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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review of A Victor of Salamis by William Stearns Davis

A Victor of Salamis by William Stearns Davis is an imaginative story designed to educate the reader about Greek society at the time of the second Persian invasion of Greece.
Due to a case of mistaken identity, the hero, Glaucon, a young, aristocratic Athenian athlete is forced to flee Athens. By chance, he saves the life of the Persian general Mardonius, who has been spying on Athens in disguise. In gratitude, Mardonius takes the Athenian exile back to the Persian court where he learns Persian and is eventually granted titles, riches and other marks of favor from the Great King Xerxes. Glaucon, believing he has no future in his homeland, finds himself increasing seduced by Persian culture and Mardonius’ beautiful but virtuous sister. He accompanies the Persian army as it advances into Greece. The heroic defense of the Pass of Thermopylae by such a small number of Greeks, however, re-ignites Glaucon’s patriotism. He realizes he cannot fight against his fellow countrymen, no matter how much he has come to respect Mardonius and his fellows. He defects to the other side in time to fight with Leonidas at Thermopylae – and survive by chance. He is rescued from death by his friend Mardonius, who is sad to find he could betray Persia, but out of his debt of honor, nurses him back to health and helps him to escape from the Persian camp. Glaucon returns to Athens, but still unable to prove his innocence in the case which led to his disgrace, he takes a disguise and fights as a common sailor at Salamis. Only after this battle, is it possible to straighten out the confusion and return home a hero to his Penelope-like wife, Hermione, who has remained faithful through his disgrace and presumed death.

This plot, which strikes me as almost Victorian in its use of mistaken identity, disguises, coincidences and dramatic escapes from certain death, is nevertheless a device for showing events from both the Athenian and Persian perspective. The novel avoids turning the Persians into comic monsters ala “300,” and even the Spartans are not entirely caricatured. All in all, it kept my interest enough to read to the end.

Davis rejected the use of modern speech patterns and phrases in the manner of Stephen Pressfield in Gates of Fire, and opted instead for language that is more classical. While this has a number of advantages, Davis was not always successful in making dialogue sound natural. The result is that much of the dialogue sounds stiff and contrived, while descriptions occasionally bordered on trite.

Altogether, A Victor of Salamis, failed to strike a chord with me, but the research was good and overall the picture transmitted of the age and society was accurate. I would recommend this book over many other novels set in the same period that take far greater liberties with the facts or convey a picture of ancient Greece distorted almost beyond recognition.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Missing Mothers: An Overlooked Aspect of Spartan Population Decline

The former East Germany is facing a demographic crisis. In the immediate aftermath of German reunification, young women no longer had to get pregnant to get an apartment of their own, job security collapsed, and day-care became expensive over-night. The birthrate dived dramatically. Now, twenty years later, the extreme uncertainty of the post-reunification era is past and women are having children again at the same rate as their mothers, but because there are many fewer young women of child-bearing age the population is not recovering. People speak of the “missing mothers.”

The situation reminded me of the dramatic decline in Sparta’s population between 480 and 370 BC. While some scholars (e.g. Chimes) have questioned the magnitude of the decline, most accept the numbers and prefer to concentrate on blaming the Spartans for their problems. Aristotle, of course, blamed Sparta’s women since they could inherit property, and women are (according to him) inherently greedy, grasping and irrational. Hodkinson ran demographic models to demonstrate how female inheritance results in inequitable distributions of wealth over seven generations. Other historians focus less on how wealth became concentrated in a few hands and more on the fact that the Spartan state failed to respond adequately to the resulting manpower crisis by reforming access to citizenship.

Either way, the Spartans, due to their abnormal laws (female inheritance and polyandry) and their fanatical and irrational adherence to these laws, are to blame for their own decline. But as Figueira has pointed out, Sparta’s population was growing or at least stable throughout the archaic period. Either the laws on female inheritance and polyandry did not exist in the archaic period, or they cannot be made responsible for Sparta’s population decline in the classical.

The Great Earthquake of 464, on the other hand, is an event which allegedly took 20,000 lives in Sparta alone, and its role in Sparta’s decline needs to be re-examined. The accounts of the earthquake are nothing if not dramatic. Pliny claims only five houses were left standing, and there are less credible tales of youths surviving because they ran out of a gymnasium to chase a hare, while the army was saved by marching out in time. While the details may be hard to credit, I think it is safe to say the earthquake was catastrophic, significantly, without impacting the strength of the army.

Meanwhile, while some historians dismiss the ancient accounts as incredible, Hodkinson goes to the other extreme of dismissing “modern guesswork” about women and children being more heavily impacted by the earthquake simply because it is not mentioned in ancient sources. Given the misogynous bias of ancient sources and the focus of most ancient accounts on Sparta’s military strength, I have no problem using common sense in the absence of a specific reference. Ancient sources rarely mention women or children in any other context either!

