Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites
Showing posts with label Ancient History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ancient History. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spartan Hegemony

In his introduction to Persian Fire Tom Holland argues that “Sparta’s greatness…rested upon the merciless exploitation of her neighbors.”  The sentence made me stumble. Is Holland truly unaware that the Peloponnesian League at this point in history gave every city-state an equal vote in the League Council? Is Holland unaware that some city-states in the League chose to march north with Sparta to fight the Persians at Thermopylae and Plataea?

Since Holland goes on to contend that “to people who had suffered under Spartan oppression for generations, Xerxes rule might almost have felt like liberty."  He apparently believes that the helots and perioikoi and other Peloponnesians, who fought with the Spartans at Plataea, were all “mercilessly oppressed” Spartan slaves fighting against their own best interests. One wonders how 5,000 Spartans managed to keep 40,000 oppressed slaves under control and prevented them from defecting to their Persian liberators, while simultaneous defeating the Persians on the battlefield? Spartans must have been truly superhuman indeed to succeed at such a feat!

It is a particularly notable feat when one considers that the mere proximity of a potential liberator induced 20,000 Athenian slaves to defect in 413. The freedom loving, benevolent and ever democratic Athenians apparently didn’t treat their slaves as well as the “merciless oppressors” of Sparta or 20,000 Athenian slaves would not have “voted with their feet” by abandoning Athens for Sparta. 

It also seems incredible that Sparta would have been elected to supreme command of the Greek forces opposing the Persian invasion – including Athens, if at that time it was widely perceived as a brutal oppressor of its neighbors.  Would the United States at any time in its history have elected Nazi Germany to lead a joint coalition? Would we have asked the Soviet Union to assume command of joint NATO and Warsaw Pact forces to fight a common enemy? It tries my imagination.

Whatever else one says about Sparta’s treatment of helots (and I firmly believe they were far better off than chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, not to mention Persian), to suggest that Sparta “mercilessly oppressed” its neighbors  as well is a gross distortion of the historical record. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Leonidas Twice

Leonidas! The Hero of Thermopylae. In 480 BC he would defy an army half a million strong. 

But who was he?

The Leonidas Trilogy tells his story in three novels. From his boyhood in the infamous Spartan agoge to the final stand of the 300 at Thermopylae, I have sought to bring Leonidas and his wife Gorgo to life. To explain them. To understand them. To give them substance and spirit.

This is Sparta! As you've never seen it before. The Leonidas Trilogy - A Video Teaser.

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom by Alfred S. Bradford is in contrast about the history of Sparta from its founding to its ignominious end. Here's my commentary:

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta by Alfred S. Bradford – A Review
It is human nature that reactions are often governed by expectations, so my disappointment with Alfred S. Bradford’s history of Sparta, Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom, was largely my own fault.  The title and jacket description, not to mention Bradford’s qualifications as a professor of ancient history at the University of Oklahoma, led me to expect too much. I had hoped for a work that provided insight on the role of Sparta’s kings in Sparta’s long history, perhaps an analysis of evolving constitutional conflict between the kings, the Gerousia, Assembly, and Ephors.  Certainly, I hoped for some new, unfamiliar descriptions and details about the personalities of Sparta’s most famous kings.

Instead, Bradford has done little more than collect the familiar stories told about Sparta from a wide range of sources and line them up in chronological order.  Even this is a tall order, and Bradford is to be commended for having covered nearly a thousand years of history in just 226 pages without for a moment dropping the pace or losing direction. Also to be applauded is Bradford’s care to mention Sparta’s literary and artistic achievements, and his even-handed treatment of the Peloponnesian War.  Altogether, his commentary improved in quality with the quality of his (later) sources.

Equally important, Bradford appears to pride himself on his accessibility, and this book is written in an easy modern style that will certainly make it just that to readers looking for an easy introduction to Spartan history. In fact, I suspect that Bradford’s intended audience was not fellow scholars, but rather young people coming to the topic of Sparta for the first time.  If this is correct, then his book is a valuable contribution to Spartan history as a transition from comic books and fantasy to serious scholarly works on Sparta.

In this context, I found Bradford’s occasional personal comments perfectly appropriate and engaging. Throughout the book, I sensed his genuine interest in his topic and respect for his subjects. That in itself is very refreshing, and I came away feeling like I’d like to meet Bradford one day and spend an afternoon talking in an outdoor café on the main street of modern Sparti – exchanging views, arguing, laughing – and toasting the memory of the dead.

If am correct and Bradford was writing for an audience without previous knowledge and only superficial interest in Sparta, I image he did not want to “bore” his reader with conflicting theories. Nevertheless, I must admit I was put off by Bradford’s blithe disregard for differing opinions and his failure to admit any uncertainty about interpretation of evidence.  Although much of the information Bradford presents is highly controversial, Bradford rarely even mentions alternative theories, much less conflicting opinions.  

Equally disturbing, Bradford boldly states his opinions as if they are indisputable fact.  For example, he states on page 70 that “Ariston was extremely popular….” Interesting.  I’d like to know how he knows that as I’ve never read this in any other source. It might be true, of course, I don’t claim to have seen every source on Sparta, and, if true, it would be very significant. Unfortunately, Bradford tells me neither his ancient source for this information, nor does he explain his assessment by describing things Ariston did to win the love of his subjects. In fact, what he does tell us about Ariston is that he tricked his best friend into giving up his wife. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would endear Ariston to his subjects. (Herodotus, who is the source for this tale, by the way, makes it clear that it was against the will of both the husband – and erstwhile friend of Ariston – and his wife.) In short, Bradford makes statements that are not supported either sources or by his own argumentation.  

I was also disappointed by the near absence of analysis, at least in the early parts of the book. Again, let me take a couple of examples.  On page 46, when describing the krypteia, he claims members “killed any helots they found.” Now, finding helots was not very difficult since by all accounts they vastly outnumbered the Spartiates, and they provided all menial labor to the Spartan state.  All the krypteia had to do to “find” helots was sit down in the middle of any square or on the side of any country road and wait for the helots to come by. Since, according to Bradford’s account, they killed all the helots they “found,” the kypteia must have slaughtered endlessly, year in and year out, generation for generation.  So how did any helots survive to be the servants and agricultural workers that Sparta needed? And who was left to work the estates of the Spartiates dependent on their labor in order to be professional soldiers? Or, turning to another example, on page 47 Bradford writes: “The Spartans were magnificent specimens, men and women both, the most handsome people in Greece, with the best-behaved children.” Really?  All of them? That’s hard to believe, but I suppose it is theoretically possible.  But then Bradford continues: “They knew right from wrong and they practiced honor without compromise.” That is little short of amazing, but OK -- except that nine pages later Bradford writes that “Chilon’s world was a world of injustice.” Hm.  So suddenly, within a hundred years or so, by Bradford’s own account, the Spartans have gone from being men who without exception practiced honor without compromise and all knew right from wrong, to a society full of injustice. How did that happen? Why? Again, I’m not saying this is impossible, but I expect a historian who makes assertions such as these to marshal his arguments and set them out coherently so the reader can follow his logic and come to the same conclusion.

