Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Monday, July 23, 2012

Leonidas' Legacy

No Spartan has left a larger footprint in history and art than Leonidas. Not the commander of the Spartan army that actually defeated the Persians, Pausanias, nor the Spartan that eventually defeated Athens after the gruesome thirty-years war, Lysander, are half so well remembered.  Lycurgus and Chilon are familiar names only to classical scholars. Leonidas, in contrast, is a cult and comic-book hero, not to mention there is a chocolate company named for him.

Leonidas was, of course, a legend in his own time. The Spartans built him a monument at Thermopylae, notably separate from the monument to the rest of the 300, and a second monument was built to him at home in Sparta as well. His body was brought home after the Persians had been driven out of Greece.  But, unless it is an accident of archaeology, larger monuments were built to the victors Pausanias and Lysander than to Leonidas. In short, Leonidas’ appeal appears to have been greater in the modern world than the ancient. This might have many explanations – starting with the political agenda of his successors (or those who controlled his immature son) or discomfort with commemorating a devastating defeat.  The modern world, perhaps influenced by the Christian tradition of honoring sacrifice, is impressed by Leonidas’ defiance and devotion to duty more than his defeat.

There is also a modern tendency to assume that Leonidas’ behavior was “typical,” that he was indeed only doing what Spartan society expected of him, or acting “in accordance with the law.” This assumes that Spartans were “never” allowed to retreat and always chose death over either retreat or surrender.  The Spartans, of course, knew better. 

Sparta had suffered many severe defeats before Thermopylae, and in no other did an entire fighting force die to the last man for a lost cause. For example, there is good reason to believe (see “Sparta’s Forgotten Defeat”) that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and it was ensuing economic and social dislocation that led to unrest and revolution.  Certainly, Sparta was given a resounding thrashing by the Argives at Hysiai in 669 BC, but even so the Spartans retreated rather than die to the last man.  Roughly one hundred years later, Sparta again over-reached herself in an attempt to conquer Tegea, and again there were survivors; they were enslaved in Tegea and forced to do agricultural labor for Tegean masters. In ca. 525 BC, a Spartan expedition against Samos likewise ended in humiliating defeat, but not the extermination of the expeditionary force.  Finally, in the reign of Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes, a Spartan force under Anchimolius was attacked by Thessalian cavalry 1000 strong at Phalerum, and, according to Herodotus, “many Lacedaemonians were killed…and the survivors driven back to their ships.”  Note, again, the survivors were driven back to their ships, which they presumably boarded and used to return to Lacedaemon. There is not a word about dying to the last man.

Nor did “death rather than surrender” become the standard for future Spartan commanders after Thermopylae. The history of the Peloponnesian war is littered with Spartan defeats; none were massacres.  Even in the infamous case of 120 Spartiates trapped on the island of Sphakteria, the record shows that they surrendered and were taken off into (brutal) Athenian captivity.  Nor were they written off by an indignant population as cowards, tremblers or otherwise disgraced and worthless.  Had they been so viewed, Sparta would not have sued for peace and made serious concessions to Athens to have them returned. Even their collective degradation from full-citizen on their return is not necessarily indicative of disapproval of surrender.  On the contrary, it more likely reflects fear that men who had been in Athens for almost four years might have become subverted (brainwashed, is the Cold War term) by Athenian democracy.  After an unknown period, they were collectively reinstated, and even some ran for public office. That would not have been possible, if the majority of Spartans had felt they should have committed suicide rather than surrender.

Leonidas’ legacy was not one of blind, mindless self-sacrifice. His example was one of devotion to duty, even unto death, for a good cause.  Leonidas did not die for the sake of dying – much less take his comrades with him to a senseless death.  He had clear military objectives that he hoped to achieve by his last stand: 1) giving the other Greek contingents time to withdraw and live to fight another day, and 2) increasing Persian respect for/fear of Spartans.  Once the pass at Thermopylae was turned, Leonidas knew the Persian army would advance unopposed into Central Greece. He could not know where it would next be confronted by land-forces, but he must have feared that it might sweep through Central Greece to the Isthmus of Corinth. He must have feared that Sparta might find herself virtually alone facing the onslaught.  Anything he could do to make Xerxes hesitate to take on a Spartan army must have seemed worthwhile.  That is a legacy worth remembering.

