Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The World's First Non-Agression Pact

Despite the undoubted effectiveness of Sparta's professional army, its foreign policy relied on diplomacy as much as the force of arms to solve its differences with neighboring city-states.  In fact, the Spartans demonstrated an acute appreciation of the limits of their power and of their vulnerability, which in turn gave rise to a cautious foreign policy that relied heavily on effective diplomacy. Among other astonishing accomplishments, Sparta produced the first known permanent alliance system in history, comparable to NATO: the Peloponnesian League. It all began with Tegea...


Herodotus records that sometime before the Persian invasion and probably in the mid-6th Century BC as we reckon time, the Spartans became restless and wanted to conquer their northern neighbors in Arkadia. As the Spartans were wont to do, they sent to Delphi for advice and received the following Oracle:

Arkadia? Great is the thing you ask. I will not grant it.
In Arkadia are many men, acorn-eaters,
And they will keep you out. Yet, for I am not grudging.
I will give you Tegea to dance in with stamping feet
And her fair plain to measure out with the line.

Taking this to mean that they would be successful, the Spartan army invaded Tegea only to suffer a devastating defeat. As Herodotus explains: “…and those who were taken prisoner were forced to wear on their own legs the chains they had brought, and to ‘measure out with the line’ the plain of Tegea as laborers. In my own lifetime, the fetters they were bound with were still preserved in Tegea, hanging up around the temple of Athene Alea.” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, 66)

Although Herodotus does not tell us just how many Spartiates were killed or captured, it is clear that Sparta was both defeated and that a significant number of citizens surrendered. (Incidentally demonstrating that Sparta did not have any kind of a “do or die” mentality!) Indeed, Herodotus suggests that Sparta suffered more than one defeat saying they “continually” had the worst of it against Tegea and “a long series of reverses” until the reigns of Anaxandridas and Ariston. These kings certainly lived in the second half of the 6th century and under their leadership, Sparta sent for a second oracle from Delphi.  This told them:
In Arkadia lies Tegea in the level plain,
Where under strong constraints two winds are blowing;
Smiting in there and counter-smiting, and woe on woe;
The earth, the giver of life, holds Agamemnon’s son.
Bring him home, and you will prevail over Tegea.

At this point, a clever Spartiate, Lichas, learned that a smith in Tegea had discovered a coffin ten feet long with a skeleton inside that was just as large. Interpreting this as the body of Orestes, Lichas reported what he had heard to the Gerousia. The Spartans pretended he had committed some crime and exiled him. He returned to the forge, explained what had happened and leased the plot of land with the bones. In secret, he then dug up the bones and brought them back to Sparta, and, according to Herodotus, “ever since that day the Lacedaemonians in any trial of strength had by far the better of it.”

But that is only half the story, for -- despite having recovered what was believed to be Orestes’ bones -- Sparta refrained from launching a new war against Tegea and negotiated a non-aggression pact instead.

Why? Herodotus is silent on this, so we are left to speculate.

We know Sparta opted to negotiate with Tegea rather than to resort to arms. We also know that the resulting “non-aggression” pact became a pro-type of all subsequent agreements with other cities in the Peloponnese, and so the core of the Peloponnesian League. We also know that a key feature of this agreement was that Sparta agreed to assist Tegea against external enemies (presumably they were thinking of Argos), but also that Tegea agreed to assist Sparta against internal revolts. This suggests that recognition of the threats inherent in a large subject population may have induced Sparta to seek an alliance in place of conquest. A number of historians point out that the end of the Tegean conflict probably fell in the lifetime and possibly the Ephorate of Chilon the Wise, and postulate that this universally respected Spartan leader may have been the voice of reason that held Sparta back from new aggression.

The course of history: the attack, defeat, new appeal to Delphi, successful relocation of “Orestes” and then the astonishing restraint demonstrated by Sparta in not attacking again suggest that Spartan society was probably divided between “hawks” and “doves.” Far from being a monolithic society with a single will and a robot-like population, Sparta was a complex society inherently vulnerable to internal division by the peculiar institution of the dual kingship. Since the Kings were equal in all things, any fundamental policy differences between the kings led inevitably to political strife. Each king could be assured support from his own relatives, friends, and clients in both the Gerousia and Assembly. This means that each king would seek to win majorities by various means of persuasion and the same kind of political maneuvering we are familiar with today in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. The “hawks” won the first round; the “doves” – very probably led by Chilon the Wise – won the second round.

