Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Persian Slave - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"



The Persian civilization in the 6th and 5th century BC was extremely sophisticated and produced wonderful works of art and literature. Persia was also an aggressive power and crushed the Ionian revolt brutally. In the following excerpt, the impact of that defeat is illustrated through the eyes of a youth.


Danei was a harem eunuch serving Zopyrus’ newest wife, Phaidime, the only wife the Persian interpreter had brought on this voyage. Danei had been captured at the age of thirteen, and castrated because he was one of those beautiful, golden youths that the Greeks occasionally produced. Persian noblemen liked to surround themselves with things of beauty, both animate and inanimate, and Danei fit that category. So for five years Danei had looked after Phaidime, going as part of her dowry to Zopyrus’ household when she married at the age of twelve. Phaidime’s dependence on Danei had compensated him a little for his fate. 

But Danei had never expected to find himself back in Greece. When he was ordered to prepare his mistress for a long voyage, no one bothered to tell him where they were headed. The Persian Empire was so vast that a “long voyage” need not take one beyond its borders. Even when slave gossip suggested Zopyrus had been given an important “diplomatic mission,” there was no reason to assume the mission was to the Greeks. It could just as well have been to the Egyptians or the Nubians or the wild peoples to the east. It was only after their ship put in at a Greek port after a frightful voyage that Danei learned where he had landed. The realization that he was in Lacedaemon had filled him with amazementbut not joy. Rather, he felt confused and ashamed. In fact, he wanted to hide, but slaves soon learn to accept everything ….

Because Danei could speak Greek, the other slaves insisted he accompany them on their errands. At first Danei was terrified that someone would realize he was Greek and recognize that he was a slave and a eunuch. In Persia there were tens of thousands of eunuchs, many in powerful positions, so it didn’t seem so bad. Here, among his own people, Danei felt mutilated and unnatural. So far, however, no one appeared to have taken particular note of him at all.

Today he was alone. He was dressed in the clothes of a Persian slave: unbleached raw linen trousers bound at the waist with a drawstring, and a long-sleeved shirt. He wore a floppy cotton hat to cover his blond hair, and straw sandals that rasped (rather than clicked) on the paving stones. He hobbled around the edge of the agora, clinging to the shadows as best he could, with his head down to avoid catching anyone’s eye. As he moved, he cast furtive glances in the direction of the produce stands being set up. Danei was more comfortable with women, so he hobbled over to the women’s stands.

The first was laden with baked goods: flaky crusts oozing honey, tarts with raisins and crushed walnuts, sweet bread pockets stuffed with apples, and other delicacies that made Danei’s mouth water. What a wonderful surprise for Phaidime, he thought at once, his eyes widening.

The woman at the next stall burst out laughing. “Looks like you’ve got a new customer, Laodice!”

The woman behind the sweets stand smiled at Danei with an expression that reminded him so sharply of his mother, it made his heart miss a beat. When the Persians came, he and his mother had been separated almost at once. He had never seen her again. She was not young even then, and she had raised four children almost to adulthood. Danei hoped they had spared her the indignity of rape. There had been so many young girls to satisfy their lust …. He preferred to think of his mother like the slaves in the harem, looking after the children of Persian wives and concubines, cooking and cleaning for the privileged women of the rich. But sometimes, when he saw a slave woman bent under a load of firewood, or struggling with an amphora of water, he pictured his mother’s facelined and worn and hopeless.

“What can I sell you today, young sir?” said the woman behind the sweets stand, bringing him back to the present.

“Oh, I’m just a slave,” he hastened to correct her, ever conscious of his status. “Butbut I do have money to buyfor my mistress. I’m sure she’d like some of these.” He pointed to the honey squares.

Only those?” the saleswoman asked, astonished. “What about some of the raisin and walnut tarts? Or my lemon squares? Do you want to test my wares to be sure they are good enough?” she suggested with a little wink.

Danei understood her gesture as one of kindness, a woman showing sympathy for a boy in bondage. Her kindness lured a smile from him as he glanced up and asked, “May I try the lemon squares and the almond tarts, please?”

She smiled back and bent to retrieve a knife from under the counter to start cutting into her wares. His eyes focused hungrily on the sweets, Danei did not realize someone had come up behind him until a deep male voice asked, “Where are you from, young man?”

Danei nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned to look over his shoulder at the owner of the voice and felt his heart in his throat. It was one of the Spartiatestall, muscular, tanned, and wearing bronze armor including a helmet tipped on the back of his neck, the nose piece resting on his forehead. Danei wanted to flee. He started to shrink back, away from this man who smelled of sweat and bronze and freedom. “II’mno one,” Danei told him. “I’m sorry.” He turned to run, but the woman stopped him.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, young sir. That’s just the master come to snatch a slice of cheesecake for himself. Here.” Still poised to flee, Danei turned to look at her. She was smiling at him, an almond tart on the palm of her hand. “You need it more than he does,” she noted with a little nod in the direction of her masterwho, incomprehensibly, laughed at her impudence. Danei gaped. No Persian’s slave would risk using such a tone of voice with his master, and if they did, they would probably have their tongue torn out. “It’s all right,” she assured him gently, “the master won’t hurt you.”