Finally, I found it disconcerting that sources were not readily or consistently identified, even when direct quotes were made. With all due understanding for the desire to avoid cluttering a popular history with a lot of footnotes, I find the use of quotation marks or italics to indicate direct speech without providing a reference on the source improper.  Just to give one random example, in Chapter 16, Bradford uses quotation marks to indicate verbatim citation of a speaker in no less than eight places, but provides sources for only two quotes in his “Notes.” What about the others? Where did they come from and why didn’t they rate a proper citation? 

For all my complaints, I confess I liked the book, particularly the conclusion, and for young adults it may be a good introduction to Sparta. However, I would recommend W. G. Forrest's classic work "A History of Sparta: 950 - 192 BC" or Nigel Kennel's "Spartans: A New History" before Bradford to anyone with a serious interest in Spartan history.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

New Review of "The Olympic Charioteer"

“JPS” (not otherwise identified) published the following review of The Olympic Charioteer on April 16 of this year:

After "Are they singing in Sparta", this is Helena Schraeder's second novel on Sparta. This one takes place around 550 BC, during the time of one of the great-grandsons of Agesandros (the hero of the first novel). This great-grandson is the Olympic Charioteer. After having won once for Sparta, he is captured and enslaved by Tegea following a Spartan defeat (which is historical) and, contrary to the other captives, he is believed to be dead and not ransomed. I'll stop there, to avoid any spoilers.

The book has a lot going for it.

One strong point is to depict the live of slaves in Greek cities and contrast their status with that of the Spartan helots. This is part of the author's thesis to show that, at the time, Sparta had the most advanced political regime and society in Greece whereas other cities were ruled by either aristocracies or tyrants, including Athens.

Another point is to show the political life and internal conflicts that could lead to civil war (stasis) within the various cities. Despite its regime, Sparta could also be subject to this, especially if the two kings chose opposite camps.

A third point is to avoid presenting Sparta as the invincible city, which it was not, and to show the dilemma that Spartan Kings, Ephors and members of the Gerousia (the Council of 28 elders plus the two kings) had to face, and the choice that Sparta made. The alternative was to attack and conquer Tegea and its territory, and perhaps even Argos afterwards, just as Sparta had done with Messenia about a century earlier, or to seek alliance through treaties with its neighbors. Even if victorious, Sparta would have had to spread its limited armed forces (only 6000 full citizen hoplites although its lands, according to Aristotle, were sufficient to have a force five times larger than that) thinly, making it even more vulnerable to attacks and rebellions. Sparta chose to ally itself with Tegea, its northern neighbor. This pact of non-agression was the beginning of the Peloponnesian League of free city-states that Sparta dominated and lead, and which excluded Argos, which remained its arch-enemy.

There are a few little issues, however. Despite the author's research and knowledge of the subject, she sometimes get a bit carried away as when she has one character mentioning Alexandria as a possible destination for slaves to be sold. Alexandria, of course, did not exist in 550 BC and was founded by Alexander the Great more than two centuries later. Another little problem, at times, is that the story, which, of course, has a happy ending, seems a little bit too good to be true and some of the characters feel a little bit caricatured: the hero is very, very nice and the villains are, of course, perfectly awful, whether those in Tegea or the Corinthian chariot owner.

Nevertheless, this was a superb read which I thoroughly enjoyed, started and finished over the week-end. It is well worth four stars, although perhaps not five, given the little issues mentioned above.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leonidas the Diplomat

Fans of “300” may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a diplomat.  In the Hollywood cartoon, Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally throws a Persian ambassador down a well.  But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brut, Leonidas was probably a very savvy diplomat. 

The evidence for Leonidas’ diplomatic talent is indirect rather than explicit. It is evident in what he did, rather than what is said about him.  Quite simply: During his brief reign, Leonidas managed to forge a coalition of Greek states willing to oppose the Persian invasion and to convince this loose coalition of independent and proud city-states to agree to a unified command and a joint strategy.  The significance of such an achievement can be measured by the fact that ten years earlier Athens didn’t place her army under the unified command of even a single Athenian; no less than ten generals shared command of the Athenian army at Marathon.  Equally notable, while Leonidas’ brother Cleomenes alienated Lacedaemon’s Peloponnesian allies to the point of provoking revolt, Leonidas won over new Allies such as Mycenae and Tiryns.  

As for the incident with the Persian ambassadors, Herodotus tells us that the Spartans shared the guilt for the murder of the ambassadors.  According to Herodotus, the entire city was threatened by ill-omens and the Spartan Assembly met repeatedly in order to find volunteers from among the citizens willing to appease the Gods by dying in atonement for the murdered Persian ambassadors.  If, as when Cleomenes’ burned the Sacred Wood near Argos, the crime had been committed by either of the Spartan kings, the Spartans would have expected/demanded that the king bear responsibility.  Whoever killed the Persian ambassadors, the entire Spartiate population felt collectively guilty about it – something that suggests the Persian emissaries had not been the victims of a spontaneous act of violence but rather condemned by the Spartan Assembly.  (Something which in turn suggests that Spartan Assemblies could be quite rowdy affairs, but that is a subject for another day….)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

“Memorial” by Alice Oswald – A Review

"Memorial" is a poem based on the Iliad in which the prize winning English poet Alice Oswald seeks to capture the spirit more than the narrative of the ancient work in modern language. Or, as Alice Oswald words it in her introduction: it is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” This is an audacious task, to say the least, and hence the most remarkable thing about Oswald’s work is that it succeeds remarkably well.