Last but not least, as a devout Spartan, Leonidas undoubtedly believed he had to fulfill the Delphic Oracle. He knew he had to die, if Sparta was to be saved. In that sense, he was from the start a sacrificial lamb, but not until the position at Thermopylae was betrayed, did his sacrifice inherently encompass defeat as well.  When he set out for Thermoplyle,  he probably hoped that he could die in a victorious battle – or at least an indecisive one. He certainly hoped and expected that, alive or dead, his advance force over 6,000 strong could hold the Hot Gates until Sparta’s full army reinforced them. 

When it became clear he would die in a hopeless situation, Leonidas tried to minimize the losses by ordering the withdrawal of the allied contingents (and almost certainly all the Perioikoi troops that would have been with him).  He even tried to save some of the Spartiates by giving them dispatches to deliver. They saw through him and refused. They refused out of loyalty, out of friendship, out of personal affection for Leonidas, both the man and the king. They did not act for military reasons but for personal ones. Yet their legacy too is worth honoring. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

“Nothing in Excess” or Ares Chained


It was the Spartan Statesman Chilon the Wise who coined the laconic phrase “nothing in excess.” Yet the degree to which this philosophy dominated Spartan culture is often overlooked.

It will come as no surprise to scholars of Sparta that Spartan culture proscribed, for example, economy in the use of words, in drinking, in eating, in making love and in dress and decoration.  By the end of the fifth century BC, the Spartans were infamous for the lack of decoration on their clothes and homes. Meanwhile, their preference for pithy, precise expression rather than verbose eloquence, had given rise to a contemporary cult of “Laconic” expression.  Likewise, the Spartan disdain for excessive drinking was legendary to the point where Spartans were willing to blame the madness of a king (Cleomenes I) on nothing more than drinking his wine neat. When it comes to food, Xenophon claimed that boys of the agoge received short rations, while grown men in the syssitia were fed a restricted diet. According to Plutarch even sex was inhibited in Sparta, with newlyweds forced to engage in various tricks and deceit in order to come together.

Most ancient commentators praise Sparta’s culture of “more is less.”  Xenophon claims that the short rations of the agoge helped boys to grow tall, while the syssitia’s rigid regime kept men from growing fat.  Plutarch suggests that Spartan marriage customs increased affection between young couples by restricting their ability to sate passion, apparently on the assumption that too much sex leads to disinterest.  Certainly, Spartan prudery was viewed by philosophers as more admirable than the reverse.  The benefits of teaching children silence were, of course, widely eulogized and Laconic speech particularly praised by Plato and the philosophers.

Modern commentators, in contrast, are more likely to focus on the harshness of Spartan society. Sparta is frequently compared to totalitarian societies in which freedom is sacrificed for conformity and the state is ever-present.  The emphasis is on children torn away from their parents, on young men confined to barracks rather than living with their wives, on adults with no choice of profession, and soldiers expected to die rather than retreat even in hopeless situations.

Yet Chilon’s admonishment applied to excessive cruelty, brutality, rigidity, hatred and violence as much as to excessive luxury, food or sex!  Nothing in excess means exactly that.  Sparta was no Taliban state in which pleasure, music and sport were forbidden. On the contrary, in Sparta music and dance were valued nearly as much as valor on the battlefield.  

Even war itself was not adored, but rather seen as a dangerous passion that –just  like appetite and lust – needed to be controlled. This attitude was symbolized by a temple in which Ares was chained. Spartans feared an unleashed God of War as much – if not more – than they feared an uninhibited Aphrodite. The cult of Aphrodite, after all, first took root in Lacedaemon, on Kythera, and according to some sources the Spartans sacrificed to Eros on the eve of battle – not to Ares.

