Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Spartan Secret to Loving Life


Sparta’s enemies allegedly joked that it was no wonder the Spartans were willing to die in battle -- because no one would have liked to live the way they did. Aside from the fact that these commentators probably knew very little about the way Spartans actually lived, the assumption is that lack of luxury and the pervasive deprivation to which Spartans were condemned by their laws made them unhappy men.

Yet Xenophon, a noted Laconophile who lived and campaigned with Spartans for decades, argued the other way around: that precisely because the Spartans learned to get along with very little, they were actually happier. 

Today I uncover the Spartan secret to loving life.


Modern efforts to measure happiness have produced various indexes which prove that there is no direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Unscientifically, I would add that in my personal experience the Nigerians, surrounded by corruption, pollution and collapsing infrastructures, are much happier and have a greater joie de vivre than do the Norwegians, who have one of the highest standards of living and enjoy one of the most equitable and developed societies on earth.

Without getting too deeply into the philosophical topic of what constitutes happiness, I would like to suggest that happiness has less to do with objective circumstances and more to do with a state of mind. We all know that whether a glass is described as half empty or half full depends on whether the observer is a pessimist or an optimist. However, as my father pointed out: the optimist and the pessimist are both wrong – but the optimist is happier.

When outsiders looked at Spartiate society and (based on what they knew) decided such a life wasn’t worth living, they may indeed have accurately described how they would have felt if forced to live the way the Spartans did. However, they tell us nothing about the way the Spartans themselves felt. They are describing Spartan society as “half empty” – but that is not necessarily the way the Spartans saw it. The historian has to look beyond the opinion of outsiders and search for hints about Spartans attitudes toward their society.

Returning to the opening comment, I would argue that, in fact, men are very rarely willing to die for something they don’t think work preserving. Troops notoriously break, run and surrender when they have lost faith in what they are fighting for. If Spartan rankers thought that their way of life wasn’t worth living, then they would have welcomed defeat as a way of introducing revolution and constitutional reform. Indeed, if young Spartans thought the Spartan way of life was so abdominal that it was better to die than live as they were supposed to live, then idealistic young Spartans would have deserted to the Athenians in droves, helped defeat the oppressive regime they hated, and introduced Athenian-style democracy. In short, witty as the Athenian joke is – and it made me laugh out loud – it does not describe the Spartan frame of mind.

So how do we come closer to the Spartan attitude toward life? What made Spartans willing to die for Sparta? Was it really just a mindless fear of showing fear? A fanatical devotion to a code of honor? Or was Xenophon on the right track when he suggested that the Spartans learned to enjoy life – and love it better – by learning self-control and restraint?

As evidence of a certain, if not joie de vivre, at least contentment, I would like to first draw attention to those pieces of Spartan art that we have to date uncovered. Unlike the art of some warlike cultures (notably the Aztecs), Spartan art depicts many peaceful scenes: farm animals, lions and mythical beasts, bulls and horses (lots of horses!), riders with and without hunting dogs, chariots with horses and charioteers, girls running, married couples side-by-side, a king watching the correct weighing of goods for export, youths and maidens and hoplites, lots of hoplites. It is notable that the facial expressions on the human figures are uniformly benign. A convention certainly, but I would argue that a society that rarely smiled would not have conventionalized the smile as the expression in its art.

As witness to Sparta’s love of life I would also like to call Sparta’s most famous philosopher, Chilon. According to a variety of ancient sources, Chilon was the origin of the quintessential laconic advice “Know Thyself” – inscribed in the forecourt to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Maria Papadopoulos points out in her contribution to “Sparta: A city-state of Philosophers: Lycurgus in Montaigne’s essais” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 7, No. 1, July 2011), however, that this expression is a condensation of the longer command from Apollo to “know that you are not a God, know that you are mortal, know that the finitude called death is an irreducible component of life. Live accordingly.” If Papadopoulos is correct, then Chilon’s admonishment to “know thyself” was not so much advice to know one’s own abilities and limitations, but advice to live each day in anticipation of death.  In short, it meant much the same thing as “Carpe Diem,” a phrase usually translated as “use each day.” Arguably “using” each day is not the same as enjoying each day, and yet as Papadopoulos goes on to note: “The ancient Spartans trained hard but they enjoyed themselves [too]: feasts, dancing and singing, creative imagination and satirical banter and a temple dedicated to the God of Laughter….”

Combined, these fragments of evidence suggest that the Spartans themselves did not find their lifestyle so burdensome and certainly not intolerable. The “deprivations” and hard work that strangers found so depressing were in contrast of little importance in a society that learned to love life itself in full consciousness of its transience. A man who keeps in mind the alternative (death) loves even the simplest things in life. This, I postulate, was the secret of Spartan attitudes that can be interpreted as a very deep-seated love of life. 

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


    

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Spartan Arranged Marriage?

 In my last entry I discussed Spartan sexuality and its impact on sexual relations and marriage. One of the most famous marriages in Spartan history was the marriage of King Leonidas to his niece Gorgo.  She was the daughter of his half-brother Cleomenes and it is usually assumed that the marriage was purely political and dynastic. Yet given what we know about Sparta -- and Gorgo -- I think we can assume she had something to say about it. In A Peerless Peer I speculated a little. Join me in eavesdropping on a conversation between Leonidas and Gorgo.



Leonidas looked over at [Gorgo], but she was looking down self-consciously at her hands. “Just when did you come up with this idea that I should marry you?”

