Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leonidas the Diplomat

Fans of “300” may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a diplomat.  In the Hollywood cartoon, Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally throws a Persian ambassador down a well.  But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brut, Leonidas was probably a very savvy diplomat. 

The evidence for Leonidas’ diplomatic talent is indirect rather than explicit. It is evident in what he did, rather than what is said about him.  Quite simply: During his brief reign, Leonidas managed to forge a coalition of Greek states willing to oppose the Persian invasion and to convince this loose coalition of independent and proud city-states to agree to a unified command and a joint strategy.  The significance of such an achievement can be measured by the fact that ten years earlier Athens didn’t place her army under the unified command of even a single Athenian; no less than ten generals shared command of the Athenian army at Marathon.  Equally notable, while Leonidas’ brother Cleomenes alienated Lacedaemon’s Peloponnesian allies to the point of provoking revolt, Leonidas won over new Allies such as Mycenae and Tiryns.  

As for the incident with the Persian ambassadors, Herodotus tells us that the Spartans shared the guilt for the murder of the ambassadors.  According to Herodotus, the entire city was threatened by ill-omens and the Spartan Assembly met repeatedly in order to find volunteers from among the citizens willing to appease the Gods by dying in atonement for the murdered Persian ambassadors.  If, as when Cleomenes’ burned the Sacred Wood near Argos, the crime had been committed by either of the Spartan kings, the Spartans would have expected/demanded that the king bear responsibility.  Whoever killed the Persian ambassadors, the entire Spartiate population felt collectively guilty about it – something that suggests the Persian emissaries had not been the victims of a spontaneous act of violence but rather condemned by the Spartan Assembly.  (Something which in turn suggests that Spartan Assemblies could be quite rowdy affairs, but that is a subject for another day….)

At last the real Sparta emerges!

Under the above title, Peter Spencer published the following review of "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge." 

Helena Schrader has finally revealed Sparta and Spartan society as it most probably would have been. This is not the Sparta of many modern European writers, but Helena shows a society where literacy was an essential tool of all citizens (Spartan soldiers also travelled regularly as envoys and on diplomatic missions - makes it a bit hard if you are an ignorant illiterate doesn't it? Also Spartan women managed property - I wonder how they did the books and kept the good management they were famous for?), and the Agoge was more in line with a boarding school education now. Indeed even now, many Army officers I know went from an elite GPS boarding school to Royal Military College Duntroon, and then to their Regiments in a very similar progression to Spartan youth.

Now a retired Australian Army Officer, my military special study was Sparta, and it constantly annoyed me that many writers espoused a society that could not have produced either the successful and prosperous culture, or the military supremacy that Sparta had for hundreds of years. It should be remembered that for Spartan citizens, this was a genuine democracy, who the rest of Greece looked to for defence from tyrannical governments. Even Athens had sought their help here. Helena explores what the real Sparta probably was, through the eyes of a fairly modest kid, who proves to be very real and very 'normal' but who will become the only Spartan King to ever undergo the Agoge. Helena's portrayal of Leonidas as a developing personality fits perfectly with the man who will become one of the iconic 'heroes' of history.

Thank you Helena for the real Sparta, and the real Leonidas.

I can barely wait to begin book 2.

Thank you, Peter! I hope you have enjoyed "A Peerless Peer." Meanwhile, the final book in the trilogy has gone to the publisher. We're still on track to release it in September of this year.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Sparta (Sparti) in Spring

Returning from Kythera, my husband and I spent a night in Sparta (“Sparti,” as the modern town is designated on most maps and signs nowadays, is Ionian; I prefer to use Doric, which shows up now and again on local signs).  The modern city, full of students, traffic clogging the main street and disco music filling the night air, is not always the best place to evoke ancient Sparta, but it has charm of its own. The palms of the main avenue remind one of the more trendy cities on the Riviera, but the backdrop of snowy Taygetos is more beautiful. There are good restaurants, good hotels, a pretty square with a monument to the Three Hundred, and a charming little museum with some excellent pieces of Lacedaemonian sculpture. The ancient acropolis is far enough away from the heart of the modern town to allow a stroll in contemplative silence, and I am always pleased to see the Leonidas standing guard in front of the soccer stadium.  In short, I always enjoy a stop in Sparta on our way to or from Kythera.

Particularly interesting this trip was that the Eurotas was running black. Usually, when I have been in Sparta, it has been muddy and lazy. This trip is was running fast and deep. This suggests that in ancient Sparta as well the river ran deep and fast at least some of the time. Indeed, I’ve heard theories that the climate of Greece was generally cooler and wetter in the archaic and classical periods. Certainly, the population density was lower and so the consumption of water less. Less water consumption nearer the source of the Eurotas would have meant greater volumes of water flushing down through Sparta. Certainly, it looked more inviting this time around, and I could easily imagine the boys of the agoge cavorting around in it and young citizens plunging in to refresh themselves after drill.

Since pictures are worth a thousand words, however, I think I’ll stop writing here and just upload some of the pictures I took this year. I end with a picture of me at Leonidas feet.

If you look hard you can read the “Μολαν Λαβε” on the base of the statue.

In other news, I submitted the manuscript for the third book of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King  to the publisher today. If all goes well, the book will be released on schedule in early September.