Following Figueira’s overall thesis that the Great Earthquake was the catalyst that set off a chain reaction ending in Sparta’s decline, I’d like to suggest that the impact might have been even more dramatic than Figueira contends. If – as is reasonable – women and young children were killed in disproportional numbers, then the size of the Spartan army would not been seen to decline for almost thirty years. Since the youth of the agoge were not disproportionally affected, they would have continued to graduate from the agoge and fill the ranks of the army for at least 14 years after the earthquake. Thereafter, for at least another 10 to 15 years, it would have been possible to maintain front-line strength by retaining men who would normally have gone off active service, i.e. by increasing the number of reserve age-cohorts on active duty. Only when the age of the reservists made it unpractical to retain them, would the dramatically reduced numbers of graduates from the agoge become evident in the army.

The number of children entering the agoge, on the other hand, would have declined dramatically.  In the first seven years the numbers would have been down because of the children killed outright, and thereafter enrollment would have been restricted because of the dramatic decline in birthrate, in other words, because of the “missing mothers.” Or more acutely, the missing wives.

Married men, those citizens in the army who marched to safety, would have lost their wives, while the youth in the agoge would have lost their future brides. Obviously, some women survived, but if the number of surviving women was sufficiently disproportionate to the number of men, then the resulting situation might well have fostered the introduction of polyandry. It is significant that polyandry is not mentioned in Herodotus. The hypothesis of disproportionate casualties among women, maidens and girls during the earthquake of 464 would help explain not only the population decline of the second half of the 5th Century but also the evolution of such a peculiar marriage custom for this part of the world at this period.

The shortage of Spartiate women would also explain the emergence of new-classes of semi-citizens such as mothakes/mothones, nothoi, and neodameis. If there was a shortage of Spartiate sexual partners following the earthquake, it would be only natural for the men, particularly the bachelors, to take perioikoi, helot or even foreign women – if not to wife – at least to their beds. They would then, particularly in face of the increasingly acute military manpower shortage, have had a strong interest in seeing the sons of these unions educated and at least partially integrated into the system. The fact that none of the above classes of quasi-citizens is found in reference to individuals prior to the earthquake suggests to me that such semi-citizens either had not existed before or had not existed in sufficient numbers to be worthy of mention.

All in all, the thesis of “missing mothers” seems to explain more about Sparta’s decline in the later 5th Century BC than any other theory I have seen put forward.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

READER SURVEY: Help Select a Cover for "Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer"

As I work on the re-write of the second book in my Leonidas trilogy, I have reached the stage where I am trying to select the best cover design for “A Peerless Peer.”

This book covers Leonidas’ life from the age of 21 to 35, the period in which he was a Spartan citizen but not yet a king. It is the book in which Gorgo first plays a significant role as she grows up from a child of 6 to become a young woman, wife and mother at 20. In this book, Leonidas marries and has children, but he also goes to war more than once.

Compared to the third book in the trilogy that will describe Leonidas’ rise to power, his reign and follow him to Thermopylae, this book is more focused on domestic affairs and domestic policy. Hence I have consciously opted for an image that does not invoke warriors and war. Also, because Gorgo plays such an important part, I wanted the image of a woman on the cover as well.

To the right are two cover designs that fullfill my personal criteria, and I would like your opinon of which you think is best. Which of these covers is more likely to attract readers? Which is most appealing? Please take a moment to take part in the survey and give me your opinion.

A year from now you could then have the fun of holding the finished product in your hands and say “I helped choose this cover.” Or, “I liked the other better - most people must have bad taste!” Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy putting in your two-cents worth and giving me your opinion.

Thank you for your time!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Where's Ares

Before I became a serious (if amateur) scholar of Sparta, I always assumed that the patron god of the famous warriors of Ancient Greece would be God of War, Ares. After all, Athens, the city of the philosophers and seamen, had chosen between Athena and Poseidon, the Goddess of Wisdom and the God of the Sea respectively. But for Sparta, I thought, there could really only be one choice: Ares. It came as a surprise to learn that the Sparta’s patron goddess was Athena.

As I learned more about Sparta, of course, the choice made more sense. Sparta was not, as modern commentators would like us to believe, a society obsessed exclusively with war, but a society which placed as high a value on training the intellect as the body. Sparta valued thought and science. (See the excellent article by w. Lindsay Wheeler, “Doric Crete and Sparta, the home of Greek Philosophy,” in Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2). So giving pride of place to Athena was understandable. But, Ares must then come second, I thought.

