Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Day at the Olympics -- An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I talked about Sparta's very successful athletes and Sparta's many victories in the Olympics. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," Leonidas and his friends attend the Olympic games -- as spectators.

The boxing was scheduled for immediately after the dolichos, the long-distance race in which the runners had to run twenty-four lengths of the stadium. It was always hard to guess how long the dolichos would last, and since it was a rather boring event, many spectators skipped it to secure better seats for the boxing. The bulk of the Spartan spectators chose this option, because they had no strong entrant in the dolichos but were hoping Cleombrotus would give them a victory in the boxing. Leonidas, however, declared his intention to go to the dolichos.

"But if we go there, we'll never get a good seat for the boxing!" Sperchias protested.

"Why should I fight half of Greece for a place from which to watch my brother beat someone up? I can see that in Sparta without any trouble any day of the week." 

Sperchias opened his mouth three times to find an answer, and finally settled on, "But the dolichos is so boring."

"Not really. You go ahead to the boxing, if  you like."

Sperchias and Euryleon wordlessly followed Leonidas. They joined a small contingent of other Spartans, friends of the one Spartan competitor, Oliantus. No one really thought the young man, who was in the age-cohort ahead of Leonidas, had much of a changce against the Corinthian Aristeas or the Athenians, who were rumored to have not one but two outstanding runners, Pheidippides and Eukles.

Leonidas and his friends made themselves comfortable partway down the slope beside the stadium.  These were not the best seats, but their interest was only moderate. Below them was a large crowd of rowdy Athenians, who at the moment were divided into two factions that were shouting insults at one another. It was hard to hear exactly what was being said, but it sounded as if some of the men invented little rhyming ditties that made rude remarks about their rival. These brought roars of approving laughter from their own faction and counter-insults from the other faction.

There was also a large Corinthian contingent, but this was more orderly, and the front-row seats near the finish line had been cordoned off. Only just before the start of the race did the men for whom these seats were reserved arrive in a small group, escorted by slaves. One man was even carried in on a litter, which the slaves set down so he could sit. The slaves then stood and held an awning over the spectators so they were shaded from the hot sun. Refreshments had evidently been brought as well.


The cheers around them grew in intensity. The runners were on their twenty-second lap. Just two more turns. The Spartan seemed to be gaining on the leaders, and the Spartan spectators were standing and cheering him by name. "Oliantus! Oliantus!" Leonidas was gald for him. He was a quiet, rather ugly man who hardly ever drew attention to himself. A conscientious soldier, Leonidas knew, who had been passed over for promotion every year. He felt it would only be fair if Oliantus won a surprise victory here -- and it served the rest of his countrymen right for preferring to secure seats for Brotus' fight rather than support the underdog. 


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sparta's Forgotten Athletes and Artists

Last month I discussed the many public services Spartiates fulfilled, and noted that Spartan society wasn’t quite as simple as it is often made out to be. Continuing that theme, I'd like to look at two other areas of Spartan excellence: sports and art.

The Race "in armor" was an event in the Ancient Olympics that the Spartans generally won.
The quality of Spartan athletes is attested by numerous Lacedaemonian victory dedications at the pan-hellenic sites. Stephen Hodkinson in his essay "An Agonistic Culture?" in Sparta: New Perspectives (Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell, eds, Duckworth, 1999) records over 62 known Olympic victories by Spartans in the period from 720 - 304 BC. Olympia was only one of four sacred, pan-Hellenic games; there were also games held regularly at Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth and Nemea. In order to compete abroad, Spartan athletes would have had to train, and compete, at home first.

But sport helped maintain physical fitness and so could be considered training for soldiering. The evidence of Spartiate sculptors is therefore more surprising and intriguing.

According to Conrad Stibbe in his excellent book Das Andere Sparta (Philipp von Zabern, 1996) no less than nine Lacedaemonian artists are known to have worked in Olympia alone. While the majority of these artists are described as Lacedaemonian, in two cases, Syadras and Chartas, the artists are explicitly referred to as Spartiate. While it is possible these were the only exceptions in Spartan history, it is more likely that they are the tip of the iceberg: the only surviving record over two and a half millennia of other nameless Spartiate artists. 

Arguably Sparta's most famous sculpture; dating from the early 5th century it is affectionately known as "Leonidas" -- although it is unlikely to actually depict him.

Strikingly, Stibbe notes that the known Lacedaemonian artists worked for other states as well as Lacedaemon. That means they were recognized as outstanding artists and worked professionally on commission, not just as amateur artists adorning their own city’s monuments. Four of the nine were said to be students of a famous Cretan sculptor, and several of them engaged apprentices from other cities. Clearly, artistic work at Olympia was “international” not parochial.

Stibbe also notes that the Lacedaemonian sculptors worked not only in stone but in wood, ivory, gold, and bronze. Ivory and gold were used predominantly to decorate wood and therefore even if fragments of ivory and gold are found it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the total work of art. As so often when trying to understand Sparta and Spartan society, we are hampered by a paucity of archeological evidence that may reflect an absence of original material, destruction of the archeological record in earthquakes and flooding, or simply inadequate archeological investigation. Troy, after all, was considered mythical or fictional for almost two thousand years, until one amateur fanatic revolutionized our understanding of the Mycenaean period by insisting on digging in a spot that was not previously investigated. The site of Sparta itself may have been investigated, but much of Lacedaemon has never been systematically subjected to serious archeological study and new discoveries in Sparta’s “outlying” cities and temples may yet yield significant new finds.

An Example of Spartan Bronze Work
An example of this kind of discovery is a particularly beautiful stone sculpture found on Samos that appears to be of Lacedaemonian origin. It portrays a hoplite with long braids (as worn at this time exclusively in Sparta) and with breast-spirals on the breastplate (also typical of Laconian hoplites in art). Although not yet 100% confirmed, the marble also appears to be Laconian. If this statute was indeed Lacedaemonian, it would represent a significant discovery documenting more of Sparta’s almost forgotten artistic golden age. 

Meanwhile, we should not ignore the plethora of smaller art objects from bronze vessels and jewellery to statuettes and figurines found at Spartan sanctuaries which record a thriving industry for domestic craftsmanship if not high art. These are well catalogued by Reinhard Foertsch in his article "Spartan Art: It's Many Deaths," in Sparta in Laconia: Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium, Dec. 1995 (Cavanagh, WG and S.E.C. Walker, eds.) The same publication contains an excellent article by Maria Pipili, "Archaic Laconian Vase-Painting," which highlights the sophistication and high quality of 6th Century Laconian pottery.

Altogether, archeological research suggests that art was more common and more valued in Sparta than is widely acknowledged today. Spartiates certainly bought works of art and dedicated art objects at their sanctuaries. The extent to which they engaged in production of art themselves will never be known but, as noted above with respect to the two sculptors, at least in some cases Spartans were professional artists.

In all my novels set in Sparta I attempt to convey the complexity and sophistication that this fascinating society displayed.



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