It is hard to imagine what Sparta would have looked like in Leonidas’ lifetime. The city was destroyed by earthquakes more than once, flooded and the site completely abandoned for more than a thousand years. Today, what few ruins remain date predominantly from the Hellenistic or Roman periods, and an unattractive modern town has been dumped upon the ancient site.
So naturally our images of the ancient city-state have been shaped by what we have been told about Spartan society. Spartan society was characterized by rigid discipline, a disdain for luxury, and endurance of hardship. We are told that the boys suffered a childhood of deprivation in which they had to steal to get enough to eat and were allowed only one garment per year. Allegedly the women were prohibited from wearing jewelry or taking pride in their weaving. Indeed, gold and silver was banned entirely, and so could not adorn even the temples of the Gods. The houses, we are told, were not painted (as else where in the Ancient world), and the cuisine was infamous for its lack of sophistication and variety. (See my blog entry from July 10 "The Secrets of Spartan Cuisine" for more thoughts on Spartan cooking.)
It is understandable if one imagines that such a society could only have developed in an austere, plain, indeed barren, landscape. After all, a society deprived of food and clothes, and lacking all forms of decoration and fine cuisine sounds like a desperately poor society. It is easy to assume that Spartan society evolved to make a virtue out of necessity.
But the valley of the Eurotas River, the heart of ancient Lacedaemon, is anything but barren! It is green and fertile and stunningly beautiful - like riches cupped in the hands of the gods. From the blooming oleander to the wild iris, the valley is a garden. Orange orchards stretch as far as the eye can see, brazenly advertising the abundance of soil and sun and water. Most spectacular of all, the Eurotas valley is one of those few places on earth that offers the sensually stimulating sight of palm trees waving against a back-drop of snow-capped mountains.
Nor is this richness a product of modern fertilizers and irrigation. The ancient historians also speak of Sparta’s agricultural wealth. Sparta’s hinterland produced in abundance every staple of ancient Greek agriculture from grain to grapes, and from citrus fruits to olives. Furthermore, ancient Laceademon was famous for its forests and pastureland. The former provided exportable timber and abundant game to enrich the Spartan diet, while the latter nourished sheep, cattle, goats and fine horses. Finally, Lacedaemon had exploitable mineral resources such as lead, tin, copper and marble.
Sparta took full advantage of these natural blessings. The fact that the ruling class, Sparta’s full citizens or Spartiates, were prohibited from engaging in any profession other than arms, has led many modern observers to imagine Lacedaemon was devoid of industry, trade and commerce. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sparta’s tiny elite of professional soldiers had the luxury to devote themselves to perfecting their skill at arms precisely because Lacedaemon had a large population of helots and perioikoi who ensured the economic prosperity of the Lacedaemonian state.
Both helots and perioikoi are believed to be the descendents of the peoples who inhabited Lacedaemon before the Doric invasion. While the helots had a status similar to medieval serfs and enjoyed only limited freedom, the perioikoi were fully free men. The perioikoi had abdicated control of foreign policy to Sparta, but they otherwise governed their own affairs by their own customs and laws. They were not bound by the Spartan Constitution attributed to Lycurgus regarding dress, diet, profession or the possession of gold and silver. Among the perioikoi there were artisans and architects, merchants and bankers, tradesmen and shipbuilders – just as in any other Greek city. The perioikoi produced everything from mundane domestic articles to exportable quality works of art in bronze, ivory and stone, and they traded from a variety of ports with direct access to the Aegean and Ionian Seas. (See my blog entry from April 9: "Shopkeepers and Shipmasters.")
In short, Leonidas’ Sparta was not poor, but the center of the powerful city-state of Lacedaemon. It was the administrative hub of large territory with an abundance of natural resources and agricultural produce, good lines of communication, and an active commercial and trading community. It was also the leading nation of the Peloponnesian League, a powerful defensive alliance of independent city-states – the NATO of its age. Last but not least, it was the site of annual vocal and dance festivals that attracted mass tourism from around the ancient world. It was most decidedly not a provincial back-water lost in a barren and inaccessible landscape.
