Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Graduation: An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

Spartan life was marked by rituals of transition -- from boy to youth, from youth to manhood and military service, and from active service to "retirement." When men joined the reserves they were just 31 years old, however, and -- as I pointed out in the entry at the start of this month -- they had many options for pursuing a career in the administration of the Spartan state. 
In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," Leonidas and his friends have just turned over their shields to graduating eirenes, thereby symbolizing that they have left the active army, the life in the barracks, for the life of a "full-citizen," living on their estates and serving Sparta in other ways.

The names were being read out. Gorgo watched her uncles turn over a shield to an eirene one after the other, still wishing she were out there in the square rather than wandering around on the fringes of the crowd feeling superfluous. She was so on the edge, in fact, that she did not even notice when the last name was read out.

Suddenly everyone was cheering, and then the whole crowd burst out into the Ode to Kastor. Gorgo noted that an old man nearby was weeping openly, though she couldn't know why. Memories of his own youth? Joy for a son or grandson? Or mourning for a youth who hadn't made it? There were always one or two of those: boys who were killed in accidents, youths who committed serious breaches of the rules and were forced to repeat a year, and -- increasingly -- young men whose families could not pay their agoge fees and so were forced to drop out. 

The crowd was breaking up, dispersing. Younger boys were running to join their families, swept into the arms of mothers and sisters. Youths were going off in groups  or swaggering proudly in front of younger siblings and admiring sisters. Young couples were disappearing around the corners into the darkness. Gorgo felt like going back to the palace and curling up in the straw beside her mare and hound, as she had done when she was a little girl.

"Gorgo! What are you doing? Come here!" The voice cut through her misery, and she looked up to see her Uncle Leo waving to her. He was with his friends, of course, and he was smiling, even though his tone was admonishing. As she joined his little group, he put his arm around her and drew her into his circle, asking in a low voice, "Is something wrong? You look so unhappy?"

"I'm just jealous," Gorgo admitted. "I wish girls got to go through the agoge and graduate like that in public."

One of Leo's friends laughed outright, and another shook his head and remarked, "Believe me, it's not as fun as it looks!"

But Uncle Leo seemed to understand.  He said, "You're right. At least in other Greek cities girls are the center of attention at their weddings, but we don't ever celebrate you, do we?"

"Better less celebration and more freedom," one of the women in the little crowd noted rather sharply.

"Of course," the other woman agreed, then smiled at Gorgo and added, "but what would be wrong with both? I'm Hilaira, by the way," she introduced herself to Gorgo, and the others introduced themselves as well. Gorgo noted the names of Leonidas' friends Alkander and Sperchias and Euryleon.  The latter suggested they go to the banks of the Eurotas, where the cattle had been roasting for hours, and join the feast. Since the other men were with their wives and Leo had none, Gorgo naturally fell in beside him. He chatted with her, asking about Jason and Shadow as if she were still a little girl, but that was better than being left out.

She asked him, "What are you going to do now that you're in the reserves?"

"I'm going to work in the agoge," Leo announced.

"Leo! You can't do that to us!" Euryleon protested, stopping dead in his tracks and gaping at his enomotarch.

"I can and I have. I informed Diodoros this morning."

"Leo! You're mad!" Sperchias exclaimed.

"Why? You want a career in civil administration or diplomacy, not the army! Why is wrong form me to want something similar?"

"Because you're a good officer, Leo -- and an Agiad."

"What does that have to do with anything? Kyranios himself said that war was the failure of diplomacy. You do a good job as a diplomat, Chi, an we won't need a strong army."

"I'm not a diplomat yet, and the minute we lose the capacity to fight better than anyone else, the Messenians and Argives will crush us."

"We'll have a strong army whether I'm in it or not. Now let's enjoy the food," Leonidas ordered, and the others knew better than to try to argue with him when he was in one of his mulish moods, as he obviously was.

Gorgo wasn't sure what to think, except that she wanted her uncle to be happy. Maybe he was right and he would be happier outside the army, but only, she thought, if he could do good for Lacedaemon.  Uncle Leo was more  like her father than he -- or her father -- liked to admit.  Behind his facade of humility, he was actually very ambitious. What was  more, she realized with a kind of awed surprise -- even more than her father, he cared about Sparta, not just himself. 

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Public Administration - Sparta's Hidden Strength

As everyone with even a cursory knowledge of Sparta knows, Spartan citizens were professional soldiers. Spartiates trained for war in the agoge, they spent the first ten years of their adult lives (ages 21-30) on what amounted to “active duty,” and the next thirty years of their lives in the ancient equivalent of the reserves. Not only this, but, we are told, Spartiates were prohibited from learning and pursing other professions and so there were no potters and no carpenters, no shipwrights and no smiths among Spartan citizens.  These undisputed facts have led most people to see Spartan citizens as soldiers only, ignoring the fact that despite their life-long service in the military, Spartan citizens could in fact be much more than soldiers. They were also the administrators of a large, prosperous and exceptionally complex state.

In the 5th Century BC, Lacedaemon stretched from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea and had an estimated population of 60,000 or more. It had at least three classes of inhabitants (helots, perioikoi and Spartiates). It had a public school – unlike any other city of its age. It had a great number of public festivals with complex rituals involving choral, dance and athletic competitions. It successfully competed in the pan-hellenic games. It pursued extensive diplomacy throughout the then known world. And all this in addition to pursuing a brutal war that dragged out over generations in the second half of the fifth and early fourth century.  In short, Sparta was a highly sophisticated society, which could not have been managed by two bickering kings, 28 men in their dotage and five amateurs elected for a single year.  Sparta’s centuries of pre-eminence in the ancient world – and its reputation for good governance and order – can only be explained by hypothesizing a well-functioning administration that kept Sparta’s institutions operating.

This logical conclusion is supported by various sources which make oblique reference to ill-defined dignitaries that evidently supported the known institutions of the Spartan state. For example, the Paidonomos and his assistants, priests, “magistrates,” and “heralds.”  While there is no explicit evidence (except with respect to the Paidonomos) that these positions were filled by Spartiates, it is unlikely that the Spartans would have entrusted the education of their children, their relationship with the Gods, communication with the enemy or the enforcement of their laws to perioikoi, much less helots.  In short, there were many tasks and responsibilities in addition to soldiering that must have been performed by full-citizens after they went off active duty. 

Let’s start with the agoge.  Although Xenophon and others speak only of “the” Paidagogos, as if one man alone controlled the entire agoge, such a notion is illogical.  We know that effective education requires low ratios of instructors to pupils, and even taking into account an age cohort of eirenes providing a degree of internal discipline each year, it is not credible that there were no other agoge officials.  It is far more likely, given the size and importance of the agoge to Spartan society, that there was a relatively large college of instructors, or at least Deputy and Assistant Paidagogoi, maybe the Mastigophoroi. Admittedly, these are usually portrayed as a bunch of whip-wielding thugs, but it is more probable, given the complexity of Spartan education, that they were responsible and respected educators.

Descriptions of Spartan life suggest a variety of other activities that would also have been performed by Spartan citizens if not “professionally” then, nevertheless, with the conscientiousness expected of full or part-time public servants.  For example, Sparta was famous for its choruses and dance performances. Anyone who has engaged in either activity knows that large groups of people cannot be brought to perform harmoniously together without someone choreographing, directing, and conducting. Sparta undoubtedly had chorus masters, and it is seems highly unlikely that choral and dance masters would have been drawn from the ranks of the helots or perioikoi.  Just as with the agoge instructors, it is far more probable that these were adult citizens.

We also know that the Spartan kings kept records and maintained archives.  Control of such delicate material as oracles from Delphi, communication between the kings and their permanent representatives, correspondence between the ephors and commanders in the field or ambassadors to foreign capitals would hardly have been entrusted to anyone but Spartiates.  In all probability, therefore, there was at least one “archivist” for each royal house, and this position was probably filled by a Spartiate, who was either appointed or elected. He probably had deputies and assistants as well.

Then there is the issue of taxation. Taxation was particularly important in Sparta because citizenship itself depended on paying two kinds of tax: the agoge fees when immature, and the syssitia fees after attaining citizenship.  Someone had to keep track of who paid how much, and they had to do that each and every month.  Maybe each syssitia had a part time “treasurer” to keep track of fees, but the agoge was large and would have required at least one (and probably more) full-time “treasurers.” It is not credible that perioikoi would have been entrusted with control of records that revealed (and in part determined) the strength of the citizen body and so the army in future generations. 

Furthermore, taxes also had to be collected from the helots and perioikoi.  Spartiates who collected too much from their helots were subject to sanctions, so someone – and it had to be one of their peers – must have been keeping track of how much was due and how much collected.  Even if not explicit, it is also fair to assume that the perioikoi were subject to taxation, just as metics in Athens. Again, an institutionalized means of assessing and collecting those taxes would have been necessary to ensure everything functioned properly, and -- at least until Sparta’s population decline became critical -- such an apparatus would have been headed by Spartiates.  Given the size and expanse of Lacedaemon, my guess is there would have been many more than one citizen engaged in tax collection!

Once taxes were collected, they had to be put to work, so we come next to the business of financial management.  Sparta would have needed some mechanism to allocate funding to various state expenditures.  Money was needed for the army, of course, but also for the fleet, and for public works like roads and fountains and drainage systems and for public buildings from temples to theaters, and monuments to barracks. Managing such projects requires full-time public servants committed to ensuring that the intentions of the state (as expressed, one assumes, by the Assembly via the ephors) are fulfilled and that funds are not allocated incorrectly.

And finally there was the Spartan army.  Friend and foe alike admired the Spartan army not only for its relatively good performance on the battlefield but also for its organization and professionalism.  Yet as most soldiers will tell you, an army’s effectiveness is not simply a matter of fighting capacity. A good army is well fed, well equipped, and well-supplied. It has effective command-and-control mechanisms, efficient lines of communication, as well as adequate and flexible transport.   A good army has a medical corps and, in centuries past, good veterinarians as well. In short, there is a great deal more to creating an effective fighting force than drill with weapons.  Sparta’s army must have had not just good soldiers and officers, but good quartermasters as well.

While all these various positions were “honorary” in the sense that they were without remuneration, they were nevertheless jobs requiring considerable time, energy, dedication and skill. Spartiates may not have earned a living from these jobs, since they all had their estates, but they probably viewed their performance in such jobs as honorable public service. Whether elected or appointed, ambitious Spartiates would undoubtedly have competed for these positions, and a man's performance in such public service would have contributed to his reputation and prestige. Men in these positions would in turn have been influential, becoming part of the complex network of “leading” citizens that helped shape Spartan policy behind the scenes.  

There is nothing sinister about this. It happens in every society – including our own.

The diverse occupations of adult Spartiates is reflected in the latter two books of the Leonidas trilogy:



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