Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

In Search of the Spartan Agoge

It has been argued by leading classical scholars that the importance of the "agoge" -- Sparta's educational system - "in determining the character of the Spartan state cannot be over-estimated." (1)  
Yet the sad truth is we do not have a single authentic Spartan source that describes this vital institution. Everything that we know about the "agoge" comes from foreigners -- many of whom never visited Sparta -- and most of whom wrote 200 to 800 years after the period of Sparta's glory -- the Archaic and Classical Ages.
In a seven-part series starting today, I intend to re-examine the evidence we have about the agoge, to identify the elements common in the popular picture of the agoge for which there is NO evidence, and then reconstruct a plausible theory of what the Spartan agoge might have looked like based on evidence, common sense and an understanding of human nature.

WARNING: THE SPARTA OF THIS AND FOLLOWING ESSAYS IS A HISTORICAL CITY INHABITED BY HUMAN BEINGS NOT SUPERMEN

When attempting to understand the Spartan educational system commonly referred to as the "agoge," it is important to understand that this unique word -- about which Professor Cartledge makes a great fuss because it is also used for raising cattle -- is in fact an invention of the 3rd Century BC. It is not used in any earlier source about Sparta -- an alarm signal that ought to warn scholars that the entire "agoge" itself is largely a fiction, an artificial creation of a post-classical Sparta. 

Nigel Kennel is his comprehensive and seminal work The Gymnasium of Virtue notes: "The story of the Spartan education system is far more complex than has hitherto been appreciated. Its single constant was change, as the system adapted to meet different historical situations."(2)

What we think we know is based on a large number of works by foreign writers purporting to describe the Spartan state and its institutions, most of which were written as much as 800 years after Thermopylae and Sparta's days of glory. Only one source, Xenophon, actually wrote in the classical era, lived in Sparta and sent his sons to the agoge. Yet even Xenophon's account, as Kennel notes,  already "has a palpably nostalgic, utopian air about it."(3) By the time he was writing in the 4th century, Sparta was already in decline, and its institutions were no longer what they had been in the Early Classical and Archaic periods.

All other surviving sources were written by authors with no direct experience of Sparta and living at a much later date. The bulk of these were theoretical tracts attempting to compare and contrast systems of government. They were tools for political debate, not records of observed facts. The most famous of the later writers, because his writings are particularly detailed and vivid, is Plutarch, who lived between 46 and 120 AD. Please note: that is roughly 600 years after the death of Leonidas at Thermopylae. In other words, he was as far removed from Classical and Archaic Sparta as we are from the 13th and 14th centuries. Pausanias, another "ancient" source full of colorful details, lived even later, between 110 and 180 AD.

But the situation is made even more complex and deceptive by the fact that these later commentators thought they knew Sparta and its agoge very well. Indeed, they had personally visited and studied in a place called Sparta, a city on the same location of the ancient city of Sparta, yet arguably only marginally related to the Sparta of Leonidas because by this time Sparta had been governed by different laws for generations. Fatefully for us and our understanding of Sparta, they saw a "Spartan agoge" in practice, but it was not the same "agoge" that had operated in the Archaic and Classical periods.

At the very latest, that ancient agoge had ceased to exist by 244 BC, but it had been in decline long before that. Already in the fourth century BC, Sparta's famed military was humiliated, and the loss of Messenia had destroyed the Spartan economy. In short, Sparta had already become moribund, and it is inconceivable that the agoge was not impacted by these changes. 

Certainly, the public system of education had collapsed by the time King Cleomenes III came to power in 235 BC with a powerful "reform agenda" that included "restoration" of the agoge. However, as Kennel puts it,  "under the guise of revival," he invited an Athenian stoic philosopher to develop a system of education for Sparta.(4) This man, Sphaerus, consciously introduced his own ideas of what made a good education into Cleomenes' new school-system. While Sphaerus pretended that his innovations were nothing but a "restoration" of the ancient agoge, in fact his philosophy of education was not based Sparta's past or the intentions of Sparta's archaic lawgivers.

