Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding Gorgo - "...only Spartan women give birth to sons."


If "with it or upon it" is the most famous quote attributed to Spartan women, the claim that only Spartan women "gave birth to men" is the second most famous. It is also materially different from the anonymous and vague versions of the "with-it-or-upon-it" quote.  First, it is specifically attributed to a real historical character (Queen Gorgo, the wife of King Leonidas of Thermopylae fame). Second, the context is explicit. According Plutarch, who recorded the sayings, Gorgo was asked by a woman from Athens "why it was that only Spartan women ruled their men." The greater detail and the fact that the exchange almost certainly took place in Athens (since Athenian women could rarely leave their homes much less their cities), increases the credibility of the quote and the probability that it was said -- if not by Gorgo -- by a real Spartan woman.

But what on earth does it mean? I've had many people dismiss the quip as "sheer nonsense." Yet the answer was far more than a witty retort; it was a profound commentary on the differences between Athenian and Spartan society. 
Readers need to keep in mind that at no time in Spartan history was Sparta “ruled” by women. Spartan women were hardly Amazons who scorned men and took to the battlefield themselves.  Spartan women could not vote in the Spartan Assembly, and they could not be elected to office, not the Gerousia, the ephorate, or other lesser positions. Every contemporary of Gorgo knew this, so the question was never meant to suggest Spartan women had political power, but rather that they had influence over their menfolk to an exceptional, indeed “unnatural,” degree.



As Gorgo’s answer likewise illuminates, Spartan women did not live separate, lesbian lives, disconnected and divorced from their male relations and focused on themselves.  The image of Spartan women living apart and satisfying their sexuality among themselves is a modern myth, based on the patently false misconception that Spartan males were “far away” “most” of the time.  In fact, ancient wars were short affairs and only conducted during the campaign season, so that Spartan husbands were never gone more than a few months of the year and that very rarely. (Not until the Peloponnesian war did Sparta campaign year after year; throughout the archaic period Sparta was at war only sporadically with many years of peace in between.) Furthermore, the barracks and messes at which Spartan men ate were much closer to the temples, markets and public buildings at which the women congregated than the work-places of most modern (commuting) husbands.

On the contrary, Spartan women viewed their role as completely integral and indeed traditional.  As Gorgo’s reply underscores, a Spartan woman’s principal contribution to society – like that of her Athenian counterpart – was to produce the next generation of (male) citizens.  There was nothing odd, offensive or sinister about respectable women in the ancient world identifying with the role of mother.  The idea that women might have other societal functions other than wives and mothers is a relatively new historical phenomenon and far from accepted in many parts of the world from Afghanistan to Africa.



As Gorgo so brilliantly summarizes the situation, the difference between Spartan women and the women in the rest of the ancient world was not one of a fundamentally different role, but rather a difference in the way men viewed that role.  

Athens was a virulently misogynous society. Its greatest philosophers viewed women as “permanent children” and the doctors attributed everything from stomach illness to asthma in women to a “wandering womb,” for which the best cure was sex (with the woman’s owner/husband of course.) Women could not inherit property, nor indeed control more money than was needed to purchase a bushel of grain. They were largely uneducated and almost all were illiterate, so it is hardly surprising that their educated, usually significantly older husbands considered them congenitally stupid. The discrepancy between the education and maturity of husbands and illiteracy and tender age of wives was aggravated by the fact that female children were fed less nutritious food in smaller quantities than their brothers.  They were also denied fresh air and any kind of exercise. The result was females stunted both physically and mentally, married as soon as they became sexually mature, and usually dead by the age of 30 or 35. In short, Athens' laws and customs condemned women to ignorance, stunted grown and an early grave – assuming they were allowed to live at all.



There is little doubt that in Athens far more female infants were exposed than males. As it was aptly put in an Athenian law case, even a poor man would raise a son, while even a rich man would expose a daughter. The archaeological evidence supports the historical record; Athens suffered from a severe demographic imbalance in favor of males, something that is most similar to sex ratios in China and India where the systematic murder of female infants (either as embryos through abortion or after birth through exposure or neglect) is still widespread.

Sparta did not suffer either from the misogyny that created the imbalance in the population or from the consequences. Furthermore, Spartan girls received the same food as their brothers, attended the same school as their brothers until puberty, receiving thereby not only the same level of education but the opportunity to exercise in the fresh air. Spartan law also prohibited the marriage of girls "before they were old enough to enjoy sex," yet encouraged men to marry before the age of thirty ensuring that there was a far smaller age difference between the partners in Spartan marriage than in Athenian ones.

Returning to Gorgo's retort, her wit was razor sharp in noting that it was Spartan society as a whole, but particularly the men who had created the Spartan constitution, that had enabled women to enjoy the freedoms they did. This is how I put this exchange n context in Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King:

Eukoline shoved her veil off her head and turned on Gorgo to ask in a tone that mixed disapproval with amazement, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule your men?” She did not mean it as a compliment.

“Because we are the only women who give birth to men!” Gorgo snapped back.

“As if I hadn’t given birth to two sons?” Eukoline retorted indignantly. “Athens has five times the number of citizens Sparta has!” she added proudly.

“Athens has 40,000 males who think that making clever speeches is the pinnacle of manliness.” All Gorgo’s pent-up anger at what she had seen since her arrival [in Athens] boiled over. “That’s why they are afraid to educate their daughters and keep their women in the dark ― physically and mentally!” Gorgo could not resist adding, “Sparta’s men prove their manhood with their spears and need not dismiss good advice just because it comes from the mouths of women!”


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Thursday, November 1, 2018

"With it or Upon it!" - Ruthless Mothers -- or Ruthless Propaganda?



Nothing has shaped the image of Spartan women in the popular imagination more than the alleged admonishment of Spartan mothers to their sons to return from war either with their shield or upon it. The image of brave mothers who would prefer to see their sons dead rather than disgraced has captured the imagination. Hollywood gave this supposed tradition a prominent place in the film “Three Hundred Spartans”, and Steven Pressfield eulogized Spartan mothers for this attitude in his blog on warriors. 

Yet there are a number of oddities about this stalwart feature of the popular view of Spartan society which suggest that it like so many aspects of conventional wisdom about Sparta may be a complete fabrication.

Let’s start by looking at the sources. Plutarch includes no less than seventeen “sayings” that he attributes to “Spartan women”, all of which appear to corroborate a widespread attitude among Spartan matrons consistent with the laconically expressed sentiment “with it or upon it”. In no less than three of these, fiercely patriotic mothers kill, with their own hands, cowardly sons who have failed to live up to their ideal. In others, the mothers revile their sons in insulting language for example, suggesting they crawl back into the womb. In their mildest form, these sayings portray matrons who have lost sons in battle cheerfully going about their business rather than grieving. In two, when a mother learns of the death of a son from another male relative (in one case a second son and in the other her brother), she suggests that he (the relative) join the dead. In one, a woman is even portrayed losing five sons in battle but announcing she is glad because the battle itself was won.

Aside from the fact that undoubtedly many of these sayings are simply different versions derived from the same original source, almost all are anonymous. I am always suspicious of anonymous sources regardless of context, and this fact alone makes me question the veracity of the sayings. Admittedly, since it was considered dishonorable for an (Athenian) woman to be talked about, one might argue that Plutarch did not name names (or his sources didn’t) out of respect for the women involved; but that does not explain why the cowardly sons chastised or murdered by their mothers much less the heroic sons whose deaths are not mourned are not identified. Surely there was no reason not to name cowards and heroes, since this would shame the former and honor the latter in future generations?

In addition to the issue of anonymity, the sayings lack any kind of detail that would enable them to be dated or otherwise put into context. This likewise detracts from their authenticity. They are all vague and generic, as if they are at best apocryphal or at worst bad fiction.

But the sayings are implausible for two concrete reasons as well. First, given the fact that Sparta fought most of her battles far from home, one wonders how the sons of these patriotic matrons managed not only to break the Spartan line and flee the battle, but also to escape the wrath of their comrades and the discipline of their officers? Presumably the Spartan army had very little tolerance for cowards, so the sons had to desert from the army altogether and sneak back to Lacedaemon to seek the aid of their mothers. Here, others sources tell us, they would be treated as “tremblers” and suffer civic sanctions. This begs the question of why any Spartan who failed to do his duty in war would risk being seen in Sparta at all and what they could possibly expect of their mothers?

Second, and even more telling against the probability that these sayings are genuine, is the simple fact that Spartans buried their dead near the field where they fell. This means that the last half of the famous saying “with it [your shield] or upon it” is utter nonsense. Sparta’s battle dead were not brought home on their shields, but as Nigel Kennel puts it in Spartans: A New History (p. 157), “served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project power”. No Spartan mother would have been unaware of this custom.