Modern writers, however, have often been misled by the disparaging remarks made by Athenian observers about their hated rival. Nicolas Nicastro in his The Isle of Stone (p.67), for example, describes the capital of the dominant superpower of Greece as no more than “an agglomeration of sleepy villages.” Jon Edward Martin, an author whose research is on the whole very sound, writes in The Headlong God of War (p. 83) that “large buildings were few” and depicts the city as having only “a small collection of civic buildings clustered to the southeast of the acropolis.” Steven Pressfield in his best-selling novel Gates of Fire (p. 188) has one of his characters describe Sparta as “… a pile of stones,” and go on to claim: “It contains no temples or treasures of note, no gold….”
Yet Pausanias, whose travel guide to Greece was written in the 2nd Century AD – long after Sparta’s decline from prominence under Leonidas – needed 26 sections and more than 60 pages to describe only the noteworthy architectural sites of the ancient city! Far from being a backwater, Sparta was a large, prosperous and important city in the lifetime of Leonidas. But, as the Athenian commentary suggests, it was also very different from other Greek cities.
Visitors to Leonidas’ Sparta would have come expecting the capital of this rich and powerful state to be like other power-centers of the civilized world. Whether tourists, coming for the dancing and singing at the annual festivals, or diplomats, coming to plead for Spartan troops to support some distant conflict, foreign visitors would have compared Sparta to Susa, Babylon and Memphis no less than Athens or Corinth. These foreigners came expecting a city enclosed by walls whose strength matched Sparta’s military reputation. They expected to pass through imposing gates into a city crammed with brightly painted, colorfully tiled and elaborately decorated public buildings. They expected to find temples laden with gold crushed between pompous civic buildings. They expected to find a confusing maze of residential streets crammed with humanity humming incessantly with activity. They expected – as in other crowded cities – these back streets to be clothed in the perpetual shadows cast by the tall walls which shielded the private spheres and women of the inhabitants from public view. They expected a commercial capital as well as an administrative one. It is hardly surprising that they were disappointed with what they found at Sparta.
Sparta was different from other Greek cities, but it was not necessarily without its unique charms. For example, we know that in ancient Greece most statues and temples were painted vivid colors and the statues of the gods were dressed in robes, ivory, gold and jewels. Spartan temples were not. But isn’t it precisely that simplicity of white stone structures of flawless proportions and life-like naked marble statues that we find striking in ancient Greek architecture and sculpture today? Would we admire the Parthenon in Athens as much if it was dressed – as it was in the age of Leonidas - in vivid paint? Would we prefer to see Venus de Milo painted in flesh tones with red lips and blond hair?
Sparta’s ethos and aesthetics were different from other Greek cities, but that doesn’t mean it lacked beauty or refinement. Yes, Leonidas’ Sparta had no walls, but this meant it could spread out graciously upon its valley as all major European cities did after their confining walls were torn down. No one today would call Paris, Vienna or Rome “a collection of villages.” Yet all did in fact begin as collections of villages, which later grew into a single metropolis after the need for fortifications disappeared and economic growth fueled urbanization. Why should we assume that just because Sparta was made up of five distinct villages in pre-Archaic times that it was not – by the age of Leonidas when it was at the height of his glory – a cohesive, dynamic city?
Spartan homes may indeed have lacked elaborate interior paintings, but then maybe such decoration was not necessary because, unlike their Athenian counterparts, they were not compressed into the back allies of an over-crowded city and surrounded by high, protective walls. Spartans could afford to build their houses on generous plans. They could incorporate interior courtyards planted with fruit trees and herbs. They could surround themselves with gardens and orchards. Spartans could have decorated their homes - as they did themselves – with things of nature: cut flowers, bowls of fruits, running water. Even without gold or silver, their homes could still sparkle with sunlight glinting off the water of courtyard fountains.
Ironically, Leonidas’ uniquely Spartan city might well have been more pleasing to modern taste than Athens or Babylon of the 5th Century BC.
Picture a city spread across the broad floor of the Eurotas valley before the backdrop of snow-capped Taygetos. Picture a city of wide, tree-lined avenues along which the white-washed civic buildings, marble monuments and graceful temples stretched like pearls upon a green thread. Imagine a city of sun-soaked theatres and imposing but airy stoas. Imagine a city where the barracks and civic buildings with their long porches and batteries of Doric columns face green, open spaces set aside for running and horse-racing. Imagine a city decorated with fountains and flowering trees which gradually spreads out into the suburbs where large villas set in blooming gardens sprawl out toward the mountains on either side of the Eurotas. That image will bring you closer to the Sparta of Leonidas.