“She’s right. I won’t.”

Danei still hesitated, but now it was in shame rather than fear. The man was the embodiment of masculinity, and Danei felt the scar between his legs as if he were naked. He looked down at the pavement beneath his feet, rooted to it from sheer humiliation. He was remembering how they had been lined up and castrated on a bloody block, one after the other, without so much as a glass of wine. Two men held the boys down backward over the block. The surgeon made a few expert cuts with his knife. The removed genitals landed in a bucket that had to be emptied several times before the day was over, and then each new eunuch was pushed off the block to make room for the next victim. Danei had struggled too much at the wrong moment. The surgeon’s knife slipped and the man cursed in professional annoyance. Another man grabbed Danei and crushed a cloth down into his wound with all his might, ignoring Danei’s screams. Danei passed out. When he came to again, a crude bandage was made fast to his crotch with tarred twine and the bleeding had slowed to a trickle, but he would never again walk without a limp. He was yanked from his memories by the saleswoman. She reached out and took his hand, pressing her pastry into it. As he looked up and met her eyes, he saw only his mother looking back at him, not just pitying him but encouraging him, too. He closed his
eyes, unable to bear it.

“You speak with the accent of the islands,” the terrifying Spartan hoplite insisted. “Which island are you from?”

Danei looked up at him and mouthed the word. When was the last time he’d dared utter it? “Chios, master,” he whispered, and then he dropped his eyelids over his eyes to hide his tears. The word, said at last, instantly conjured up images: the sun coming up over the Aegean, the smell of the soil when his father turned it with a plow, the humming of the bees in their little orchard, his mother singing ….

“Chios?” the Spartan inquired, unsure if he had read the youth’s lips correctly.

Danei nodded, his eyes still down and staring, unintentionally, at the Spartan’s sandaled feet while his free hand tugged unconsciously at the hem of his shirt, pulling it down to cover his crotch more completely.

There was a pause. Then the deep voice said softly, “A man’s heartnot his extremitiesmake him a man. My life was once saved by a squadron of Chian triremes. I know the Chians did not go crawling on their bellies to the Persians, but died upright, as free men. I believe the sons of such men have the hearts of lionsno matter what the Persians have done to their bodies.”

Danei gasped and looked up. Their eyes met only for an instant, and then the Spartan turned and was gone. Danei stood rooted to the pavement and watched the Spartan continue down the street. He was filled with a strange sensation of lightness. Danei’s father had been boatswain on one of Chios’ proud triremes, and he had been killed at sea in the great sea battle. More than half of Chios’ ships had been crushed and sunk in that battle, but the remainder, with shattered rams and crushed sides, limping and listing, had been dragged to Chios by the triumphant Persians. There the captive men had been hog-tied and run up the halyards of their own ships like bunting. There they had been left to die slowly of thirst as the sun burned them like rotting grapes. Danei had recognized some of the men, the fathers and brothers of friends, his cousins, a maternal uncle. While the men died overhead, the Persians had herded the boys onto the open decks and divided them into categories: the galleys, the mines, whores, eunuchs …. Danei stared after the Spartan until he turned a corner and was lost from sight, and still he stared after him, trying to remember with every nerve of his body what he had said. A man’s heart, not his extremities…. The image of his father, dressed as he had been the day he sailed away for the last time…. His father had died a free man….The sons of such men…. He turned and looked at the saleswoman in wonder.

She was no longer alone. The exchange had attracted two other Spartiates. They were younger than the man who had spoken to Danei. The first, wearing a striped chiton and hair braided at a rakish angle, remarked, “You can take his word for it, young man. He knows what he’s talking about.”

“Butwho was he, master?”

“That was Leonidas, the man who should be king of Sparta.”

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Monuments in Flesh - The Appearance of Spartan Men

 
As a novelist, I have given considerable thought to what the Spartans in the Age of Leonidas might have looked like, as well as how they would have groomed themselves and dressed. From comments and correspondence, I gather that this is a topic of interest to many of my readers as well, so I thought it might be worth some joint speculation.

In terms of physical build, I have not heard of any archeological evidence based on skeletons, but would welcome any information you may have heard or read about. In the absence of such forensic evidence, I may dependent on mixing ancient sources with modern experience and common sense.