Yet arguably the greatest evidence that Spartan society was not grim was the fact that Sparta had a temple to laughter and so a cult of happiness. To my knowledge, no other ancient city-state shared this open and explicit adulation of happiness. To be sure, Sparta also had a temple to fear, and it would be wrong to argue that Spartans “adored” fear.  Rather, temples were built to all supernatural forces which mortals needed to respect.  The Spartans knew that fear was powerful and could seize control of even the bravest heart, therefore it was a force to reckoned with and respected, like death itself.  The significance of a temple to laughter is that it shows that Spartans, far from scorning the light side of life, joy and humor, recognized the power of laughter no less than that of fear.  Unlike any other ancient society that I know of, it placed enjoying life on a par with the undeniably dark forces of death and fear. (See also: Loving Life inLacedaemon.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

With it or Upon it -- Reassessing Spartan Mothers


Nothing has shaped the image of Spartan women in the popular imagination more than the alleged admonishment of Spartan mothers to their sons to return from war either with their shield or upon it. The image of brave mothers who would prefer to see their sons dead rather than disgraced has captured the imagination. Hollywood gave this supposed tradition a prominent place in the film “Three Hundred Spartans”, and Steven Pressfield eulogised Spartan mothers for this attitude in his blog on warriors. Yet there are a number of oddities about this stalwart feature of the popular view of Spartan society which suggest that it like so many aspects of conventional wisdom about Sparta may be a complete fabrication.

Let’s start by looking at the sources. Plutarch includes no less than seventeen “sayings” that he attributes to “Spartan women”, all of which appear to corroborate a widespread attitude among Spartan matrons consistent with the laconically expressed sentiment “with it or upon it”. In no less than three of these, fiercely patriotic mothers kill, with their own hands, cowardly sons who have failed to live up to their ideal. In others, the mothers revile their sons in insulting language for example, suggesting they crawl back into the womb. In their mildest form, these sayings portray matrons who have lost sons in battle cheerfully going about their business rather than grieving. In two, when a mother learns of the death of a son from another male relative (in one case a second son and in the other her brother), she suggests that he (the relative) join the dead. In one, a woman is even portrayed losing five sons in battle but announcing she is glad because the battle itself was won.

Aside from the fact that undoubtedly many of these sayings are simply different versions derived from the same original source, almost all are anonymous. I am always suspicious of anonymous sources regardless of context, and this fact alone makes me question the veracity of the sayings. Admittedly, since it was considered dishonourable for a woman to be talked about, one might argue that Plutarch did not name names (or his sources didn’t) out of respect for the women involved; but that does not explain why the cowardly sons chastised or murdered by their mothers much less the heroic sons whose deaths are not mourned are not identified. Surely there was no reason not to name cowards and heroes, since this would shame the former and honour the latter in future generations?

In addition to the issue of anonymity, the sayings lack any kind of detail that would enable them to be dated or otherwise put into context. This likewise detracts from their authenticity. They are all vague and generic, as if they are at best apocryphal or at worst bad fiction.

But the sayings are implausible for two concrete reasons as well. First, given the fact that Sparta fought most of her battles far from home, one wonders how the sons of these patriotic matrons managed not only to break the Spartan line and flee the battle, but also to escape the wrath of their comrades and the discipline of their officers. Presumably the Spartan army had very little tolerance for cowards, so the sons had to desert from the army altogether and sneak back to Lacedaemon to seek the aid of their mothers. Here, others sources tell us, they would be treated as “tremblers” and suffer civic sanctions. This begs the question of why any Spartan who failed to do his duty in war would risk being seen in Sparta at all and what they could possibly expect of their mothers!

Second, and even more telling against the probability that these sayings are genuine, is the simple fact that Spartans buried their dead near the field where they fell. This means that the last half of the famous saying “with it [your shield] or upon it” is utter nonsense in the context of Sparta. Sparta’s battle dead were not brought home on their shields, but as Nigel Kennel puts it in Spartans: A New History (p. 157), “served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project power”. No Spartan mother would have been unaware of this custom.

Turning from the issue of authenticity, let’s reflect more closely on the content of the sayings. At their best, the sayings portray a soldierly ideal of “do or die” being reinforced and shared even by that one element of any society that would be most easily forgiven for not supporting it: the mothers of soldiers. Telling a son in the abstract to return victorious or not at all is certainly not unique to Sparta. Patriotic mothers have allegedly done that in every society caught up in what the women believed to be a just war.

