Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Night at Thermopylae

Athough historians doubt the tale told by Diodorus of a Spartan raid into Xerxes camp on the night before the final battle at Thermopylae,
the story is just too good to exclude from a novel. Here's an excerpt from "A Heroic King," which describes how it may have come about.

By the time Dienekes and Oliantus reached Leonidas' tent, a heated argument was raging among Leonidas' closest friends. "For all we know, he's a fake, a plant, a traitor," Alkander was arguing.

"So what?" Prokles answered. "He came out of Xerxes camp, and he knows where the bastard's tent is."

"But why should he lead you to it?"

"Because I'll have a sword up his ass!"

"So he'll lead you to Hydarnes' tent, and when you're surrounded by Immortals, he'll squeal."

"So what? Then I die sooner rather than later. What the hell difference does it make? But if I can get him to lead me to the Great Asshole himself, there's a chance I could cut off the snake's head. If Xerxes is killed, that whole anthill won't be able to take another step!" Prokles was gesturing contemptuously toward the Persian positions. "They'll be headless -- or rather, all Xerxes' brothers will be so busy fighting one another for the throne, they won't have another thought for us. That's the real advantage of their polygamy, you know; they produce packs of royal whelps who hate one another more than anyone else in the world."

"And what do you propose to do? Stroll through the West Gate by the light of the full moon and say 'cheers' to Persians sentries as you walk past?"

"You're still a stupid little--"

"Prokles!" Leonidas cut him off and turned to Dienekes. "Everything alright?"

"Yes, an eager young lad by the name of Gylis is on his way right now. What's this all about?"

"We have in the form of this Tyrrhastiadas of Cyme," Prokles answered, "a man in our midst who knows the exact location of Xerxes' tent. He could lead me to it. All I need to do is slip inside --"

"The unguarded, isolated royal tent--" Alkander mocked sarcastically.

Leonidas clapped his hands once sharply to shut Alkander up, and Prokles continued, "And cut his throat. Then the whole war, let alone this battle, will be over."

Leonidas looked straight at Dienekes without a word.

"It sounds like a good idea to me. I'd say, six men. No more and no less."

"Why so many? THey'd just attract attention!" Prokles protested.

"The idea is too good to put all our hopes on the likes of you!" Dienekes retorted bluntly. "We should send in two teams of three men each. One can take the path that leads up from the Hot Gates over the spot where Xerxes had his throne. The helots can show the way up, and our deserter can show them the way down. The other three can take a fishing boat around to the back of the camp," he gestured vaguely toward the lights that dotted the dark stretch of the coast beyond the Malian Gulf. "From there they can ask their way to Xerxes' tent, which will hardly be a secret. Given the number of Ionian troops with the Great King's army, no one will take any note of a trio of Greek hoplites. We should have thought of this days ago."

"Choose the men, Dienekes -- anyone but yourself," Leonidas warned.

"For the three men to go over the mountain: Mindarus, Labotas, and Gallaxidoros. They're all born mountaineers, used to hunting in the harshest parts of Taygetos. For the sea route: Prokles here, Bulis, who speaks some Persian and has seen Xerxes face-to-face, and...." He paused for a moment, thinking carefully, before deciding, "Temenos."

Leonidas started slightly at this last choice, but he had told Dienekes to make the selection and had no grounds for calling his decision into question. "Fetch them," he ordered Meander.  

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Thermopylae: The Night Raid

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, related a story about the Battle of Thermopylae some 400 years earlier that was not recorded in Herodotus. Diodorus and other later historians claim that on the night of the second day of the battle, knowing that his flank had been turned, Leonidas sent a raid into the Persian camp in order to murder the Persian Emperor Xerxes. Most modern historians dismiss this tale as mere legend. Today I want to look more closely at the legend.

The Pass at Thermopylae as it looks today.

In his book on the Battle of Thermopylae, Ernle Bradford* both relates and dismisses the tale of a night raid in the following language: "Diodorus and others also tell a tale, which most authorities have considered suspect, that Leonidas, knowing all was lost, personally led a suicidal attempt on the Persian lines to try to kill Xerxes. We can be sure that this is untrue, for we know that Leonidas stayed to the last at Thermopylae, as was his duty and as befitted a Spartan king." (137)

Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire** is less conclusive commenting in a note that: "Several sources claim that Leonidas, on the eve of the Spartan' last stand, launched a raid on the royal tent and was killed. It is hard to know what is made of this story -- since Leonidas himself certainly died in battle -- unless it hints at a garbled memory of a foiled mission to assassinate Xerxes." (282)

As both historians emphasize, the notion of Leonidas leading a raid into the enemy camp on the eve of the final day of battle is both absurd and demonstrably untrue. First, the C-in-C of an large army composed of diverse allied forces does not take the role of a platoon leader. Leonidas was C-in-C because he commanded the trust and respect of the allied commanders; he could not risk the disintegration of the entire operation by exposing himself to unnecessary risk. Likewise, a Spartan king's place in the line of battle was very rigidly circumscribed by tradition. A Spartan king led from the front protected only by his personal guard, which included Olympic victors. It was considered a great honor in Sparta to be allowed to fight in front of the king. Finally and most importantly, Leonidas died far too publicly on the third day of battle. There were thousands of witnesses to his last hours on the Persian side who lived to tell about it. His corpse was fought over, then mutilated and displayed. Herodotus had the opportunity to speak with the survivors of Thermopylae and his account of Leonidas' death can be trusted in this. There is no way Leonidas led -- and died -- on a raid the night before.