Turning from the issue of authenticity, let’s reflect more closely on the content of the sayings. At their best, the sayings portray a soldierly ideal of “do or die” being reinforced and shared even by that one element of any society that would be most easily forgiven for not supporting it: the mothers of soldiers. Telling a son in the abstract to return victorious or not at all is certainly not unique to Sparta. Patriotic mothers have allegedly done that in every society caught up in what the women believed to be a just war.

Yet the sayings collected by Plutarch go considerably further. They portray women who are so patriotic that they rejoice at the death of their sons, or tell surviving sons to follow the example of their dead brothers. Worse, in three cases the mothers are so fanatical as to kill their sons with their own hands. Is there anything appealing, attractive, or admirable about such creatures?

The answer is no and, I believe, that is exactly as it was intended to be. I believe these sayings did not originate in Sparta at all.

Why would the Spartans have had an interest in remembering and repeating incidents (five of Plutarch’s sayings) in which Spartan soldiers first failed to absorb the ethos of their society and then fled in the face of the enemy to run home to their mothers? These sayings, after all, don’t just portray ideologically radicalized mothers (who incidentally failed to raise their sons to share their values), but young men who singularly fail to live up to the ideal of their society as a whole. The young men who return alive have ostensibly all gone through the Spartan agoge and are members of Spartan dining clubs and soldiers in her army. And yet, according to these sayings, they still don’t live by the code. In short, these sayings imply, the entire Spartan upbringing was highly ineffective. It hardly seems reasonable that the Spartans would have an interest in recording and remembering such young men no matter how patriotic their mothers were.

Furthermore, if the purpose was to reinforce the ethos of “victory or death”, then anonymous women and anonymous sons would have been blunt, indeed useless, instruments. It would have been more effective to name names -- to tell how the survivors of Thermopylae (with name and patronymic) were reviled by their named mothers? If the Spartans wanted to make examples of patriotic mothers, they would have chosen real incidents from real wars and identified the brave women and their abhorrent sons by name. Nor would they have made the mistake of suggesting that Sparta’s victorious dead were brought home on their shields.

Sparta’s enemies, on the other hand, had no need for real names or real battles and no need to be particularly accurate about details (like where one buries one’s dead), because the intended audience was domestic. If the purpose of these sayings was to reinforce the “Feindbild” (the image of the enemy) to make sure that even Sparta’s women were seen as enemies then the more generic the stories were, the better. That way they became applicable to all times, to every battle, to every enemy soldier, to every Spartan mother.

I believe these sayings attributed to Spartan women were, in fact, enemy propaganda. They were intended to portray the women even the “little old ladies” of Sparta as repulsively different from normal (read: good) Athenian/Theban/Arcadian mothers, who naturally all adore their sons. The point is to depict Spartan women (always the object of horrified fascination on the part of other Greek males) as lacking even that most primeval of all instincts: the maternal instinct. Spartan mothers are shown to be unnatural, unfeminine creatures that deserve no sympathy even in their adversity. The sayings tell Sparta’s enemies that there is no need to pity Sparta’s women as one did, for example, the Trojan women. Go ahead, the sayings insinuate, kill their sons; because if we don’t kill them in battle, the abominations in female form who gave them life, the Spartan mothers themselves, will kill them when they get home.

As enemy propaganda against Sparta, these sayings had another even subtler message: namely, that Sparta’s legendary hoplites were really just a bunch of cowardly mama’s boys. Collectively these sayings suggest that Spartan soldiers, far from fighting to the death even in a hopeless situation, would run all the way home to their mothers, if only they got the chance. Why should any normal Athenian/Theban/Arcadian young man fear an army made up of a bunch of mama's boys?

As propaganda devised by Sparta’s enemies, these sayings served a dual purpose. First, they contributed to the overall image of Spartan women as repulsive, because they showed that in addition to being licentious as young women and adulterous as wives, Spartan women were heartless mothers. Second, they counteracted the legendary image of Sparta’s men as the spiritual descendants of Leonidas’ legendary band of 300, ready to fight tooth and nail even in a hopeless situation.

As propaganda intended for a domestic audience, these sayings diminished fear, bolstered courage, and undermined any sense of identification with the foe. And as such, they tell us something about Sparta’s enemies and their need to counter awe of Sparta’s young men and sympathy for Sparta’s mothers. What they do not do is tell us anything whatsoever about Spartan women.

What is tragic is that so many modern readers take them at face value.

The above essay first appeared in "Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History," Vol. 7, Issue 4, 2011, pp.24-26. It is reprinted here with the permission of the editors of "Sparta."

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



    

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