Yet the sayings collected by Plutarch go considerably further. They portray women who are so patriotic that they rejoice at the death of their sons, or tell surviving sons to follow the example of their dead brothers. Worse, in three cases the mothers are so fanatical as to kill their sons with their own hands. Is there anything appealing, attractive, or admirable about such creatures?

The answer is no and, I believe, that is exactly as it was intended to be. I believe these sayings did not originate in Sparta at all.

Why would the Spartans have had an interest in remembering and repeating incidents (five of Plutarch’s sayings) in which Spartan soldiers first failed to absorb the ethos of their society and then fled in the face of the enemy to run home to their mothers? These sayings, after all, don’t just portray ideologically radicalized mothers (who incidentally failed to raise their sons to share their values), but young men who singularly fail to live up to the ideal of their society as a whole. The young men who return alive have ostensibly all gone through the Spartan agoge and are members of Spartan dining clubs and soldiers in her army. And yet, according to these sayings, they still don’t live by the code. In short, these sayings imply, the entire Spartan upbringing was highly ineffective. It hardly seems reasonable that the Spartans would have an interest in recording and remembering such young men no matter how patriotic their mothers were.

Furthermore, if the purpose was to reinforce the ethos of “victory or death”, then anonymous women and anonymous sons would have been blunt, indeed useless, instruments. How much more effective would it have been to tell how the survivors of Thermopylae (with name and patronymic) were reviled by their named mothers? If the Spartans wanted to make examples of patriotic mothers, they would have chosen real incidents from real wars and identified the brave women and their abhorrent sons by name. Nor would they have made the mistake of suggesting that Sparta’s victorious dead were brought home on their shields.

Sparta’s enemies, on the other hand, had no need for real names or real battles and no need to be particularly accurate about details (like where one buries one’s dead), because the intended audience was domestic. If the purpose of these sayings was to reinforce the “Feindbild” (the image of the enemy) to make sure that even Sparta’s women were seen as enemies then the more generic the stories were, the better. That way they became applicable to all times, to every battle, to every enemy soldier, to every Spartan mother.

I believe these sayings attributed to Spartan women were, in fact, enemy propaganda. They were intended to portray the women even the “little old ladies” of Sparta as repulsively different from normal (read: good) Athenian/Theban/Arcadian mothers, who naturally all adore their sons. The point is to depict Spartan women (always the object of horrified fascination on the part of other Greek males) as lacking even that most primeval of all instincts: the maternal instinct. Spartan mothers are shown to be unnatural, unfeminine creatures that deserve no sympathy even in their adversity. The sayings tell Sparta’s enemies that there is no need to pity Sparta’s women as one did, for example, the Trojan women. Go ahead, the sayings insinuate, kill their sons; because if we don’t kill them in battle, the abominations in female form who gave them life, the Spartan mothers themselves, will kill them when they get home.

As enemy propaganda against Sparta, these sayings had another even subtler message: namely, that Sparta’s legendary hoplites were really just a bunch of cowardly mama’s boys. Collectively these sayings suggest that Spartan soldiers, far from fighting to the death even in a hopeless situation, would run all the way home to their mothers, if only they got the chance. Why should any normal Athenian/Theban/Arcadian young man fear an army made up of a bunch of mama's boys?

As propaganda devised by Sparta’s enemies, these sayings served a dual purpose. First, they contributed to the overall image of Spartan women as repulsive, because they showed that in addition to being licentious as young women and adulterous as wives, Spartan women were heartless mothers. Second, they counteracted the legendary image of Sparta’s men as the spiritual descendants of Leonidas’ legendary band of 300, ready to fight tooth and nail even in a hopeless situation.

As propaganda intended for a domestic audience, these sayings diminished fear, bolstered courage, and undermined any sense of identification with the foe. And as such, they tell us something about Sparta’s enemies and their need to counter awe of Sparta’s young men and sympathy for Sparta’s mothers. What they do not do is tell us anything whatsoever about Spartan women.

What is tragic is that so many modern readers take them at face value.

The above essay first appeared in "Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History," Vol. 7, Issue 4, 2011, pp.24-26. It is reprinted here with the permission of the editors of "Sparta."