Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sparta Lost and Found

Unlike Athens, that remained inhabited from the archaic period to the present day without interruption, Sparta was not only defeated and humiliated, it was destroyed by earthquakes, flooding and ultimately abandoned. When the Franks and the Ottomans came, there was not even a village to mark the site of Ancient Sparta.
 
Equally devastating was the lack of a Spartan literary tradition. A society that placed value on silence and brevity did not produce historians or play writes, and while Spartan philosophers were admired throughout the rest of the ancient world, they preferred an oral to a written tradition.
 
The combination of these factors, a lack of a written record, the dispersal of any inhabitants that might have kept an oral tradition alive and the physical destruction of the city, left subsequent generations with an image of Sparta that derives entirely from the accounts of outsiders. Many commentators on Sparta, even in ancient times, had never been there – or at most visited briefly. Some, like Xenophon, knew Sparta relatively well, but remained fundamentally Athenian. Trying to understand Sparta on the basis of the accounts of Athenians and Romans is like trying to understand Africa from the reports of Victorian explorers.  It won’t get you very far.
Our images of Sparta, the city, are dominated to this day by what we have been told about Sparta and Spartans by these visitors from a different culture. Even someone who has never studied Sparta or read a single book about it has images of Sparta that have been transmitted through our language alone.  “Spartan” is an adjective used to denote “severe,” “plain,” and “austere.” Laconic speech is “terse,” “concise” and “economical.” The most rudimentary and fleeting brush with Sparta in literature will not be without reference to rigid discipline, disdain for luxury, self-sacrifice and endurance of hardship.
The more a novice looks into Spartan society, the quicker he/she is confronted by references to a childhood of deprivation in which one had to steal to get enough to eat and was allowed only one garment per year. The boys, we learn, had to cut down the river reeds with their bare hands or the help of a tool which is dismissed as practically worthless, and then sleep upon these instead of real beds. Worse, they had to live practically in the wild, exposed to the elements without shelter or proper clothes.  Books like Gates of Fire describe horrendous beatings to which Spartan boys were apparently subjected for any tiny infraction of the rigid rules of acceptable behavior.
Nor are youths the only Spartans whom, we are led to believe, suffered deprivation. This was a society, according to most sources, where women were prohibited from wearing jewelry or even taking pride in their weaving. Indeed, all gold and silver was banned, and so could adorn nothing - not even the temples of the Gods.  The houses, we are told, were not painted (as else where in the Ancient world), and if one believes the oft quoted “sayings of Spartan kings” they did not even hew their house beams into regular square posts, but left them raw and untreated – one imagines crude timber as in a log cabin. Meanwhile, the young men lived in barracks (notoriously grim places in any society!) and for their entire lives ate their meals at men’s clubs where the cuisine, we soon learn, was infamous throughout the ancient world for its lack of sophistication and variety.
Such a society is most readily imagined in an austere, plain, indeed barren, landscape.  After all, a society characterized by deprivation of food, clothes, decoration and fine cuisine sounds like a desperately poor society, a society barely surviving in a hostile environment, a society which has made a virtue out of necessity. It is logical to assume that the underlying – if unspoken – root cause of Sparta’s obsession with self-discipline and self-denial for the good of the community, the City, was a fundamental lack of resources that required such a rigid regime.
 
This assumption is reflected in modern literature about Sparta. In his best-selling novel Gates of Fire Stephen Pressfield calls Sparta “a village” adding: “The whole stinking place would fit, with room to spare, within His Majesty’s [Xerxes of Persia’s] strolling garden at Persepolis. It is … a pile of stones. It contains no temples or treasures of note, no gold; it is a barnyard of leeks and onions, with soil so thin a man may kick through it with one strike of the foot.”[i]
But there is a problem here.
If you drive down the modern road from Tripoli (or Tegea as I prefer to think of it) toward Sparti (Sparta) there is a moment when coming around a bend you catch the first glimpse of Taygetos. I will never forget the first time I encountered that view: it took my breath away.  I could hardly concentrate on the winding road for straining to get another glimpse of those spectacular, snow-capped mountains. And when the valley of the Eurotas was spread out before me it was like revelation. My image of Sparta – Ancient Sparta and all that Sparta implied – was transformed in a single instant.
The valley of the Eurotas is anything but barren! It is quite the reverse. It is green and fertile and stunningly beautiful - like riches cupped in the hands of the gods. From the blooming oleander to the wild iris, the valley is a garden. The orange orchards stretch as far as the eye can see, brazenly advertising not only the abundance of soil and sun but water as well. Most spectacular of all, the Eurotas valley is one of those few places on earth that offers the sensually stimulating sight of palm trees waving against a back-drop of snow-capped mountains.
Has Laconia perhaps changed dramatically in the last 2,500 years? Was it poor when the harsh, economical, self-disciplined Spartan society took root in its – then – sparse and almost barren soil?  Does it bloom now artificially because of modern fertilizers and irrigation?
If we are to believe the ancient historians, no. Herodotus speaks of Sparta’s “good soil”[ii] or Thucydides describes the entire Peloponnese (with the exception of Arcadia) as the “richest part of Hellas.”[iii] It is when speaking of Athens, that Thucydides draws attention to “the poverty of her soil.”[iv]
So the fertility and abundance of the valley has not changed since Ancient times any more than the shape of Taygetos beyond. But if this rich valley was the seat of Sparta, then Spartan austerity and deprivation did not come from necessity! Sparta’s land was rich, fertile and productive enough to enable the highest standard of living available in the ancient world – at least to the always modest number of elite Spartiates. In short, if Sparta was as austere a society as it is depicted in modern times, then that austerity was self-imposed.
But is it reasonable to imagine that a people raised in the midst of wealth and beauty had no appreciation for either? Or is the very austerity of Spartan society as mythical as the thin soil of Pressfield’s Sparta?
 
Maybe our images of a rigid, harsh and brutally disciplined society is also a distortion? A fractured image? A misunderstanding based on ignorant, or prejudiced foreign reporting? Imagine what American society looks like through the eyes of the Taliban!
 
It's because I firmly believe that modern images of Sparta a largely based on inadequate, hostile and sometimes purely fanciful source material that I have dedicated this blog and my website “Sparta Reconsidered” to questioning common assumptions and misconceptions about Sparta.

[i] Pressfield, p. 188
[ii] Herodotus, Book I.66, p.26.
[iii] Thucydides, Book I.2, p.36.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Nicastro, p. 67
[vi] Pausanias, III.10. p. 37.

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