Asiatic customs. Is it possible that Athenian misogyny had more to do with the influence of the East – of Babylon and Persia – than with the roots of Greek civilization? Was Sparta’s comparatively greater respect for women perhaps more genuinely “Greek/Hellenic”?