But does that mean the raid itself is impossible? 

In his article "Thermopylae: A glorious sacrifice or failed 'black operation'" Stefanos Skarmintzos notes that Diodorus claims Leonidas had additional Laconian troops with him in addition to the 300 Spartiates of his personal guard. Certainly Spartan fielded 5,000 perioiki hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, and it is thus probably that Leonidas had at least some perioiki troops with him at Thermopylae as well. This may have included the Skiritan, Sparta's light cavalry scouts. Skarmintzos suggests Leonidas may have taken elements of the Krypteia with him as well. 

Assuming there was a Krypteia at this time (and more and more historians question this, arguing it was not created until after the helot revolt of 465), the members of such a unit would have been well-trained and experienced in both night operations and murder. Yet, even if the Krypteia had not yet been created, is it completely unreasonable to imagine some sort of equivalent to the British SAS or U.S. Navy Seals? If not a permanent institution, we should not forget that all Spartan hoplites were trained to move and operate in the dark and the creation of an ad hoc "special task force" to undertake a dangerous and secret mission is hardly unreasonable.

Furthermore, Leonidas had every reason to want to kill the tyrant who had initiated the invasion of the Greek peninsula. Yes, his personal mission was to command the defense at the Pass. That was his place and he knew it was his destiny to die there. However, that is not the same thing as assuming that everyone else was going to die with him or that the sacrifice of his life would be in vain, i.e. in a defeat. 

Leonidas did not go to Thermopylae to die. He went to halt the Persian invasion. His "job" was to do that anyway he could. The assassination of the man driving forward that invasion, of the supreme leader of an absolutist state, offered the prospect of, at a minimum, creating temporary confusion in the enemy camp and, at best, causing the entire invasion to collapse due to fights over the succession. If a spy or a scout suggested to Leonidas that it might be possible to smuggle Spartan (or other Greek) troops into the Persian camp with a chance of gaining access to Xerxes tent and killing him, Leonidas would have been a fool not to attempt such an operation. 

As Skarmintzos puts it: "If the night raid [had been] successful, today we would talk about the great victory at Thermopylae and how a few Greeks resisted the might of an Empire." Yet because it failed, we cannot be sure it ever happened at all. 

Like Stephen Pressfield, I find the notion of a night raid by a select body of Spartan troops tasked with eliminating the man who commanded the might of Persia irresistible as a novelist. A night raid, therefore, features in:

* Bradford, Ernle. Thermopylae: The Battle for the West.(New York: Da Capo Press, 1993)

** Holland, Tom, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (New York: Anchor Books, 2005)

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Captain from Kythera - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Eurybiades was the Spartiate elected admiral of the combined Greek fleet that faced the Persians in 480. We know almost nothing about him, but I knew he had to be a character in my biographical novel about Leonidas -- and I couldn't resist associating him with my own home: Kythera.

In this scene, an Aegian penteconter has been terrorizing Athenian shipping in Lacedaemonian waters, and Leonidas has joined his fledgling navy to try to intercept her. After successfully forcing her to surrender, the officers of the penteconter are brought aboard the Lacedaemonian trireme.

"The crew of the penteconter is first rate," the [Perioikoi] captain continued, "but then, that's what you'd expect of the Aeginans. It's no wonder their symbol is the sea turtle. No sooner is an Aeginan born that he waddles down to the sea and starts to swim. They can row and sail before they can talk."

Leonidas glanced back at their prize, and then forward to where two perioikoi marines were escorting the Aeginan officers to him. "But they failed to capture their prize," Leonidas pointed out.

"Pah! They never intended to capture her. They drove her on the rocks intentionally."

"Why would they do that?" Leonidas wanted to know. "There's no booty from a wrecked grain carrier."

The captain shrugged. "We'll have to ask them." He nodded toward the two prisoners. One was a grizzled veteran with shoulder-length hair, more grey than brown, and wearing the breastplate, greaves, and helmet of a marine. His face and arms were burned a dark brown from decades on decks in the blaze of the Mediterranean sun, and the lines around his eyes were cut deep into his skin. The other man looked much younger by contrast, although he was no youth. His almost-black hair was cut short at the back and his beard was neatly trimmed.

Leonidas started violently. The elder man was none other than his childhood friend Prokles, who had been exiled for dereliction of duty just before reaching citizenship. Almost as astonishing, he was accompanied by a young Spartiate, whose name escaped Leonidas at the moment.