The Iliad is a lengthy, complex work in which Gods, heroes and mere mortals interact on a grand canvas that stretches from the fertile valley of the Eurytus across the broad Aegean to the towering walls of Troy. The names of the principal protagonists have echoed down the centuries: Achilles and Hector, Helen and Paris, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Ulysses, and the rest. The Iliad, for most of us, stands for the story of Helen’s abduction (whether voluntary or not), and the war that ensued, ending in the utter destruction of a great city. The Iliad is about ambition, hubris, pride, lust, jealousy, cowardice, betrayal, conjugal and fraternal love, heterosexual and homosexual love, vengeance, grief – and just about any other human emotion that I may have overlooked.

Oswald’s poem, in contrast, is just 70 sparse – not to say laconic - pages. Nor does it attempt to reconstruct a story that Oswald (like Homer himself) expects her readers to already know. The charm of “Memorial” is that reminds us that the Iliad itself was intended as a verbal memorial to the dead. Oswald draws the reader’s attention to the Greek tradition of “lament poetry.” This was burial ritual of the ancient world in which the mourners remembered the dead in verse composed specifically to record the deeds of the deceased. The Iliad is littered with the laments for individual combatants.

Oswald’s poem makes us stop and consider these men – Protesilaus, Echepolus, Elephenor, Simoisius. Never heard of them? That is exactly the point. These are men, mortals, not the demigods, the kings, the heroes. Yet they too gave their lives. Oswald’s poem reminds us of them.

Oswald’s images are brutal because she has translated the original, which was infamous for its reality. Thus, “Diores...struck by a flying flint, died in a puddle of his own guts, slammed down into the mud he lies, with his arms stretched out to his friends….” Or: “Pherecles…died on his knees screaming. Meriones speared him in the buttock and the point pierced him in the bladder.”

Yet this poem is anything but an orgy of blood and guts. On the contrary, rather than glorifying the violence and brutality, it makes it all the more horrible by directing it at individuals that are – sometimes with only the barest outline or a mere brush-stroke in words -- given individuality and humanity. Thus Pherecles was “brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen,” while Pylaemenes had a heart “made of coarse cloth and his manners were loose like old sacking.” Harpalion was “not quite ready for life, not quite solid, always shifting from foot to foot, with his eyes sliding everywhere in fear.” Yet another woman’s son “was the tall one, the conscientious one, who stayed out late pruning his father’s fig trees.” Or simply: “Koiranus…of Crete was a quiet man, a light to his loved ones.”

And their families too are brought to life with vivid urgency: “The priest to Hephaestus, hot-faced from staring at flames, prayed every morning the same prayer, “Please God respect my status, protect my sons Phegeus and Idaeus, calm down their horses, lift them out of the fight…Hephaestus heard him, but he couldn’t hold those bold boys back, riding over the battlefield too fast they met a flying spear….” Or: Laothoe, one of Priam’s wives, never saw her son again. He was washed away. Now she can’t look at the sea. She can’t think about the bits unburied being eaten by fishes.”

Yet even this might have been too much blood, guts and grieving, if Oswald had not interspersed her laments with sublime similes that are so evocative they are breath-taking.

Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains,
The thud of water losing consciousness
When it falls down from the high places….


Like fawns running over a field
Suddenly give up and stand
Puzzled in their heavy coats


Like the blue flower of the sea
Being bruised by the wind
Like when the rain-wind
Bullies the warm wind
Battering the great soft sunlit clouds
Deep scoops of wind
Work the sea into a wave
And the foam follows wandering gusts
A thousand feet high

Other images, however, evoke more than nature itself. Like a flash of lightning, they briefly illuminate scenes from the age of Homer, or offer vignettes of everyday life in the age of Achilles.

For example:

Like a good axe in good hands
Finds out the secret of wood and splits it open

Like two mules on a shaly path in the mountains
Carrying a huge roof truss or the beam of a boat
Go on mile after mile giving it their willingness
Until the effort breaks their strength

Like a goatherd stands on a rock
And sees a cloud blowing towards him
A black block of rain coming closer over the sea
Pushing a ripple of wind inland
He shivers and drives his flocks into a cave for shelter.
Memorial is a poem, not an epic poem, novel, play or history. Its magic lies in its ability to evoke an image and an emotion with the minimal use of words. As such, it is both laconic and laconian. I recommend it.

Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, by Alice Oswald, faber and faber, London, 2011.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Headlong God of War: A Tale of Ancient Greece and the Battle of Marathon

Peter Krentz in The Battle of Marathon (Yale Library of Military History) describes in detail the equipment, terrain and tactics that shaped the Battle of Marathon, but he singularly fails to make Maraton an exciting story or to bring the characters to life. While his facts and analysis make an important contribution to understanding Marathon -- a battle that was arguably more significant than Thermopylae, his failure to excite our emotions as well as inform our minds detracts significantly from the impact of the book. Martin's The Headlong God of War makes up for these deficits and is as a result an excellent companion to Krentz's book for the scholar while being far more accessible to the laymen. If I could recommend only one book on Marathon, I would prefer Martin's account to Krentz' because it is both good history and a good story.

Particularly impressive is Martin's ability to make Miltiades, the Athenian commander at Marathon, comprehensible and likeable. The historical Miltiades is at best complex and at worst a shady character. His relationship to both the Persians and Athenian democracy was ambivalent, not to say treacherous. Yet Martin succeeds in turning him into a character that the reader can readily identify with. I especially liked the way Martin portrayed his relationship to his sons, something that is based on the historical record and described with great sympathy.

But Miltiades is not the only historical character Martin effectively brings to life in this novel. His portrayal of the tyrant Aristagoras is likewise excellent -- and chilling. Few scenes from any novel have stayed with me as long as Marin's description of the arrival of Histiaios' messenger at Aristagoras' court. Likewise, his Persian characters have greater depth and differentiation than is common. For the sake of a good, historically accurate story with believable characters, I'm willing to overlook the occassional typos and editing errors.

Of Martin's three books on ancient Greece this is my favorite. I recommend it to anyone interested in Marathon specifically or ancient Greece generally.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Reviews of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

Excellent description of difficult period
by Brenda Miller (North Carolina), Sept. 30, 2011

Helena Schrader has done it again, amazingly. In this, her second volume in the Leonidas trilogy, she has brought an admittedly difficult period in Leonidas' life to a level of sustained reader interest. The earlier volume covering the agoge period had an easily identifiable theme and historical framework, and the last volume, which will emphasize Thermopylae, also has an identifiable historical framework to build on. It is this interim period, about which very little is actually known, where Ms Schrader shows her skills as an historical novelist. It bears repeating here that Ms Schrader does and has done, her "homework" on ancient Sparta in this period. Her research is beyond reproach and although she embellishes (as she must),she does not make up her own facts. Although my own field of Greek historical interest is a much earlier period, I know enough about 5th Century Sparta to recognize the accuracy of her descriptions. I can also state that based on my 23 years as an Infantry officer in the US Army, Ms Schrader has clearly done a significant amount of research on armies, soldiers, and what motivates them and makes them cohesive winners.

