Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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

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.

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.