"Prokles! What are you doing preying on innocent ships -- and under the turtle of Aegina?"

Prokles, who had been fussing at the guard and not focused on the men on the afterdeck, broke into a grin. "Well, I'll be damned! I never expected a landlubber like you to catch me off guard like that." He glanced at the perioikoi captain and nodded once in respect, giving credit where he thought it was due.

"You didn't answer my question," Leonidas pointed out and turned to the younger man, who at least had the decency to look worried, to add, "and you need to explain yourself, young man!"

"I went off active service at the winter solstice, my lord," he spoke up at once, "and I'm on leave from my syssitia."

"With what possible excuse?" Leonidas wanted to know.

"To look after my affairs, my lord. My estates are on Kythera."

"Since when did looking after your affairs include attacking innocent merchant ships?"

"That's the second time you've used the adjective 'innocent,'" Prokles pointed out. "But you are using the term inadvisably. The Aeginans provided our ship and are paying us. The Aeginans do not view Athenian ships as 'innocent,' while Eurybiades here has a grudge against the Argives, whose ships have been our principal target."

"The Argives burned my kleros to the ground and murdered every man, woman, and child on it," Eurybiades explained at once.

Leonidas well remembered the damage wrought by the Argives on Kythera, but he still did not approve of someone taking the law into his own hands. "In my waters, I'll decide who can be attacked and who can go free," Leonidas countered. 

"Your waters be damned!" Prokles spat in the direction of the side of the ship, and the perioikoi marines stiffened in alarm, looking to Leonidas for orders to put the impudent man in his place. Leonidas signaled for them to relax, even as Prokles continued. "Power has gone to your head, Leo. We didn't break any law. Can we help it if an Athenian captain puts his own ship on the rocks?"

Leonidas addressed himself to the baffled perioikoi marines, who appeared ready to slit Prokles' throat for his impudence. "Untie them. They will do us no harm." The perioikoi obeyed with obvious reluctance, and then moved a short distance away, both curious and suspicious.

Prokles demonstratively stretched and wriggled his shoulders, while Leonidas asked, "Just what are the terms of your commission with Aegina?"

Prokles shrugged. "Ask Eurybiades. He's the captain. I'm just the commander of marines."

Leonidas looked at the younger Spartiate, even more amazed. "How did you come by an Aeginan commission? And where did you learn seamanship?"

Eurybiades, his hands now free, gestured vaguely around them. "Here, my lord. I spent my holidays here, not just on Kythera, but on the waters around it."

"Who is your father?"

"Eurykleides, my lord."

The name was familiar. Eurykleides had a distinguished career behind him and had served once as ephor. He stood a good chance of election to the Gerousia when the next vacancy came up. Generally seen as conservative, he had nevertheless, Leonidas now remembered, spoken forcefully in favor of the building of a fleet, and he also supported the law to allow helots to improve their status through service on Lacedaemonian ships. 

"My mother killed herself when she realized the Argives had breached the wall of the courtyard," Eurybiades continued, breaking in on his thoughts. "My father remarried and has two younger sons by his second wife. I inherited my mother's property here."

"Where did you recruit the crew of the penteconter?" Leonidas asked next.

"Oh, mostly in Skandia."

"They're Kytheran, not Aeginan?" the perioikoi captain asked astonished.

"For the most part," Eurybiades agreed, "maybe a third are Aeginan."

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Spartan Admiral

In 480 BC, the Persian invasion of Greece was confronted at sea by a rag-tag fleet composed of 271 triremes and 16 penteconters. Although the bulk of this fleet (147 triremes) was built in Athens, the command was entrusted to a Spartan, Eurybiades, son of Eurycleides. He is a forgotten Spartan hero.

According to Herodotus, this was because “the other members of the confederacy [against Persia] had insisted on a Lacedaemonian commander, declaring that rather than serve under an Athenian they would break up the intended expedition altogether.” (The Histories: Book 8:2)

Herodotus rightly stresses the refusal of the allies to accept Athenian command, and this undoubtedly had historical reasons. Athens was not a significant sea power in the 6th century BC, and it did not build its massive fleet until after the discovery of silver in Laurium in 483 BC. In short, in 480, Athens was a parvenu naval power. The naval powers of the 6th Century, Corinth and Aegina, both had good reason to be wary of Athens. Aegina and Athens had been involved in an undeclared war for more than a decade, while Corinth and Athens were manufacturing centers that increasingly competed in trade. It is not, therefore, surprising that these and other cities rejected Athenian leadership. Noteworthy is that they wanted a Spartan commander. After all, Corinth provided the second largest contingent of ships (40 triremes) and four-times as many as Sparta’s modest if respectable contribution. Corinth, with a long history of naval power and such a significant number of ships, could have claimed command for itself.

That Corinth instead requested a Spartan commander cannot be dismissed as mere subservience to Sparta. Corinth was the city that had forced Sparta to break-off an invasion of Attica and ended Sparta’s ability to take the Peloponnesian League to war without the consent of all members. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, not a vassal-state or satellite. That Corinth joined other allies in insisting upon a Lacedaemonian commander, therefore, suggests that the demand was more than anti-Athenian and not merely pro-Spartan; it indicates that Sparta was considered a naval power capable of providing competent leadership at sea.