As she states in her prefaces, Ms Schrader aims to correct general opinion of Sparta as being some sort of brutal producer of robot-like ironmen. She succeeds, to the point where I and I suspect other, at least male, readers, might say that she has gone a bit too far in describing Sparta as a "touchy-feely", sensitive, place where a straight-arrow, incorruptible, nice guy, like Leonidas could even survive, much less become a King and army commander. But there is no arguing with Ms Schrader's research and if such is the Sparta she has uncovered, then so be it.My only disappointment is that I have to wait now for a seemingly interminable period for the final volume of this trilogy!

Ms Schrader has done a superb job here putting flesh on the few historical bones that we have of Leonidas. She has written an absolutely excellent historical novel which should have widespread appeal and which, with the other two volumes, would make a fascinating movie. I would not hesitate to buy the completed trilogy as a gift for members of my own family of very different ages.

An extremely readable historical/biography
by M. Lignor (New York, NY), Oct. 7, 2011

A good start for a review concerning Sparta might be for the layman to know just where Sparta is located. Sparta is on a plain, completely surrounded by mountain ranges. It was a Greek city/state but not fortified as most of the cities of Greece were at that time. Sparta was a collection of small villages built over a large rural area and six very low hills. The highest served as the acropolis and location of the Temple of Athena. Sadly, there's not much of it left to see.

Now on to Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer. The Administrators of the Spartan government tried to get the King of Sparta to set aside his wife and take another as she had not produced a child. The King refused and in an attempt to get an heir, the Administrators agreed to allow the King to take a second wife without putting aside his first. The new wife soon had a son, Cleomenes.

A year after the birth of Cleomenes, the King's first wife gave birth to a son, Dorieus, followed by twin sons, Leonidas and Cleombrotus. As Leonidas was considered to be her third son, he didn't have a chance to become King so he had to go to the agoge (a public school that all Spartan sons had to complete in order to qualify for citizenship).

King Cleomenes has to deal with a co-monarch, King Demaratus, and this King is a fighter while Cleomenes is more interested in sticking his nose into the affairs of Athens. Demaratus is against this move and soon the kings are at odds. Trading on this conflict, the Corinthians are challenging the Spartan's control of the area. At the same time, other Greek cities are asking for aid from Sparta in a rebellion against Persia.

Leonidas, if you remember, is the youngest half-brother of Cleomenes and is not really interested in politics. He has just obtained his citizenship from the school and doesn't think that this revolt by his countrymen will affect him in the slightest. He is an ordinary soldier in the Spartan army and a lot more interested in taking care of his own life. His biggest concerns are to find people to take care of his ruined estate and looking around for a suitable woman to become his bride.

He sets his cap for Gorgo; she is intelligent and tough - qualities that were not the norm for marriageable women in Ancient Sparta. They get married, and they are a good team. Gorgo is extremely clever and this helps Leonidas to take care of his people and the pair become very well thought of monarchs. But, that is for the next book in this very readable series to cover. This book is book two in the Leonidas saga. The first volume: Leonidas of Sparta, A Boy of the Agoge, deals with Leonidas' birth, growing up in Sparta and his schooling at the Agoge. This second volume is about his citizenship before he became ruler, his marriage, the battles (which were frequent) that he fought, and the politics that he learned to handle.

Readers will enjoy this book even if they have not read the first in the series. A Peerless Peer will definitely stand alone and is also a good lead-in to the final book in the series. When readers finish this story they will be anxious to see what happens to Leonidas and Gorgo when his fortunes change for the better.

The author is a superb writer of Historical/Fiction/Biography. The story was very readable and Ancient History buffs will be able to put themselves in the middle of these great battles and the politics that brought them to the attention of the author.

4.0 out of 5 stars

4.0 out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sparta’s Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society

The common view of Sparta is of a society divided between the wealthy, politically privileged (albeit underfed, cowed yet brutal etc. etc.) Spartiates, and the oppressed, helpless, despised helots. As I have noted in earlier entries, this ignores the vitally important role of perioikoi, but today I wish focus on helot society, particularly the fact that it too was highly differentiated. Not all helots were equal – nor equally miserable.

Historical sources make reference to helots in a variety of positions. First and foremost, of course, the helots worked the land. But helots also played a – singularly undefined – role in the Spartan army. Helots accompanied the Spartan army to Plataea, for example, and they were ordered to set fire to the sacred wood after the battle of Sepeia. These army helots appear to be a collective body under the command of the king, not the individual attendants of Spartan rankers. But each Spartan hoplite did, apparently, also have a helot body servant to look after his kit and help him arm. We hear too of “Lacedaemonian” wet-nurses being highly valued, and finding service as far away as Athens, where such a nurse allegedly breast-fed the ultimate Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades. While not explicitly a helot, it is hard to imagine a Spartiate or even perioikoi woman taking a position that was usually held by a chattel slave. The same is true of hereditary “town-criers, flute-players and cooks” listed by Herodotus (The Histories:6:60). Because all these functions were important to the army, I have argued elsewhere that they were not despised professions, but it is unclear whether the jobs were filled by perioikoi or helots; either interpretation is possible. Last but not least, although not explicitly mentioned, implicit in a highly civilized society with a very tiny elite such as Sparta, were people doing all the menial tasks necessary to keep a developed but still non-mechanized society functioning. In short, helots most likely did all those tasks done by chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world. Someone in Lacedaemon built roads, dug ditches, cleaned latrines, quarried stones and extracted ore from mines etc., and I think it is safe to assume that these jobs were done by helots.

As we look closer at helot society, let’s remember that rural helots retained a substantial fixed portion (probably 50%) of the produce of that land they worked. Allegedly, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.” As long as there is only one male heir to each tenant, such a system is more or less sustainable indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, human demographics do not produce perfect replacement and even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England) families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs can rapidly reduce a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.