Both Plutarch and – more importantly Xenophon – stress that Spartan youth (i.e. during the critical years of physical development and growth) were not allowed to eat “too much.” Xenophon speaks of “just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. [Lycurgus'] view was that boys under this kind of regime would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer, when so ordered; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. [Lycurgus] also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies did more to make them grow tall than one in which the food filled them out.” (Spartan Society:2) 

Plutarch, the less reliable source, writes: “The aim of providing [Spartan boys in the agoge] with only sparse fare is that they should be driven to make up its deficiencies by resort to daring and villainy. While this is the main purpose of their scanty diet, a subsidiary one is claimed to be the development of their physique, helping them in particular to grow tall. When people over-eat, their breathing is labored, thus producing a broad, squat frame. In contrast, if breath suffers from only slight delay and difficulty and has an easy ascent, the body is enabled to develop freely and comfortably. Good looks are produced in the same way. For where lean, spare features respond to articulation, the sheer weight of obese, over-fed ones make them resist it.” (Lycurgus:17).

It is startling the way Xenophon’s explanation of why the Spartans restricted the diet of youth to the necessary is focused on virtues very useful to an effective army in the field, while Plutarch’s speculation is more about cheating and “villainy.” Indeed, if one follows Plutarch’s reasoning, Spartan youth didn’t suffer any deprivation at all because they simply stole what they didn’t get in their official rations and the clever and better they were at theft, the fatter they would have become, defeating any “secondary” aim of improving the physique. 


Notable, however, is despite the different explanations of why the Spartans instituted a regime of sparse rations for youth, both authors suggest that it produced “tall” and (in Plutarch’s case) handsome men. Modern science, however, proves that too little food in fact stunts growth, not the reverse. Clearly the ancient commentators postulated a causal effect where there was none, but such a thesis would presumably have been based on two known facts: that Spartan youth ate less than their Athenian etc. equivalents and Spartans were, on average, taller than their enemies.

(The modern observer should take careful note of the fact that if Spartans were apparently on average taller than other Greeks, they probably did not suffer any real deprivation as children. Whatever “short” rations were common in the agoge, they were not so short that growth was in any way impeded since even if some youth may have been adept at theft, most would not have been.)

Returning to the theme of physical appearance, however, we clearly have a reasonable indication that Spartans were on average notably taller than most of their contemporaries. Since the ancient explanation (they received too little to eat as children) is implausible, we need to look for other possible explanations that would make the thesis (Spartans were generally taller) credible. 

Here the experience of modern Japan might be a useful corollary. As long as the Japanese diet was dependent almost exclusively on fish for protein, the Japanese were notoriously short; the introduction of meat led to the average height in Japan skyrocketing by roughly a foot in just two generations. If we remember that fish was the preferred food in Athens and the most readily available protein for all the island Greeks, while Spartans were envied for their rich pastures and game-filled forests, I think it is fair to postulate that the Spartan diet was more meat heavy than that of their major rivals. It is reasonable, therefore, to picture Spartans as unusually tall by contemporary standards.


It would be wrong to conclude, however, that they were broader as well as taller than their contemporaries. On the contrary, the ancient commentators stress that Spartans were slim, something they attributed to the fixed rations at the syssitia. Yet men who are too tall and too thin would have been incapable of marching long distances or fighting exceptionally well in a phalanx. So we are talking about lean, not skinny, men.

While it might be tempting to picture a Spartan in his prime looking something like a linebacker, I would caution that Sparta’s military successes were not solely a function of Spartan troops being able to push harder, but also march more rapidly (and move at night) and to cover difficult terrain. Likewise the emphasis on hunting, particularly for men in the reserves, suggests to me that Spartans were not excessively “top heavy,” but rather lithe and fleet of foot as well as broad shouldered and strong-armed. In conclusion, I postulate that Spartans had an all-round athletic build developed over decades of physical activity from sports and hunting to military drill and combined with a healthy, but protien-heavy diet that made them tough and lean but not stocky.

Turning to grooming, let me start by dismissing modern artistic depictions of Spartans that show them as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders alĂ  Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army. Likewise, I reject descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence.

Herodotus, for example, makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans as Plutarch does if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and hygene. More important, 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 also from this period, and the figurines of known Laconian origin now displayed in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.)


In addition to these sources, the admittedly dubious Plutarch 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.

Whether the locks depicted in ancient sculpture were in fact braided or plaited is not possible to tell from the stylized nature of the evidence. However, it is physically impossible to keep long hair in neat, orderly strands when engaged in sports and other strenuous activities unless it is carefully confined in some way. Thus, practical modern experience suggests that Spartan men did braid their hair, something that is consistent with – though not definitely proved -- by the archeological evidence.

Braiding has the added advantage of being something that can be done quickly and alone if necessary, or done elaborately with help. Thus it could have been a means for men to express individual taste and personality within the rigid limits of the Spartan prohibitions against displaying wealth in dress or personal ornament. I personally like to think of conservative, “old-fashioned” men just braiding their hair to keep it out of their faces, while the “dandies” of Spartan society creatively braided their hair at diagonals or in crossing patterns etc. – as in Africa today. This gave a man a great deal of freedom for individual expression – all without breaking any taboos about the use of jewelry or other ornaments.

Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


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