We know that Sparta conducted a campaign against Samos in the last quarter of the 6th Century which required considerable naval power in the form of transports and fighting ships to defend those transports. In addition, Cleomenes’ first attempt to depose the Athenian tyrant Hippias also entailed naval capability since the Spartan task force was landed at Phalerum. Theoretically, these earlier naval expeditions could have been conducted with perioikoi ships and crews, but Herodotus explicitly tells us Eurybiades was Spartiate. 

Furthermore, in Herodotus’ list of ship contingents to the battles of Artemisium and Salamis, he makes a notable distinction between ten “Spartan” ships at Artemisium and sixteen “Lacedaemonian” ships at Salamis. This implied that ten ships were financed and at least officered by “Spartans,” whereas the sixteen ships at Salamis included an additional six ships provided and manned by Perioikoi. Significantly, one year later, King Leotychidas led a naval expedition, demonstrating that naval command was not ipso facto beneath the dignity of Sparta’s kings. In short, at least some Spartiates at the start of the 5th century BC, most notably Eurybiades, had obtained naval experience and demonstrated competence at sea.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that Eurybiades was a mere figurehead. While Eurybiades was not the originator of the winning strategies (all of which are attributed to Themistocles), Herodotus makes it clear that Eurybiades' support was essential for the implementation of Themistocles plans. Eurybiades commanded enough respect to be obeyed once he made up his mind, which would not have been the case if his position had been purely nominal.

The two instances in which Eurybiades opposed Athenian wishes/suggestions highlight his very real power. At Salamis, the position of greatest honor was given to the Aeginans, to the disgruntlement of the Athenians. While Athens had every reason to feel that they deserved pride of place because they provided half the fleet and had lost their city, Eurybiades’ decision was the right one for the commander of a multi-national force. Athens was going to fight regardless, but Eurybiades had to retain the loyalty and morale of the smaller contingents that resented Athenian dominance. Aegina’s was an important naval power with a significant contingent of triremes. By honoring Aegina, Eurybiades effectively prevented the smaller allied contingents from falling away or losing heart at a very critical moment.

Even more significant is Eurybiades’ role in preventing a fool-hardy destruction of Xerxes’ bridge across the Hellespont. The Persian fleet withdrew across the Aegean after the battle of Salamis. The victorious Greeks, waking up on the day after the Battle to find the Persian ships gone, gave chase. They reached the island of Andros without even catching sight of their quarry and stopped to consult. Themistocles at once proposed sailing north to destroy the bridge across the Hellespont by which the Persians had entered Greece and would need to retreat. Eurybiades wisely pointed out that trapping the undefeated Persian army in Greece was the last thing that the Greeks wanted! (This was before the battle of Plataea, and Persian land forces were only marginally weakened by the brief delay at Thermopylae.) Without an escape route, the Persians would have no choice but to lay waste to all Greece, using their superior numbers to slaughter everything in their path. The fact that Themistocles could even suggest such a course of action will not have endeared him to the men from cities other than Athens that had not already been raised to the ground. Certainly, Eurybiades was supported by all a majority of those voting and the plan was abandoned.

This was Eurybiades last significant act. Herodotus records that he was honored in Sparta, along with Themistocles,  for his role in defeating the Persians at sea. Then he disappears from history. So what do we know of him?

In Herodotus, Eurybiades serves primarily as a foil for Themistocles. Themistocles is the intriguer. He is constantly seeking and taking bribes, he sends secret messages to Xerxes, he takes credit for ideas that are not his own. Themistocles is depicted as a brilliant tactician and a gifted orator (something Athenians particularly admired), and he saves Greece. But as Herodotus portrays him, he is a shady character nevertheless.

Beside Themistocles, Eurybiades is an almost featureless shadow. At Artemisium, Herodotus claims he took a bribe from Themistocles to stop him from ordering the fleet to withdraw. Yet according to Herodotus, Themistocles was himself bribed by the local inhabitants. Given the fact that this was at the very moment when Eurybiades' King was making his unequivocal stand at Thermopylae, I personally find it inconceivable that Eurybiades considered retreat. After Thermopylae fell and Artemisium was militarily worthless, yes, but not before. Some of the other contingents might have been in a panic (so were many of the other Greeks who fought with Leonidas) but Eurybiades is unlikely to have been any less steadfast than Dienekes and rest of Leonidas' troops. In short, like Themistocles himself, may have taken the money without any intention of retreating.di

Otherwise, Herodotus depicts him diligently consulting with the commanders of the various contingents, calling conferences to discuss the course of action, and hearing everyone out before taking a decision. He appears to have been scrupulously respectful of the independence and rights of all the allies and to have diplomatically kept Athens from dominating the alliance. Once a decision was made, he acted decisively and commanded the respect of all involved – including the Athenians. His performance at sea is not singled out for special praise, but he positioned the Lacedaemonian ships in the middle of the line, where, as admiral, he would have the best overview.

