Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites
Showing posts with label Archaic Sparta. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Archaic Sparta. Show all posts

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How Do You Live At War?

The following review of "A Peerless Peer" was post posted on amazon.com by "Thomas E." October 28. Thank you, Thomas, wherever you are!
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This review is from: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer (Kindle Edition)
Doctor Helena P. Schrader is an accomplished historian and author of both non-fiction and fiction books. She also owns land in what was once known as Laceadeamon, or Sparta and writes about the place as if she can visualize it -- outside her front porch. In this, the second entry in her trilogy on Leonidas, she again hits the mark and builds even further upon what was a stellar entry in Leonidas of Sparta: A boy of the Agoge.

The first book took us through the early years in the life of Leonidas, focused as the title would indicate, largely on the agoge and the various rituals and training regimes that young men in Sparta underwent. It also let us know how romance and family relations in the city functioned, and how the perioiki and helots worked into this social system and structure. Now Leonidas is a grown man, a member of a mess, and a soldier in the army. He has taken it as his mission to become the "Peerless Peer" that the title aludes to, and we are given the opportunity to understand how a man could grow into one who would willingly sacrifice himself for his country.

We are given opportunity to see how the vaunted army functions, and how the kleros that maintains Spartan society actually works. For a city that strove towards an idyllic distribution of property that would make everyone equal, Schrader lays bare how one cannot legislate against greed and the machinations of the human spirit to protect ones family and build one’s own assets. There are villains and there are saints in Sparta, and Leonidas encounters them all.

The system of two kings is a recurring issue as well, in how it affects what is never more than a small city. The fact that Sparta was not always on a war footing comes up, and how families dealt with fathers, who basically were never around until they hit the age of thirty. It is a history book wrapped around a story that touches upon all the facets of the ancient world that one does not think about when envisioning such a place, but which make that place a real location that we visit through her writing. This is outstanding work, and we can all only hope that there is more to come.

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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Leonidas, the Reformer King


Most historians confine their commentary on Leonidas to his appearance and departure from the scene of history.  His reign was, after all, quite short (ten years) and there were no known changes to Spartan territory or law, no works of art or monuments, not even any natural disasters, that can be dated specifically to the reign of Leonidas.  It is therefore presumptuous of me to label Leonidas a “reformer king.” I know that.

Now that I have your attention….

Looking at Spartan history from the Messenian War(s) to Sparta’s dismal and ignominious end under Rome, the reign of Leonidas represents in many ways a turning point.  In crude terms, the archaic age extended from the mid-eight century to end of the 6th century  BC. The classical age followed. Thus Leonidas’ reign fell at the transition.

In Sparta, it is exactly that transition that represents a particularly sharp and significant break in Sparta’s development.  The emergence of Sparta as a distinct city-state coincides with the dawn of the archaic period. In this period, the Messenian War(s) sparked unrest that led the Spartans to introduce a unique set of laws. Likewise, Sparta’s most admired statesmen in the ancient world, Lycurgus and Chilon, both lived in the archaic period. While many doubt that Lycurgus was a real person and prefer to see him as a mere legend, Chilon was very certainly real, one of the ancient world’s seven “wise men.”


Archaic Sparta saw not only the establishment of this new, revolutionary form of government (arguably the first democracy in history), but also a significant flourishing of the arts and trade. Sparta’s most significant monuments (e.g. the Menelaion, the Temple of the Bronzehouse Athena, Kastor's Tomb, the Amyklaion, the royal palaces, the Canopy, just to name a few) were constructed in the archaic period. Sparta’s most famous poets – Tyrtaios, Alkman – lived and worked in the archaic age. Sparta also produced significant works of art and export quality products. (See my entry: Spartan Artists: Not a Contradiction in Terms).


Sparta in the classical period in contrast is characterized by artistic stagnation and such a dramatic end to Sparta’s competitiveness in trade and manufacturing that those who study only classical and Hellenistic Sparta are completely unaware of Sparta’s impressive earlier accomplishments. Indeed, based on descriptions of the Spartan state and constitution written at the end of the fifth century and later, Sparta appears to have become a city-state that disdained luxury and by inference art itself. In short, Spartan society underwent a radical, indeed revolutionary, change in the mid-fifth century BC, immediately following Leonidas' death.


The fact that Leonidas was the last of the archaic kings not just in terms of timing, but in terms of policy is demonstrated by the fact that he took an active interest in world affairs and was elected to lead an international coalition of forces. (See: Leonidas the Diplomat) This fits in well with Sparta's archaic reputation for opposing tyrants and the creation of the Peloponnesian League in the second half of the sixth century. In short, Leonidas' interest in world affairs and his willingness to compromise rather than rely upon brute force were a continuation of the policies of his father and half brother.


Even more significant is the possibility that Leonidas’ domestic policies were tolerant and liberal. We know that in 479, only a year after his death and before his successors could make any significant changes to Spartan policy, the Spartans were able to deploy thirty-five thousand helot auxiliaries outside of Lacedaemon. This suggests widespread support for the Spartan state among the helot population. (The hypothesis that the Spartans took thirty-five thousand rebellious, hate-filled, and untrustworthy armed helots with them, when marching out to face the undefeated Persian army, is ludicrous. Such armed and rebellious helots would have posed an even greater threat to the Spartiates than the Persians themselves!) In addition, in 480 BC Sparta had a fleet of twenty triremes, requiring almost three thousand five hundred helot oarsmen. That is almost forty thousand helots so loyal to Sparta that the Spartiate elite could -- literally -- entrust their very existence to them. Leonidas, if not his predecessors, must have done something to win that loyalty.


Yet little over a decade later, the only recorded helot revolt against Sparta erupted. This is highly significant because we know that revolutions do not occur when people are most oppressed, but rather when rising living standards decline sharply and rising political expectations are abruptly disappointed.


This clearly suggests that in the late archaic period, Lacedaemon's helots enjoyed a slow but steady increase in living standards and political rights. In the post-Leonidas era, however, helot hopes and expectations were bitterly disappointed, leading to the explosive situation that culminated in the helot revolt of 465 BC.


Taken together, the artistic flourishing, international and diplomatic successes and helot loyalty, paint a picture of Leonidas' reign that tells us more about King Leonidas than his death at Thermopylae.  While it may be impossible to date the artistic achievements to Leonidas precisely, certainly his role in the anti-Persian coalition and the demonstrable loyalty of the helot population in 479 are a tribute to Leonidas personally and specifically.


Could Sparta’s archaic golden age have continued if Leonidas and his closest companions had not died at Thermopylae? Probably not indefinitely. Athens was on the rise; conflict was almost inevitable. Yet there is little doubt that the helot revolt of 465 BC traumatized Spartan society and set it on a course toward brutal internal repression. The revolt caused Sparta to create despicable institutions such as the kryptea and to commit acts of brutality such as the “disappearance” of thousands of helots who had been led to expect reward. In addition, the helot revolt led to mistrust of Athens and increasingly rabid xenophobia. At least some of the might have been avoided had Leonidas remained at Sparta's helm.


It is not too far-fetched to hypothesize that had Leonidas survived longer, he would have continued the enlightened policies of the archaic kings, who had lived in harmony with the helot population for well over a century. Certainly if Leonidas had lived longer, neither Pausanias nor Leotychidas would have been given a chance to turn Sparta’s allies into enemies.