Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dining in the Dark

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dining 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. Although it was common, popular and indeed considered a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens as well, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar in the ancient world because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship and failure to make the designated fixed contributions to the mess could cost a man his citizenship. To the spoiled palate of other Greeks -- most of whom would never have eaten at a Spartan syssitia -- it was furthermore assumed that the fare offered at these dining clubs was dismal.

Aside from the debatable question of the quality and taste of food prepared by different cooks at different messes over centuries, these characteristics of Spartan dining clubs are well established. Yet the reason(s) the Spartans instituted and maintained this peculiar tradition is controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different age cohorts dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

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

The problem with the comparison between 20th Century totalitarian states and Sparta is three-fold. First, it is questionable whether Sparta can be counted a "totalitarian" state at any period of its history, but it most certainly was not totalitarian during the archaic age, yet syssitia existed in this period also.  Second, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. The reason they sought to undermine the family was because they recognized families as inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stresses the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta. If Sparta was essentially conservative, than 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 final problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is hardly a good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but the fact is most men today also eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home among their work colleagues rather than their family. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many societies, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta), it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.

I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper among colleagues -- not so different at all from the business lunch today.

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, syssitia were not noted for the entertainment of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the tradition of Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the tradition of the Spartan syssitia was infinitely preferable to the custom of the Athenian symposia. In short, it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. Attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic efforts to undermine family and sexual relations reveal an alarming lack of objectivity.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Promotion in the Spartan Army

Given the importance of the Spartan army in Spartan society and history it is surprising how little is known about the system of promotion to officer status. Stephen Hodkinson, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta titled “Social Order and the Conflict of Values in Classical Sparta,” rightly stresses the fact that patronage and family background appears to have been at least as important as outstanding ability and success. However, he fails to put his discussion in context or to provide key information about the promotion of junior and mid-level officers.

The issue of context is particularly irritating. Hodkinson’s article criticizes Sparta for failing to promote purely on the basis of merit. Hodkinson sees nefarious influences at work, and cites command appointments as evidence that Spartan society was not truly egalitarian. Yet, it should not surprise anyone that in any society -- even those with a goal of creating equality among members such as Communist China or Soviet Russia – there are always some members who are “more equal than others.”

Far more relevant is: how did Sparta’s system of promotion and appointment to command compare to the systems used by contemporary societies? Weren’t Persia’s armies commanded by her kings and noblemen? Even in democratic Athens, it was only those wealthy enough to finance ship-building, who commanded triremes. Furthermore, even the nominally elected generals were all from the so-called “better families.” Can anyone explain to me why no one appears to think Athens less democratic just because the opulently wealthy Miltiades or Alkibiades were also commanders, but the presence of wealth in Sparta or the appointment of commanders with connections to the royal families is treated as scandalous, dangerous and offensive?

It would also be useful to remember that even in today’s modern Western societies promotion to senior positions whether in the army, politics or business is not a matter of pure objective advancement by merit. As they saying goes, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” The Germans speak of the importance of “Vitamin B” for Beziehungen (contacts) - we would call it vitamin C. Americans talk of “networking” and “mentoring.” Why should we attach so much approbation to Spartans seeking to capitalize on relationships when we do it ourselves?

Turning to the issue of promotion in the lower ranks, I believe this deserves topic a great deal more attention because promotion to these ranks was probably an essential pre-condition to promotion to higher ranks. To my knowledge, however, no one has attempted to explain how it occurred, which has led me to speculate on possible procedures.

For example, boys in the agoge elected their herd leader so it is not completely unimaginable that they elected their enomotarch. Since an enomotia was a relatively small, close-knit unit similar in many ways to a herd of boys in the agoge, such an arrangement might even have helped solidify cohesion and discipline. The same, however, cannot be said for the election of pentekonteres and lochagoi, however. In these larger units, it would have been difficult for all members to know the qualities of the others and far more difficult to find consensus. Elections and competition for the position of commander would therefore undermine discipline rather than reinforce it. Nevertheless, it is possible that a modified election procedure was used for these more senior ranks in which only the enomotarchs elected the pentekoneres and only the later elected the lochgoi. Yet, while the election of officers is not inconceivable, in the absence of positive evidence to support it, the thesis seems a bit radical. After all, the hippeis were appointed by the hippagretai, who first had been appointed by the ephors. This suggests a top-down approach more consistent with military experience the world-over and up to the present time.

Assuming that officers were appointed rather than elected, we are left with the issue of who did the appointing. The kings, of course, took precedence in war and commanded Sparta’s armies, but they were often at loggerheads with one another and for all their vaunted influence, there is to my knowledge no evidence that they could simply appoint officers. Furthermore, as noted above, the ephors appointed the hippagreta, and as Hodkinson outlines they also  played a role in extraordinary appointments such as nauarchos, harmosts and polemarchs.  It would appear that at some level the promotion system entailed a formal process involving the ephors. Yet especially for these more senior posts, it is hardly likely that the ephors acted on their own. The ephors were essentially executives, operating -- except under exceptional circumstances -- on the guidance given by the Gerousia and/or Assembly.

The involvement of the Assembly in the promotions of nauarchos, harmosts and polemarchs is particularly plausible. The Assembly was involved in the declaration of war or peace. It could demand the exile or recall even the kings themselves. It does not seem a stretch to picture the Spartan Assembly at least approving senior appointments or selecting a candidate among a short-list presented by the Gerousia/ephors as Hodkinson suggests not only for harmosts and nauarchos but for polemarchs and lochagoi as well. But how practicable would it have been to put forward to the Assembly the names of each candidate for an enomotai? I think this unlikely.

Nor does it seem likely that the Gerousia was the body responsible for appointing junior and mid-level officers. By definition it was composed primarily of old men and their familiarity with the age-cohorts suitable for more junior levels of command would have been limited.

Given the example of the hippagretai, I think it most likely that polemarchs and lochagoi were selected by a combination of Gerousia/ephors making a recommendation that then had to be ratified by the Assembly similar to the procedure used for nauarchos and harmosts, but that they then appointed their pentekoneres, who in turn appointed the enomotarchs. I would suggest further that given the professionalism of the Spartan army and organization of the entire society along age lines, that only men with a set amount of experience would be eligible for each rank.

It would be most logical, as in other military organizations over the centuries, that advancement to a senior rank was only possible after serving in the next lower rank. Thus no man could be a pentekontes without first being an enomotarch, and no one could become a lochagos without first serving as a pentekontes. If this is hypothesized, then the number of men eligible for senior positions would be reduced to a number that would be manageable – the short list that the Gerousia/ephors would present to the Assembly for a final vote. It would also mean that promotion depended heavily on winning the favor of those above you in the chain of command -- system that can be stiffling to the advancement of outsiders, individualists and radical thinkers!

While this procedure seems logical and appears consistent with what we do know, I admit it is almost pure speculation. I’d appreciate your comments on this thesis.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Significance of Marathon for Sparta - and Leonidas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLEASE NOTE: NEXT WEEK I WILL BE CRUISING THE NILE AND THE NEXT POST WILL BE MADE ON JANUARY 22.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

More about Thespia

On December 23, the entry "Thespian Catastrophe," was posted on the blog http://www.300spartanwarriors.com/. The short post pointed out both how over-looked and how significant Thespian losses at Thermopylae were. I was very heartened to see the article because I have long felt that the Thespian contribution in the Persian war has been unjustly neglected and that more attention and tribute to the Thespians is long over due. 

In fact, I'd like to make a contribution to drawing more attention to the Thespian role at Thermopylae by giving the Thespians a higher profile in my biographical novel of Leonidas. (The first book in the three-part biography, Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge was released last year.) To do so, however, I need to know more about Thespia. 

WIth this entry, therefore, I would like to appeal for assistance in finding out more about Thespia in the early 5th Century BC.  Most important, does anyone know more about the Thespian constitution? How democratic was Thespia?

Does anyone know about it's alliance systems? It appears from Herodotus that Thespia was a located near to Thebes - near enough for the Thebans to view Thespia as within their "sphere of influence." But this clearly did not stop the Thespians from joining the anti-Persian alliance while Thebes "medized." Does anyone know a reason why Thespia should have been such a determined opponent of Persia? Was it to spite Thebes - or was there some other reason?

Herodotus also gives the adult male population of Thespia as 1,800 - after the loss of 700 men at Thermopylae. Could anyone give me a rough idea of how a city with 2,500 male citizens of fighting age would compare to other cities of the period (other than Sparta and Athens)? I.e. is Thespia roughly the same size as Plataea? Smaller? Larger? How would it have compared to Corinth or Thebes at this time?

In short, given my level of ignorance I would welcome any hints, tips, or suggested reading that would help me understand Thespia and its role in the war against Persia (490-479) better.

Thank you!