The fact that he disappeared from history after this short moment of glory in 480 hints at one last characteristic: Eurybiades was no Pausanias and no Lysander, who turned his military success into a political agenda. He appears to have faded again into the anonymous ranks of the Spartan line, but his successful foray into history suggests that Sparta had greater naval competence than is widely recognized and foreshadows Sparta’s victory over Greece’s greatest naval power a half-century later – at sea.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels. Eurybiades is given a small role in "A Heroic King":


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Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Girl's Education - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

The co-educational nature of education in Sparta was the scandal of the ancient world, and particularly the physical education component of that education drew the voyeuristic attention of the many visitors that flocked to Sparta's religious festivals. 

In this excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge," Leonidas and his friends have gone to see Alkander's sister participate in a girls' race and find themselves surrounded by "strangers" (i.e. Greeks from outside of Sparta.)

 "Does Hilaira have any chance of winning?" Prokles asked skeptically.

"She certainly does," his mother told him firmly.

"Why are there so many strangers here?" Leonidas asked because he noted that almost everyone around them, although Greek, was speaking a different dialect -- most Ionic.

"Oh, that's because they don't have maiden races in other cities," Prokles grandmother explained. "In fact, they don't let their maidens out of their houses at all." Leonis knew what she was talking about because she had lived in Tegea for a time when Lysandridas was in exile there.  

"So how do they go to school?" Prokles wanted to know.

"They don't."

"They don't go to school?"


"And that is the proper way of things!" one of the men standing near them insisted, butting into the conversation firmly. He addressed himself to the boys rather than the women. "Everything a girl needs to know in life, she can learn at her mother's knee in the safety and seclusion of her own home. By letting girls run around in public view, you only encourage licentiousness and disobedience! The less a girl sees and hears, the better she is."

The three Spartan boys stared at the stranger in open bafflement. Because he looked at least 40 and by his rich clothes and carefully coifed hair appeared to be a man of wealth, they dared not contradict him.

It was Prokles' grandmother who answered him sharply. "IF it is such a scandal, why are you here?"
"See! That's just what I mean!" the man declared, still addressing the boys. "Silence. SILENCE is a woman's greatest virtue." Then, turning on Leonis, he sneered at her. "Flaunting your bodies is not half so bad as the way you chatter and interfere in men's affairs!"

"If you are afraid of women's words, go back where you came from!" Leonis retorted.

"I intend to do just that!" the man said indignantly and would have turned away, but Leonidas stopped. 

"Excuse me, sir."

The older man looked back. "Yes?"

"May I ask where you are from, sir?"

"I am from the great city of Athens!" the man proclaimed loudly enough to make others take notice.


Leonidas looked so surprised that the man's curiosity was aroused. "Does that surprise you?"

"It does, sir."

"Why?" the man asked, perplexed. He evidently felt that his nationality should have been obvious by his clothes and accent.

Leonidas hesitated. He glanced a little uncertainly at Prokles' grandmother. She could not know what he was going to say, but she awaited it expectantly. "It's only that I was taught Athens was a great and powerful city, sir."

"As indeed it is, boy --  nothing like this provincial pig-sty you call a city! Why, your whole acropolis wouldn't qualify as more than a collection of third-rate district temples in Athens, and your agora could fit inside ours three time over!"

"I accept your word for it, sir, but it surprises me nevertheless -- although I knew you had walls..." Leonidas trailed off enticingly. 

"What surprises you, boy?" The man asked impatiently, frowning, sensing something behind Leonidas' words that he could not identify yet.

"It surprises me that you are so easily frightened."

"Frightened?" the Athenian demanded, flabbergasted and uncomprehending.

"I mean," Leonidas still sounded baffled and respectful because it was a guise he had long since honed to perfection in the syssitia. "If you fear even the words of women, how you must tremble before the spears of men."

The man's jaw dropped in shocked outrage, and there was no knowing what he would have said if around him other spectators, both domestic and foreign, hadn't hooted with laughter. Angrily the Athenian pushed away into the crowd, with a loud sneer of "Whores and their whelps!" tossed over his shoulder.

Prokles leaped after him, apparently intent on making him retract this insult, but his mother caught him by the neck of his chiton. "Leave it! Leonidas won the round, and he knows it. Here's your sister now."

Based primarily on Nigel Kennel's comprehensive study of the Spartan agoge, the first novel of my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan "upbringing" one year at a time through the eyes of young Leonidas and his (fictional) friends. Experience the Spartan agoge in the age of Leonidas in:

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Spartan Agoge: Scandalously Co-Educational

Thanks to films like "300," the Spartan Agoge is commonly viewed today as a brutal -- not to say savage -- training in which boys and youths were taught nothing but survival skills by sadistic instructors. In my last entries, I pointed out that after removing the grotesque mask created by the Roman agoge, the Spartan educational system was characterized by unique elements which attracted the praise of many ancient observers -- including Plato. However, one feature of the agoge that provoked contemporary outrage is, on the other hand, widely approved today: namely, the fact that Spartan girls were allowed an education no less than their brothers.
Today I look more closely at the co-educational aspect of the Spartan Upbringing.

