While in most of Greece the custom of exposing unwanted children (usually girls) was driven by the economic interests of the child’s father, in Sparta infanticide was conducted by the state for the sake of ensuring a citizen body capable of fulfilling its military duties. Sparta’s obsession with military preparedness probably started in response to a real external or internal threat, but it soon became an integral part of the Spartan mentality and culture.
In the following excerpt from “A Peerless Peer,” the tyrant Aristagoras tries to understand Sparta better by interrogating the officer escorting him to Sparta.
The officer of the escort appeared for the first time without helmet or spear. “Is everything to your satisfaction, sir?”
“Yes, fine. Why don’t you join me for dinner?” Aristagoras suggested.
The young man’s eyes shifted sharply. For a moment he seemed about to decline, but then he nodded. “Just let me tell my deputy where to find me.” He was gone before Aristagoras could answer, and so Aristagoras went inside his tent. His bodyguards would eat outside with the slaves, but his chancellor was waiting for him. “I’ve asked the escort commander to join us,” Aristagoras told the older man as he washed and dried his hands with the water and towel brought by a slave, then reclined on a couch.
The older man nodded and stretched out on his own couch before asking, “What is your first impression?”
Aristagoras sipped the wine poured for him into a kylix and admitted, “Not what I expected. I am most curious what this Spartiate will have to say—if we can get him to talk, that is. Aren’t they supposed to be terribly taciturn?”
The arrival of their guest cut off the conversation. He was given water and a towel to wash his hands, and then offered water and wine. When he was settled and the first course of olives and pickled octopus was brought, Aristagoras opened, “Do tell us a little bit about yourself. I do not even know your name.” It was a question.
“I am called Leonidas, commander of the Achillean Enomotia of the Kastor Pentekostus, Pitanate Lochos.”
“I see. And that is how you define yourself? Who was your father? Have you no brothers? Are you married? Have you sons?”
“My parents are both dead. I have two brothers still living, one dead. I am married and have two children, twins a year old.”
“A son and a daughter.”
Aristagoras considered the young man opposite him and concluded that for some reason, he did not want to talk about himself. He tried another tack: “If I have been informed correctly, Lacedaemon has the finest army in the world. Half a century ago you were masters of the Aegean; and even Croesus, King of Lydia, was not too proud to seek Spartan aid in his wars with Persia. Indeed, the whole world looked to you for soldiers to help them win, whatever their cause. But now your army never shows itself anywhere, and it seems to be quite useless. I mean, maybe you could explain to me what it is good for these days? No one has dared attack you here in generations.”
“The Argives are constantly trying to regain the shore just behind us, and Kythera, too, while the Messenians would rise up in revolt if they thought we were not strong enough to defeat them again.”
“Ah, yes, the Messenians. A bit of a problem, aren’t they? How do you—as the great liberators of Greece, the opponents of tyrants, and all that—justify the oppression of an entire city-state of fellow Greeks?”
“I don’t,” Leonidas retorted.
Leonidas shrugged. “Meaning the situation is as it is. I did not create it, and I cannot change it. Sparta defeated Messenia many generations back. The liberation of Messenia would destroy our economy as it is now structured. In short, it is not in my interest or that of any of my peers to change it.”
“But if you freed Messenia, you would not have to fear the enemy at your back, would you? You would be free to use your army for other purposes—maybe even for causes that could bring you greater fame, glory, and wealth. Have you never thought of that?”
“Have you been to Messenia, sir?”
“No,” Aristagoras admitted.
“Then you cannot know what wealth is needed to outstrip it.”
Aristagoras only laughed; and then in answer to Leonidas’ stony gaze, he patted his arm condescendingly and noted, “And you have seen nothing of the wealth of Asia.”
“True. Tell me about the Persians. Why did you fall out with them?”
Aristagoras frowned, and his answer was sharp for the first time: “Because they are an insufferably arrogant people. They think they are superior to every race on earth! They think all other peoples are not merely different, but uncivilized. They use other peoples for their own ends, but they do not respect them.”
Leonidas held his tongue. He thought this description would fit the Athenians—or the Spartans themselves, for that matter. Didn’t every city think it was the best in the world? That its laws and its gods were the finest?
“You will have heard of my Naxian expedition,” Aristagoras continued in a still agitated voice. “That pompous Persian ass, Megabates, went snooping around the fleet and found one Myndian vessel on which there was no watch set. And why should there be? We were on the offensive. No one knew where we were bound. We had not even set course for Naxos! But that arrogant asshole ordered the captain of the vessel to be put in chains with his head sticking out an oar-port! He turned a venerable gentleman into an object of ridicule for the whole fleet! A Greek trireme captain! A man who had raised the entire sum to lay down the keel and who paid every man-jack aboard, oarsman and marine alike—treated like a mere slave, humiliated before his own crew! It was an outrage against all men of means! If such things are allowed, who will donate money for a trireme ever again? I freed him with my own hands, and Megabates—although he was under my orders—reproached me for it! Then when we came to Naxos, he pouted in his tent like Achilles and waited until all my resources had been exhausted in the futile siege, and then he went home, having ruined the enterprise! What choice did I have but to turn against such unreliable friends?”
Leonidas listened in patience to this flood of self-justification and was impressed by Aristagoras’ ability to excuse his despicable behavior, but he doubted that even his brother King Cleomenes would be impressed by the story.
“You understand the situation?” Aristagoras asked when Leonidas said nothing.
“No, sir. If any commander failed to set a watch, we’d put him in the stocks, too.”
“A senior commander? A polemarch?” Aristagoras asked incredulously.
“Especially a polemarch—except it would not come to that, because each section leader sets his watches, so no polemarch has to. Not even I need worry about the watch. I know I can rely on my four section leaders and my deputy. But, of course, I did check before I came to see to your wishes. You can come with me now if you like and ask each of my four section leaders what the watch is for tonight.”
“Tonight? Who are you afraid of?”
Aristagoras stared at him, uncomprehending, and then shook his head. “You do what is senseless just to keep yourselves from being free to follow your own pleasures, as is perfectly normal for any free man.”
“No, we do what is necessary for the freedom of all of us by ensuring that we cannot be taken by surprise.”
“A man who is forever constrained to do what he does not want is no better than a slave,” replied Aristagoras, dismissing Leonidas’ answer with an irritated wave of his hand.
“A man who follows only his baser instincts is worse than a slave: he is an animal.”
“If he follows only his baser instincts, perhaps,” Aristagoras conceded, adding, “but a free man can choose between his baser instincts and his nobler sentiments—and it is that freedom to choose that makes him free.”
“Perhaps,” Leonidas conceded, but then he smiled and got to his feet. “And, therefore, I hope you will respect the fact that I now choose to check on my men.” He walked out of the tent, but did not go directly to the campfires. Instead, he stood breathing in the smell of the pines and looking up at the stars, remembering what Lychos had taught him about navigating by the constellations. Aristagoras had succeeded in making him feel enslaved. He longed to be with Lychos—who might be anywhere the sea could take him, from Crete to Byzantion, from Cyprus or Naukratis.