She shrugged a little awkwardly. “It just sort of evolved … You know, when girls reach a certain age, they start looking at boys and speculating about which ones might make good husbands. We’re expected and encouraged to do that. And, well, I looked just like the others did, but the boys all seemed so …” she shrugged and then admitted, “scrawny and silly and oversexed. I realized I wanted someone like you, so I looked at the older men. But most of them were already married, and there was none I liked as much as you. It dawned on me that I didn’t want someone like you, I wanted you.” 

Leonidas looked at her skeptically. “You carried me home on your shoulders when I was lost, remember? You let me ride your colts so I could win races. You put your arm around me and made me feel wanted when everyone else ignored me. And best of all, you never seemed to notice that I wasn’t pretty.” She looked down as she said this, ashamed to meet his eyes, because tears were forming. 

“Because you are pretty, Gorgo. You are one of the prettiest girls in Lacedaemon. Who told you otherwise?” 

“My mirror, for a start!” Gorgo told him sharply, looking up to see if he was mocking or pitying her. He met her gaze and she found herself adding practically, “No one ever picks me to welcome home returning heroes or Olympic victors!” 

“Weren’t you waiting for me when I came back from Corinth?” 

“I cheated and rode ahead of the official welcoming event. Surely you noticed?” 

Leonidas laughed and put his arm over her shoulder, drawing her to him. “At the time, I thought nothing of it. You were always a bit wild and self-willed.” 

“Is that very bad?” 

“No,” Leonidas told her simply. “When did you decide to force the issue by going to the ephors?” 

Gorgo looked up at him uncertainly. His arm felt wonderful around her, and he seemed anything but hostile, and yet he was hardly acting like a lover, either. Just like her favorite uncle. “Well, my father started teasing me about who he was going to marry me to. One day it would be one tyrant, and the next day another. It was just a game to him. He liked to see me get angry and indignant. He liked to frighten me.”

“I had no idea.” Leonidas sounded upset—and that suggested a depth of sympathy Gorgo had not expected from any man. 

“Grandma says I provoked it. She says I shouldn’t have humiliated him in front of Aristagoras the way I did. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since. In the last few years we fought a lot, and I often accused him of being fickle and ineffective. He drives me crazy with his cynicism and plotting.” Leonidas snorted, because he agreed entirely. Gorgo continued, “But I suppose I shouldn’t tell him what I think of him as bluntly as I do. If I were him, I wouldn’t want me as a daughter, either,” she concluded honestly, making Leonidas laugh and hold her more firmly. She looked up at him uncertainly. 

“Go on. When did you decide to go to the ephors?” 

“After a particularly ugly scene with my father, when he said he had already sent word to Aristagoras offering me to him. Oh, Leo! If you knew the way that man looked at me! With hate in his eyes! He hated me just for being a girl and for hearing him plead with my father and then for speaking out. The thought of being married to him was unbearable! “Of course,” Gorgo admitted in a calmer tone, “I should have known Aristagoras would never agree to the marriage, since he despised me; but at the time, I was so upset I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned all night, trying to think what I could do. I knew I had to tell someone who could stop my father. But who had that power? My father doesn’t listen to anyone anymore, not even Grandma or Nikostratos. Then I thought of the ephors, and I realized they were the only people in all Lacedaemon who had the power to prevent my father from doing anything. I thought if they could force your father to have two wives, surely they could stop mine from giving me away to a foreigner. 

“But I foresaw that they might ask who I wanted instead. And I thought, why not tell them the truth? Why not name you, since you were free to marry? Uncle Leo! Don’t be angry with me anymore. Please! I know now that it was stupid of me. Grandma explained to me how stupid it was—how I put you in an impossible situation by naming you. But I didn’t mean to pressure you. Please don’t be angry.” She looked up at him and tears spilled out of her eyes, the emotional strain of the whole situation too much for her. 

Leonidas reached up his free hand and wiped her tears away. “How can I be angry at you for using your brains to serve your heart?” He paused to reflect on what he had just said, and then added, “As I said to Hilaira not so long ago, you are by far the cleverer of the two of us; and if you honestly think that being married to me would be a good thing, then who am I to disagree?” She swallowed and waited for the “but.” Instead, Leonidas continued, “So I’ve decided we should get married.” 

Gorgo started. “Just like that? But what do you want? I mean, why have you refused for the last month?” 

“Stubbornness. Ask anyone. It is my greatest weakness.” 

Gorgo frowned. Leonidas was infamous for being stubborn—or tenacious, if one wanted to word it more positively. “But what do you want?” Gorgo insisted. 

“That’s just it, Gorgo. I want to be married and start a family; and when I started thinking about all the young maidens down there,” he nodded in the vague direction of the city, “the bold ones flirting and preening and the shy ones blushing and awkward, I just couldn’t imagine being married to any of them. Hilaira has tried to interest me in one or another of them often enough, poor thing. But when I thought about being married to you, I realized it would be the simplest thing in the world.”

Gorgo looked at him, unsure if that was a compliment or not. “But you know that in addition to being stubborn to a fault, I am notorious for being law-abiding. I will not break the law, even for you.” 

“But what law? Your father married his niece—” Gorgo started to protest at once, and Leonidas held up his hand to silence her. 

“Lycurgus’ laws say it is illegal to marry a girl too young to enjoy sex.” Leonidas looked her straight in the eye. 

Although she blushed slightly, she met his gaze and said very steadily and deliberately, “You will not be breaking the law if you take me to wife.”

An Excerpt from: