Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spartan Ethos:

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity among the Philosopher Warriors


What set Sparta apart from other Greek city-states was not language, religion, or even laws – all of which were shared in broad terms with the rest of the ancient Hellenic world – but a unique ethos that permeated all aspects of life.  While Spartan philosophy valued silence over empty words, simplicity over decoration and precision over expansiveness, Sparta placed the liberty, equality and fraternity at the center of their ethical system.  Love of liberty was shared by all the ancient Greek democracies, but the emphasis on equality and fraternity set Sparta apart. 

There is no clear explanation for the roots of Sparta's unique emphasis on silence, simplicity, and precision, although it probably had Doric roots. Doric architecture, for example, is the simplest of the three Greek architectural orders. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that by the 5th century BC, Sparta had cultivated a tradition that put conscious emphasis on silence and simplicity over eloquence and decoration.
What is often overlooked by modern commentators is that the silence cultivated in Sparta was not the silence of dumb animals, but of thinking men, who recognize that it is wise to think before speaking and to speak only when they have something worth saying. This is the essence of Spartan rhetoric and the reason it was so highly prized by philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. If one is looking for a more modern parallel, the example of the Quakers might be appropriate.

Simplicity in dress, architecture, and art was a natural expression of this fundamental philosophy that "less is more" and precision preferable to ambiguity and ambivalence. To say that Spartan dress and architecture were simpler than that of contemporary cities is not to say it was primitive, only that it was more precise and made more use of natural elements. The focus on the functional and the essential need not be associated with a disdain for beauty. Most modern observers admire the Parthenon in Athens today for the perfection of its proportions and would be irritated and distracted to see it painted brightly, as it was in ancient times. Likewise, modern architecture and design has rediscovered the Spartan love of the pure beauty of form and material.


The Spartan land reform (described in the essay on the Spartan government and constitution) made all Spartan citizens equals, or Peers; and they not only described themselves as such, but reinforced the notion of equality by discouraging anything that would set one citizen apart or above another. Sparta was the first city-state to introduce a uniform for its army: scarlet chitons and cloaks, and indeed uniform shields, all bearing the lambda, or L, for Lacedaemon. Spartans also wore their hair in the same fashion: the boys of the agoge going about shaved, the young men with short hair, and the men over the age of thirty growing out their hair and often wearing it braided. Not until the second half of the 5th century do artistic depictions of Spartans indicate that the neat appearance of the archaic period had given way to an unkempt, almost barbaric fashion.

All adult male citizens were, furthermore, bound together through three distinct and separate institutions. First, the sons of citizens were required to attend the public school system, the agoge, from the age of seven through the age of twenty. Second, all male citizens between and including the ages of 21 and 60 had to serve in the army. A distinction was made between the first 10 age cohorts, who were required to live in barracks and were in effect on active service, and the elder age cohorts, who lived at home but could be called up at any time, similar to reserve status today. Third, all male citizens were required to join a syssitia, or dining club, and to eat at this club every night (unless excused), providing set amounts of food from their estates to support the common meals. Although every citizen had to belong to a syssitia (also known as phiditia), each citizen chose which club he wanted to join and the existing members voted to admit the new applicant – or not. One veto from an existing member was sufficient to prevent a new member from joining. Unexcused absence from the mess incurred a fine – something not even the kings were exempt from. However, Spartiates (Spartan citizens) could be excused for a variety of reasons, from war to hunting and the Olympic Games.

The bonds of school, military, and club were designed to keep the society closely knit and not divided along family and clan lines. They did not, however, replace family ties, as some modern observers assume.
Attending the agoge, the public school, from the age of 7 did not sever family ties any more than sending children to school today does. There is no evidence that the small children slept in barracks – they may well have slept at home – but even if they slept in dormitories on school nights, they would still have gone home for holidays. Sparta had many holidays, and some were so important that observance of them was more important than going to war – even in an emergency. School children would have spent probably as much as one-third of any year away from school, much as they do today. Furthermore, Spartan girls went to the same schools and gymnasiums as their brothers – and future husbands. Spartan youth therefore had far more contact with the opposite sex than did their contemporaries in other Greek cities, which in turn meant that the bonds between the sexes were also stronger than elsewhere. Shared memories of a common schooling would have strengthened Spartan marriages, and parents would have been careful to pass on their experiences of the agoge to their offspring in order to help them survive this critical prerequisite of citizenship.
The military duties of Spartan men were likewise less onerous than modern military service in distant theaters of war, which can keep men away from their families for years on end. Until the Peloponnesian War, ancient warfare consisted of marching out, meeting the enemy on a flat, open plain, fighting a single battle, and then returning home – victorious or defeated – within a few weeks. Most campaigns lasted no more than a month or two, and they usually took place after the harvest was in. Sparta was not continuously at war until the second half of the 5th century. Before that, Spartan men would not have been away at war for more than a few months at a time, and by no means every year. Some men might have been absent at war no more than a month or two in their entire lives.
Finally, the fact that men ate their evening meal away from their families need not have been more disruptive of good marital or family life than the fact that most modern couples eat their midday meal apart. On the contrary, the rhythm of Spartan life might actually have fostered good family relations, because men and women probably would have shared the middle of the day together, when other activities were not possible because of the heat.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Spartan Dress and Spartan Dandies

Spartan dress and decoration differed from that of the rest of the Greek world sufficiently to provoke comment among ancient observers.  At the same time, Spartan dress remained essentially Hellenic.  The Spartans did not wear clothing fundamentally different from other Greeks, they were simply more conservative in the adoption of new styles, meaning that they retained archaic fashions, such as the peplos and long hair for men, long after Greeks from other cities had adopted new fashions.  When one considers the fact that new fashions were introduced primarily from Persia and Macedonia, than it is fair to say that Spartan dress was more purely “Greek” or “Doric” than the fashions of Athens.


The most obvious example of the conservative character of Spartan dress was the preference of Spartan women for the old-fashioned peplos, even after Greek women elsewhere had adopted the long chiton.  The peplos is the robe worn by almost all archaic kore, and these archeological models refute modern allegations that Spartan women went around in short skirts like Amazons. The ancient complaint that Spartan women were “thigh-throwers” did not refer to skirts or chitons so short they revealed a woman’s thigh, but rather to the fact that a woman wearing a peplos was very restricted in her movements – unless the side seam was opened to above the knee. Thus, while Athenian women in their looser cut long chitons could walk vigorously without revealing their legs, their Spartan sisters always showed some leg when they walked.  The characteristic Spartan bronzes that show a girl in a short skirt running or dancing do not depict mature Spartan women but rather girls; the most likely interpretation is that they depict girls in the agoge, and as such girls before puberty.


Another typical Spartan fashion that dated back to at least the archaic age was for men to wear their hair long. However, modern depictions of Spartans as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders (alà Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army) are not supported by ancient sources. A statue fragment found in the heart of Sparta and dating from the early fifth century (commonly – or affectionately – referred to as Leonidas) shows a man with a clipped beard and neat hair. Earlier archaic artwork unanimously shows men with short beards and long, but very neat, “locks” of hair. (Note, for example the hoplites on the magnificent frieze of the Siphnian Treasure at Delphi dating from Leonidas’ lifetime, the Krater of Vix and other figures of known Laconian origin displayed now in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.)


Likewise, I reject emphatically descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images likewise contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence. Herodotus makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, for example, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans  -- as Plutarch explicitly does -- if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and cleaning. Plutarch also claims Spartan men took particular care of their hair especially in the face of danger, and refers to an alleged quote from Lycurgus that long hair was preferred because it rendered a handsome man better looking, and an ugly one more frightening. 
The later quote suggests, of course, that while a handsome man might have groomed his hair assiduously, an ugly man might have consciously ratted his, but this hardly makes sense if one considers the need for a man to wear a helmet, as all Spartans did until they had reached the age of 61.  It is more likely to refer to the fact that hair braided back from the forehead tends to give the face greater prominence than a crown of curls such as other Greeks wore in the classical period.  Thus, while both a handsome and an ugly Spartan wore their hair neatly braided from the forehead, the effect was to highlight the good features of the former and the bad features of the latter. I would note further, that anyone familiar with African hair braiding knows that a great deal of variety, and so different effects, can be achieved without breaking the fundamental concept of long hair, neatly braided from the forehead. I like to imagine that Spartan dandies shocked and irritated their conservative elders by obeying the letter of the law (long, neatly groomed hair) while nevertheless developing individual styles.


I would also like to note that no ancient source claims that Spartan women did not adorn themselves.  On the contrary, in Euripides’ plays and Aristotle’s political commentary both, Spartan women are despised and castigated for being exceptionally vain, luxury loving and self-indulgent. Thus, while Spartan men are portrayed as (stupidly) restrained and austere, Spartan women are loathed for being even more fond of self-adornment than Athenian women, who are themselves viewed as excessively fond of cosmetics, perfumes and jewels.
This suggests that even if, as some argue, Spartan laws prohibited not only the use of gold and silver currency but also gold and silver objects d’art, than Spartan women found other means of adorning themselves. One option would have been to make jewelry from other materials – ivory, copper, bronze, lapis lazuli, jade, coral, amber etc. etc.  In addition, the garments could have been decorated with bright colored embroidery or borders with beads of bronze, copper, ivory etc. Alternatively, the peplos themselves might have been made of brightly colored fabrics.  The most precious purple dye was produced from muscles found in the Gulf of Laconia, and Lacedaemon undoubtedly exported this dye and or fabric stained with it.  Other important dyes, such as indigo, were also produced in Lacedaemon. 


Anthropology, archeology and art history show us that there is almost nothing as universal as human vanity. Throughout history and throughout the world, men and women have been astonishingly inventive in developing ways to adorn themselves and make themselves appealing to one another.  Sparta, a society far closer to our own than many others the world has known, was certainly no exception.