Stephen Hodkiinson in his excellent study Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000) traces the impact of inherence laws on the concentration of wealth in Spartiate society, but helots were not land-owners and could not buy or sell land. Rather, they were transferred with the land from one Spartiate owner to another. Still, the ancient historians tell us that some helots were wealthy enough by the end of the 5th century to buy their freedom. In short, the accumulation of wealth – albeit not land – was clearly possible even in helot society. Some helots were definitely richer than others. But how?

The key to understanding this is again demographics. Unlike chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, helots had family units. In consequence, the sexual relations and off-spring of helots were not controlled by their masters for their own purposes, but developed more naturally.

In Athens and elsewhere, the off-spring of slaves were unwanted extra mouths to feed (that also reduced the concentration and working life of a female slave) and so intercourse between slaves was prevented to the extent possible. The fact that it was not always possible to prevent slave women from getting pregnant would not have worried slave-owners unduly because in the ancient Greek world it was common to expose unwanted children – even of citizen children. The unwanted children of chattel slaves would therefore simply have been left to die. Athens did not suffer from a growing slave population because it could keep the slave population under control effectively by these methods and by selling off slaves who were superfluous on the international market. Unwanted Athenians slaves, therefore, could end up in Persia, Egypt or Italy.

In Lacedaemon, in contrast, Spartiates could not sell helots outside of Lacedaemon, and helots lived in family units. As everywhere else on earth where families exist, fathers would have taken pride in at least their male off-spring. Male children would have been nourished and raised to adulthood to the extent possible. Females would have received less attention, food and affection (if the evidence of societies across the globe is any guide), but enough girls would have survived to adulthood to ensure survival of the family. Barring catastrophes, populations grow over time. Thus we can hypothesize a growing helot population from the age of Lycurgus (whenever that was) to the classical period – that fateful age when the helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population many times over (though probably not more than serfs outnumbered noblemen in Medieval Europe, by the way.) This is an important dynamic that explains why the imbalance between Spartiate and helot populations was so much greater than the imbalance between the Athenian citizen and slave populations.

This simple demographic fact might also explain why helots, who could not acquire land as their Spartiate masters clearly did, would have effectively become poorer over the generations. After all, if all the descendants of the original helot tenant of a kleros were tied to the same plot of land, then a finite plot of land would have been required to sustain entire clans rather than just one nuclear family by the time two hundred years had passed. In short, each individual would have been much poorer than his ancestor. And while there may have been a general tendency toward impoverishment, it was clearly not the fate of all helots or there would have been no wealthy helots able to buy their freedom, and no one doing all the other jobs noted above.

Instead it appears that some form of voluntary or involuntary primogeniture evolved over timte that ensured that only one helot had the status of “tenant-in-chief” on each kleros. He might have many children and many sons, but he had only one “heir.” If there were no sons, then very likely a son-in-law became the “tenant-in-chief,” and if there were no surviving children at all, the kleros was “vacant” and the Spartan state had to find new tenants from a pool of available helots.

In the more common case of a man having more than one son, the non-heirs (most likely the younger sons) would have been forced to earn a living off the family farm. As the property of the Lacedaemonian state, of course, helots could not leave Lacedaemon, but to my knowledge there is no reason to think they could not hire themselves out within the boundaries of Lacedaemon.

Some younger sons would have been apprenticed to learn crafts scorned by the perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth.

Other young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have sought employment as laborers for the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites or agricultural day-laborers, going from estate to estate.  Others would have worked for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers, bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government. Still other could have found employment in perioikoi factories and business - as miners, quarry workers, rowers, etc. etc..

Meanwhile, helot girls unable to find husbands would, like the daughters of the poor in every society across the globe over the last three thousand years, have found work as nursemaids and housemaids. They would have waited on the women and children of those better off than themselves, and made up the bulk of the household labor on Spartiate and perioikoi estates and homes.

In other words, helot society was more complex than Spartiate society. On the land there would have been at least three classes of helots. There would have been “tenants-in-chief” on the prosperous estates of wealthy (even royal) Spartiates, who retained a large portion of significant revenues from the fertile land. Such helots would probably have been able to build substantial dwellings and to hire household help and additional labor when necessary (harvest etc.) without dividing up the inheritance and so keeping it in tact. They would probably have lived better than many free men in other societies. (A good example of this pattern is the wealthy serfs of southwest England who built houses hardly distinguishable from the manors of the gentry.) At the same time there would have been helots on poor, run-down or marginal estates that -- like their Spartiate masters -- were constantly on the brink of failure. Conceivably, Spartiate masters living in fear of losing their citizenship or barely able to make agoge fees were harsh masters, constantly trying to squeeze more from the kleros or looking for ways to cheat the helots out of their share. Finally, at the bottom of rural society would have been the itinerant agricultural workers without homes of their own, who sold their labor by the day or hour,

But, as I pointed out above, helot society was not exclusively rural. Urban helots too would have been divided into different strata living very different life-styles. Those helots working hired laborers for the Spartan state and army, would have lived in barracks or in small rented rooms, and would have formed a kind of urban proletariat similar to poor craftsmen in Athens and elsewhere. However, there would also have been skilled craftsmen with workshops and stores. While some of these might have barely scraped by, living in miserable slums or dark attic rooms rented from their more prosperous neighbors, others – as anywhere on earth – would have had a talent for business and sales. Exceptional craftsmen would have been able to charge more for their goods or found other ways to make money. These would have been able to afford apprentices and even slaves of their own. The more succuessful they became, the easier it would be for them to accumulate wealth by investing and lending. Such men, like the privileged “tenants-in-chief” on the land, would have lived in comparative luxury and would later be in the position to buy their freedom.

In short, in addition to the oppressed, abused and miserable helots familiar to every student of Sparta, there were also large numbers of comparatively well-off helots, who enjoyed considerable freedom, a reasonable standard of living for their age, and were far from discontented with their lot in life. These helots were what enabled the Spartan state to function so well throughout the archaic period.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- The First Reviews

Just ten days after the release of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer two reviews have already been posted on That's exciting -- especially when both are from people I do not know and to whom I did not send review copies. I hope this is a good omen and the book will continue to attract positive attention.