Sparta differed from most other Greek city-states most dramatically with respect to the legal status, social standing, and economic importance of women. Sparta was not actually alone in this, evidence from Gortyn on Crete suggests that Doric cities generally granted women higher status and greater rights, but in comparison with the other cities of the Greek mainland, most especially Athens, the status of women was arguably the most dramatic point of differentiation. 

The status of women in most of the Greek world, and particularly in Athens, was similar to the status of women under the Taliban.  First, girl infants were more likely to be "exposed" -- that is murdered -- than males. The Greek comic poet Posidippus put it this way: “Everybody raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.” 

Even if allowed to live, a female child would be given less food than her brothers, certainly denied all wine and meat. Girls were also denied exercise and kept in the dark, poorly aired "women's quarters" at the back of the house, because girls were not supposed to be seen in public, and Athenian girls were not educated. On the contrary, they were considered mentally deficient by nature. Aristotle, for example, compared them to children incapable of growing up. Any training they received was thus informal and domestic, designed solely to ensure they could preform household tasks.

On reaching puberty, they were "given away" in marriage. Note, women were not parties to a marriage, they were the objects of contracts between their guardian and a man interested in acquiring a wife. Wives were acquired strictly for the purpose of the production of legitimate heirs, and sexual pleasure was sought from boys, slaves, and prostitutes (who were also unfree).  Wives, meanwhile, were confined to the same cramped and dark "women's quarters" (now in their husband's rather than their father's house), and were excluded from the intellectual life of their husbands because they were not allowed to attend symposiums -- not even those hosted by their husband under their own roof.

Furthermore, women in Athens could not inherit or own property. At no time could a woman in Athens own anything whose value was greater than a bushel of wheat. If an unmarried Athenian girl's father owned property and died without male heirs, she was bequeathed to the next male relative, who had to marry her in order to obtain the inheritance. The heir then divorced the wife he already had (although she was utterly blameless) in order to obtain the inheritance with the female appendage he now had to marry. Meanwhile in the famed theaters of Athens women were called (to great applause) "a curse to mankind" and "a plague worse than fire or any viper" (Euripides). 

In light of the above, it is hardly surprising that, as Nigel Kennel put it, "...the most shocking aspect of Classical Sparta's educational system, to contemporaries at least, was that girls trained and competed in contests similar to those of their brothers and cousins."(1) Furthermore, based on a fragment of Plato, Ducat concludes that the girls had no choice about the matter but were compelled to attend the agoge.(2) In short, the universal and compulsory nature of the agoge applied to girls no less than boys.

As to what they learned, Kennel hypothesizes that girls training "mirrored" that of the boys, while Cartledge believes that Spartan girl's intellectual education "resembled the 'primary' education given to Athenian boys, but in other ways, especially the physical exertions, it was a carbon copy of the Spartan boys' curriculum, and that is presumably an important clue to its meaning and function."(3) Xenophon speaks only of girls competitions in "running and strength" although Euripides suggests that wrestling was taught as well and Plutarch (speaking of the Roman-era agoge) mentions wrestling, discus and javelin as well. Yet, significantly,  Plato points out in his Protagoras (342d), education in Sparta was not purely physical for the girls either.   On the contrary, in Sparta "not only men but also women pride themselves on their intellectual culture."  This suggests much more than mere literacy: it implies a systematic education in rhetoric and philosophical thought.

Why would Sparta break so radically with the rest of the Greek world with respect to female education?

The obvious answer is that this was part of the far wider issue of women's status in Sparta as a whole. Spartan women could inherit and own property. They ran their husband's kleros. They were active participants in their marriage. They are recorded voicing their opinions in public. They are known to have been disciples of Pythagoras. They drove chariots. They quite simply could not have done all that if they had not had a basic education and developed a degree of physical fitness as children. 

Thus, from being a purely eugenic exercise to produce strong warriors, as most commentators (including, in this case, Xenophon) imply, the education of Spartan girls was part of a holistic system of integrating women into the society and state. Like their brothers, the shared experiences of common messes, identical clothes, and participation in the same events, festivals and competition helped to build their identity as Spartiates and to develop solidarity among the girls themselves.

Yet it had another, almost completely overlooked, function as well: it encouraged heterosexuality. The very fact that the girls and maidens shared the race-tracks and changing rooms, the dancing floors and theaters with the boys and youths made them less alien and more accessible than their sisters in other cities. Modern psychology indicates that homosexuality and particularly pedophilia is more common in misogynous societies in which women are segregated and denigrated (as in Athens) -- not in societies where they are integrated and empowered.  Everything we know about Sparta in the Archaic and Classical period contradicts the widespread assumption that Sparta was dominated by homosexuality and lesbianism. The co-educational agoge is another piece of evidence that in Sparta homosexuality was less common and less accepted than in other city-states of the ancient Greek world.

