Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Good Spartan - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Spartan understanding of duty was far more complex than most modern literature portrays. As I pointed out at the start of the month, Spartans did not expect their soldiers to triumph or die, but rather to achieve strategic objectives — which sometimes entailed both retreat and even surrender. Ultimately, the most important thing in Spartan society was not victory, but loyalty.

In this excerpt for “A Heroic King” Leonidas attempts to tell a twenty-year-old Eirene, who has miscalculated rations for his unit and is ashamed of himself for being ‘thick,’ that loyalty to one’s charges is more important than being exceptional.

Leonidas waved Alpheus silent. “Maron, do you think I am a good Spartan?”

“Yes, sir! One of the best!” Maron told him, so earnestly that Leonidas would have laughed if the circumstances had been different.

“Do you think I know what is good for Lacedaemon?”

“Yes, sir!” Maron assured him.

“Then I want you to listen to what I am going to say very carefully, and I want you to remember it and remind yourself of it whenever you doubt yourself. Are you listening?”

Maron looked at him with wide, dark eyes under a forehead creased with concentrationanticipating that what Leonidas was about to say would be hard to understand and memorize. “Sparta needs good men. It needs clever men.” Leonidas heard Alpheus suck in his breath in outrage, but Maron just stared at him like a calf looking at the butcher. “And it needs men who are not so clever.” Alpheus let out his breath in relief, but Maron still looked like a steer awaiting slaughter.

Leonidas took a deep breath and dropped on to the ground to make himself more comfortable. He looked up at the branches overhead and had an inspiration. “Maron, what kind of trees are in this orchard?”

“Plums, pears, apples, apricots, and almonds.”

Leonidas nodded. “And which is the best fruit?”

“Do you mean, which do I like most?”

“No, which is most important for Lacedaemon?”

Maron frowned harder and glanced at Alpheus, but his younger brother lifted his shoulders and shook his head to indicate he didn’t know the answer, either. After a moment he gave up and admitted, “I don’t know, sir. I can’t work out which is most important.” As he spoke, he hung his head in despair over his own stupidity.

“That’s because they are all equally important,” Leonidas told him. He waited. “Do you understand what I am saying? We are all equally important. Lacedaemon needs us all.” Then he couldn’t control himself and added a little flippantly, “With some rare exceptions like Alcidas and my brother Brotus.” Alpheus laughed, but Maron was confused and looked back and forth between them. 

Leonidas grew serious again. “That was just a jokeabout my brother, I mean. I am very serious about Sparta needing you, Orsiphantus’ son Maron

“But I’m not good at anything!” Maron protested. “If you knew

Leonidas cut him short. “I know a great deal more about you, Maron, than you think. I know you are more dependable than most of the so-called ‘clever’ boysincluding your own brother here.” Leonidas said this with a quick grin at Alpheus, who understood him and smiled back. “I know you are conscientiousfar more so than I was at your age.” He paused and then asked, “Did you know I had a son by my first wife?”

Maron shook his head.

“Well, I did. He was killed in the same fires that killed your father. But if he had lived, he would be old enough for the agoge now, and there is no other youth in your entire age cohort that I would rather have had for his eirene.”

That took Maron by surprise, and he looked at Leonidas with wide, questioning eyes. “Really, sir?”

“Yes,” Leonidas assured him and waited.


“Because you sincerely care about the welfare of your charges. You are more concerned about helping them than about your own advancement. Most of your peers have those priorities reversed.”


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