Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Thermopylae Day Three - An Excerpt

Thermopylae - Day Three
An Excerpt from 
A Heroic King


 "My lord!" the helot wailed form a hundred feet away. "My lord! They broke! The Phocians broke! The Immortals are coming down the track! The Phoecians broke!"

The boy reached him, sobbing for breath and from terror. "I tried, my lord. I swear! But in the dark, I lost the track! By the time I reached the Phocian position, the Immortals were already upon them." Leonidas just stared at the helot youth. He ws covered with cuts an scratches. The soles of his feet were raw, his hands bleeding. If he had wanted, he could have just disappeared into the mountains -- without warning the Phocians -- let alone bringing word to him here. No one would have ever known. "You can kill me if you want, my lord, but I wanted you to know...."

Leonidas nodded numbly. They were all going to die. Today.

It had always been a possibility. He had taken that risk. Now it was a certainty. Chi, Euryleon, didn't I tell you you wouldn't have long to wait? Buy why Alkander, too? Why Oliantus? Why Maron and Alpheus?

The camp was waking up to a new day. Gylis' approach had attracted the attention of other. Men started to converge on Leonidas. Men were asking Megistias what was wrong, what the signs had been. Isanor was beside him. 'Do we need to reinforce the Phocians?"

Leonidas shook his head. "It's too late. The Immortals have broken through."

"What? And the Phocians didn't even send for us?"

"They were asleep," Gylis gasped out, still panting, "caught sleeping. I don't think they--"

Demophilus arrived with several other allied commanders. "What has happened? What's the matter?"

"The deserter was telling the truth," Leonidas told them.

They stared at him blankly for a second. Then Demophilus echoed Isanor: "Then we must reinforce at once. I'll have my Thespians--"

"There's no need, Demophilus." Leonidas was utterly calm. In his heart, he was already dead, and that made it easier..  "The Phocians broke. The Immortals are already in our rear. The Pass has been turned. We must send word to Themistocles at once."  Leonidas was looking around for the helot boy who had brought him the ram, while around him the other commanders were cursing and questioning, doubting and denying. "Boy!" Leonidas had caught sight of him. "Fetch me the captain of the Athenian tiaconter at once!"

"We must withdraw immediately!" The Corinthian demanded, seconded by the Mantineans and Tegeans and some of the Arkadians.

"Cowards!" Demophilus countered furiously. "The Pass is still defensible -- we just have to defend both ends! We can hold the West Gate as we have up to now with a thousand men, and put another thousand inside the East Gate."

"Yes, exactly!" the Theban supported him.

"What? All of us crushed together between the two Gates? We have nothing to eat in there! Nowhere to rest! No fresh water!"

Leonidas was thinking it through for himself. If they had two thousand men fighting at any one time, every man would be on the line every other hour. They might hold out for one day, but not the four they needed. He raised his hand, and the others fell silent at once.

"The bulk of the army should withdraw at once. The Immortals will close off your retreat in a matter of hours. You must pull out now and put as much distance between yourselves and Thermopylae as possible -- enough so the Persian cavalry can't overtake you. Abandon everything you can't carry."

His words were met with stunned silence. No one had ever expected the Spartan king to order a withdrawal. But after they recovered from their shock, the Arkadian commanders did not wait to be told twice. The Corinthians and Mantineans were close at their heels. Isanor, Demophilus, and the Theban Leontiades, however, didn't move. They stared at Leonidas, horrified, until Demophilus asked softly, "What about you? What about the Lacedaemonians?"

Leonidas felt weak, yet detached. His emotions were numbed. Kastor had told him he would know when his time had come. It had come. "Someone has to hold the Pass long enough to give the rest of you timem to withdraw. Otherwise, as I said, the Persian cavalry will overtake and slaughter you in the open, where you won't have a chance."

"But you have a city you can defend," Demophilus countered with dignity. "We do not. My Thespians will hold Thermopylae. Take the Lacedaemonians south so they can fight in the days and weeks ahead."

Leonidas was moved by the offer. He reached out his hand in gratitude, and Demophilus too it. "You did your best, Leonidas," the Thespian continued. "No one but you could have held them this long. But if Thermophylae is lost, so is Thespiae. We have no home to return to. We might as well die here."

"And so will we," Leontiades spoke for the Thebans as well.

Dienekes and Diodoros ran up. "The allies are spreading rumors and threatening to pull out!" Dienekes announced in evident outrage.

Leonidas shook his head. "They are under orders to pull out--"

"What?"

"The Phocians broke. The Immortals are just hours away from closing off the road south. I've given the order to withdraw."

Diodoros and Dienekes gaped at him, while Kalliteles and Oliantus trotted up. "Sir! Have you heard? The allies are packing up and pulling out. It's total panic out there! We must...." He fell silent and looked at the stunned, lifeless faces of the men standing around his commander. "What is it?"

This time Diodoros provided the explanation. Leonidas was staring at Oliantus."I'm sorry," he mouthed. "I'm so sorry."

"What are you waiting for, Leonidas?" Demophilus urged. "There is very little time. Take your Lacedaemonians out, and we'll make the Persians fight for the Pass and pay dearly for each of us. We'll delay them as long as humanly possible."

"There's no hurry," Leonidas answered with a glance toward the sun, which was now a copper disk already a hand's breadth above the horizon. "I'm not going anywhere -- and whether I like it nor not, my Spartans are not going to abandon me."

"You're damned right, we're not!" Dienekes confirmed.

"That doesn't apply to the Perioikoi," Leonidas pointed out, turning to Isanor. "Take all your men, the helots, and Megistias back to Lacedaemon."

Isanor hesitated. "We're still over eight hundred strong, my lord. We'd almost double your force."

Leonidas was shaking his head. "Whether we're one thousand or five thousand, we're about to be crushed. Take the Perioikoi home with my blessings -- I'll put it in writing if you like, to ensure no one at home tries to twist facts.  I'll also send a messenger to Brotus and Leotychidas to halt the march north of the Isthmus. Have we got a good long-distance runner?" Leonidas looked automatically to Oliantus.

"Yes, I have two runners we can send."

"Good. I'll write and seal the dispatches. And pass the word to the Spartiates," he added to Diodoros, Dienekes, and Kalliteles, "to eat a hearty breakfast, as we'll be dining in Hades." 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Hero of Thermopylae - A Look at Leonidas' Legacy

No Spartan has left a larger footprint in history and art than Leonidas. Not the commander of the Spartan army that actually defeated the Persians, Pausanias, nor the Spartan that eventually defeated Athens after the gruesome thirty-years war, Lysander, are half so well remembered .  Lycurgus and Chilon are familiar names only to classical scholars; Leonidas is a cult and comic-book hero, not to mention there is a chocolate company named for him.



Leonidas was, of course, a legend in his own time. The Spartans built him a monument at Thermopylae, notably separate from the monument to the rest of the 300, and a second monument was built to him at home in Sparta as well. His body was brought home after the Persians had been driven out of Greece.  But, unless it is an accident of archeology, larger monuments were built to the victors Pausanias and Lysander than to Leonidas.  In short, Leonidas’ appeal appears to have been greater in the modern world than the ancient. This might have many explanations – starting with the political agenda of his successors (or those who controlled his immature son) or discomfort with commemorating a devastating defeat.  The modern world, perhaps influenced by the Christian tradition of honoring sacrifice, is impressed by Leonidas’ defiance and devotion to duty more than his defeat.

There is also a modern tendency to assume that Leonidas’ behavior was “typical,” that he was indeed only doing what Spartan society expected of him, or acting “in accordance with the law.” This assumes that Spartans were “never” allowed to retreat and always chose death over either retreat or surrender.  The Spartans, of course, knew better. 

Sparta had suffered many severe defeats before Thermopylae, and in no other did an entire fighting force die to the last man for a lost cause. For example, there is good reason to believe that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and it was ensuing economic and social dislocation that led to unrest and revolution.  Certainly, Sparta was given a resounding thrashing by the Argives at Hysiai in 669 BC, but even so the Spartans retreated rather than die to the last man.  Roughly one hundred years later, Sparta again over-reached herself in an attempt to conquer Tegea, and again there were survivors; they were enslaved in Tegea and forced to do agricultural labor for Tegean masters. In 525 BC, a Spartan expedition against Samos likewise ended in humiliating defeat, but not the extermination of the expeditionary force.  Finally, in the reign of Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes, a Spartan force under Anchimolius was attacked by Thessalian cavalry 1000 strong at Phalerum, and, according to Herodotus, “many Lacedaemonians were killed…and the survivors driven back to their ships.”  Note, again, the survivors were driven back to their ships, which they presumably boarded and used to return to Lacedaemon. There is not a word about dying to the last man.

Nor did “death rather than surrender” become the standard for future Spartan commanders after Thermopylae. The history of the Peloponnesian war is littered with Spartan defeats; none were massacres.  Even in the infamous case of 120 Spartiates trapped on the island of Sphakteria, the record shows that they surrendered and were taken off into (brutal!) Athenian captivity.  Nor were they written off by an indignant population as cowards, "tremblers" or otherwise disgraced and worthless.  Had they been so viewed, Sparta would not have sued for peace and made serious concessions to Athens to have them returned. Even their collective degradation from full-citizen status on their return is not indicative of disapproval of surrender. On the contrary, it more likely reflects fear that men who had been in Athens for almost four years might have become subverted (brainwashed, is the Cold War term) by Athenian democracy.  After an unknown period, they were collectively reinstated, and some even ran for public office. That would not have been possible, if the majority of Spartans had felt they should have committed suicide rather than surrender.