The above hypothesis is the basis for my novel The Olympic Charioteer. The novel opens in Tegea, after Sparta’s defeat. In the absence of any historical record about the political system in Tegea at this time, I have used Tegea to portray one of the characteristic political developments of the period: the rise of tyrants on the backs of increasing political demands by the hoplite-class against the aristocratic elite. The novel moves from Tegea to Sparta, where the internal divisions between two factions in Sparta are revealed. The central character of the novel is one of the Spartiates taken captive in the Spartan defeat: a young man, who just before the start of the war had driven his father’s chariot to victory at the Olympic games.

For more visit my website: http://schradershistoricalfiction.com

Two cities at war
Two men with Olympic ambitions
And one slave
The finest charioteer in all Hellas.

This is the story of a young man’s journey from tragedy to triumph, and the founding of the first non-aggression pact in recorded history.


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Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Fateful Assembly – An Excerpt from “A Heroic King”


As I noted at the start of this month, the Spartan Assembly was far from docile or powerless. Here’s a fictional account of what a Spartan Assembly might have been like.





Polymedes called for order. The paean was sung, the sacrifice made, a priest read the entrails and declared all was in order: the Assembly could proceed.



Polymedes cleared his throat. “King Cleomenes died without a direct male heir. Since women cannot inherit, the Agiad throne passes by right to Cleomenes’ closest male relative, his eldest half-brother on his father’s side ―”



A cheer went up from Brotus’ faction, dissolving into a chant of “Brotus!”



Brotus, with a look of triumph in Leonidas’ direction, started toward to join the Council.



Polymedes raised his hand and shouted, “Wait!”



Although Polymedes could hardly be heard above the enthusiastic cheers of Brotus’ friends, his gesture was unmistakable.  Meanwhile, from the back of the Assembly, a counter-chant of “Vote! Vote! We demand a Vote!” went up.



Brotus turned to his followers and gestured for them to calm down. “We will, of course, await the vote of this sacred Assembly. According to the law, the Assembly has the final say!” He said this pointedly to Leonidas.



“Of course,” Leonidas agreed, speaking to be heard even to the outer fringes of the crowd. “The Assembly’s vote is final ― which is why the proposal needs to be debated. The Council has ruled that no woman can be king of Sparta and that my brother Cleomenes should be followed by his closest male relative. The question is who that is.”



“The Council ruled that it was his eldest half-brother,” Brotus corrected smugly.



“But who is that?” Alkander asked, looking ― to Leonidas’ bafflement ― no less smug than Brotus.



“I demand to hear the testimony of the wet nurse!” Euryleon shouted.



“Wet nurse?” Brotus looked around, bewildered.



“Your wet nurse.” Euryleon faced Brotus, looking him straight in the eye, confronting him defiantly with obvious pleasure.



“If you’ve dredged up Dido out of a slum someplace to lie on Leo’s behalf, don’t think it will work!” Brotus flung his remark at Leo to show his utter contempt for Euryleon. To the rest of the Assembly, he announced. “Dido was Leonidas’ wet nurse. Of course, she’ll lie for him. Her word is worthless.”



“And Polyxo?” Euryleon asked with obvious amusement.



“She nursed me. She knows the truth!” Brotus confirmed.



Euryleon turned and beckoned to Aristodemos and Eurytus. The two meleirenes had been standing in the doorway to the Temple of Athena of Counsel as if on guard duty. Now, however, they disappeared inside the temple to re-emerge on either side of a fat, frightened helot woman.  Leonidas would not have recognized her as Brotus’ nurse.  Her round face was flabby, her white hair thin. Her eyes, half lost in the folds of skin around them, darted nervously without fixing on anything, while her shallow, gasping breath was audible.



The woman was brought to the front of the Canopy, while the men at the back craned their necks to get a look at her and one asked another what was going on.  Polymedes asked her name, her patronymic, her profession, and then if she had anything to say that was relevant to the debate. “I ― I ―” she started in a breathy voice no one could hear and Polymede ordered her to speak up.



“I was there ― at the birth of the twins!” she squealed in a high-pitched voice that now reached the back of the crowd.



