Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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.





2 comments:

  1. Sigh. Still have to get tot he third volume; "A Heroic King." LOL

    Reading "Astrophysics for people in a hurry" right now.

    But I'll get to it!

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  2. "Astrophysics" even for people is beyond my limited brain capacity. All I can do is write. Hope you will eventually get to not just "A Heroic King" but the Jerusalem Trilogy as well.

    ReplyDelete