(1) Kennel, Nigel. The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 45.
(2) Ducat, Jean. "Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period." Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell (eds). Sparta: New Perspectives. Duckworth, 1999, p.58.
(3) Cartledge, Paul.  Spartan Reflections. Duckworth, 2001, p. 83-24.

This ends my series on the Spartan agoge.

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


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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

An Amok Chorus - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

The agoge, as I have argued repeatedly, was designed to produce self-confident, thinking citizens capable of independent action. The agoge did not aim to break, humiliate or cow the boys. This required maintaining discipline among spirited youth and teaching obedience and endurance — but all without robbing them of their pride.
In this excerpt from “A Boy of the Agoge,” I try to expose how subtle and complex the relations between the youth and their elders really were. The circumstances are a performance by a youth chorus at the Hellanikos, a festival in which Spartan choruses performed works composed by foreign composers selected in competitions for this very honor. I have chosen an event recorded in the sources in which the youth perform a fable (i.e. imitate animals) to song.

Now, with the entire city collected and the composer trying to talk the boys into cutting certain stanzas that had been agreed on earlier, some demon got into them. Even as Hellanikos gave his final instructions to perform exactly as practiced, the boys exchanged a look, and Leonidas knew they were going to do it. They went out on to the dancing floor, and an expectant hush fell across the entire crowd.  The musicians started to play the music, and Leonidas minced his way into the center of the agora like a market cat in the early morning. In the center, he sat down and proceeded to lick his right “paw” and use it to wash his face and behind his ears. The audience was delighted. Cats rarely appeared in fables. The “dog” appeared next….

Hellanikos knew something was wrong almost at once, but it was too late to stop them. All he could do was hold his breath in anticipation. He knew and his dancers knew they would be in serious trouble if they offended their elders. If they were willing to take the risk, then he could only hope and pray that they would do so for the sake of something worth seeing. By the time they started singing the corrupted text, he was far too amused by the audacity and wit of his charges to be angry with them.

The Theban poet, however, had not noticed the subtle changes in the pantomimes, and so it was only after they started to sing his text in a garbled and willfully misshapen form that he gasped in horror. “What’s happened? What is going on?” he demanded “What have you done to me? They are butchering my text! They are making a mockery of it! How could you do this to me?”

Hellanikos threw up his hands. “I had no idea they were going to do this.”

“What do you mean you had no idea? Who gave them those insulting lines? Everyone knows Spartan youths always follow orders! You gave them orders to commit this outrage!”

“Nonsense! You heard me give them orders to the contrary. Besides, I’ve never even heard this text before. They must have written it themselves. They are doing this on their own initiative and at their own risk.”

“They are turning the entire performance into a farce!”

They were indeed — and the audience loved it, none more than the Athenian guests of King Cleomenes. As the dance ended, these men leaped to their feet applauding vigorously. “Magnificent! Brilliant! Bravo! Bravo!” they called out to the performers, before turning to Cleomenes and remarking in obvious wonder and delight, “We had no idea you had comedy in Sparta! What a pity none of our comic playwrights could be here to see this. They would recruit your youths for one of our comic choruses on the spot! And these youths! Where do they get their training? I had no idea you had a drama school here. I thought all your youth just drilled and let themselves get flogged,” Isagoras exclaimed in rapturous enthusiasm.

Then a new thought occurred to Kleisthenes: “They aren’t really Spartiate, are they? Perioikoi? Surely not helots?”

“Of course they’re Spartiate,” Cleomenes countered indignantly. “Why, the youth who played the lion is my own brother.”

“Your brother?”

“Well, half-brother. Shall I call him over?”

“Of course! At once! Such a talented youth! And a magnificent voice! Does he have a lover?” Isogoras asked anxiously.

“Leonidas?” Cleomenes couldn’t imagine such a thing. “I shouldn’t think so,” he answered dryly, and then attracted the attention of one of his helot attendants and told him to fetch Leonidas.

The performers were toweling the sweat away and gulping water lacked with a thimbleful of wine to recover. They were euphoric, mostly for having got away with their mutiny, but also because the applause had gone to their heads. They were cracking jokes and exchanging good-natured insults, and their laughter came in volleys that echoed in the lofty ceiling of the bathhouse that they used as their changing room.

The arrival of the helot with the message for Leonidas that he was to report to his brother was unwelcome. “Do I have to go?” Leonidas asked rhetorically. The others tossed unwanted advice after him as he pulled his chiton over his head and belted it. Someone threw a himation after him as he left, and he just managed to catch it.

