Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Feast of the Dioskouroi - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

We know very little about Spartan religious festivals -- except that they were taken seriously. We also know they were marked by choral and dance performances, by sports contests including chariot racing in which women drivers could participate, and sacrifices to the gods. 
In the following excerpt from "A heroic King" I have tried to construct a Spartan festival based on these fragments of information. In the novel this festival is being celebrated after a devastating epidemic has killed hundreds of school children and the city is only slowly recovering as the epidemic has burned itself out.

The Feast of the Dioskouria, in honor of the Divine Twins was one of Sparta's most sacred holidays. However, because it fell after the autumn equinox, when travel was uncertain, it was not well-known outside of Lacedaemon and rarely attended by strangers.  In consequence, it was more a domestic festival than the Hyacinthia, the Karneia, and the Gymnpaedia, but no less important in Spartan eyes. 

The Dioskouria traditionally followed the end of the Phouxir, and was an opportunity to celbrate the successful graduation of a class of little boys to the status of youths. It also anticipated the winter solstice, when a class of eirenes would graduate to citizen status. The five day holiday celebrated the important deeds of the Divine Twins and culminated in a torchlight sacrifice at Kastor's Tomb, conducted by the reigning kings. Events included singing and dancing to mark the birth of the twins and their sister Helen, equestrian events in honor of Kastor, boxing to honor Polydeukes, and a day-long boar hunt culminating in an outdoor feast on the banks of the Eurotas. Throughout the holiday, special pear pastries and pear cider were consumed in large quantities. All in all, the Dioskouria was one of the Sparta's most pleasant festivals.


The third day of the Dioskouria commemorated the participation of the Dioskouroi in Herakles' hunt of the dangerous Kalydonian boar. The central event was a boar hunt led by the kings and guard, in which (theoretically) every able-bodied Spartan male participated. As citizen numbers had grown over the years, however, such a hunting party became unwieldy. Nowadays, many citizens, particularly the older men who felt they couldn't keep up with the Guard, went off in small groups to hunt on their own. The objective was to bring in as much game as possible to lay on the altar of the Divine Twins.  After the hearts and livers of the game had been given to the Divine Twins, what was left of the carcasses was taken down to the Eurotas and the meat roasted over open fires for a collective feast.


The equestrian events on the fourth day of the Dioskouria included horse and chariot racing. One of the favorite events was a two-horse chariot race in which Spartan maidens drove light chariots in competition. Over the years it had become customary for the sweethearts of the maiden charioteers to gallop alongside their favorite's team, cheering and urging on the horses. Gorgo had hated the event because she didn't have a sweetheart, and though she was sure she could have won the race itself, she was ashamed to advertise her lack of popularity by competing.


The [final] choral performance struck a chord with the audience in a rare way. Somehow Euryleon had put together a program that acknowledged and honored the dead, but at the same time focused on new life. The story of Kastor was well suited to that, of course, and yet not every choral master could have pulled it off.  The audience was given a chance to mourn, and Leonidas heard more than one person sobbing in the darkness behind him. Even Gorgo clutched his hand more tightly and dabbed at her eyes with her other.  But then the maiden chorus came down the aisles of the amphitheater, singing lyrics about Helen guided home from Troy by the stars of her brothers in the night sky. Each girl was carrying an oil lamp and when they met in the center of the stage, they joined their lamps together to light a larger fire. They formed a circle and started to dance around it, soon joined by young men. The song was joyous, and the dancers, followed by the audience, started to clap in time. At the end, the audience broke out into thunderous applause.

Gorgo leaned to her husband to shout in his ear over the cheering, "Do you think they really have anything in Athens that can beat that?"

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Impact of Spartan Piety on the Spartan Army

According to Herodotus, in 490 BC Sparta agreed to send troops to assist Athens repel the Persian forces at Marathon, but said they “could not take the field until the moon was full.” Since the Spartans did respond vigorously when the time came, historians have puzzled for millennia about why exactly the Spartans “could not take the field.” 

There have been persistent attempts to find evidence of a helot revolt, for example, and W. P. Wallace (“Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35) came up with a theory of Arkadian discontent and intrigues. I myself have suggested a command crisis, which I explained in detail in my blog entry on Sparta and Marathon. Yet the bottom line is that all these theories are essentially the product of dissatisfaction with the notion of a religious festival. 

