Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A City Like No Other - Sparta's Unique Architecture


Acropolis of Athens, 2012, Photo by author.
The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides made a prediction in his History of the Peloponnesian War that has come true with a vengeance.  He wrote that “…[if] Sparta were to become deserted and only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies beyond its frontiers. Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, 10, 2.)



This statement was as much a criticism of Athens’ building program under Pericles (that had diverted contributions from the Delian League, intended for defense against the Persians, to building extravagant temples in Athens) as a critique of Sparta.  Yet it has misled modern scholars and novelists to portray Sparta as if it were a primitive village of dirt and mud. 
 


For example, 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.” (p.188).



Modern writers are often guilty of both a too hasty reading of Thucydides, and a failure to consider other evidence.  Thucydides complains that Sparta “is not regularly planned” – but then nor is London. And he says it is “simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way.”  This is not the same thing as saying Sparta was not a cosmopolitan city, it only means that Sparta had no plan and no walls and hence grew haphazardly -- as all major European cities did after their confining medieval walls were torn down. No one today would call Paris, Berlin or Rome “a collection of villages” simply because they are in fact many villages which have grown into a single metropolis after the need for fortifications disappeared and economic growth fueled urbanization. Why should we assume that just because Sparta was made up of five distinct villages in pre-Archaic times that it was not – in its years of glory – a cohesive, dynamic city?   


Sparta, April 2016, Photo by Author

Likewise, when Thucydides writes Sparta “contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence” he is not denying the existence of temples and monuments, only ones “of great magnificence” – such as Pericles built with stolen funds from Athens satellite states without their consent. In short, Thucydides never claimed that Sparta was not a major, metropolitan city, nor did he deny it had notable monuments, he was only making the astute statement that, judged by its buildings alone, future generations would over-estimate the power of Athens and under-estimate that of Sparta.

The assessment of Sparta's architecture has been aggravated for modern observers by the fact that today we cannot see what Thucydides did. Sparta was destroyed by earthquakes many times over the centuries. It was flooded by the Eurotas. It was abandoned. Nothing destroys architectural monuments so completely as abandonment.  Nor should it be forgotten that Sparta has not been systematically subjected to archeological excavation in almost a century. 
 
The Spartan Amphitheater, 2012, Photo by Author

Nevertheless, what has come to light demonstrates definitively that far from being a place full of primitive, mud structures, Spartan architecture was substantial, monumental (not the same as “magnificent”!), and very, very typical of Doric architecture throughout the ancient world. Sparta was, in fact, the ultimate Doric power. It attained it greatest artistic flourishing in the 6th rather than the 5th century BC, and consequently its greatest monuments were archaic not classical or Hellenistic. But they existed! We can still see some of the foundations and remnants to this day. Sparta was not just a heap of peasant hits, as Pressfield and other modern novelists would like us to believe. 


For anyone whose imagination is too weak to mentally reconstruct a great city from the remnants left in Sparta today, we have the meticulous record of an ancient travel guide. Pausanias traveled to Greece in the 2nd Century AD, long after Sparta’s decline from prominence and more than half a century after its “golden era” in the 6th Century BC.  Yet he needs 26 sections and more than 60 pages to describe the city! And that, although he claims he has not described everything but rather has selected and discussed only “the really memorable things.” (Pausanias, III.10. p. 37)

I would also like to point out that no Spartan has left a written description of his/her city that has survived to our time. Would a Spartan have found the Acropolis in Athens “magnificent” or simply “distant, intellectual and arrogant”? Would a Spartan necessarily have admired the altar at Pergamon?  Or found it “gaudy” and “busy”-- as many people see rococo architecture today?  Sparta was different from other cities of its age, particularly Athens. Does that necessarily mean it was less attractive?
Let me be heretical. We know that in ancient Greece most statues and temples were painted vivid colors and the statues of the gods were dressed in robes, ivory, gold and jewels. What if Spartan austerity indeed extended to temples, statues and monuments and these were adorned only with natural beauty – i.e. naked stone and marble sculptures set amidst flowering trees and running water? Isn’t that what we find strikingly beautiful in Greek architecture and sculpture today? The perfection of proportion, symmetry and form in beautiful natural settings? Isn’t it the lifelike poses, gestures and expressions that appeal to us? Would we rather see Venus de Milo painted in flesh tones with red lips and blond hair? Would we admire the Parthenon in Athens as much if it was dressed in bright paint?

Ancient Nemea Today, Photo by Author
What if Spartan homes were indeed devoid of elaborate interior paintings because, unlike their Athenian counterparts, they were not crammed into an over-crowded city and surrounded by high-walls that blocked out almost all daylight? Spartan houses could be built on a generous plan because the city had no plan. They could incorporate interior courtyards planted with fruit trees and herbs, they could surround themselves with gardens and orchards, they could sparkle not with gold and silver but the glinting of sunlight on water in internal fountains. Spartan homes could have windows that let in the light and they might have decorated their homes, as they did themselves, with things of nature: cut flowers, bowls of fruits, running water. Such things are transient; they rarely leave an archeological record.

Spartan homes would have had views like this from the windows. Who needs wall paintings? Photo by Auhthor
Sparta, far from being a “stinking village” full of pigsties and mud-huts as modern novelists portray it, was a city – as Pausanias describes -- full of marble monuments, pure Doric temples, sun-soaked theaters and imposing stoas. It was a city with large villas set in blooming gardens. And it was a city where the barracks and civic buildings were interspersed between sunny open spaces set aside for running, ball-games and horse-racing. It was a city decorated with fountains and flowering trees. In short, it was a city much as we would plan one today.

The Sparta of my novels is this attractive city rather than the "stinking village" of Pressfield.


 

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Farwell to Lacedaemon - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

In remembering the stand of Leonidas, the Three Hundred and the Thespeians at Thermopylae, we often forget the impact of their loss on those who loved them. 
In this excerpt from “A Heroic King” Leonidas’ daughter and wife face his impending departure.



Agiatis was sitting at the end of the pier, clutching her knees and holding her face down on top of them. Gorgo eased herself down beside her daughter and pulled Agiatis into her arms.

“Why?” Agiatis burst out instantly, coming up for air, then burying her face again, this time in her mother’s lap to wail like a little child.

Gorgo held her close. Agiatis’ sobbing shook her whole body and her tears soaked through Gorgo’s skirts. Gorgo started to rock back and forth in an age-old gesture of motherly love. “Hush, sweetheart, hush.”

“But why does he have to do it? Doesn’t he love us even a little? Why does Sparta always have to come first? Why?”

“Oh, sweetheart! Do you really not see?” Gorgo was genuinely surprised by her daughter’s misunderstanding. “This isn’t about Sparta at allit is about us.”

“Then let Leotychidas die! No one would even miss him!”

“Of course not, but no one would follow him, either,” Gorgo reminded her daughter.

“The army has to!” Agiatis spat back furiously. “He’s a king, too!”

“Many of our citizens think he’s not. They think Demaratus is the rightful king. And even if they obeyed Leotychidas out of respect for our laws, the Confederation would notand so everyone would fight alone and would be defeated alone, and then the Persians would keep coming, unstoppable, to destroy us.”

Agiatis sat upright, revealing her puffy, red face. She wiped her running nose on the back of her armas if she were four rather than fourteenand argued, “But if Leotychidas were killed fighting up north, then Dad could lead the defense here successfully, because the prophecy would already be fulfilled.”

“Oh, sweetheart, why do you think Leotychidas would die just because he went north? He is far more likely to accept a Persian bribe or just run away. And if he’s not Sparta’s rightful king, then even his death would not appease Zeus. Either way, your father would be left to rally what is left of our forces in a hopeless situation, and his life would still be forfeitor we would be destroyed. Maybe both. Surely you see that he needs to make his sacrifice militarily meaningful to ensure his death brings us safety and freedom?”

Agiatis stared at her mother stubbornly, unwilling to admit that she could see her mother’s point. Gorgo understood her silence, and pulled her daughter back into her arms to hold her. They clung to each other for a few moments in silence; then Gorgo loosed her hold a little to stroke her daughter’s soft, slender arms and comb her tangled, tear-wet hair out of her face. “Agiatis, you have to apologize to your father.”

Agiatis didn’t answer, but she squirmed defiantly in Gorgo’s arms and shook her head. She pressed her face into Gorgo’s lap again.

“You have to,” Gorgo insisted gently but firmly, “not for his sakehe knows how much you love him, and he will forgive you whether you ask it of him or not. You have to go back and tell him how much you love him because if you don’t, you will hate yourself for the rest of your life.” Agiatis went dead still and Gorgo continued, “You do not want to live with the memory that the last words you said to your father before he died for you were, ‘I hate you.’”

“My last words were, ‘I’ll never forgive you. Never,’” Agiatis corrected her mother.

“Is that better? Is that what you want to remember as your last exchange with your father? Do you want your last memory of him to be his wounded face when you flung those words at him?”

Agiatis sat up again and looked straight at her mother. Tears were brimming in her eyes. “Oh, Mom, it’s not fair!”

That was too much for Gorgo. Her own throat was already cramping from trying to hold back tears, and suddenly she couldn’t anymore. She pulled Agiatis back into her arms and surrendered to her own emotions, sobbing almost as hard as her daughter had only a few moments earlier.

Gorgo’s self-indulgence did not last long. After a little while she drew back, wiped the tears from her face, and turned Agiatis to face her. “We have to pull ourselves together and make sure that your father’s last memories of us are comforting onesimages to warm and cheer him not only as he marches into battle, but into the darkness of the underworld itself.”

This time Agiatis nodded. In fact, she took a deep breath and announced, “You’re right, Mom. We will. We will be better than Andromache for Hektor, because there are two of usand Dad’s going to win. Sparta isn’t going to fall like Troy. You will never be a foreign prince’s slave, and no Persian will rape me and make me serve him like a whore! And no one would dare mutilate Dad’s corpse, because the Guard will defend it and bring it home, and he will be buried right here on the banks of the Eurotas he loved. And we’ll put up a monument to him, like the one over Kastor’s grave, and we’ll visit him there, and talk to him, and tell him how happy we are. How good Lakrates is to mehe is a good man, isn’t he?”

“He’s a delightful young man,” Gorgo assured her. “With a wonderful sense of humor, as well as being a brilliant armed runner and javelin thrower.”

Agiatis nodded, satisfied. “All right. Then we’d better go fix ourselves up so Dad can’t tell we’ve been crying.”

“Exactly,” Gorgo agreed. They helped each other up and, hand in hand, walked down the pier and headed back for the house.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Come and Take Them!

In honor of those who died at Thermopylae

Modern Monument to Leonidas at Thermopylae
The following is an excerpt from a longer poem written by Simonides about the Battle of Thermopylae in English translation:



Of those who died

at Thermopylae,

glorious is the fortune,

fair is the fate.

Their grave is an altar.

Instead of lamentation,

they have remembrance,

for pity they have praise.

Such a shroud

neither mold

nor all-subduing time

can make obscure.

This shrine of noble men

chose the good reputation of Greece

as its inhabitant.

Leonidas also bears witness,

king of Sparta,

who left behind a great adornment

of valor and ever-flowing fame.

The Hot Springs Today


 The Monument to the Thespian 700



The Pass as it is Today

The Battle of Thermopylae is described in detail in "A Heroic King":

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