Thus, while the outward dressing or facade was "Archaic and Laconian," the content was Athenian stoicism. This was consistent with Cleomenes other reforms that he styled as a "return to the ways of Lucurgus," while butchering the Lycurgian constitution.  Thus, for example, he blithely abolished both the dual kingship and the ephorate, and radically altered the the nature of the Gerousia by reducing the term of members to a single year. 

Nor did the distortions end with Cleomenes and his Athenian stoic philosopher. Cleomenes agoge was suppressed after just 39 years. Sparta (after a series of poor alliances, rebellions and much intrigue) was eventually defeated by and submitted to the Achaean League, losing its very independence. It was forced in this period to give up its constitution altogether and adopt Achaean laws and customs. That included eliminating the agoge.

Thus the agoge that Plutarch and Pausanias visited and described was yet another "revival."  This agoge had been created under Roman hegemony in or about 146 BC -- or more than 200 years since the Battle of Leuctra had shaken Sparta to its foundations and more than 340 years since Thermopylae. The "agoge" that was now established, however, could not function -- even if it had wanted to -- as the agoge of the classical period because it no longer had a Spartan society, or a Spartan army, to support it. The Spartan culture and laws that had created and fostered the agoge in the age of Chilon and Leonidas had been obliterated. In their place was a Roman provincial city without any unique laws or ethos. The agoge created in this state, Kennel argues, was nothing more that "a sort of tableau vivant of Spartan culture in the midst of a society little different from those of its neighbors."(5)  

The Roman agoge included the infamous spectacle of youth lining up at the altar of Artemis Orthia to be whipped until they collapsed -- or died. Although we have no documented cases of youths actually dying under the lashes, most ancient commentators claimed to have "heard" that youths "sometimes" died. One can see that for a society that thought it was fun watching men kill each other or get devoured by beasts and saw burning humans alive as suitable entertainment for an imperial party, watching youths passively submit to flogging until they collapsed was a huge tourist attraction. The city dignitaries of Sparta apparently did very well in the department of tourist revenues. The connection to ancient Sparta, the Sparta of Leonidas, Chilon and Lycurgus, however, is exactly ZERO -- NOTHING. 

The same is true of almost everything Plutarch and other Roman and Byzantine sources tell us about "the agoge." They are describing an Roman invention, a Roman theater dressed up in Laconian costumes, or, perhaps we should call it, one of Rome's famous and elaborate spectacles. In the next six entries, I will remove the Roman mask in search of the real Spartan agoge.


(1) Chrimes, K.M.T. Ancient Sparta: A Re-Examination of the Evidence. Manchester University Press, 1952, p. 117.
(2) Kennel, Nigel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta. University of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 143.
(3) Ibid, 135. 
(4) Ibid, 147.
(5) Ibid, 116

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



    

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Spartan in Athens

In the excerpts below, Leonidas is in Athens for the first time and finds himself trying to explain Sparta. In the first he is attending a symposium at the home of a wealthy Athenian and is approached by a hetaera.


Leonidas laughed but retorted, “It is a long story. Do your master’s bidding with someone else.” 

Several others at once started clamoring for her to come to them, and Therapne shrugged and turned to smile at them; but Kallixenos said for all to hear, “You are a fool or a coward, Leonidas. You could have enjoyed her first and then told her she was barking up the wrong tree. What true man turns away pleasure like that when it comes crawling to him!” 

“What is the pleasure in being another man’s pawn?” 

“Don’t be so puritanical! What pleasure is more basic or universal than sexual satisfaction?” Kallixenos challenged him. 

“Satisfaction of the loins is animal, while the joys of love cannot be purchased.” 

Kallixenos looked at him, uncomprehending; but Therapne spun around and, clapping her hands slowly, declared: “And the lion has claws! Well said, Leonidas!” She went toward him again, her hips swaying provocatively and her eyes fixed on him. “But tell me, if you scorn the pleasure I offer you, where do you take your pleasure? Have you a mistress to whom you have sworn fidelity? Or is there some boy who has turned your head?” Her lips curled in a sneer and her eyes fell contemptuously on the little boy, who sat naked on his lover’s couch, blushing bright red with natural shame. 