However, we ought to admit to ourselves that we know very little about Spartan religious festivals. Most especially, we do not how they affected the readiness of the Spartan army. The assumption that a religious festival might delay departure of the army simply because of pious scruples may be entirely wrong.

What if, for example, the Spartan Army was given leave during religious festivals, or reduced to a skeleton of “duty officers” for each unit? Such a procedure would be perfectly normal in most societies because religious festivals, in all cultures over all times, are fundamentally family occasions. Why should Sparta have been any different? The very fact that there is no mention of how “odd” the Spartans were in this regard suggests that their behavior conformed to that of other Greeks and so elicited no comment.

If, as elsewhere, religious holidays in Sparta were celebrated in the family, then most likely the young men were exempt from sleeping in barracks and all men exempt from dining at their messes. Again, the fact that this is not explicitly mentioned is no evidence that it was not the case. There is no mention of men being exempt from duty and collective dining to participate in the Olympic Games either, but Spartan athletes were very prominent at the Olympics and they had to train in Elis for a month before the events just like all the other competitors. Likewise, Spartan spectators at the Games could not be eating and sleeping in Sparta while they were at Olympia. In short, the rules about living in barracks and eating at the messes were for “ordinary” days. The Olympics, war, and, arguably, religious festivals were “extraordinary” or “exceptional” days.

We know, further, that Spartans all had at least a state kleros, while wealthier Spartans had more extensive estates. Without knowing the yield of an acre of land using contemporary agricultural methods, I have no way of estimating just how large a kleros would have been, and without know how large each kleros was, I cannot estimate how many could have been located within easy walking/riding distance of Sparta’s barracks and messes. However, I think it is fair to say that not all 8,000 – 9,000 kleroi could have been within easy reach of the heart of Sparta. It is far more likely, that many kleroi were more than a half-day away from Sparta. Some may even have been located in Messenia, on the far side of Taygetos, or on Kythera. Reaching these estates to check up on things and to collect rents would have taken Spartans away from Sparta for days on end.

The requirement to be present in Sparta most of the time, meant that most of the time the estates were left in the hands of helots, perioikoi overseers or wives. Yet the fact that Spartiates were absent from their estates most of the time only reinforces the need for them to be present some of the time. Particularly if Spartiate/Helot relations were as bad as most commentators suggest, no Spartan would have risked leaving his kleros entirely in the hands of his helots or even perioikoi overseers. It would have been essential for every Spartiate to periodically check up on things at his kleros or risk having it so mismanaged that he could not meet his syssitia (and, if he had sons, agoge) fees. If a kleros was left to a wife, the desire to visit periodically would have been even greater, particularly if she had the couple’s young children with her.

In short, Spariates would have periodically traveled to their distant kleroi and while doing so they would have been excused both from their military duties and exempted from eating at their syssitia. Probably, any man could apply for leave to go to his estates whenever he felt it necessary. Possibly, it was traditional for men to go to their estates during holidays, when men were given leave to be with their families in any case.

For the wealthier Spartiates from the so-called “better” families, the 400-500 families that made up Sparta’s elite, the need to visit estates would have been even more acute than for the poorest with only one kleros. The elite would have had multiple estates to look after, not to mention horse-farms, kennels, orchards etc. They would have needed to be away from Sparta more often than the others as a result. And it was this elite that, at least in the later years of the 5th century BC, occupied most of the positions of authority and power in the Spartan state.

So if I am right and many citizens spent major (particularly long) holidays like the Karneia at their estates, then Pheidippides may have arrived in a Sparta when the army was dispersed and the commanders scattered about Lacedaemon on their distant estates. The ephors would have needed to recall at least the members of the Gerousia and the officers of the army as well as cancel leave for those units they wanted to send to Athens. The ephors could, I suspect, calculate pretty accurately how long it would take messengers to reach the lochagoi and other senior officers, and how long they would need to call up their troops and get them ready to march. That time frame alone – and nothing so impenetrable as piousness, helot revolts, foreign policy considerations, or even command uncertainties – might have determined the earliest possible day on which the Spartan army was able to march out for Marathon. 

In my novel, A Heroic King, I hypothesize an different reason for the delay, also plausible.