5.0 out of 5 stars
So Good It Will Make You Stay Up Past Your Bedtime..., September 8, 2011
Kathleen Ann Langley "Lucky 7 Tattoo Kings Beach" (Lake Tahoe, California)
(REAL NAME), Amazon Verified Purchase

This review is for: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer (Paperback)

Yes, once again Ms Schrader has kept me up WAY past my bedtime for "just one more chapter." Rarely in historical fiction does this happen for me. I will hit a boring spot in a book and easily put it down until next time. Not so with the second book of this Leonidas trilogy "Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer." She had a tough job to outshine herself after the first part of this 3 part series, " A Boy of the Agoge" yet the author met the challenge with gusto.

All the main players of ancient Sparta are back, and some new ones add to the story without becoming confusing. Gorgo comes into her teenage years with timeless problems we can relate to. Leonidas becomes a man we would all desire to have in our lives as the ultimate compassionate alpha male. And the folks who surround these 2 ancient royal players have their own stories told too. Not a boring one in the bunch either. It's like a soap opera set in antiquity!

Now that I have plowed my way through this second book I once again cannot wait until the 3rd and final book comes out next year! If you even have a vague interest in what life may have been like for Leonidas, or the Spartan people at this time and place in history, you will dig this book.


5.0 out of 5 stars
Thin rations, September 4, 2011,
Jessica Allan Schmidt (People's Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States)

This review is for: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer (Paperback)

William Styron, author of The Confessions of Nat Turner once commented that a historical novelist did best when given "thin rations". This book takes those scant rations available from the historical record and extrapolates them, using common sense as well as classical sources, to construct what life may have been like for Leonidas I. There are some interesting inconsistencies with the historical records -- for instance, it is not known if Cleombrotus was Leonidas' twin or younger brother, yet the series paints him quite convincingly as Leonidas' elder twin -- but on the whole, it provides a very interesting look at the dynamics of an unusual society.

Sparta is often treated by modern scholars as a nation of simple brutes, but records do not hold with this -- if the training of youths was simply a matter of testing them until they broke, Greek leaders from all over the peninsula would not have competed to send their sons to the agoge for whatever periods they could. Like military schools of today, Sparta's educational programme was much more clearly devoted to military *and* practical learning, but the relative dearth of universal military training during this period means that its military nature is over-emphasised. Moreover, the fact that attendance at the Spartan agoge meant for some préstige among other Greeks strongly implies that it was seen as a specialist school that was a great honour for youths inclined to eventually rise to rôles of command in their own city-state's military.

The examination of what Spartan adult life was like is an interesting view of comparison and contrast. In the era before supertankers and jet aircraft, military engagements were by necessity no more than half the year, before mud and rain made it impossible to manoeuvre effectively, and, even more importantly, avoid disease decimating the ranks (a killer that was more likely than death by battle wound up through the Second World War), and therefore, even though Spartans were certainly careful to keep themselves in training year round and maintain constant operational readiness, they also had personal, civilian lives that were just as important to them, if not more so. As any tactician can tell you, the most motivated fighter is one who fights to defend a society he feels is integral to his life. Were Sparta a brutal place dedicated to warfare and only warfare, there would be no society to defend.

In this book, it is interesting to see the evolution of Queen Gorgo from girlhood to womanhood, even though most of it is conjecture based on what *is* known of the training of Spartan women. This book is also surprisingly engaging for the middle part of a trilogy, traditionally a time when *any* storytelling lags. The agoge is notorious, and Leonidas' death is equally well-known, but this period could have been fairly dull, yet it is as engaging as the first book in this series. I recommend it strongly.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Physical Appearance of Spartans

As a novelist, I have given considerable thought to what the Spartans in the Age of Leonidas might have looked like, as well as how they would have groomed themselves and dressed. From comments and correspondence, I gather that this is a topic of interest to many of my readers as well, so I thought it might be worth some joint speculation.

In terms of physical build, I have not heard of any archeological evidence based on skeletons, but would welcome any information you may have heard or read about. In the absence of such forensic evidence, I may dependent on mixing ancient sources with modern experience and common sense.

Both Plutarch and – more importantly Xenophon – stress that Spartan youth (i.e. during the critical years of physical development and growth) were not allowed to eat “too much.” Xenophon speaks of “just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. [Lycurgus'] view was that boys under this kind of regime would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer, when so ordered; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. [Lycurgus] also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies did more to make them grow tall than one in which the food filled them out.” (Spartan Society:2)

Plutarch, the less reliable source, writes: “The aim of providing [Spartan boys in the agoge] with only sparse fare is that they should be driven to make up its deficiencies by resort to daring and villainy. While this is the main purpose of their scanty diet, a subsidiary one is claimed to be the development of their physique, helping them in particular to grow tall. When people over-eat, their breathing is labored, thus producing a broad, squat frame. In contrast, if breath suffers from only slight delay and difficulty and has an easy ascent, the body is enabled to develop freely and comfortably. Good looks are produced in the same way. For where lean, spare features respond to articulation, the sheer weight of obese, over-fed ones make them resist it.” (Lycurgus:17).
It is startling the way Xenophon’s explanation of why the Spartans restricted the diet of youth to the necessary is focused on virtues very useful to an effective army in the field, while Plutarch’s speculation is more about cheating and “villainy.” Indeed, if one follows Plutarch’s reasoning, Spartan youth didn’t suffer any deprivation at all because they simply stole what they didn’t get in their official rations and the clever and better they were at theft, the fatter they would have become, defeating any “secondary” aim of improving the physique.
Notable, however, is despite the different explanations of why the Spartans instituted a regime of sparse rations for youth, both authors suggest that it produced “tall” and (in Plutarch’s case) handsome men. To my knowledge, however, too little food in fact stunts growth, not the reverse. Clearly the ancient commentators postulated a causal effect where there was none, but such a thesis would presumably have been based on two known facts: that Spartan youth ate less than their Athenian etc. equivalents and Spartans were, on average, taller than their enemies.
(The modern observer should take careful note of the fact that if Spartans were apparently on average taller than other Greeks, they probably did not suffer any real deprivation as children. Whatever “short” rations were common in the agoge, they were not so short that growth was in any way impeded since even if some youth may have been adept at theft, most would not have been.)
Returning to the theme of physical appearance, however, we clearly have a reasonable indication that Spartans were on average notably taller than most of their contemporaries. Since the ancient explanation (they received too little to eat as children) is implausible, we need to look for other possible explanations that would make the thesis (Spartans were generally taller) credible. Here the experience of modern Japan might be a useful corollary. As long as the Japanese diet was dependent almost exclusively on fish for protein, the Japanese were notoriously short; the introduction of meat led to the average height in Japan skyrocketing by roughly a foot in just two generations. If we remember that fish was the preferred food in Athens and the most readily available protein for all the island Greeks, while Spartans were envied for their rich pastures and game-filled forests, I think it is fair to postulate that the Spartan diet was more meat heavy than that of their major rivals. It is reasonable, therefore, to picture Spartans as unusually tall by contemporary standards.

