Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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:

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