Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Messenian War(s) Re-examined

Last week I noted that no event shaped Sparta’s early history more dramatically than the conquest of Messenia. Despite all the uncertainties surrounding it, historians agree that Spartan control of Messenia shaped its society and policy for centuries thereafter.  The conventional account of the Messenian war, however, suggests that Sparta fought two wars, and was victorious in both, but nevertheless experienced a period of severe domestic unrest between the two wars that resulted in the founding of Sparta’s only known colony and in the introduction of the Lycurgan constitution. Periods of intense domestic unrest, however, rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.

The history of modern revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly in a crisis that threatens recent gains.  If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.

What if, following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia – and then got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver on that promise?  What if, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the war to Laconia? (Remember all those legends of Aristomenes raiding Spartan temples and disrupting Spartan festivals?)

Such a situation would have produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new, revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict with organized, well-armed Messenian forces. 

Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.

The paranoid excesses of late classical Sparta (krypteia, mass executions, etc.) followed the Helot Revolt of 465, but they probably took the disproportionate form they did because there was still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. It is more likely that the trauma of a lost war rather than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army made Sparta what it was.

Note: The next two weeks I will be in Lacedaemon and unable to update this blog.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Significance of the Messenian War(s)

Modern histories of Sparta tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without providing a great deal of detail.  The reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the city’s early history), the literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous. Indeed, Cartledge considers Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us only in fragments, the “only” reliable literary source, while pointing out that the ancient historians Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.

Yet, arguably, nothing was more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a highly unusual and unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia.  W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire people resulted in permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict with Messenia.

The facts of conquest which are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years. Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long as the conquest of Troy.  Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.

We also know that in the first quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to Lycurgus. (I know there has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the Spartan constitution, but I find W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan revolution to the period between 700 and 670 cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp. 55-58.)  Furthermore, we know that Sparta’s only colony was established near the turn of the 8th Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.

Conventionally, these facts are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan reforms. The later, however, are usually seen as contemporary with Tyrataios and were, therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a revolt of some kind. Historians have therefore postulated that the allegedly brutally oppressed Messenians suddenly and within just two generations were capable of financing hoards of hoplites and fielding entire hoplite armies.

This taxes my imagination, so next week I will present an alternative theory.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

RELEASE OF "A Heroic King"

The third and final book in the Leonidas Trilogy, "A Heroic King" was released on September 15. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1. 

“A bastard?” the Chairman of the Ephors exclaimed in horror. “You’re saying that the ruling Eurypontid King of Sparta is a bastard?”
“I’m saying more than that,” Leotychidas replied coolly. Leotychidas was a tall, lanky man with the large nose typical of the Eurypontids.  He was the ruling king’s closest male relative, albeit only a second cousin, and he was officially his heir because Demaratus, at 49, had yet to produce a son. Leotychidas continued in an aggressive and self-satisfied tone, “I’m saying he does not have a drop of Herakles’ blood in his veins and has no right to sit upon the Eurypontid throne.”
“This is impossible!” A second ephor protested, no less outraged than the first. “He was born to King Ariston’s queen in the royal palace and immediately acknowledged by his father.  He never attended the agoge, and at his father’s death, almost seven Olympiads ago, he ascended to the throne without question.  He has no brothers. He is the only child King Ariston ever sired.”
“Ariston never sired anyone! He was as sterile as a mule!” Leotychidas sneered. “Have you forgotten he had three wives and the first two, maidens of good stock, gave him no sons, but produced children by their subsequent husbands?”
There was dead silence in the ephorate, the small but venerable building adjacent to the more imposing Council House and backed up against the Temple to Fear.  The five men sitting in the marble, throne-like chairs at the center of the chamber were just ordinary Spartan citizens. They had been elected to a one year term as ephor by the Assembly.  Each man owed his election to a varying combination of a distinguished career in public service, an effective election campaign among his fellow citizens, and the endorsements of influential members of Spartan society. Once elected, however, these ordinary citizens collectively became extremely powerful, which was why by law no one could be elected twice. The duties included receiving and dispatching ambassadors, issuing fines to citizens found guilty of breaking the law, and the dismissal of magistrates or commanders accused of wrong-doing. The ephors also served as advisors to the kings and in extreme cases could bring charges against them. 
The men gathered in this room were prepared for these duties. They were not prepared to hear that one of the kings, who had reigned for a quarter century already, was illegitimate. Yet what Leotychidas said was true: Demaratus’ father had had three wives all of whom had had children by subsequent or previous marriages, but only one of whom had ever given Demaratus a child.
Technarchos, the chairman of the five ephors, was a man respected for his hard-work and common sense.  In the army he had risen to the rank of enomotarch, but was passed over for promotion to company commander.  On attaining full citizenship, however, he had been appointed Deputy Head Master of the public school, the agoge, with responsibility for the 20-year old eirenes.  For twenty years he had fulfilled this demanding position with firmness and fairness, but he was not credited with particular subtlety or wit. Recovering first from his shock, he protested simply, “Demaratus was Ariston’s issue by his third wife.”
“Indeed!” Leotychidas agreed eagerly.  “A woman who had been the wife of Agetus, son of Alcides, and borne him children.  There was no question of her fertility, but she produced only one child in her whole, long marriage to Ariston and that son ― Demaratus ― was born too soon to have been sired by the king.  He was the son of Agetus.”
“That cannot be!” One of the other ephors, a man who had benefited from Demaratus’ patronage, insisted frowning. “Why would Ariston raise up the son of another man as his own?”
“Because he was ashamed to admit his impotence, and because he wanted to deny me my rightful place,” Leotychidas retorted sharply, adding in a more reasonable tone, “You need not take my word for it.  I have found a witness, a man who was ephor the year that Demaratus was born and he can bear witness to the fact that King Ariston knew Demaratus was not his son.”
The ephors looked at one another in astonishment.  It was 49 years since the birth of Demaratus. Since the legal minimum age for election to the office of ephor was thirty-one and ephors were usually men in their forties or fifties, any surviving ephor from the year of Demaratus’ birth would now be close to ninety years of age.  None of the men present were aware that such a man still lived.
Leotychidas opened the door leading directly into the Temple of Fear, and called into the darkened temple. He held the door open while a very decrepit old man, bent with age and clutching the arm of a young helot, entered the chamber.
The old man had so little hair left that he could not plait it from the forehead in the Spartan fashion and it was simply combed back over his scalp until it could be bound into a single, thin braid at the back of his neck.  The skin on his face and neck was splotched with age-spots and sagged upon his fleshless bones.  His eyes were grey with cataracts, and his mouth seemed to cave into his toothless mouth.  He shuffled forward until the helot holding him up came to a halt in front of the five city officials. There he just waited.
Techarchnos cleared his throat and asked politely, as was appropriate when faced with a man of such a venerable age, “Who are you, father? And why are you here?”
“I am Lakrates, son of Paidaretos,” he said in a surprisingly firm voice although his words were slurred somewhat for lack of teeth. “I am almost 100 years old, but I am here to be heard.”
“We are listening, father,” Technarchos assured him.
“Then listen well! I was ephor in the reign of King Ariston. On the very day that Demaratus was born, we five ephors were attending upon King Ariston when a messenger burst in upon us to announce the birth of a child to Ariston’s new queen.  Ariston was most astonished and in front of us he counted on his fingers the months since his marriage and ― with an oath ― declared ‘The child cannot be mine.’”
“But he accepted Demaratus! He brought him to the Elders! He doted on the boy!” The ephor who owed his post to Demaratus’ patronage protested with evident alarm.
“That may be,” the old man admitted pressing his lips together so that they completely disappeared into the cavity of his mouth. “But that does not change what he said,” he added stubbornly, and insisted, “He counted on his fingers and declared Demaratus could not be his child!”
“But why did you and the other ephors keep silent about this?” One of the other ephors asked skeptically. Although he owed Demaratus no particular favors, he was a reasonable man and found it hard to credit that such a significant utterance could simply have gone unnoticed for half a century.
“We did not! We told the Gerousia, but they were displeased. They were all Ariston’s men!” The old man spat out bitterly and his foul breath made the ephors recoil involuntarily, but the old man continued passionately. “They said the Eurypontid king had need of an heir and if the Gods had seen fit to give his queen a healthy son, then a month or two did not make any difference.”
Since a man had to be over sixty to be eligible for election to the Gerousia, members of this body at the time of Demaratus’ birth were all long since dead. No one could prove or disprove the accusation of the old man, but there was no denying that there had been a period when the Gerousia was dominated by clients of King Ariston.  They had been elected when the Agiad King Anaxandridas was still too young to have much influence with the citizens.  Only after they died out was Anaxandridas able to balance out the composition of the Gerousia by getting some his own candidates elected in Assembly.
“I say the Gods have made it perfectly clear that Demaratus was not meant to become king since he too has failed to produce an heir,” Leotychidas took up his appeal. “I, in contrast, have three fine sons. That alone should tell you where the Gods stand in this dispute!”
The ephors looked with varying degrees of alarm and discomfort at their fellow citizen. Although Leotychidas was not without his supporters, he was far from popular and had never distinguished himself either at arms or in other forms of public service.  What he was asking seemed utterly impossible to these five ordinary men, who for more than a quarter century had seen in King Demaratus a descendant of Herakles and representative of the Gods on earth.
The situation was particularly delicate because the ever erratic Agiad King Cleomenes was clearly going mad.  Last year, after a decisive victory over Argos, he had mindlessly slaughtered captives, burned down a sacred wood and ordered the army to withdraw rather than destroy the city of Argos once and for all. Since no one trusted Cleomenes any more, Demaratus was effectively Sparta’s only king. To suggest that he was not rightfully king, effectively made Sparta kingless ― at least until the issue could be resolved one way or another. Without a king to command it, Sparta’s army could not take the field.
The more he thought about the implications, the more Technarchos felt as if his head was spinning. He was a man with an acute appreciation of his own limitations, and he recognized that this dilemma was beyond him. He resolved to speak privately with the one member of either royal family who had over time demonstrated strength of character and leadership capabilities, Leonidas. Out loud, he declared, “We must consult with the Gerousia.”
Leotychidas smiled a crooked, sinister smile and shrugged, as he replied. “But of course. Consult the Gerousia.  But I am the rightful Eurypontid king and when I have been recognized, I will remember who sided with me and who tried to stand in my way ― even after the truth had been revealed.”