Leonidas was famished and thirsty. He wanted to find Prokles and Alkander and spend what free time he had left with them. He wanted to know what they had thought of the parody his troop of dancers had performed — or rather, wanted to collect the praise he expected from them. He wanted to have dinner with Prokles’ family and drink some stronger wine. Instead, he found himself reporting to his elder brother. “You sent for me, sir?”
“Your own brother has to call you ‘sir’?” Kleisthenes remarked with raised eyebrows, while Isagoras exclaimed in shocked amazement that Leonidas, shaved and barefoot, was evidently really a youth of the agoge. (His costume had covered his head, hands, and feet.)

“He doesn’t have to; it’s just a habit,” Cleomenes answered the first question with a touch of irritation. “Leonidas, these gentlemen from Athens wanted to meet you. May I present my little brother Leonidas, gentlemen. Leonidas, these are Kleisthenes of the Alcmaeonid family, and Isagoras, son of Tisander, of Athens. They were impressed by your little performance today.” From Cleomenes’ mouth, it sounded very patronizing.

Leonidas ignored his brother’s barb and addressed himself to the guests. “Thank you, sirs.”

“Tell us, have you had much training as an actor? We thought Spartan youth spent all their time drilling and what not?” Kleisthenes asked with apparent interest.

“No, sir. We rehearsed almost six months, every day except holidays.”

“Just how old are you?” Isagoras asked, leaning forward to get a better look at him at close quarters.

“Seventeen, sir.”

“That was our first performance? Remarkable. Then again, talent usually shows itself young. What will be your next role?”

“I hope there won’t be one, sir.”

“What? You can’t be serious. Why should you not want to act again?”

“It takes too much time, sir. I still have drill and the other classes. Rehearsals robbed me of almost all my free time.”

“Seriously?” The Athenians looked over at Cleomenes for confirmation. “You don’t excuse even your best choristers and dancers from drill?”

Cleomenes shrugged. “Of course not. My brother and the others are still in the agoge. They have to learn how to be good hoplites. As Spartiates they must learn the profession of arms.”

“But why to the exclusion of all else?” Isagoras leaned intimately close to Leonidas again, and Leonidas drew back instinctively. “Why not give up all that mindless drill and let me adopt you?” the Athenian asked him directly. “You never need to worry about marching or sleeping out in the rain or eating your horrid black broth again. I know a dozen comic playwrights who would be delighted to employ you!”
Leonidas shook his head sharply.

“Why not?” The Athenian pressed in a cloying voice. “You can mean you like being flogged and running around in rags?”

“No, sir, but I like what I will be,” Leonidas answered far too sharply. It was humiliating to stand here before these wealthy Athenians and know that to them, he was a pitiable creature.

“You mean a Spartan hoplite? A cog in a military machine? An interchangeable part of the Spartan line? Is that really such an enticing prospect? Think of the alternative; you could be a great actor, a man who brings audiences applauding to their feet. You would be wined and dined and entertained at the best addresses, adored by men and women! I fear you simply cannot imagine the joys of life in Athenian society.”

Leonidas glanced at his brother, offended that the Athenians felt free to talk like this in front of a Spartan king. Cleomenes, however, looked highly amused, as if he was enjoying the exchange. So Leonidas replied simply, “Nor do you know the joys of mine, sir.”

“Joys? What joys do you have in  your miserable clothes and barren messes?”

Leonidas glanced again at Cleomenes, resentful for being subjected to this shame. How was a youth of 17 supposed to explain to these Athenians what it meant to be Spartiate if the ruling king had failed to do so? Cleomenes, however, simply raised his eyebrows, evidently looking forward to Leonidas’ answer. Leonidas had no choice but to reply, and he decided on a single word: “Freedom.”

“Freedom? But you are chased from one exercise to the next. You said yourself you have no free time. You are the least free of all free Greeks. Indeed, I think you are less free than many slaves.”

“No, sir!” Leonidas snapped back. “We are the freest of all Greeks because we are free of fear. We are not afraid of hunger or cold or pain because we have known them all, and we know we can endure them all. We fear no man because we know we are dependent on no man’s favor and no man’s pay, but are the absolute masters of ourselves.”

“Fine words, young man,” Kleisthenes agreed in a rather sour tone, “but empty too. You live in constant fear of your instructors, your elders, your own leaders. Why, any citizen can call you to account, report you for the slightest infringement of rules, cause you to be flogged like a common slave.”

“Not so, sir.” Leonidas insisted hotly, aware that there was enough truth in the man’s words to make it all the more important to protest. It was the very fact that there was some truth to what he said that made Leonidas so agitated. He hated to think of his society in the way this Athenian was portraying it, and he wanted it to be better. He argued: “We obey our elders only as long as we respect them or what they stand for. Take tonight’s performance: the text was now what our chorus master had prepared and rehearsed with us. It was our own work.”

Cleomenes burst out laughing and slapped himself on the thigh in delight. “I should have known it! I’m beginning to like you, little brother. I thought that pompous Thebean looked like he swallowed a porcupine!”

 Based primarily on Nigel Kennel's comprehensive study of the Spartan agoge, the first novel of my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan "upbringing" one year at a time through the eyes of young Leonidas and his (fictional) friends. Experience the Spartan agoge in the age of Leonidas in: