According to Herodotus, in 490 BC Sparta agreed to send troops to assist Athens repel the Persian forces at Marathon, but said they “could not take the field until the moon was full.” Since the Spartans did respond vigorously when the time came, historians have puzzled for millennia about why exactly the Spartans “could not take the field.” There have been persistent attempts to find evidence of a helot revolt, for example, and W. P. Wallace (“Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35) came up with a theory of Arkadian discontent and intrigues. I myself have suggested a command crisis, which I explained in detail in my blog entry on Jan. 8, 2011. Yet the bottom line is that all these theories are essentially the product of dissatisfaction with the notion of a religious festival.
However, before we reach for alternative explanations to that which is readily available, a religious festival, we ought to admit to ourselves that we know very little about Spartan religious festivals. Most especially, we do not how they affected the readiness of the Spartan army. The assumption that a religious festival might delay departure of the army simply because of pious scruples may be entirely wrong.
What if, for example, the Spartan Army was given leave during religious festivals, or reduced to a skeleton of “duty officers” for each unit? Such a procedure would be perfectly normal in most societies because religious festivals, in all cultures over all times, are generally family occasions. Why should Sparta have been an exception? The very fact that there is no mention of how “odd” the Spartans were in this regard suggests that their behavior conformed to that of other Greeks and so elicited no comment.
If, as elsewhere, religious holidays in Sparta were celebrated in the family, then most likely the young men were exempt from sleeping in barracks and all men exempt from dining at their messes. Again, the fact that this is not explicitly mentioned is no evidence that it was not the case. There is no mention of men being exempt from duty and collective dining to participate in the Olympic Games either, but Spartan athletes were very prominent at the Olympics and they had to train in Elis for a month before the events just like all the other competitors. Likewise, Spartan spectators at the Games could not be eating and sleeping in Sparta while they were at Olympia. In short, the rules about living in barracks and eating at the messes were for “ordinary” days. The Olympics, war, and, arguably, religious festivals were “extraordinary” or “exceptional” days.
We know, further, that Spartans all had at least a state kleros, while wealthier Spartans had more extensive estates. Without knowing the yield of an acre of land using contemporary agricultural methods, I have no way of estimating just how large a kleros would have been, and without know how large each kleros was, I cannot estimate how many could have been located within easy walking/riding distance of Sparta’s barracks and messes. However, I think it is fair to say that not all 8,000 – 9,000 kleroi could have been within easy reach of the heart of Sparta. It is far more likely, that many kleroi were more than a half-day away from Sparta. Some may even have been located in Messenia, on the far side of Taygetos, or on Kythera. Reaching these estates to check up on things and to collect rents would have taken Spartans away from Sparta for days on end.
The requirement to be present in Sparta most of the time, meant that most of the time the estates were left in the hands of helots, perioikoi overseers or wives. Yet the fact that Spartiates were absent from their estates most of the time only reinforces the need for them to be present some of the time. Particularly if Spartiate/Helot relations were as bad as most commentators suggest, no Spartan would have risked leaving his kleros entirely in the hands of his helots or even perioikoi overseers. It would have been an essential for every Spartiate to periodically check up on things at his kleros or risk having it so mismanaged that he could not meet his syssitia (and, if he had sons, agoge) fees. If a kleros was left to a wife, the desire to visit periodically would have been even greater, particularly if she had the couple’s young children with her.
In short, Spariates would have periodically travelled to their distant kleroi and while doing so they would have been excused both from their military duties and exempted from eating at their syssitia. Probably, any man could apply for leave to go to his estates whenever he felt it necessary. Possibly, it was traditional for men to go to their estates during holidays, when men were given leave to be with their families in any case.
For the wealthier Spartiates from the so-called “better” families, the 400-500 families that made up Sparta’s elite, the need to visit estates would have been even more acute than for the poorest with only one kleros. The elite would have had multiple estates to look after, not to mention horse-farms, kennels, orchards etc. They would have needed to be away from Sparta more often than the others as a result. And it was this elite that, at least in the later years of the 5th century BC, occupied most of the positions of authority and power in the Spartan state.
So if I am right and many citizens spent major (particularly long) holidays like the Karneia at their estates, then Pheidippides may have arrived in a Sparta when the army was dispersed and the commanders scattered about Lacedaemon on their distant estates. The ephors would have needed to recall at least the members of the Gerousia and the officers of the army as well as cancel leave for those units they wanted to send to Athens. The ephors could, I suspect, calculate pretty accurately how long it would take messengers to reach the lochagoi and other senior officers, and how long they would need to call up their troops and get them ready to march. That time frame alone – and nothing so impenetrable as piousness, helot revolts, foreign policy considerations, or even command uncertainties – might have determined the earliest possible day on which the Spartan army was able to march out for Marathon.