“Tell us what happened,” Polymedes urged.



“I was standing beside the midwife. The queen was having a terrible time and the first baby, when it came, seemed lifeless. The midwife cut the cord in haste and handed it to me because she could see the second baby was already on the way. I thought the first baby was dead, so I handed it off to my cousin Dido in order to help with the second baby. The second baby was much bigger and stronger than the first, and he screamed lustily when we cut the cord. I put him to my breast at once and cherished him like he was my own little boy.” Tears were by now streaming down her face. Although her account was by no means audible at the back, it was very audible to the Council, the ephors, and those in the front rows, including Brotus and Leonidas.



Brotus leaped forward as if he would strike the old woman, roaring out: “Traitor! Liar! Filthy helot slut!”



Leonidas only stared at the woman, stunned. Then he looked from Alkander to Euryleon and back to Polyxo. The old woman was blubbering, holding out her hands to Brotus, and calling him by his baby names. “My little puppy! My baby bull! I loved you! I loved you!” she wailed.



“I'll kill you!” Brotus screamed and had to be held back by his own supporters.



Polymedes was calling for order, while the gist of Polyxo’s message was relayed to the back of the Assembly from those in front. When the citizens at the back realized what Polyxo had said, the commotion in the Canopy grew louder and louder. Leonidas couldn’t hear what was being said by everyone, but the exclamations sounded more amazed than outraged. Here and there someone whooped as if in triumph. That would be one of the young men, most likely one of last year’s eirenes; they had become his staunchest admirers.



Meanwhile, the smooth Talthybiades was asking for the floor. Polymedes demanded order, and eventually, an uneasy, anticipatory silence spread across the floor of the Canopy. He nodded to Talthybiades.



“The testimony of this woman, who claims to be Cleombrotus’ wet nurse, is very dramatic. My compliments to my fellow citizens,” Talthybiades bowed to Alkander and Euryleon with a supercilious smile on his thin lips, “for dredging her up and for ― shall we say? ― persuading her to tell such a ― how should I word it? ― plausible but transparently partisan tale.”



There were grunts and nods of assent from Brotus’ faction, but farther away a young man shouted: “Just because it doesn’t suit you, Talthybiades, doesn’t make it false!” This remark also won an audible share of approving comments.



Talthybiades ignored them and continued in his precise, magistrate's voice, “Has Leonidas no credible witness to bring forward? Does no one other than a Kytheran whore and a blubbering helot woman speak on his behalf?”



“Do you consider me a credible witness, Talthybiads?” The question came from Epidydes, the youngest councilman and former headmaster.



Talthybiades was genuinely astonished by the question. He agreed instantly, “No one could doubt your credibility and integrity, Epidydes ― but with all due respect, you were not in the birthing chamber when the Agiad twins were born.”



“No, but I was present when King Anaxandridas brought his twin sons to the agoge for enrollment.” Epidydes got to his feet and moved front and center. Polymedes instantly and instinctively took a step back to make way for him.



Epidydes raised his voice and his eyes swept the crowd.  He had been headmaster of the agoge for more than thirty years, and in that time most of the citizens now assembled had passed through his upbringing. Some, like Leonidas and Brotus, had known no other headmaster and would never be entirely free of their awe of him.  The elder men, in contrast, respected him precisely because they had known his infamous predecessor, while the younger citizens had suffered under his successor and remembered Epidydes with nostalgia.  There could be no question that if one man had influence in this Assembly it was Epidydes.



The silence that gripped the Assembly was correspondingly profound. The sound of some helot workman hammering in the distance could be heard distinctly. A light breeze from the invisible Eurotas was a breath of sweetness among the sweating men. No one dared move or even breathe as they waited for Epidydes to continue.



“King Anaxandridas came to me, flanked by his boys,” Epidydes continued. “Brotus was noticeably bigger and stronger, making him look a year older than Leonidas.” Leonidas remembered that, too, and Brotus was grinning again ― or rather, leering at Leonidas with malicious satisfaction. But the old headmaster wasn’t finished. He added, “Leonidas was on the king’s right.”



The Assembly erupted. Bortus was shouting again, first “Liar!” and then, after Orthryades rebuked him, “It was just chance. Chance! It meant nothing!” Meanwhile, from the back, other men started cheering, calling, and chanting, “Leonidas! Leonidas! Leonidas!”



