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.