“Mine is the pleasure of the sun breaking over Taygetos after a long, chilly night on watch; the pleasure of diving into the cool waters of the Eurotas after a morning in the dust and sweat of the drill fields; the taste of my helot’s apple tarts; or the sight of my dog, bursting with pride, when she brings me a stolen duck.” 

Kallixenos broke out laughing. “You are going to give your countrymen a reputation for garrulousness with answers like that.” 

Leonidas looked down, embarrassed and ashamed of himself. He had indeed said too much. Therapne reached out and stroked his thigh, smiling at him. “Are you sure?” 

“You can see for yourself you have aroused me, but I still prefer Beggar with her stolen duck,” Leonidas retorted stubbornly, lifting his chin and staring her in the eye. His loins were full to bursting, and he was acutely aware of wasting his youth as a bachelor, but his obstinate streak had taken over. He was full of sexual energy and resented the fact that he had no place to expend it in his current lifestyle, but he hated even more the feeling of being manipulated. These Athenians wanted to see him turned into a mere animal, panting and gasping in his desperation to satisfy the hunger of his loins. 

The Athenians protested that he had no right to insult such a magnificent example of womanhood, while the hetaera stared down at Leonidas with narrowed eyes, now full of hatred because she felt insulted. “I came here to make a friend, but you have made an enemy. Are you so certain that was in your city’s interests?” 

“I am certain that my city cannot be bought any more than I can. If Sparta fights the Persians, it will be in her own interests and not those of Athens or your master.” 


In this second excerpt, Leonidas speaks with a Corinthian youth, whose life he saved from a wild boar a few years earlier. They are together in Athens and becoming friends.

"You see what a favor you did me that day by Acrocorinth?” Lychos pressed Leonidas. The latter shook his head. “I was on my way to becoming just like Kallixenos. Indeed, I admired him and tried to imitate him. I looked up to him so much that I allowed him to be my lover, when I was younger—a sporadic affair that lasted almost until I was sixteen. I was still under his spell when the boar got me.” Leonidas stirred uneasily, and Lychos looked over at him. “Did you never have a lover? A man you let use your body any way he pleased because you thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world?” 

Leonidas sensed it was almost rude to tell the truth, but he was poor at lying. “No. Sparta is different.” 

“So everyone says,” Lychos agreed, staring at the stars. “One day maybe I will be able to visit there.” 

“You are welcome any time. You can stay at my kleros, and although our cooking is not so sophisticated as here, my housekeeper is an excellent cook.” 

“I love simple food. When sailing, we usually catch fish during the day and grill it at night over an open fire. It is better that way than in any sauce or fancy crust.” They both reflected on this for a moment, and then Lychos continued, “You aren’t married yet, are you?” 

That was a sore subject, particularly since Brotus had married for a second time before heading for Olympia. Leonidas shrugged and answered, “No more than you.” 

“My father has arranged it,” Lychos admitted, not looking at Leonidas. “Most Corinthians don’t marry until they are in their thirties, but he is afraid I won’t live that long and is desperate for an heir. The wedding was to take place after the Games, but we postponed it when you accepted our invitation.” 

Leonidas at once felt guilty. “I’m sorry to have disrupted your plans. Why didn’t you say something? We could—” 

“I don’t mind the postponement,” Lychos assured him. “I wouldn’t mind waiting for years. I’d rather not marry at all.” 

Leonidas didn’t understand. “Why?”

Lychos shrugged, clutched his knees, and looked at the stars. “Don’t you like your bride?” Leonidas ventured. 


Lychos shrugged again. “I’ve only met her once. At the betrothal. She seems nice … It must have been terrible for her when she learned her father was giving her to a cripple.” 

Leonidas thought about that a moment, impressed that Lychos could see things from the girl’s perspective, but he still couldn’t understand Lychos’ reluctance to marry. “But?” 

“It seems like a lot of responsibility,” Lychos admitted. “I’ll be responsible not just for her well-being but for her reputation and her happiness.” 

“I don’t think Kallixenos sees marriage that way,” Leonidas remarked dryly, his disapproval obvious. 

“No,” Lychos agreed. “But I don’t want to be like him. Why aren’t you married?” Lychos asked. 