For the second time this morning, Leonidas was stunned. He could picture the scene from more than thirty years ago as if it were yesterday; his own anxiety, the way the instructors had fawned over Brotus because he was so big and strong, and then the way Epidydes came around his desk to approach him, saying, “Then you must be Leonidas.” But because, at the time, he did not know the significance of standing on the right, he had taken no notice of the fact ― until now.



With a sense of amazement, he realized he had indeed been on his father’s right. And no Spartan king was unaware of the significance of such a position; his father had given him the place of honor.



Polymedes moved for a vote. Brotus was furiously protesting, denying that Leonidas was the firstborn, but the roar of “ayes” for the motion was deafening, and the “nays” came out like embarrassed whimpers form men too tied to Brotus to risk abandoning him despite the evidence.




Saturday, September 1, 2018

The World's First Democracy

The Spartan constitution, commonly dated to the early 7th century BC, is the first known constitution that vested supreme power in the hands of an Assembly composed of all citizens.  Thus, Sparta was the first known functioning democracy – roughly 150 years before the introduction of democracy in Athens.


 
As is typical of early, innovative institutions, later modifications introduced in other cities made the Spartan democracy appear conservative as time went by.  Sparta, for example, never entirely freed itself of its kings.  Two jointly ruling hereditary monarchs from different families held restricted and mostly ceremonial functions throughout Sparta's history as an independent state – very much as the English monarchy functions today.

Another notoriously conservative aspect of the Spartan constitution was the Council of Elders, or Gerousia.  Although this body was elected, as were similar institutions in other cities, the Elders had to be over 60 years of age and were elected for life.  In consequence, they were not subject to the most effective of democratic censures: the need to be re-elected.

Nevertheless, Sparta's constitution clearly gave precedence to the Assembly.  The Assembly, which is believed to have met on a monthly basis, was composed of all adult male citizens.  Although it could vote only on the bills presented by the Council, the common misconception that the Assembly could only vote yes or no is belied by accounts of lively (not to say rowdy) debates.  (Note, also, that modern legislatures also vote on bills presented and do not evolve legislation spontaneously during debate.)  Certainly, the Spartan Assembly was powerful enough to exile kings.  Nevertheless, the Spartan Assembly never attained the absolute tyranny of the Athenian Assembly – a point praised widely by ancient writers, who saw in Sparta's more balanced (bicameral) democracy a means of controlling the fickleness of the mob.  Most people today, used to representational democracy, would feel more comfortable in Sparta's democracy than in that of Athens, where many officials were chosen by lottery and the votes of illiterate and impoverished citizens were easily manipulated and purchased by demagogues.


Nevertheless, the Spartan Assembly is often disparaged today as a body of dumb, illiterate, automatons, a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Kings, Gerousia and ephors.  This view of the Spartan Assembly is based on constitutional provisions that appear to have restricted debate, the absence of secret ballots, and the assumption that Sparta’s notoriously obedient soldiers would “take orders” in the Assembly just as they did on the battlefield. 

However, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not automatons who wait for orders, but instead thinking, self-confident men who take the initiative and act without – or even against – orders, if necessary.  Furthermore, the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea is a dramatic case in point demonstrating that Spartans didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield.  It further highlights the fact that commanders in the Spartan army did not command obedience:  Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Last but not least, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out to act as advisers to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.

Second, the Assembly had real powers, officially more than the kings.  The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia, whenever vacancies occurred in the latter due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation.  The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions such as Pausanius and Phoebidas.  Thus, despite the inability to introduce legislation and the public nature of the vote, the Spartan Assembly did exercise real power.

Most important, however, the Spartan Assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite is unlikely to have been docile. The men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world rose through the ranks of the army – and all had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Even if some citizens were indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there would have been ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority.  Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as is demonstrated by the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” = not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well!

What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment.  Sparta’s citizens were not docile or mindless pawns, but thinking and responsible citizens with a say in the policies of their city-state. The differences between Athenian and Spartan democracy were many, and both were imperfect from the modern standpoint, but the Spartan citizen’s individual status within his polity should not be denigrated. Sparta was very much a democracy in any sense of the word.

The Spartan Assembly plays a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


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