Wrong again. As Nikolaos Kouloumpis outlines in his article “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, #1), Sparta’s most important festivals, the Karneia and Hyacinthia, were dedicated to Apollo. Even the Gymnopaedia, arguably the most famous of Sparta’s annual festivals, was dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, Dionysus and Leto. Clearly, there is a relationship between the reverence for Apollo and Sparta’s renown in the field of music and dance. Certainly, these festivals dedicated to Apollo provided the occasions for choral and dancing competitions, and the performances attracted tourists from throughout the ancient world, who in turn admired Spartan prowess in these disciplines.

The more infamous than famous festival of Artemis Orthia was, as the name implied, dedicated entirely to Artemis. Apparently, the cult of Menelaus and Helen was only slightly less important, although we did not know how the Eleneia was celebrated. In fact, in addition to these, Kouloumpis lists cults to Asclepius (!), Achilles, Hercules, Alexandra/Cassandra, Agamemnon, Castor and Pollux/Polydeukes and Helios. Ares does not rate even an “honorable mention.” While the heroes Achilles, Hercules, Agamemnon, Castor and Polydeukes clearly have close associations with Sparta’s legendary roots, the reason Sparta should honor Asclepius and Helios with festivals is not readily apparent – at least to me.

Turning from festivals to sanctuaries, Pausanias, in his detailed guide to the “significant” sites of Sparta, records only three temples out of more than 150 temples, sanctuaries and shrines that are dedicated to Ares. Two are notably located outside of Sparta proper, one in Amyclae and the other even farther away in Geronthrai. The only temple to Ares in Sparta itself is one in which the God of War is shown in chains, according to Pausanias because “in Lakonia they think the god of war will never desert them if they keep him in chains; [just as] in Athens they believe Victory will stay with them forever because she has no wings.” (Pausanisus, Book III, 15:6). By comparison, there are ten temples/shrines to Athena, six to Zeus, and five to Aphrodite. The Devine Twins, Castor and Polydeukes, Apollo, Artemis, and Poseidon and Asklepios also all rate more temples than Ares.

While the large number of sanctuaries dedicated to Athena and Zeus hardly need an explanation given their power and prominence in the ancient Greek pantheon, it does seem odd that Aphrodite, Poseidon and Asklepios should receive comparatively more honors than the god of war in land-locked, warlike Sparta. Poseidon might be explained in that he was also called the “Earth Shaker” and, given impact earthquakes had on Lacedaemon, the Earth Shaker was clearly a god to be appeased. Notably one of Sparta’s temples to Poseidon is to the “Horse-Breeding” Posiedon, and so a reflection of Sparta’s interest and success in equestrian sports.

But why do Aphrodite and Asclepius place ahead of Ares in terms of the number of sites dedicated to them? One possible explanation would be the association of Aphrodite with Kythera, which was part of Lacedaemon for the better part of 500 years. Allegedly, the worship of Aphrodite originated on Kythera, and conceivably the cult spread from there to the mainland of Lacedaemon. However, it is notable that to date the only temple from the Classical period to have been identified on Kythera was dedicated not to Aphrodite but to Asclepius. Possibly the worship of the God of Healing also moved from Kythera to Sparta. Alternatively, the need to treat battle injuries fostered a particular reverence for Asclepius. Such an interpretation and the fact that there appear to have been more temples to Asclepius than Ares suggests the Spartan’s trusted more to their own skills to win wars, than survive the aftermath.

More important, however, is not the relationship between Ares and Asclepius as such but rather the fact that Sparta was filled with sanctuaries and temples to a great diversity of gods, demi-gods and heroes. By no means was Spartan worship narrowly focused upon the god of war, or even warrior heroes such as Achilles. Instead, the heroes Heracles, Castor and Polydeukes, whose greatest deeds were performed outside the context of war, receive more attention. This plethora of religious/cult focus in turn suggests that Spartan society was far less narrow-minded and obsessed with things military than most commentators imply. At a minimum, the religious landscape of Lacedeamon should give us pause and induce us to question whether Sparta worshiped war at all.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review of "Antigone's Wake" by Nicholas Nicastro

Antigone’s Wake: A Novel of Imperial Athens by Nicholas Nicastro describes Athens’ campaign against Samos in 440-439 BC through the eyes of the playwright Sophocles. Allegedly, Sophocles was one of the ten elected Athenian generals who conducted the campaign under the overall leadership of Pericles. Although there is no attempt to apologize for Athens’ aggressive and imperial policy and many of the negative aspects of Athenian society are described in the course of the book, Nicastro clearly likes Athens and his characters in this book better than he liked his heroes or Sparta in Isle of Stone. Throughout the book, the tone is light-hearted and whimsically self-critical rather than oppressive and hopeless, making it a much easier and more pleasant read than Isle of Stone.

Particularly well-drawn is the hero Sophocles. Nicastro very effectively portrays the great playwright as a man who is at once vain and insecure, a man proud of his accomplishments and yet conscious of his failings. He is a man with weaknesses, but not without virtues and conscience. All in all, he is a likeable protagonist and one which the reader readily follows.

The portrayal of Pericles was also intriguing. Since I know very little about the historical Pericles, I have no way of judging the accuracy of Nicastro’s portrayal, although from what I do know the fictional character represents a legitimate interpretation of the historical figure. Certainly, Nicastro’s Pericles was effective in the context of the novel, where the "rational" Pericles serves as a good foil for the more emotional Sophocles. Because Pericles epitomizes “rational” policy and “realpolitik,” he also advocates cold-blooded political expediency and so embodies Imperial Athens, a role that is appropriate for the most famous Athenian politician of his age.

Sophocles son Iophon likewise plays a believable, if more monotone role in the novel, as the spoilt son of a successful father. Fathers of teenage sons will probably identify strongly with Sophocles in his disappointment over his son's refusal to recognize his achievements and his frustration in trying to provide wise guidance. The relationship between father and son is at once completely modern and compellingly authentic, as a variety of ancient writers also complained about the rudeness of youth and their lack of respect for their fathers. In short, the phenomenon appears timeless.

Unfortunately, all three women characters in Antigone's Wake are mere steriotypes: the intelligent whore (Aspasia), the nagging wife (Nais) and the stupid teenage girl, Sophocles’ daughter Photia. Whereas Aspasia and Nais are well drawn steriotypes, who still play their roles within the novel effectively, Nicastro’s failure to breathe life into Photia is a serious flaw in the novel.  Nicastro's plot requires Photio to fulfil a key function and provide a dramatic climax to the novel. Because Nicastro neglects Photia for the larger part of the novel and makes no effort to develop a character rather than a steriotype, she fails to play her assigned role convincingly. In consequence, I found the ending of the novel a disappointment after an otherwise good read.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Strength of Silence

In the ancient world, the Spartans were (in)famous for their culture of silence. Ancient “Laconophiles” collected alleged examples of Spartan speech all characterized by pithiness, and Xenophon stresses the – evidently unusual – ability of Spartan youth to hold their tongues except when directly addressed. Perhaps the most graphic example of the Spartan distaste for excessive verbiage, however, is the story of the Samian ambassadors, who sought Spartan aid in their fight against Polycrates. According to Herodotus, the Samians gave a very long speech after which the Spartan’s complained about having forgotten the start of the speech by the end of it. When the Samians then brought a bag and said the bag needed flour, the Spartans replied that the word ‘bag’ was superfluous – and then proceeded to give the aid requested. (Herodotus 3:46). Because Spartan eloquence was characterized by an absolute minimum of words, we describe minimalistic speech as “Laconic” event to this day. But while the Spartan culture of reducing speech to its bare essentials and speaking only when necessary was described and admired by ancient observers, the reasons for Sparta’s culture of silence are less obvious.

W. Lindsay Wheeler in his excellent article “Doric Crete and Sparta, home of Greek Philosophy,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2), claims that silence was a critical component of the Spartan educational system. He alleges that silence was purposely imposed on youth so that “their thoughts should gain force and intensity by compression” and so their speech would be “short, concise and to the point, like their spear points.” He goes on expound on the depth to which philosophy lay at the roots of Spartan society and culture. Clearly, a society that valued philosophical thought based on observation of nature, scorned idle chatter, and it is fair to assume that in Sparta men were expected to speak only when they had something worth saying.

During a recent intensive training course in administering first aid to the victims of traumatic injuries, I was struck by an additional feature of the Spartan culture of silence – its utility on the battlefield. The training focused on providing first aid to trauma victims in an environment without medicine, medical technology or specialized first-aid kits. It was heavily informed by recent military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the causes of battlefield injuries have changed dramatically since the age of Sparta, the result – severed limbs, massive hemorrhaging, life-threatening puncture wounds and crippling fractures – would have been familiar to any Spartan ranker. Astonishingly, despite all the advances in modern medicine, the first response probably has not changed much in two and a half millennia.

This is where the Spartan culture of silence might have proved its utility – if it was not part of the very reason for evolving it in the first place. In warfare, serious casualties are inherently traumatic, which means the victims inevitably suffer from shock and hypothermia. Both conditions worsen, if a patient is agitated and unable to keep still. If, on the other hand, a victim has been trained to remain still and silent, then they have a better chance of also remaining calm and so preserving rather than squandering their strength, blood and breath.

Furthermore, it appears (but I would welcome a medical opinion on this!) that the natural pain-killers the body produces in situations of extreme trauma are more effective if adrenalin levels are lower. Thus, developing behavior that reduces or shortens the period in which adrenalin is pumped into the body, may increase the speed with which natural painkillers are released into the bloodstream. Thus, far from being super-macho heroes, who ignored pain, as portrayed in most cartoons, films and novels, Spartans may literally have experienced less acute pain when dealing with battle wounds.