Leonidas’ legacy was not one of blind, mindless self-sacrifice. His example was one of devotion to duty, even unto death, for a good cause.  Leonidas did not die for the sake of dying – much less take his comrades with him to a senseless death.  He had clear military objectives that he hoped to achieve by his last stand: 1) giving the other Greek contingents time to withdraw and live to fight another day, and 2) increasing Persian respect for/fear of Spartans.  Once the pass at Thermopylae was turned, Leonidas knew the Persian army would advance unopposed into Central Greece. He could not know where it would next be confronted by land-forces, but he must have feared that it might sweep through Central Greece to the Isthmus of Corinth. He must have feared that Sparta might find herself virtually alone facing the onslaught.  Anything he could do to make Xerxes hesitate to take on a Spartan army must have seemed worthwhile.  That is a legacy worth preserving.

Last but not least, as a devout Spartan, Leonidas undoubtedly believed he had to fulfill the Delphic Oracle. He knew he had to die, if Sparta was to be saved. In that sense, he was from the start a sacrificial lamb, but not until the position at Thermopylae was betrayed, did his sacrifice inherently encompass defeat as well.  He probably hoped when he set out for Thermopylae that he could die in a victorious battle – or at least an indecisive one. He certainly hoped and expected that alive or dead his advance force over 6,000 strong could hold the Hot Gates until Sparta’s full army could reinforce the advance guard. 

When it became clear he would die in a hopeless situation, he tried to minimize the losses by ordering the withdrawal of the allied contingents (and almost certainly all the Perioikoi troops that would have been with him).  He even tried to save some of the Spartiates by giving them dispatches for delivery somewhere. They saw through him and refused. They refused out of loyalty, out of friendship, out of personal affection for Leonidas, both the man and the king. They did not act for military reasons but for personal ones. Yet their legacy too is worth honoring.


Sparta's culture and military ethos are a fundamental focus of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas.




    
       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

An Untenable Situation: An Excerpt

In my last entry, I discussed the importance of the Messenian War(s) in the creation of Sparta, noting that a lost war was far more likely to have provoked unrest, rebellion, and reform. Today, I present an excerpt from "Are They Singing in Sparta?" in which a young Spartiate describes the situation in Sparta to a young woman who had been sent to Athens for her safety by her father and is now on her way home. Euryanax represents the "revolutionaries" who supported Lycurgus and a change in the Spartan constitution.

The young Spartiate's expression was grim.  "The situation is--" he paused, clearly searching for the right word, "untenable. The Disinherited -- as they call themselves -- have become bolder and stronger and they stop at nothing to disrupt and threaten the security and stability of the City. They have even tried to incite the Messenians to revolt. Certainly, the lawless elements have all taken advantage of the situation and the poorest helots have nothing to lose anyway." He shook his head in apparent despair. "Nothing is sacred to desperate men and no one is safe from them."

"But there must be some way of pacifying them..." Alethea said softly. She so wanted to go home -- but home to the peaceful Laconia of her early childhood, not to an insecure Laconia ....

"Yes. Land."

"What?" 

"Land. They must be given back the land they lost. It is wrong that some men -- Aristodemos, your uncle Polymachos, my own father Leotychidas -- have estates larger than they can ride about in one day, and other men own nothing.  It is wrong that some men spend more money to feed their horses or their hounds than other men have to feed their families. It is wrong that some men have a thousand helots to do their bidding, and other men must sell their very bodies for enough to eat!"

Alethea had never heard a man talk with so much passion about injustice. She was fascinated and a little frightened too. "But there have always been rich and poor. And slaves."

"Why?" Euryanax challenged. "Why should any man have the right to treat another man -- or woman -- as a beast? Lycurgus has traveled all over the world and he says there are different laws and customs. There is no single way to make a city work. In Asia, the kings are considered gods and they rule without law, entirely at their whim and inclination. They have done so for generations. Does that make such a system right? Of course not! Something is not right just because our grandparents and their grandparents did it. Are we not men with minds and reason? with hearts and hands to change things? Are we not free to make our own laws? Why shouldn't we make new laws that are better than what has been before -- laws that are truly just?"

Why not indeed? Alethea asked herself excited. "But who would do the work if there were no slaves?"

"We must all work. Each man -- and woman -- must do what he -- or she -- is best at doing. Just as women are made to bear and rear children, men are made to fight and protect them. That is the most basic of all human distinctions -- but does it make the man better than the woman? Is fighting to protect his offspring better or more important than feeding and nurturing them? Of course not!

"In the same way, there is nothing nobler about planting a field than tending a flock of sheep. Both tasks are essential. Wouldn't you agree?"

Alethea nodded vigorously.

"All people who contribute to a society should be treated with equal respect and should recognize their own dependence on the contributions and labor of others."

"But then--" Alethea started, but bit her tongue confused. At home, she had always spoken her mind, but Euryanax was a man of a different family.

"Yes?" Euryanax prompted, looking directly at her with an alert, tense expression.

"I -- I  was just going to say that a woman, who can produce something as useful and necessary as a length of cloth should be respected too."

"Of course!" Euryanax agreed enthusiastically. "Of course! That's just my point."

Alethea was thinking of Xenokrateia sitting at her loom day after day, making virtually everything her husband wore, and her only reward was her husband's contempt for her uselessness.

"Look," Euryanax was continuing, "if I need a pair of sandals, then what right have I to look down on the man who makes them for me? If I wear a chiton or himation with pride," he held out his arms to show the very fine cloth he was indeed wearing, "then I should admire the man -- or woman -- who clothed me! It's not the cobbler alone who makes my shoes, but the tanner who made the leather, and the herdsman who kept the cows and the butcher who slaughtered and skinned the carcass.

"Wealth is the source of all injustice because it allows those with too much to take advantage of those with too little! What we need to do is give everyone the same amount of land and then make them wear the same clothes and eat the same things and then the only things that will distinguish between them is their character. A fool will no longer be able to buy votes nor an embezzler to bride the jury. An ugly man will no longer be able to hide behind silk and gold to seduce women away from better men."

Alethea timidly ventured to point out that Euryanax' father was one of the wealthiest men in Laconia. 

"My father has stolen from the poor! He has literally thrown starving women and children out of the pitiable huts they lived in. He has been so merciless that his own brother has broken with him. My uncle Leobotas won't speak to him or set foot in his house anymore."

So this was the Laconia she would return to: one in which the Unrest had become so terrible and the controversy about its causes and its cures so bitter it was tearing families apart.

Read more about the Messenian wars and the founding of Sparta in:



Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Making of Sparta

The road from Sparta to Messenia is through a dramatic pass.
Modern histories of Sparta tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without providing a great deal of detail.  The reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the early history), the literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous. Indeed, he describes Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us only in fragments, as the only "reliable" [sic!] literary source, while pointing out that the ancient sources Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.

Yet, arguably, nothing was more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a radically unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia.  W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire people resulted in a permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict with Messenia.

The facts of conquest which are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years. Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long as the conquest of Troy.  Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.

We also know that in the first quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to Lycurgus. (I know there has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the Spartan constitution, but I find W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan revolution to the period between 700 and 670 cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp. 55-58.)  Furthermore, we know that Sparta’s only colony was established at the turn or very end of the 8th Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.

Conventionally, these facts are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan reforms. The later, however, are usually seen as contemporary with Tyrataios and were, therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a revolt of some kind. So the -- allegedly brutally oppressed -- Messenians were capable of financing hoards of hoplites and fielding entire hoplite armies within just two generations.

This taxes my imagination. Periods of intense domestic unrest rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.

The history of modern revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly in a crisis that threatens recent gains.  If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.

What if, following a period of increasing prosperity, productivity and population growth, Sparta’s kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia, invaded – and then got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver on that promise?  What if, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the war to Laconia?

Such a situation would have produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new, revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict with organized, well-armed Messenian forces. 

Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual threat could force a society to adopt a system of government that is so singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.

The paranoid excesses of late classical Sparta (krypteia, mass executions, etc.), followed a presumed helot revolt in 465. Yet, if true, they probably took the disproportionate form they did because there was still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how memories of past wars still shape, for example, Greek-Turkish, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. I believe it was more likely the trauma of a lost war -- rather than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army -- that sparked the revolution that made Sparta the unique society it was.

My novel Are They Singing in Sparta? is set in the later part of the Messenian Wars and is based on a legend: that the Spartans asked Delphi what they should do and were told to send to Athens (then a rival and hostile to Sparta) for a polemarch. According to the legend, the Athenians (since they sided with the Messenians) sent an old, lame schoolmaster by the name of Tyrtaios.....

BUY NOW!
Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


    
       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Some Kleros More Equal than Others: An Excerpt

At the start of the month I talked about the Spartan land reform, an effort to ensure every Spartan citizen had enough land to ensure his independence, i.e. his ability to devote himself to the profession of arms. Each kleros had to sufficient produce for 50% of the harvest to pay the citizen's contribution to his syssitia and the agoge fees for any sons he had.  But while every Spartiate had a kleros, many had more than a kleros, and, as this excerpt underlines, not all kleros were equally productive -- and much depended on the ability of a man's wife to manage his estate effectively.


They left by the back door and went along the path behind the kennels and stables toward the rushing stream. The ruins of the mill were still charred and ominous amidst chestnut trees that, despite the fire which had shorn them nearly two years ago, were now sprouting buds. "Aren't you going to rebuild?" Agesandros asked, nodding to the ruins.

"I don't know. I can't afford to right now. Maybe I'll let someone else rebuild.  Orsippos came to me the other day and says he knows a man who'd be willing to rebuild at his own expense if I give him a 10% discount on the subsequent rents. That would be a very good deal for him, of course." Alethea cast Agesandros a little, bemused smile. "He'd be able to pay off his investment in five years or so, and be perpetually better off thereafter. I hesitate to make such a bad deal on Niko's behalf -- even if it means going without the mill income for another couple of years."

Agesandros looked at her sidelong. She spoke of these economic considerations with a self-assurance he would not have had -- not to mention his mother or sister. ...

He focused his thoughts on the present again by focusing on the mill ruins and was reminded of what his own kleros was like. There was no mill there to supplement his income. Nor were there any orchards or vineyards. The old resentments filled him for a moment, but he did not want to resent Alethea. He was tired of being bitter.

Alethea noted his change of mood, but she hesitated to ask what was wrong.

Agesandros pulled himself together, nodding shortly at the mill again to remark in as neutral a tone as he could manage, "my father got a piece of bad land cut out of a large estate without even a house on it -- much less a mill. It was pastureland on a steep incline. We've had to terrace it stone-by-stone to make it support barley. We don't have a single tree for shade, much less olive oil or fruit. And there's no wine either."

Alethea listened with a growing sense of helplessness. She knew Agesandros was a New Citizen. Euryanax had lectured her at length about the imperfection of the Land Reform precisely because the land plots were equal in size but not in productivity. "I -- I know the Land Reform wasn't entirely fair," she told Agesandros anxiously.  "But what would have been better? You couldn't cut houses in half or draw the borders squiggling through the countryside. Many men wouldn't have voted for the Reform at all, if they'd thought they would lose their very homes...." Her arguments sounded weak to her, and her voice trailed off.

Agesandros considered her earnestly, realizing that he hadn't expected even this much understanding. Then again, intuitively he had known she was not a woman who was indifferent to the sufferings of others. He had only to think of Leon.  "I didn't mean to complain. Where else in the world have men without anything been given land at all? Besides, a city-rat like me wouldn't know how to manage all this." He gestured vaguely toward her vineyards and orchards. "I've barely learned the essence of planting barley." He offered the latter with a short laugh.

"But your wife should manage things for you," Alethea remarked, flushing at her own boldness, and not daring to meet his eyes when she flirted so shamelessly.

"True. That's why I need to marry a woman who understands something of -- barley."

"More than that!" Alethea insisted looking up and seeing -- too late -- the glint of amusement in his green-gold eyes. 

"I only have barely."

"But I'm sure that's not all your kleros could produce,"  Alethea countered, adding eagerly, "look at this. You don't think this kleros was always this diverse, do you? When the reforms came we had only the olives and a strip of barely. We'd lost our pastures and vineyards and fruit orchards, the flax fields and--" She stopped herself recognizing too late that in listing all Euryanax had lost she only emphasized how rich he had once been.

But Agesandros knew how rich Euryanax had been and he was not offended, only surprised.

Read more in:



 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Sparta's Radical -- and Imperfect -- Land Reform

As I have discussed in earlier entries, the Messenian War forced Sparta to adopt a new, radical constitution that was quite unlike any in the contemporary world. That new constitution included elements like an Assembly of citizens that would soon be imitated elsewhere, but one feature never found imitators -- until more than a millennia later -- land reform.
Today I look more closely at this radical feature of the Spartan Constitution.


Although this event is lost in the mists of undated ancient history, all ancient historians agree that at some time (probably in the late 8th or early 7th century BC, by our reckoning) Spartan society underwent a severe crisis.  A rebellion or civil war so threatened the continued existence of the city-state that the citizens were prepared to accept radical new laws reputedly developed by Lycurgus. These laws included a redistribution of the land.  The land was divided into equal plots of sufficient size to support a man and his family, and each citizen was given a plot, or estate – a kleros.  Henceforth the Spartans called themselves equals, or Peers – because they were equal not only in rights but also in wealth.

We do not know the exact size of these "kleros," but they were designed to ensure each citizen could produce enough food to contribute to his syssitia and also pay the agoge fees for his sons.  We also know that from the inception of the reforms, Spartan citizens were not expected to till this land themselves. On the contrary, they had helots, agricultural works of non-Doric descent, who tilled the land for them. Presumably, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” According to the law each party, the Spartiate master and the helot, received 50% of the harvest. Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  

It is also probable that not all land in Lacedaemon was divided up. The kings almost certainly retained large estates that were not carved up during the reforms. Furthermore, Because citizens needed to be within walking or riding distance of their syssitia's and barracks, the immediate vicinity of Sparta (that is, in the Eurotas valley) was most likely the land divided into equal portions,  More distant parts of Lacedaemon (such as Kythera or on the coast of Laconia) probably remained in the hands of their former owners, while land conquered later, notably in Messenia, may have been divided on a basis other than strict equality.

Another factor influencing the distribution of land over time would have been inheritance laws, particularly the right of women to inherit.  Furthermore, it is only possible to sustain equal distribution of a fixed amount of land if there is only one male heir to each plot of land. Human demographics do not, however, produce perfect replacement.  Even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England), families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs rapidly reduces a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.  An excellent short discussion of Sparta's land reform is provided in Paul Cartledge's Sparta and Laconia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (Routledge, London, 1979), and a more comprehensive treatment of the subject can be found in Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth, London, 2000).

Thus, inevitably, with time the equality of wealth created during the Lycurgan reforms was eroded.  By the second half of the 5th century BC, wealth had become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer families.  Spartan citizens were no longer equally wealthy.  

Yet even if Spartans were not in fact equally wealthy, the myth of equality remained powerful, and laws prohibited the hoarding of wealth, particularly the ownership of gold and silver coins (possibly all gold and silver).  The ostentatious display of wealth was frowned upon socially.  This set Sparta apart from the other Greek city-states, where the landed aristocracy, wealthy merchants, and manufacturers engaged in extravagant displays of wealth and competed for the honor of donating the most generous gifts to their respective cities.  In short, Spartan dress, taste, and style were shaped by the ethos of equality, by the very definition of Spartan citizens as "equals" -- Peers. 

Most important, while some Spartan citizens accumulated wealth and became richer than their fellows, and while the citizens of other cities could be reduced to beggary, all Spartans were guaranteed a minimum standard of living – something most modern observers would applaud rather than condemn.

The need and impact of the land reform is a major theme in "Are They Singing in Sparta?" a novel set during the Messenian War:


Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


    
       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

An Evening at the Syssitia - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I discussed the Spartan custom of syssitia, or dining clubs. In today's excerpt from A Peerless Peer we see inside a syssitia. Gorgo, Leonidas' niece, has recently announced that her father intends to marry her to a foreigner, and she has named Leonidas as her preferred husband.



The entire syssitia fell silent as Leonidas entered, and they looked at him expectantly. He frowned. "If you're gossiping about me, I'll leave again so you can carry on."

"You'll do nothing of the sort!" Nikostratos countered.

Leonidas turned on his heel to leave. Nikostratos nodded to two of the youngest members of the mess, and they sprang to their feet to block the door.

"You'll come in and sit down with us and behave like an adult," Nikostratos told off the younger man.

"I'm not going to talk about this nonsense."

"Calm down and have your soup!"

Warily Leonidas eased himself down on the couch and held out his hands to the mess-boys. One of the boys held the bowl while the other poured water over his hands, and then handed him a towel.  Leonidas watched the entire ritual intently as if he were seeing it for the first time. The boys, both eight-year-olds, were very diligent, but just as they finished, one of them risked glancing up at him. Leonidas recognized the look of boyish delight at the prospect of hearing something worth telling their friends. Frowning, he sent the boys scampering back toward the kitchen.

A moment later they were back, rolling in the soup in a deep cauldron. The boys filled individual bowls with the thick stew while a loaf of warm bread was passed around. Leonidas tore off a chunk of bread and dipped it into the steaming-hot soup. Only after he had put the bread in his mouth did Nikostratos open his attack. "You realize your elder brother has outmaneuvered you, don't you?" he asked casually, not even looking at Leonidas -- but there was no question to whom he was speaking.

Leonidas looked up furiously, his mouth too full to retort, while Nikostratos continued, "King Cleomenes was called in to explain himself to the ephors, and he swore solemnly that you were his first choice for his beloved daughter -- but that you wouldn't take her. It was only because you'd already turned him down --"

Leonidas swallowed what was left in his mouth and insisted, "That's complete nonsense! He's lying!"

"Oh, I don't doubt he's lying, Leo. That's not the point. The point is, he has now publicly gone on record saying that you were his first choice as husband for his daughter, and only because you refused has he been forced to look for alternatives. He insisted that his daughter is too intelligent, independent, and precocious -- all of which is patently true -- to give to anyone but a prince or, short of that, a ruler.  He suggested that a Persian satrap would be more suitable than an ordinary ranker."

"That's ridiculous!" Leonidas scoffed.

"Maybe, but he has neatly shifted the blame for seeking a foreign bridegroom from himself to you," Nikostratos pointed out. "And made you look doubly bad, since you are well over thirty, unmarried, and childless, and so in open violation of the law already."

"Meanwhile, your other brother is talking divorce, so he would be free to marry Gorgo," Euryleon joined in.

"Brotus?" Leonidas asked, incredulous. "Brotus wouldn't last a day with Gorgo -- she'd dissect him!"

Euryleon laughed, but retorted. "But she'd do it so intelligently, he might not even notice -- thick as he is." The remark harvested a general laugh from their mess-mates.

Nikostratos, however, insisted seriously, "Well, as next in line to the throne, there is a certain logic to Brotus marrying Gorgo." He wiped the bottom of his bowl clean with his bread.

"There's no logic to it at all!" Leonidas retorted hotly. "Besides, Brotus has no grounds for divorce -- and Sinope will kill him if he even mentions it!"

"Well, in that case, for an Agiad prince there is always the precedent of two wives."

"That would only perpetuate the entire nightmare of two rivals for the throne. Pausanias would naturally claim the throne as the first born, and any child by Gorgo would claim it by right of his double royal blood. The ephors can't be that stupid!"

Nikostratos shrugged and signaled for more soup. "Leonidas, you may well be right. I admit the situation is unprecedented. Ever since the sons of Herakles came to this valley, there has never been a situation exactly like this. But you can't just look on this as a personal matter. There will be consequences to your refusal to marry your niece and not all of them will be to your liking."

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sparta's "Peculiar" Dining Clubs

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meals. These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Today I take a closer look.


Although it was common, popular and indeed a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory precondition for attaining citizenship; failure to be accepted or failure to pay mess fees could cost a man his citizenship.

The origins of this peculiar tradition are controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time from the desirability of men of different ages dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to a conscious desire on the part of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to – and incidentally more successful at – undermining family structures and influence.

The problem with the comparison to 20th Century totalitarian states is two-fold. First, modern anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. They sought to undermine the family because families are inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stresses the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta in his essay. If Sparta was essentially conservative, then no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.

The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is not a particularly good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but most men today nevertheless eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.

I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, to the disappointment of visiting foreigners, syssitia were notorious for the absence of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the traditional Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. In short, attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic destruction of family and individuality reveal an alarming lack of objectivity.

A more appropriate parallel to the modern world might be membership in fraternities. Applicants to syssitia, as to fraternities, had to be accepted by existing members. This meant that far from being uniform, Spartan syssitia had different characters. Some syssitia would have been more intellectual than others, some more musical, some more conservative, and others outright radical. Some syssitia might have had close affiliations to one or the other royal house, and every Spartan with ambition would have expected and relied on support from his “fraternity brothers” throughout his life. 

Spartan syssitia also shared some characteristics of political associations. We know that Spartans scorned the Athenian custom of men hanging around in the agora discussing public affairs. Instead, Spartan men were supposed to discuss affairs of state behind the closed doors of their syssitia where, presumably, no helots, perioikoi or foreigners could hear them. While this may seem indicative of a paranoid or secretive society, it may in fact have been intended to encourage men to speak up more freely and more candidly than was possible in public. There are many people, after all, who shy away from speaking in a crowd or among strangers, yet nevertheless have opinions worth hearing. The syssitia would have provided a context in which such men could debate issues of importance and formed their opinions heard.

Of course, to the extent that members of a syssitia were similar in their interests and inclinations and familiar with one another since childhood, the character of a syssitia may have the closest parallel in the modern world to the German “stammtisch” – that table in the local pub at which a group of men meets night after night to discuss everything from football to fashion and politics to pop-culture. Every “stammtisch” has its own clientele, its own group dynamics, and its own character – and they all get turned out at closing bell and sent home to their families, just as in Sparta.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:



    

       Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                     Buy Now!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An Ionian in Sparta - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of this month I discussed how Sparta's culture of "less is more" pervaded Spartan society. But the impact of this philosophy was not the only feature of the Spartan lifestyle that bewildered outsiders. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer," an Ionian visitor gets a "shocking" introduction to Sparta.



What impressed Aristagoras most, however, was the behavior of the citizens.  The boys, as he had expected, were shaved, barefoot and scruffy -- but he had never met such well-mannered youth in his whole life! Even the poorest urchins in Miletos were rude and impudent, while the sons of the rich were spoiled and self-centered. Here, all Leonidas had to do was call to any of these boys, and they came and stood at attention before him with their eyes down and their hands at their sides...

The young men...were impressive too. Again, they behaved with marked deference and respect when Leonidas introduced them.... Aristagoras told himself that there had to fat, lazy, weak and ugly Spartans, but they were not in evidence.

What was in evidence everywhere were the women.  Hadn't Homer described Sparta as the 'land of beautiful women'? Evidently he had not been referring to Helen alone. Aristagoras was utterly amazed -- and a little disconcerted -- to discover that women dominated the Spartan agora. In other Greek cities, the agora was not just a place of commerce, but above all the place for men to congregate, exchange news, and discuss everything from politics and court cases to the latest theory of alchemy. In Sparta, in contrast, there were no citizens in evidence at all -- only craftsmen, merchants, farmers selling their good -- and women.

At first Aristagoras was not entirely certain just who these women were. On the one hand they wore old-fashioned peplos, which meant they showed quite a lot of leg when moving rapidly, but there was nothing lewd about them. They generally wore a himation up over their head (though not shrouding their faces), and they appeared more intent on striking a bargain with the salesmen than on attracting attention to themselves. In other words, they were not whores. Because they were shopping and wore neither gold nor silver, they might have been household slaves, he thought, but most wore very expensive fabrics beautifully dyed in rich colors, set off with bold borders, and clasped with heavy bronze, silver or ivory pins. Furthermore, they walked upright and seemed very self-confident. "Who are these women?" Aristagoras asked at last.

"Mostly citizen's wives."

"Your wives have to do the daily shopping?" Aristagoras gasped in shock. He would never have let his wife go down to the agora and haggle with craftsmen and other charlatans. She couldn't add two and two together, anyway. "You own wife comes here?" Aristagoras pressed him.

"Of course." When she was in Sparta, Leonidas added mentally with a sigh.

"Have you no slaves?"

"The helots do the heavy work, but it is usual for a Spartiate wife to make most household purchases."

"So your women have driven the men out," Aristagoras concluded, because obviously, men would not willingly congregate where they would be surrounded by a bunch of gossiping women.

"It is considered bad manners for a young man to loiter around the agora," Leonidas replied.

"Why? What can be bad about meeting with one's fellows and discussing the developments of the world?"

"We can do that in our syssitia -- not here in the open where helots, perioikoi, and strangers may see and hear.  Besides, there is a prohibition against Spartiates having coins and 'engaging in trade,' which some of our more conservative citizens interpret to mean even daily shopping. Our wives are not subject to the same prohibitions, because they have control of the household finances and must be able to both buy and sell goods as needed."

"But -- that is madness! You let women run your finances?"

"For the most part, yes, our domestic finances. They city has an elected treasurer, of course -- a highly respected man of great knowledge in mathematics and accounting."

"Yes, but how can you let your women run your private affairs? Their brains are underdeveloped, and they are not -- no matter how much they try -- capable of understanding higher principles. Why, if I let my wife run my household, we would have noting but sweets and pretty baubles, and we would all starve."

Leonidas shrugged, "We've been letting our wives run our households for the last forty Olympiads, and our prosperity is unimpaired."

The evidence appeared to support Leonidas. Lacedaemon was certainly prosperous, but Aristagoras could not believe women had anything to do with it....

While the mature women were baffling and incomprehensible to Aristagoras, the girls were delectable -- and they appeared to run around everywhere.  He could hardly credit his eyes when he first spotted them watching the boys at drill outside the city, dismissing them as younger boys watching their elders. But at the baths and then the racecourse, there could no longer be any doubt. Nubile and even younger prostitutes were put on display in a most unusual way. Namely, they were allowed to strip completely naked and then take part in sports alongside the young men. Apparently, by the time they got to be sexually mature they were sequestered away for their paying clients, but the young one were evidently put on display like this to encourage youths and men to bid for first rights or the like. It was an intriguing custom, and Aristagoras was about to ask more about it, when one of the girls walked right up to them.

She had just finished bathing, come ashore, dried herself down in full view of everyone, and then pulled on a simple chiton. She was still rubbing dry her bright red hair when she came over to them. "Excuse me," she said shortly to the stranger, and then turned at once to his companion. "Uncle Leo, may I ride Cyclone in the Gymnopaedia?" Then before he could get a word in edgewise, she hastened to assure him. "I know it's my own fault that Shadow isn't up to it anymore, but she's couldn't have won even without the accident. She's sweet, but she's not really fast. Not like Cyclone. If you let me ride her, I'll bring you the laurels! Cyclone is the best mare in all of Lacedaemon! You won't be riding her yourself, will you? I asked Eirana last time I saw her, but she said she didn't ride anymore. Please let me ride her!" 

"I'm not going to make a decision now," Leondias told his neice simply because he was embarrassed by the way she had plunged in, ignoring the stranger. Pointedly he added,"This is your father's guest, Aristagoras of Miletos."

Too late, Gorgo realized that the man with her uncle was someone important. She had been so determined to make her case to Leonidas that she had dismissed the man with him as "some stranger." Now she turned her attention to Aristagoras, frowning slightly, and noticed his gold rings and bracelets, his woven chiton -- and the scandalized look on his face. Embarrassed, she realized her hair was a mess and her chiton was falling off one shoulder. Self-consciously she pulled the chiton back in place and reached up to comb her fingers through her hair. "I'm sorry to have interrupted, sir," she stammered, then turned and darted away.

"Who -- who -- was that -- girl?" Aristagoras stammered in utter confusion. It was one thing for a girl-whore to address a favored customer as "uncle," but to be told he was her father's guest was outrageous. He was here to see a king!

"That was my niece Gorgo. My brother's only child, since his son and heir died in a accident five years ago. He spoils her, I'm afraid." Leonidas paused, laughed, and added. "We all do."

"Your brother's child? A Spartiate's daughter? By a slave girl, then?"

"No, by his wife." Leonidas turned and looked at Aristagoras straight in the eye. "You didn't think these girls were slaves, did you?" Aristagoras' expression was answer enough, and Leonidas continued firmly. "They are all the daughters of citizens. They are dressed simply and barefoot only because they are in the public upbringing." Leonidas was angry because he could tell how shocked Aristagoras was, but he was angry with himself, too. He should have known how the foreigner would react. He should have made a point of telling him about the girls.  And Gorgo didn't make things better by being so bold. But it was too late now. "I think it is time I took you to my brother."

"Your brother?"

"King Cleomenes."

Aristagoras stared at him.