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Importance of Leonidas

The final book in my trilogy on the life and death of Leonidas is now just one week away from publication, causing me to reflect on the purpose of the project. Why did I write and why should anyone read a biography, in novel form or otherwise, of King Leonidas of Sparta? In my earlier entries about Leonidas I have sketched many of his unique characteristics and emphasized his importance, often under-estimated, in Spartan history. But except for scholars of ancient history, who cares?

As a historian, of course, I think history matters because of what it teaches us about human nature. Furthermore, history shapes and influences us – even when we don’t know it. While ancient Sparta probably seems obscure and irrelevant to many modern readers, anyone familiar with ancient sources rapidly recognizes that ancient Greece was remarkably “modern.” Accounts of debates, intrigues and scandals in ancient Athens sound astonishingly similar to what goes on in modern legislatures. The fact that the monuments we see on the Acropolis today were paid for by Athens “Allies” should have been a warning to the EU….

As for Sparta, it was the role of women in Sparta that first awoke my interest  and preference — for Sparta, but I soon realized that Sparta shared far more with modern Western society than just the treatment of women. For example, Sparta was the only ancient Greek city to introduce public education for all future citizens, just as we have in Western countries today. Sparta sought to ensure a minimum standard of living for all citizens by giving each citizen an estate large enough to support him and his family, rather the same way that welfare payments and other forms of subsidies for the poor are intended to prevent abject poverty in modern Social Democracies. Despite its overwhelming military might, Sparta had only one vote in the defensive alliance it founded and headed   a situation comparable to that of the U.S. in NATO today.  Spartan artistic and architectural style was minimalist and functional rather than highly decorative    something evocative of Scandinavian design today. All these factors convinced me that writing about Sparta would underline the degree to which humans have shared values across millennia.

But Leonidas is more than just a Spartan  even if he is arguably the quintessential Spartan.  And Leonidas was more than a Spartan king — even if he is Sparta’s most famous king.  Leonidas is important not as a historical personality but as a moral figure.  Leonidas fascinates us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom.

Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive   not an aggressive   battle.  Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him.  Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.

Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta or Leonidas’ historical role, were the factors that made his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.

The five years of my life spent researching and writing about Leonidas have been well spent. They have opened my eyes about many aspects of human nature and enriched my understanding of the human condition. And most of all, they have inspired me to keep writing and keep searching for my own destiny. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Writing about Thermopylae: Part II

Last week I talked about my initial reluctance to write about Thermopylae and the reasons for it. Today I want to focus on one particular aspect: the literary challenge.

The way I see it, if I were writing about Henry V of England, the historical record might be my guide, but Shakespeare would be my competition. And nothing about the real Battle of Agincourt would be so challenging as Shakespeare’s magnificent depiction of it. Never mind that the words he put into Henry’s mouth were never said by him – indeed, were probably based on the speech Edward of Woodstock made before Poitiers as recorded by Chandos’ Herald.  Shakespeare is the benchmark for any book of fiction about Henry V. Fortunately, I’m not writing about Henry V!

Thermopylae too appears in a number of works of fiction, and these have shaped our understanding of it and laid down the literary hurdles that any new book on the subject must successfully clear. I was personally introduced to Thermopylae – and indeed Ancient Sparta – by Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The Spartan. I read this book as a teenager, and it impressed me so much that I retained a life-long, if initially latent, interest in Sparta. I remembered it as a book about Thermopylae. But when I purchased and read it in preparation for my own description, I discovered that of the two hundred pages, only thirty-five were devoted to the battle, of which ten were the march north. Even the remaining twenty-five pages shy away from the issue in that they describe the fate of Aristodemos, the hero of the novel, and one of the two Spartiates that survived Thermopylae. Aristodemos, Herodotus tells us, was blind and behind the lines and did not actually fight, at least not on the last day. Snedeker’s account skirts around Thermopylae more than it describes it.

The opposite is true of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire.  Pressfield’s book starts and ends at Thermopylae and everything in between is more or less a device for making us identify with and understand what happened there. Rather like Shakespeare, Pressfield is a better story-teller than historian. It was reading Gates of Fire that reawakened the latent interest in Sparta that Snedeker had sparked in me decades earlier. After reading Gates of Fire, I started doing research on ancient Sparta, and, being a historian, I read history books. My research slowly and painstakingly produced a vision of Sparta markedly different from Pressfield’s. Yet his story-telling is compelling, as the success of his novel proves. Pressfield is therefore the modern bench-mark for any fictional account of Thermopylae.

Before attempting my own account, therefore, I re-read Gates of Fire. The issue was not if or how historically accurate his account was, but rather how did he deploy his characters and evoke emotion? How effective was his story-telling? Was there any point in going “toe-to-toe” with an internationally best-selling author? Or should I, like Snedeker, find a way to evade the issue? Most important, was there anything that I could say about Thermopylae that hadn’t already been said?

Astonishingly, when I re-read Gates of Fire, I came away feeling that Pressfield had done a magnificent job of describing male bonding on the battlefield and that his Thermopylae was very much about blood and guts and heroes. It uses the language of modern fighting men. It speaks to modern fighting men. It is a tribute to fighting men of all nations and ages.

But is that all that Thermopylae was and is?

Pressfield’s heroes are already crippled by the end of the first day of fighting, yet continue to perform super-human deeds of strength and endurance, heedless of pain and physics for another two days. Pressfields heroes are demi-gods – like Achilles and Hektor and Ajax.

But Leonidas was a real human being, a historical, not a mythical figure. So were the other 300 Spartans, 700 Thespeians and 400 Thebans. They all had real names, real (not divine) parents, and they felt real pain; they had only the strength of mortal men. Shouldn’t we honor them for what they were, rather than turn them into supermen?

Many people want supermen, cartoon figures and supernatural heroes. For them, there are lots of “Leonidases” on the market – films, cartoons and PC-games.

But it seems to me there are too few portrayals of Leonidas as a complex, human being, and this I realized could be my contribution to the portrayals of Thermopylae. My Thermopylae, I decided, would be about human beings doing exceptional but not super-human things.  And so, at last, I sat down and wrote about Thermopylae.