If we accept that this was a possibility, then it is even possible that Spartans, having observed how calm and stillness improved the survival rate among battlefield casualties, concluded that cultivating these behavior patterns in their children and youth would help them to respond accordingly on the battlefield. In short, the culture of silence and self-control may have helped Spartans to experience less pain and survive more readily on the battlefield, and the fact that self-control and silence was effective on the battlefield may have reinforced the culture of silence in the agoge and among adult, male citizens.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review of Nigel Kennells’ "Spartans: A New History"

Nigel Kennell has produced a good, readable history of Sparta in his latest release Spartans: A New History (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010) It is the kind of work that provides readers, who are not specialists in ancient history, with a solid understanding of the fundamental characteristics of Spartan society and the bare-bones of Spartan history. This is a good book for non-experts to buy and keep as a reference on things Spartan.

For readers already familiar with the subject matter, Kennell provides a concise summary that can be used for reference, but fails to break new ground that I could detect. Maybe I was expecting too much after finding his The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta such a brilliant foray of common-sense in a field of discourse dominated by so much nonsense. Certainly, in this new work I found his discussion of topics – whether the Spartan constitution or the Spartan army – more gripping than his chronological narrative.

For me personally, the most exiting section of this book was the chapter on the Spartan army. Here, for example, I learned that the Spartan army buried its dead in the lands where they fell, according to Kennell as “a matter of pride, for Spartiate graves served as tangible signs of their city’s ability to project power.” (p. 157). Thus, the familiar admonishment allegedly given each Spartan soldier by his mother “with your shield or upon it” could not have come from a Spartan source! This is a revolutionary insight – fully in line with my own speculations about “unnatural mothers.” (See my earlier blog entry.) The rest of the discussion on the army was equally logical and useful.

Kennel is in his element when focusing on a topic rather than trying to cover the whole universe of things Spartan from Lycurgus to the Romans. I hope that in his next book he will return to the format of The Gymnasium of Virtue and enable readers to benefit from his meticulous research combined with his refreshingly sensible and insightful perspective.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Untold Stories of the Spartan Agoge

The image of the Spartan agoge in most literature is a catalogue of horrors no loving parent would inflict upon his/her children. Paul Cartledge even makes a great fuss about the word agoge being used for cattle as well as children – although the English word “to raise” is also used for both children and cattle without, to my knowledge, all American, British and Australian children being denigrated to the status of livestock. (Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, London, 2001.)

The assumption in literature and film is that boys (and possibly the girls) were taken from their homes at age seven and never again had anything to do with their parents. Instead they were under the tutelage of the Paidonomos and his assistants, elected herd leaders, “lovers” and eirenes (whatever these were). The boys are described as learning virtually nothing, running around virtually naked, stealing to eat, fighting constantly with their peers, but intimidated and abjectly obedient to their elders.

Yet what we know of Spartan society is not consistent with such an educational system.

First, there is strong evidence that family ties were as strong in Sparta as elsewhere. No society, in fact, has ever succeeded at destroying the institution of the family -- even when they tried as in Soviet Union and Communist China. We know from modern experience that attendance at even a distant boarding school does not inherently indicate a lack of parental interest in a child’s development. Thus, it is ridiculous to think Spartan parents lost interest in their children just because they were enrolled in the agoge. The agoge, after all, was located in the heart of Sparta. Far from never seeing their families ever again, the children of the agoge would probably have seen their fathers (who had to take part in civic activities and eat at their syssitia) and school- and army-aged siblings daily.

In addition to the comfort of daily contact with fathers and brothers as desired, we can assume that the agoge was not opened 365 days a year. Just like every other school in history, the agoge will have had “holidays.” We know of at least 12 festivals each year. (See Nikolaos Kouloumpis, “Worship and the Role of Religion in the Formation of the Spartan State,” Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1.) The Spartans, furthermore, were notorious for taking their religious festivals extremely seriously. Soldiers on campaign could return home for festivals particularly important to their specific clan, and the entire army was prohibited from marching out during others. (Hence the Spartan army was late for Marathon and only sent an advance guard to Thermopylae.) It is not reasonable to assume that what applied to the Spartan army did not apply to the public school. Far more probable is that the agoge closed down for every holiday and like school children everywhere, they gleefully went “home for the holidays” along with their eirenes, herd-leaders, instructors and all other citizens.

