Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Friday, February 1, 2013

Not Just Soldiers -- Spartiates


As everyone with even a cursory knowledge of Sparta knows, Spartan citizens were professional soldiers. Spartiates trained for war in the agoge, they spent the first ten years of their adult lives (ages 21-30) on what amounted to “active duty,” and the next thirty years of their lives in the ancient equivalent of the reserves. Not only this, but, we are told, Spartiates were prohibited from learning and pursing other professions and so there were no potters and no carpenters, no shipwrights and no smiths among Spartan citizens.  These undisputed facts have led most people to see Spartan citizens as soldiers only, ignoring the fact that despite their life-long service in the military, Spartan citizens could in fact be much more than soldiers. They were also the administrators of a large, prosperous and exceptionally complex state.

Lacedaemon stretched from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea and had an estimated population of 60,000 or more. It had at least three classes of inhabitants (helots, perioikoi and Spartiates). It had a public school – unlike any other city of its age. It had a great number of public festivals with complex rituals involving choral, dance and athletic competitions. It successfully competed in the pan-hellenic games. It pursued extensive diplomacy throughout the then known world. And all this in addition to pursuing a brutal war that dragged out over generations in the second half of the fifth and early fourth century.  In short, Sparta was a highly sophisticated society, which could not have been managed by two bickering kings, 28 men in their dotage and five amateurs elected for a single year.  Sparta’s centuries of pre-eminence in the ancient world – and its reputation for good governance and order – can only be explained by hypothesizing a well-functioning administration that kept Sparta’s institutions operating.

This logical conclusion is supported by various sources which make oblique reference to  ill-defined dignitaries that evidently supported the known institutions of the Spartan state. For example, the Paidonomos and his assistants, priests, “magistrates,” and “heralds.”  While there is no explicit evidence (except with respect to the Paidonomos) that these positions were filled by Spartiates, it is unlikely that the Spartans would have entrusted the education of their children, their relationship with the Gods, communication with the enemy or the enforcement of their laws to perioikoi, much less helots.  In short, there were many tasks and responsibilities in addition to soldiering that have to have been performed by Spartiate full-citizens after they went off active duty. 

Let’s start with the agoge.  Although Xenophon and others speak only of “the” Paidagogos, as if one man alone controlled the entire agoge, such a notion illogical.  We know that effective education requires low ratios of instructors to pupils, and even taking into account an age cohort of eirenes providing a degree of internal discipline each year, it is not credible that there were no other agoge officials.  It is far more likely, given the size and importance of the agoge to Spartan society, that there was a relatively large college of instructors, or at least Deputy and Assistant Paidagogoi, maybe the Mastigophoroi  usually portrayed as a bunch of whip-wielding thugs, but more likely responsible and respected educators.

Descriptions of Spartan life suggest a variety of other activities that would also have been performed by Spartan citizens if not “professionally” then, nevertheless, with the conscientiousness expected of full or part-time public servants.  For example, Sparta was famous for its choruses and dance performances. Anyone who has engaged in either activity knows that large groups of people cannot be brought to perform harmoniously together without someone choreographing, directing, and conducting. Sparta undoubtedly had chorus masters, and it is seems highly unlikely that choral and dance masters would have been drawn from the ranks of the helots or perioikoi.  Just as with the agoge instructors, it is far more probable that these were adult citizens.

We also know that the Spartan kings kept records and maintained archives.  Control of such delicate material as oracles from Delphi, communication between the kings and their permanent representatives, correspondence between the ephors and commanders in the field or ambassadors to foreign capitals would hardly have been entrusted to anyone but Spartiates.  In all probability, therefore, there was at least one “archivist” for each royal house, and this position was probably filled by a Spartiate, who was either appointed or elected. He probably had deputies and assistants as well.

Then there is the issue of taxation. Taxation was particularly important in Sparta because citizenship itself depended on paying two kinds of tax: the agoge fees when immature, and the syssitia fees after attaining citizenship.  Someone had to keep track of who paid how much, and they had to do that each and every month.  Maybe each syssitia had a part time “treasurer” too keep track of fees, but the agoge was large and would have required at least one (and probably more) full-time “treasurers.” It is not credible that perioikoi would have been entrusted with control of records that revealed (and in part determined) the strength of the citizen body and so the army in future generations. 

Furthermore, taxes also had to be collected from the helots and perioikoi.  Spartiates who collected too much from their helots were subject to sanctions, so someone – and it had to be one of their peers – must have been keeping track of how much was due and how much collected.  Even if not explicit, it is also fair to assume that the perioikoi were subject to taxation, just as metics in Athens. Again, an institutionalized means of assessing and collecting those taxes would have been necessary to ensure everything functioned properly, and -- at least until Sparta’s population decline became critical -- such an apparatus would have been headed by Spartiates.  Given the size and expanse of Lacedaemon, my guess is there would have been many more than one citizen engaged in tax collection!

Once taxes were collected, they had to be put to work, so we come next to the business of financial management.  Sparta would have needed some mechanism to allocate funding to various state expenditures.  Money was needed for the army, of course, but also for the fleet, and for public works like roads and fountains and drainage systems and for public buildings from temples to theaters, monuments and barracks. Managing such projects requires full-time public servants committed to ensuring that the intentions of the state (as expressed, one assumes, by the Assembly via the ephors) are fulfilled and that funds are not misallocated.

And finally there was the Spartan army.  Friend and foe alike admired the Spartan army not only for its relatively good performance on the battlefield but also for its organization and professionalism.  Yet as most soldiers will tell you, an army’s effectiveness is not simply a matter of fighting capacity. A good army is well fed, well equipped, and well-supplied. It has effective command-and-control mechanisms, efficient lines of communication, as well as adequate and flexible transport.   A good army has a medical corps and, in centuries past, good veterinarians as well. In short, there is a great deal more to creating an effective fighting force than drill with weapons.  Sparta’s army must have had not just good soldiers and officers, but good quartermasters as well.

While all these various positions were “honorary” in the sense that they were without remuneration, they were nevertheless jobs requiring considerable time, energy, dedication and skill. Spartiates may not have earned a living from these jobs, since they all had their estates, but they probably viewed their performance in such jobs as honorable public service. Whether elected or appointed, ambitious Spartiates would undoubtedly have competed for these positions, and a man's performance in such public service would have contributed to his reputation and prestige. Men in these positions would in turn have been influential, becoming part of the complex network of “leading” citizens that helped shape Spartan policy behind the scenes.  

There is nothing sinister about this. It happens in every society – including our own.

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