“I’m still on active service and have to live in barracks,” Leonidas answered, hoping Lychos had not heard that many Spartiates married anyway. 

“That sounds horrible,” Lychos admitted candidly. 

Leonidas thought about it. “You’ll laugh, but in a way it makes me enjoy the rest of life more.” 

Lychos laughed, but remarked, “Now, perhaps, you understand about my pain! It is horrible, but it reminds me that I am alive. And without it, if I were dead, I would not be sitting on this warm deck with a cooling breeze and my first real friend beside me.”

... they were comfortably silent together until Lychos remarked, “When Kallixenos was my lover, he often hurt me. He knew he was doing it, yet he did it intentionally—just to see how far he could go, to test just how great my love for him was.” 

“Then Kallixenos is more than an ass, he is a bastard.” 

“He will be a very powerful bastard,” Lychos reflected. “He is the kind of man who would be a tyrant if he could be.” 

“You know that the sexual misuse of a child, male or female, is against our laws, don’t you?” Leonidas asked. 

“And do all Spartans live by your laws?” 

“Of course not. There are as many cruel and selfish men in Sparta as anywhere; but at least they have to do it in secret and fear the scorn of their neighbors and officers if they are discovered. If a child’s parents find out, for example, they can demand terrible punishment.” 

Lychos thought about that and nodded. “You know, it sometimes seems as if you Spartans live your whole lives in fear of your neighbors and officers. You have so little chance to be yourselves, for better or for worse. You must all wear the same clothes. You even have to wear your hair and beards the same way! And you must behave in set ways and follow the same profession.” 

Leonidas thought about this carefully, because there had been times when he had resented all these things; but he asked back, “Is it really all that different in Corinth and Athens? Don’t potters’ sons become potters and tickers’ sons tinkers? And it seems to me the dictates of fashion are as stringent as our traditions.

“On the whole, yes, but there is no compulsion about it. I think what horrifies outsiders about Sparta is that it is all enforced by law and custom and is so, well, brutal.” 

But it was Kallixenos who hurt you,” Leonidas pointed out. “And Spartans aren’t really all the same. In fact, the reasoning behind us all having a kleros of the same size and all dressing in the same manner is that then the real differences—those of character rather than mere wealth or station—are more evident. On the surface, Kallixenos is a well-educated, well-mannered young man. I imagine that his good clothes and good looks deceive many about his true nature.”

“Yes,” Lychos admitted; “but so do your clothes and looks deceive, Leonidas. When we see you, muscular and tanned and standing straight as a spear, we see only a stupid Spartan hoplite, but you are far more subtle and complex than you appear to be.” 

“I suppose we all are,” Leonidas concluded. They left it at that and drifted off to sleep


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



    

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Spartan Secret to Loving Life


Sparta’s enemies allegedly joked that it was no wonder the Spartans were willing to die in battle -- because no one would have liked to live the way they did. Aside from the fact that these commentators probably knew very little about the way Spartans actually lived, the assumption is that lack of luxury and the pervasive deprivation to which Spartans were condemned by their laws made them unhappy men.

Yet Xenophon, a noted Laconophile who lived and campaigned with Spartans for decades, argued the other way around: that precisely because the Spartans learned to get along with very little, they were actually happier. 

Today I uncover the Spartan secret to loving life.


Modern efforts to measure happiness have produced various indexes which prove that there is no direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Unscientifically, I would add that in my personal experience the Nigerians, surrounded by corruption, pollution and collapsing infrastructures, are much happier and have a greater joie de vivre than do the Norwegians, who have one of the highest standards of living and enjoy one of the most equitable and developed societies on earth.

Without getting too deeply into the philosophical topic of what constitutes happiness, I would like to suggest that happiness has less to do with objective circumstances and more to do with a state of mind. We all know that whether a glass is described as half empty or half full depends on whether the observer is a pessimist or an optimist. However, as my father pointed out: the optimist and the pessimist are both wrong – but the optimist is happier.

When outsiders looked at Spartiate society and (based on what they knew) decided such a life wasn’t worth living, they may indeed have accurately described how they would have felt if forced to live the way the Spartans did. However, they tell us nothing about the way the Spartans themselves felt. They are describing Spartan society as “half empty” – but that is not necessarily the way the Spartans saw it. The historian has to look beyond the opinion of outsiders and search for hints about Spartans attitudes toward their society.

Returning to the opening comment, I would argue that, in fact, men are very rarely willing to die for something they don’t think work preserving. Troops notoriously break, run and surrender when they have lost faith in what they are fighting for. If Spartan rankers thought that their way of life wasn’t worth living, then they would have welcomed defeat as a way of introducing revolution and constitutional reform. Indeed, if young Spartans thought the Spartan way of life was so abdominal that it was better to die than live as they were supposed to live, then idealistic young Spartans would have deserted to the Athenians in droves, helped defeat the oppressive regime they hated, and introduced Athenian-style democracy. In short, witty as the Athenian joke is – and it made me laugh out loud – it does not describe the Spartan frame of mind.

So how do we come closer to the Spartan attitude toward life? What made Spartans willing to die for Sparta? Was it really just a mindless fear of showing fear? A fanatical devotion to a code of honor? Or was Xenophon on the right track when he suggested that the Spartans learned to enjoy life – and love it better – by learning self-control and restraint?

As evidence of a certain, if not joie de vivre, at least contentment, I would like to first draw attention to those pieces of Spartan art that we have to date uncovered. Unlike the art of some warlike cultures (notably the Aztecs), Spartan art depicts many peaceful scenes: farm animals, lions and mythical beasts, bulls and horses (lots of horses!), riders with and without hunting dogs, chariots with horses and charioteers, girls running, married couples side-by-side, a king watching the correct weighing of goods for export, youths and maidens and hoplites, lots of hoplites. It is notable that the facial expressions on the human figures are uniformly benign. A convention certainly, but I would argue that a society that rarely smiled would not have conventionalized the smile as the expression in its art.

As witness to Sparta’s love of life I would also like to call Sparta’s most famous philosopher, Chilon. According to a variety of ancient sources, Chilon was the origin of the quintessential laconic advice “Know Thyself” – inscribed in the forecourt to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Maria Papadopoulos points out in her contribution to “Sparta: A city-state of Philosophers: Lycurgus in Montaigne’s essais” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 7, No. 1, July 2011), however, that this expression is a condensation of the longer command from Apollo to “know that you are not a God, know that you are mortal, know that the finitude called death is an irreducible component of life. Live accordingly.” If Papadopoulos is correct, then Chilon’s admonishment to “know thyself” was not so much advice to know one’s own abilities and limitations, but advice to live each day in anticipation of death.  In short, it meant much the same thing as “Carpe Diem,” a phrase usually translated as “use each day.” Arguably “using” each day is not the same as enjoying each day, and yet as Papadopoulos goes on to note: “The ancient Spartans trained hard but they enjoyed themselves [too]: feasts, dancing and singing, creative imagination and satirical banter and a temple dedicated to the God of Laughter….”

Combined, these fragments of evidence suggest that the Spartans themselves did not find their lifestyle so burdensome and certainly not intolerable. The “deprivations” and hard work that strangers found so depressing were in contrast of little importance in a society that learned to love life itself in full consciousness of its transience. A man who keeps in mind the alternative (death) loves even the simplest things in life. This, I postulate, was the secret of Spartan attitudes that can be interpreted as a very deep-seated love of life. 

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


    

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Spartan Arranged Marriage?

 In my last entry I discussed Spartan sexuality and its impact on sexual relations and marriage. One of the most famous marriages in Spartan history was the marriage of King Leonidas to his niece Gorgo.  She was the daughter of his half-brother Cleomenes and it is usually assumed that the marriage was purely political and dynastic. Yet given what we know about Sparta -- and Gorgo -- I think we can assume she had something to say about it. In A Peerless Peer I speculated a little. Join me in eavesdropping on a conversation between Leonidas and Gorgo.



Leonidas looked over at [Gorgo], but she was looking down self-consciously at her hands. “Just when did you come up with this idea that I should marry you?”

She shrugged a little awkwardly. “It just sort of evolved … You know, when girls reach a certain age, they start looking at boys and speculating about which ones might make good husbands. We’re expected and encouraged to do that. And, well, I looked just like the others did, but the boys all seemed so …” she shrugged and then admitted, “scrawny and silly and oversexed. I realized I wanted someone like you, so I looked at the older men. But most of them were already married, and there was none I liked as much as you. It dawned on me that I didn’t want someone like you, I wanted you.” 

Leonidas looked at her skeptically. “You carried me home on your shoulders when I was lost, remember? You let me ride your colts so I could win races. You put your arm around me and made me feel wanted when everyone else ignored me. And best of all, you never seemed to notice that I wasn’t pretty.” She looked down as she said this, ashamed to meet his eyes, because tears were forming. 

“Because you are pretty, Gorgo. You are one of the prettiest girls in Lacedaemon. Who told you otherwise?” 

“My mirror, for a start!” Gorgo told him sharply, looking up to see if he was mocking or pitying her. He met her gaze and she found herself adding practically, “No one ever picks me to welcome home returning heroes or Olympic victors!” 

“Weren’t you waiting for me when I came back from Corinth?” 

“I cheated and rode ahead of the official welcoming event. Surely you noticed?” 

Leonidas laughed and put his arm over her shoulder, drawing her to him. “At the time, I thought nothing of it. You were always a bit wild and self-willed.” 

“Is that very bad?” 

“No,” Leonidas told her simply. “When did you decide to force the issue by going to the ephors?” 

Gorgo looked up at him uncertainly. His arm felt wonderful around her, and he seemed anything but hostile, and yet he was hardly acting like a lover, either. Just like her favorite uncle. “Well, my father started teasing me about who he was going to marry me to. One day it would be one tyrant, and the next day another. It was just a game to him. He liked to see me get angry and indignant. He liked to frighten me.”

“I had no idea.” Leonidas sounded upset—and that suggested a depth of sympathy Gorgo had not expected from any man. 

“Grandma says I provoked it. She says I shouldn’t have humiliated him in front of Aristagoras the way I did. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since. In the last few years we fought a lot, and I often accused him of being fickle and ineffective. He drives me crazy with his cynicism and plotting.” Leonidas snorted, because he agreed entirely. Gorgo continued, “But I suppose I shouldn’t tell him what I think of him as bluntly as I do. If I were him, I wouldn’t want me as a daughter, either,” she concluded honestly, making Leonidas laugh and hold her more firmly. She looked up at him uncertainly. 

“Go on. When did you decide to go to the ephors?” 

“After a particularly ugly scene with my father, when he said he had already sent word to Aristagoras offering me to him. Oh, Leo! If you knew the way that man looked at me! With hate in his eyes! He hated me just for being a girl and for hearing him plead with my father and then for speaking out. The thought of being married to him was unbearable! “Of course,” Gorgo admitted in a calmer tone, “I should have known Aristagoras would never agree to the marriage, since he despised me; but at the time, I was so upset I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned all night, trying to think what I could do. I knew I had to tell someone who could stop my father. But who had that power? My father doesn’t listen to anyone anymore, not even Grandma or Nikostratos. Then I thought of the ephors, and I realized they were the only people in all Lacedaemon who had the power to prevent my father from doing anything. I thought if they could force your father to have two wives, surely they could stop mine from giving me away to a foreigner. 

“But I foresaw that they might ask who I wanted instead. And I thought, why not tell them the truth? Why not name you, since you were free to marry? Uncle Leo! Don’t be angry with me anymore. Please! I know now that it was stupid of me. Grandma explained to me how stupid it was—how I put you in an impossible situation by naming you. But I didn’t mean to pressure you. Please don’t be angry.” She looked up at him and tears spilled out of her eyes, the emotional strain of the whole situation too much for her. 

Leonidas reached up his free hand and wiped her tears away. “How can I be angry at you for using your brains to serve your heart?” He paused to reflect on what he had just said, and then added, “As I said to Hilaira not so long ago, you are by far the cleverer of the two of us; and if you honestly think that being married to me would be a good thing, then who am I to disagree?” She swallowed and waited for the “but.” Instead, Leonidas continued, “So I’ve decided we should get married.” 

Gorgo started. “Just like that? But what do you want? I mean, why have you refused for the last month?” 

“Stubbornness. Ask anyone. It is my greatest weakness.” 

Gorgo frowned. Leonidas was infamous for being stubborn—or tenacious, if one wanted to word it more positively. “But what do you want?” Gorgo insisted. 

“That’s just it, Gorgo. I want to be married and start a family; and when I started thinking about all the young maidens down there,” he nodded in the vague direction of the city, “the bold ones flirting and preening and the shy ones blushing and awkward, I just couldn’t imagine being married to any of them. Hilaira has tried to interest me in one or another of them often enough, poor thing. But when I thought about being married to you, I realized it would be the simplest thing in the world.”

Gorgo looked at him, unsure if that was a compliment or not. “But you know that in addition to being stubborn to a fault, I am notorious for being law-abiding. I will not break the law, even for you.” 

“But what law? Your father married his niece—” Gorgo started to protest at once, and Leonidas held up his hand to silence her. 

“Lycurgus’ laws say it is illegal to marry a girl too young to enjoy sex.” Leonidas looked her straight in the eye. 

Although she blushed slightly, she met his gaze and said very steadily and deliberately, “You will not be breaking the law if you take me to wife.”

An Excerpt from:

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Spartan Sexuality Revisted

No myth about Sparta is as persistent or controversial as the claim that pederasty and homosexuality dominated Spartan society. Even highly reputable historians such as Paul Cartledge subscribe to this theory. However, the evidence against it is far more compelling than for it.

Achilles and Patrokles - Ancient Lovers

Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge (his sons attended it!), states explicitly: "… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys, just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters."  It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this and from the most credible source.  To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.

Xenophon adds: "It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys."  This is the crux of the matter.  All of our written sources on Sparta come from these other cities, where pederasty was rampant.  In short, the bulk of the written record on Sparta stems from men who could not imagine a world without homosexual love and pederasty. But then, they also could not imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful, who were not also licentious and lewd.  Modern readers ought to recognize that pederasty is not inherent in society – particularly not in a society where women are well integrated.

 Artemis is depicted here wearing the peplos that remained popular in Sparta long after it was out of use in other cities in Greece. Spartan women allegedly learned how to use the bow.

My position is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta's ills on the fact that the women were in control of things – a fact that he attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society generally. In this Aristotle exhibits an astonishing appreciation of psychology.  Modern research conclusively shows that male victims of child abuse generally grow into misogynous men.  The status of women in Athens fits this pattern perfectly, while the status of women in Sparta completely contradicts – indeed, refutes – the thesis that Spartan men were systematically subjected to sexual abuse by their elders as children. (An excellent discussion of child abuse in ancient Greece can be found in Enid Bloch's "Sex Between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was it Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?," in Journal of Men's Studies, January 2001.)

Finally, Herodotus, who was always happy to provide some juicy little story about a man who covets a close friend's wife, or one who steals a rival's bride just before the wedding, has not a single tale in which there is mention of a Spartan with a male lover – either boy or man. This omission is significant and should not be ignored.

The archaeological evidence from Sparta likewise demonstrates an almost complete absence of pornographic images on artifacts.  This is in sharp contrast to the plethora of explicitly pornographic art from both Athens and Corinth.  While pederasty is as frequently depicted in Athenian and Corinthian art as heterosexual sex, no homoerotic art originating in Sparta has -- to my knowledge -- been found or identified. (Please correct me, if I am wrong!)




On the other hand, some of the most important and lovely pieces of Spartan sculpture depict couples sitting side by side.  Regardless of whom the figures were intended to depict (Helen and Menelaos, Chilon and his wife, a Spartan king, and his queen), what is significant is the greater importance given to depictions of a man and wife sitting side by side – that is, in partnership – compared to depictions of sexual intercourse.

This is because marriage in Sparta was a partnership, not a tyranny as in the rest of Greece. Nor was a Spartan marriage merely for reproduction, it was also consciously intended to bring sexual satisfaction to both partners. Xenophon explains that Spartan laws required men and women to marry in their physical prime and not when too young (for girls) or too old (for men) and that they should be initially restricted in their sexual contact so as to not to become satiated, but rather to enjoy sex together.  Note that there is an explicit emphasis on the desirability of the female partner enjoying sex as much as the male.

Thus, rather than being something frightful and dangerous that male relatives needed to vigilantly guard (as in the rest of Greece), female sexuality was perceived in Sparta as a positive factor that contributed to a good marriage, to healthy children, and so to the well-being of the state.

 

This acceptance of women's sexuality is further underlined by the fact that while Athenian plays demean and insult women (see any of Euripides' plays), the poems of Alkman, considered the most Spartan of all poets by the ancient Greeks, openly admire women.  His poems, written in the second half of the 7th century BC, were the lyrics of songs performed at public festivals by girls' choruses. Alkman also wrote poetry expressing his own adoration of the Spartan girls he worked with.  He was considered by ancient scholars to be the first love poet – a notable distinction for the poet whom the ancients viewed as "the most Spartan"!

None of Alkman's texts can be classed as pornographic, but many modern commentators assert – because the texts of the lyrics, designed to be sung by girls' choruses, praise the girls' beauty – that the songs were lesbian in nature.  This is nonsense.  Boys' and men's choruses sang about bravery and girls about beauty because those were the virtues admired in each respective group.  What the texts (and the fact that Alkman was so revered in Sparta) tell us is that the Spartans enjoyed light-hearted music and tributes to female beauty in a public context -- not merely in the back alleys of the red-light district.

 Furthermore, while female sexuality was recognized and respected, Spartan males were expected to find sexual satisfaction within marriage.  Thus Sparta was reputed to have no brothels at all within the city limits, and Spartans claimed to know neither whores nor adultery.  To date, the archaeological evidence supports the assertion that there were no brothels in Sparta, and the absence of heterosexual (as with homosexual) pornographic artwork further supports the thesis that in contrast to other cities, sex in Sparta was a private – rather than a public – affair. 

Given the fact that Spartan sexuality was so different from that of the other Greeks, it is not surprising that foreign observers of Sparta in the archaic and classical periods have a great deal to say about Spartan sexual relations.  The fact that the most famous adulteress of ancient myth, Helen of Troy, was Spartan contributed to the general view of Spartan women as licentious, a view explicitly underlined by Aristotle in his diatribe against Spartan women.  The legal right to "wife sharing" further influenced the view of women as sexually uncontrolled – even though the law was clearly designed to serve the state's need for new generations of citizens, not women's lust, and could only occur with the husband's consent.

Likewise, the fact that Spartan women were educated, outspoken, and seen in public elicited universal condemnation from other Greeks.  Thus Euripides says in Andromache: "Spartan girls could not be chaste even if they wanted to. They leave home, and with naked thighs and their dresses loosened, they share the running tracks and gymnasiums with the young men."  It was inconceivable to an Athenian that a woman could go to school with boys and engage in sports in front of boys without becoming sexually degraded as well.  Modern readers, however, should not lose sight of the fact that Athenian playwrights were attacking their enemy when they described Spartans.  Describing the wives of an enemy as whores and the men as "faggots" was (and still is) a common – if juvenile – means of belittling a foe. 

In conclusion, contemporary sources suggest that Sparta was not a particularly homoerotic society, and certainly there was no institutionalized pederasty or homosexual behavior prior to the mid-5th century BC. On the contrary, in Sparta women's sexuality was not only recognized but respected and to a degree encouraged.  Spartan artifacts furthermore suggest that Sparta was indeed more prudish than other Greek societies.  The evidence suggests that sex in Sparta was a private matter, sought inside marriage, rather than public entertainment pursued at symposia and on the streets as in Athens. The Spartan ideal of sex was an activity between equals, not an act of domination by an adult male upon a child, a slave, or an illiterate and powerless wife.

My depiction of Spartan society in the Leonidas Trilogy is based on the above analysis and pederasty plays no role in the agoge.



    

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