Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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."


"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.....

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

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