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that they were broader as well as taller than their contemporaries. On the contrary, the ancient commentators stress that Spartans were slim, something they attributed to the fixed rations at the syssitia. Yet men who are too tall and too thin would have been incapable of marching long distances or fighting exceptionally well in a phalanx. So we are talking about lean, not skinny, men.

While it might be tempting to picture a Spartan in his prime looking something like a linebacker, I would caution that Sparta’s military successes were not soley a function of Spartan troops being able to push harder, but also march more rapidly (and move at night) and to cover difficult terrain. Likewise the emphasis on hunting, particularly for men in the reserves, suggests to me that Spartans were not excessively “top heavy,” but rather lithe and fleet of foot as well as broad shouldered and strong-armed. In conclusion, I postulate that Spartans had an all-round athletic build developed over decades of physical activity from sports and hunting to military drill and combined with a healthy, but protien-heavy diet that made them tough and lean but not stocky.

Turning to grooming, let me start by dismissing modern artistic depictions of Spartans that show them as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders alà Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army. Likewise, I reject descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence.

Herodotus, for example, makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans as Plutarch does if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and hygene. More important, a statue fragment found in the heart of Sparta and dating from the early fifth century (commonly – or affectionately – referred to as Leonidas) shows a man with a clipped beard and neat hair. Earlier archaic artwork unanimously shows men with short beards and long, but very neat, “locks” of hair. (Note, for example the hoplites on the magnificent frieze of the Siphnian Treasure at Delphi dating from Leonidas’ lifetime, the Krater of Vix also from this period, and the figurines of known Laconian origin now displayed in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.)
In addition to these sources, the admittedly dubious Plutarch claims Spartan men took particular care of their hair especially in the face of danger, and refers to an alleged quote from Lycurgus that long hair was preferred because it rendered a handsome man better looking, and an ugly one more frightening.

Whether the locks depicted in ancient sculpture were in fact braided or plaited is not possible to tell from the stylized nature of the evidence. However, it is physically impossible to keep long hair in neat, orderly strands when engaged in sports and other strenuous activities unless it is carefully confined in some way. Thus, practical modern experience suggests that Spartan men did braid their hair, something that is consistent with – though not definitely proved -- by the archeological evidence.

Braiding has the added advantage of being something that can be done quickly and alone if necessary, or done elaborately with help. Thus it could have beean a means for men to express individual taste and personality within the rigid limits of the Spartan prohibitions against displaying wealth in dress or personal ornament. I personally like to think of conservative, “old-fashioned” men just braiding their hair to keep it out of their faces, while the “dandies” of Spartan society innovatively braided their hair at diagonals or in crossing patterns etc. – as in Africa today. This gave a man a great deal of freedom for individual expression – all without breaking any taboos about the use of jewelry or other oranaments.

As for clothes – I think I better address that in a separate entry. This one is long enough already!

As always, I welcome feedback.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Tribute to Gorgo -- The Bride of Leonidas

The second book in the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, is available for purchase on amazon in both trade paperback and Kindle formats. Gorgo plays an important role in this book, which describes her childhood as well as Leonidas' years as a "young man," serving in the Spartan Army. That's why I'd like to devote this entry to Gorgo.

The most remarkable thing about Gorgo, wife of King Leonidas I of Sparta, is that we know anything about her at all. Herodotus and other ancient Greek historians are far more likely to mention Persian queens than the wives of Greeks – not because Persian women were more powerful than their Greek counterparts but because Persians had several wives and so it was sometimes useful to record by which of them a certain Persian prince had been born. Since Greeks had only one legitimate wife, there was no need for such clarification when it came to prominent Greek citizens. Even the names of Sparta's Queens are rarely mentioned. We do not know, for example, the names of either Leonidas’ mother or his step-mother, the “second wife” who caused all the trouble in the Agiad family in the second half of the 6th Century BC.

The near complete absence of Greek women in ancient history (as opposed to Greek mythology and drama) is a function of the fact that ancient historians were predominantly Athenian males from the Classical or Hellenistic Periods. Athenians of these periods did not think women should be seen - much less heard – in public. Women had no public role and so no business in politics or history. As Pericles said in one of his most famous speeches, “the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2:46.) Gorgo was by that standard a hopeless piece of scandal.

The first time she is recorded opening her mouth, she was already interfering in the affairs of state. She told her father to send away the powerful tyrant Aristagoras, who requested Spartan military aid for his planned rebellion against Persia. Gorgo’s father, King Cleomenes, had already told Aristagoras that his proposal was “improper” and asked him to leave Sparta, but Aristagoras then started to offer Cleomenes bribes. As these became ever larger, Cleomenes appeared to be weakening until his daughter intervened, saying: “Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you.”

Gorgo allegedly offered this advice at the tender age of “eight or nine.” Even if, as there is good reason to believe, Herodotus exaggerated her youth to make her father seem foolish, it would be hardly less remarkable if a maiden of 18 or 19 did what Gorgo did. In no other Greek city but Sparta would a female of any age have been allowed to be present much less heard and heeded at a meeting between Heads of State.

Gorgo’s advice was all the more remarkable because it was good. It was Athenian aid for the Ionian revolt that brought the wrath of Persia down on mainland Greece. This led some people to quip that it was easier to bamboozle thirty thousand Athenian men than one Spartan girl. Ironically, had the Athenian Assembly been as wise as Gorgo, then Gorgo might not have been widowed twenty years later by the Battle of Thermopylae.

Perhaps the fact that she was genuinely and exceptionally bright explains why as a wife too she was consulted and her opinions respected. This is evidenced by the incident in which a blank wax tablet was sent to Sparta from the exiled king Demaratus then at the Persian court. “No one,” according to Herodotus, “was able to guess the secret until… Gorgo, who was the wife of Leonidas, divined it and told the others that if they scraped the wax off, they would find something written on the wood underneath. This was done; the message was revealed….(Herodotus, The Histories, 7:239.)

There is little doubt that Gorgo was clever, but what else do we know about her?

It is probably safe to say that Gorgo was not particularly pretty. Had she been, it would have been mentioned by somebody. The beauty of other Spartan women, notably Helen and Demaratus’ mother, is legendary or at least recorded. Some people have suggested Gorgo was ugly based on her name which conjures up the mythical Gorgon, a female beast with snakes for hair so hideous that all who looked at her turned to stone. But this seems to be taking things too far in the other direction. It is hard to imagine a truly ugly woman being so well-loved by either her father or her husband – or so well adjusted and self-confident. Furthermore, we are told that men “made advances” to her, which also seems inconsistent with an unattractive woman. Gorgo was probably simply “ordinary,” and so her looks were not worthy of comment.

Whatever her looks, Gorgo was the quintessential Spartan woman in spirit. She was educated, self-confident, out-spoken and involved in the body politic. She was neither vain nor materialistic. She showed Spartan scorn of affectation when she thought Aristagoras had no hands because he let a slave dress him, and when she accused an elegantly dressed man of not being able “to play even a female role.”

This second quote is again very telling because it suggests Gorgo was familiar with theatre – something an Athenian woman would almost certainly not have been. Athenian women, as we have seen above, were not supposed to be seen or talked about. It was a disgrace for them to be seen even standing in the doorways of their houses much less at the market place. How then should they have been tolerated in the crowds that attended Athenian theater? While it is just possible to imagine them (veiled and heavily escorted by their male relatives) attending tragedies, the sexual explicitness of Athenian comedies is utterly unimaginable if respectable Athenian women were expected to be in the audience. Gorgo’s reference to “playing a female role,” however, makes it very clear that she had seen plays performed.

There is even a chance that she saw these plays performed in Athens. We know that Leonidas’ short reign began with the Persian invasion that led to the Battle of Marathon and ended with the Persian invasion that crushed him and his 300 at Thermopylae before continuing on to burn Athens to the ground. In short, Leonidas’ entire reign was dominated by the Persian threat and the need for the Greek city-states to unite against the common enemy. It is therefore reasonable to postulate that Leonidas spent a good deal of his time lobbying for support in the other important cities especially Athens. The very fact that he was elected the commander of the coalition forces including nominal command of the Athenian fleet suggests that leaders in other cities were familiar with – and trusted - him. It is not fanciful to hypothesize that on at least one of his trips to Athens, he took Gorgo with him.

The evidence that Gorgo traveled to Athens is further corroborated by her most famous quote. An Athenian woman is said to have asked her why “only Spartan women rule their men.” Since it is inconceivable that an Athenian woman would have traveled to Sparta, the only place where such an exchange could have taken place was in Athens itself.

The thought of Gorgo in Athens is rather like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court. She must have been a sensation – and one imagines Leonidas with his dry sense of humor enjoying every minute of it! For example, note that the Athenian woman asked why only Spartan women “ruled” their men, implying that Gorgo had been seen giving Leonidas advice – and he had been seen to accept it, just as Cleomenes had done before him. As Gorgo’s response makes clear, the willingness of Spartan men not to discount good advice just because it came out of the mouth of a woman is what made Spartan men more manly – at least in Gorgo’s eyes! Understandably, perhaps, Spartan men, who measured their virility on the battlefield more than in the debates of the Assembly as in Athens, were less worried by the words of women.

But we should not picture Gorgo as a shrew. Gorgo’s role was that of advisor, companion and lover. She is not depicted telling Leonidas off (as she did her father), but rather helping him solve the mystery of the apparently blank wax tablet and obliquely bragging about his masculinity. And while other Spartan queens (notably Helen) are accused of adultery, Gorgo is portrayed rejecting unwanted advances. She was the mother of at least one child by Leonidas, his son and heir, Pleistarchos, and there is no reason to believe this was their only child. The fact that Pleistarchos was still very young at his father’s death suggests the opposite: that there had been elder children who died or had all been female.

When Leonidas marched out to die at Thermopylae, Gorgo asked him for instructions. His answer was a final compliment to her. He said: “Marry a good man and have good children.” Not sons, children. Leonidas wanted Gorgo not to mourn him but to be happy, and he valued daughters as much as sons – probably because he had learned from Gorgo the importance of clever and loyal women.

Gorgo plays a major role in the second book of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, now available for purchase on amazon or directly from the publisher, Wheatmark.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Products of the Spartan Agoge

There is general consensus among both ancient and modern commentators that the Spartan agoge was a state-run institution intended to produce ideal soldiers for the Spartan army. Thus Spartan youth were taught only as much literacy as “was necessary,” and great emphasis was placed on physical strength, endurance and discipline. Most modern writers have taken this to mean that Spartan youth were essentially illiterate brutes, who allowed themselves to be whipped to unconsciousness while growing up and after gaining the citizenship dumbly accepted the decisions of the Gerousia and/or king in Assembly and obeyed orders like robots in the army.

Without even addressing the issue of literacy, which has been handled elsewhere (see Ellen Millender’s excellent article “Spartan Literacy Revisited” in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20/No.1/April 2001 and/or Jean Ducat’s essay “Perspectives on Spartan Education in the Classical Period,” in Sparta: New Perspectives, ed. Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell, 1999), I have a number of problems with this interpretation of Spartan society.

First, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not robots who wait for orders but thinking, self-confident men and women who can take 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 not only didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield, much less in other circumstances. Furthermore, it highlights the fact that superiors in the Spartan army did not feel that they could coerce 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 also had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out act as advisors to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.

Second, the Spartan Assembly, in which all products of the agoge exercised their rights as citizens, was by no means powerless or docile. The Assembly had real powers, indeed more than the kings. The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia whenever vacancies occurred 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 from Pausanius to Phoebidas.

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 of their profession 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 are ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority. We know for a fact that the Spartan Assembly could be outright rowdy on occassion -- as when the Assembly (“the Spartans” – not the ephors or Gerousia) threw the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well.

What the above demonstrates is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless robots manipulated by their officers and political leaders. They were self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities. And they were the products of the Spartan agoge.

In short,the agoge was not designed to produce blind-obedience, senseless acceptance of suffering, or mute endurance of hardship but citizens, who would serve Sparta long after they went off active service in a variety of political and diplomatic capacities. Sparta did not want or need docile political pawns or mindless slaves but rather thinking and responsible citizens capable of assuming responsibility and command. Only if one recognizes these broader objectives of the agoge is it possible to understand how it worked.