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."

"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:



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