The equally common presumption based on fragmentary ancient sources that the boys never got enough to eat and routinely took to stealing to supplement their diet is inconsistent with a functioning economy. No society can function if theft is not the isolated act of criminal individuals but rather a necessity for all youth between the ages of 6 and 21. If all the youth were stealing all the time, the rest of society would have been forced to expend exorbitant amounts of time and resources on protecting their goods. Every kleros would have been turned into an armed camp, and there would have been nightly battles between hungry youth and helots desperate to save their crops and stores. Nothing of the kind was going on in Sparta, a state known for its internal harmony and low levels of common crime. Nigel Kennel argues persuasively that theft was only allowed during a limited period of time at a single stage in a boy’s upbringing (Nigel Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995). As for only being punished for being caught, that is very nature of all punishment seen from the thief’s perspective, since no undiscovered crime is ever punished. Nothing about that has changed in 2,500 years.

The notion that the boys constantly fought among themselves and were encouraged to do so is equally untenable. Boys of the same age cohort would inevitably serve together in the army. The Spartan army was famous for the exceptional cohesion of its ranks. You don’t attain such cohesion by fostering competition and rivalry to an excessive degree. A strong emphasis on competition was prevalent throughout ancient Greece. Spartan youths engaged in team sports, and there would have been natural team spirit and team rivalry. There can be no question that now and again such competition and rivalry turned bitter and could degenerate into fights. But Sparta more than other Greek city states needed to ensure that such rivalries did not get out of hand because all citizens had to work together harmoniously in the phalanx.

As for the youth of the agoge being abjectly respectful and obedient to their elders, such behavior is incompatible with high-spirited, self-confident youth – yet this is what the agoge set out to produce. (See my earlier blog entry on “Citizens or Automotons.”) Spartan discipline appears to have produced exceptionally polite young men by ancient standards. Since observations about Spartan youth at, say, the pan-Hellenic games or on visits to Sparta does not require inside knowledge of Spartan society, we can assume that these reports have a certain validity. But there is a vast difference between being polite and respectful on the surface and being cowed, intimidated and obedient to an exceptional extent. English school-boys of the 19th and early 20th Century also had a reputation for politeness that had nothing to do with being beaten down or docile.

The thesis that Spartan youth learned almost nothing (except endurance, theft, competition and manners) is untenable for a society that for hundreds of years dominated Greek politics and whose school was admired by many Athenian intellectuals. Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic manoeuvring, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them. 

Spartans clearly knew their laws very well, they could debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries. Indeed, some sources claim that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus:20) Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by the many contests and festivals for poetry, particularly in the form of lyrics. The abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read! 

Last but not least, while everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers, the skills needed by a good soldier included far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience. A good soldier also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognize poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more. All this knowledge was transmitted to Spartan youth in the agoge.

Finally, let me turn to the most offensive aspect of this common picture: institutionalized pederasty. Without getting into a fight about the dating and nationality of the sources alleging institutionalized pederasty to Spartan society, the status of women in Sparta is even more widely attested and can be considered incontestable. Yet the high status of Sparta’s women is completely inconsistent with a society composed of men who were the victims of child abuse. Aristotle himself fumed against the power of women and attributed it to militaristic society in which homosexual love was not common. More important, modern psychology shows that abused boys grow up to despise women. Whatever else one can accuse the Spartans of doing, despising women was not one of them. Athenians, notably Aristophanes and Hesiod, on the contrary, very clearly did despise women and it was in Athens and Corinth that the archeological evidence likewise suggests widespread pederasty. Sparta stands out as the exception, which is probably why it was so profoundly misunderstood.

Stripped of common misperceptions about the nature of the Spartan agoge, the institution starts to look not only tolerable but even admirable – something that would be consistent with the historical record. We know that many men we admire for their intellect, including Socrates himself, were admirers of the Spartan agoge. It is time that modern observers of Spartan society stopped relying on familiar but illogical commentary and used common sense to assess the Spartan agoge.

"Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge" is a novel based on hypothesizes about the agoge consistent with the above thoughts

Buy now!
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Friday, October 29, 2010

New Review of "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge"

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the AgogeLeonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge
Helena P. Schrader
Wheatmark (2010)
ISBN 9781604944747

Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (10/10)

Helena P. Schrader introduces the reader to a sweeping bold view of a period in Spartan history that has long been a subject of debate, speculation, and misinformation. “Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge” is the first novel in a planned trilogy based on the biography of a legendary hero. The first book describes his childhood in the Spartan agoge. The second will focus on his years as a citizen, and the third will describe his reign and death.

Leonidas and his twin brother, Cleombrotus, were enrolled in the Agoge at age seven. The program designed to prepare Spartan youth for citizenship focuses on endurance through hardship. Although the boys are members of the king’s family they are subjected to the same harsh “upbringing” of ordinary Spartan youth as boys of the Agoge and have to prove themselves worthy of Spartan citizenship. Completion was often difficult for Leonidas; however, his personal goal was to become the “paragon of perfection.”

Schrader is meticulous in her research. She has done a careful analysis of ancient sources and the works of Nigel Kennel to develop her work. Her literary style, superb character development, and creative imagination combine to draw the reader into this compelling story. I especially valued her ability to convey growth in maturity in Leonidas and his friend Alkander as they dealt with the pathos of the death within the family, and the inequity and injustice of politics and society. A third member of this tight group, Prokles, chose to express himself through a spirit of cockiness demonstrated by disrespect, disruptive conduct, and irresponsible verbal attacks.

The elements of surprise, an ongoing cycle of conflict and resolution, and stimulating dialog blend together to move the plot forward. A large cast of characters, historical and fictional, with names unique to the period, as well as references using unfamiliar words to describe common dwelling places, and titles slowed down my reading. However, these elements add to the validity of Schrader’s competency as a writer.

Helena P. Schrader’s writing in “Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge” is informative, entertaining, and enjoyable, leaving the reader eager for more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fire on Kythera

On my most recent trip to Kythera fire broke out in the mountains behind the airport. My husband and I were on our way to the port to return to the mainland after a very short holiday on the island. As we approached the airport, I noted smoke smearing the cloudless, blue sky. Moments later we rounded a bend in the road and saw the entire hillside aflame.

It was August in Greece, and this was a barren mountainside covered with thorn and other scrub-growth – all of it tinder-dry. A line of orange flames stretched across a hundred yards belching black smoke. It crackled its way forward toward the road, driven by a brisk breeze off the ocean. A handful of abandoned cars cowered beside the road, and two men officiously waved traffic through the smoke sinking onto the road. That was reassuring. The fire had been noticed, and, one presumed, the fire department was already on its way.

My husband accelerated, thinking of the ferry. I thought of the fires that had ravaged Greece three years earlier. Then, flames had overtaken whole families as they tried to flee in their cars. Rescuers found the bodies of grandmothers and infants incinerated in their homes. The fires had threatened the ancient site of Olympia, breathing black ashes upon the white ruins and obliterating the surrounding vegetation. The authorities ordered the evacuation of the suburbs of Athens. When the rains finally came, vast stretches of countryside had been charred. The blackened corpses of entire olive orchards and forests scar the countryside even today.

At the cafĂ© in front of the ticket office at the port, we watched the smoke billowing up from the far side of the mountain. The ferry arrived on schedule and backed up to the quay. Scores of cars bounced off the ship onto the quay and we clanged our way up the ramp to be directed to a spot on the deck. Only after we’d left the car and taken our seats, did we look again at the mountains. The smoke was thicker and more ominous than ever.

With considerable excitement, the other passengers pointed to an approaching helicopter. A large container was slung below its belly. It dumped the liquid contents of the container onto the flames and then swung out over the bay. Slowly and loudly it settled itself down almost to the surface of the water. The wind from the propellers flattened the sea and sent spume in all directions. The container scooped up sea water and then the helicopter strained to lift it. Water splashed over the sides of giant bucket as the chopper heeled over and turned away in a wide arc. Meanwhile two fixed-wing aircraft joined the fight. Yet the fire raged on unimpressed.

Without warning, the ferry raised its ramps and departed. It nosed out into the Gulf of Laconia. Off our bows all was serene, Mediterranean beauty – bright blue seas occasionally crested by brilliant white, waves. On the opposite shore, white villages nestled in the contours of the distant hills barely discernable through the summer haze. Behind us, the smoke had transformed the entire island into the image of an active volcano: huge clouds of smoke rolled upwards to be torn away by the wind in a long, untidy plume. By the time we reached Neapoli it was impossible to distinguish smoke from haze, and on the evening news it was reported that man and his machines had contained the fire.

But, I wondered, what would it have been like in ancient times? – without the help of machines? If the fires even today can so easily run wild, what terror they must have wrought when there were no pump trucks, no helicopters and no aircraft. The climate was the same and the dried vegetation just as vulnerable to ignition, but there were no mobile phones or radios to get word to the authorities – whoever they were. And if even automobiles cannot outrun these fires when they are running, how could people on foot, cart and horse hope to outrun them? No wonder, fire was one of the four horses of the apocalypse. Something worth noting for future books on this part of the world….

Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Review of "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge"

New and provocative look at Sparta,
October 9, 2010
By Brenda Miller (North Carolina) (REAL NAME)

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge (Paperback)

Helena Schrader has in this book fulfilled her introductory promise to look at Spartan life from a completely different position. She clearly has done her research on a relatively little-known but frequently maligned aspect of ancient Sparta; its education system, or "agoge". Instead of the to-be-expected detailed examination of brutality and pedophilia, Ms Schrader describes, through the character of young King Leonidas, what to my mind is a far more likely youth training system. Certainly it was tough and certainly the objective of producing hard and disciplined soldiers for Sparta was never lost sight of (think of a life-long Marine boot camp). But we know that Spartans were in reality far from being a mob of unthinking automatons capable of functioning only under orders and in fear of draconian punishment. There was music, poetry, art, and actual thought in archaic and classic Sparta and Ms Schrader brings all this out beautifully. Desite the difference of some 2500 years, as a former career Army officer I could readily relate to Leonidas' struggles and to the overall training effort as well. Ms Shrader has succeeded with this book and I hope that we will have the opportunity soon to read her works on the rest of Leonidas' life.

I should also add that this work is perfectly suitable for older teen-age readers as well as for adults.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Self-Confident Citizens or Automotons?

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 kings with no particular self-will while obeying orders like automatons in the army.

Without even addressing the issue of literacy which has been handled elsewhere (see Ellen Millender’s excellent articled “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 automatons who wait for orders but thinking, self-confident soldiers who can take initiative and act without – or even against – orders if necessary. 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 command 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. Likewise, Sparta 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 were ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority. Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” – not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well demonstrates.

What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment. Furthermore, these were the characteristics - not blind-obedience, senseless acceptance of suffering, or mute endurance of hardship - that the agoge was intended to foster. The agoge was neither intended nor designed to produce just soldiers 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 – something I will discuss in a later blog entry.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Leonidas Trilogy

Leonidas is arguably the most famous of all Spartans. There have been numerous works of art which depict him. He has been made the hero of a recent, popular film. There is even an entire line of chocolate confectionary named after him! But no serious biography has even been written, and what is best known about him and most often portrayed is his death. Leonidas is remembered for the commanding the Greek forces, which defended the Pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army that vastly outnumbered them. Because Persia was then an autocratic empire headed by a King, while the Greek forces at Thermopylae were sent by a coalition of democratic Greek city-states, Leonidas became the incarnation of Freedom fighting Tyranny. Leonidas is particularly remembered for refusing to surrender despite betrayal that made defeat absolutely certain. Thus he also came to symbolize the noblest form of military courage and self-sacrifice. Consequently, the events leading up to the three day battle and the death of Leonidas with 300 other Spartans at Thermopylae have been the focus of historians and artists of all media from Herodotus onward.

But Leonidas had lived perhaps as long as sixty years before that battle took place, and he had reigned for ten. It was those years preceding the final confrontation with Persia that made him the man he would be at Thermopylae. To the extent that we admire his defiant stand, learning more about his early life and tracing the development of his character is important. Arguably, understanding what made Leonidas the hero he was is a useful lesson for future generations.

Yet so very little is actually known about his early life, that historians have been discouraged from attempting a biography. Novelists, fortunately, enjoy more freedom, and what we do know about Leonidas’ early life is enticing. Leonidas was born into the senior of Sparta’s ruling families, but he was born to his mother late in her life and had two elder brothers. As a result, unlike most of Sparta’s kings, he attended the Spartan public school or agoge and underwent the harsh training of ordinary Spartans that has been the subject of so much fascinated – and often appalled - commentary. He married the daughter of his half-brother and predecessor, a sharp – not to say sharp-tongued – woman, who epitomized everything other Greeks abhorred and condemned about Spartan women. Most important, he was elected to lead a coalition of Greek forces against the Persians.

This latter fact has far too often been undervalued by historians. It is usually interpreted simply as a tribute to Sparta’s military reputation or her political position as the leading power of the age. This all too glibly overlooks the fact that Sparta had two kings and his co-monarch Leotychidas could have represented Sparta just as completely. Even more important, it ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the same coalition of forces preferred Athenian leadership to submitting to command by Leonidas’ successor Pausanias – and Pausanias had won the battle of Plataea! Sparta was not less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation at arms had never been greater. If simply being Spartan was all that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have asked Sparta to send King Leotychidas or another Spartan general to replace Pausanias, but they did not. In short, Leonidas was elected to lead the coalition, not simply because he was Spartan but because he enjoyed the trust of the coalition partners.

Combining the few known facts we have about Leonidas and his wife Gorgo, listening to the sayings attributed to them both, and knowing how Leonidas met his destiny at Thermopylae, I have written the Leonidas Trilogy. The three part biographical novel incorporates all that is known about Leonidas and Gorgo and their society. It interprets these facts and then interpolates from these facts to a reasonable hypothesis of what Leonidas and Gorgo’s CVs could have been. The characters that emerge are far greater than the historical input. Leonidas is consciously portrayed as the quintessential Spartan because that is what he has become in legend. Gorgo, likewise, epitomizes that which set Spartan women apart from their contemporaries – without robbing her of individual traits and personality. The two principals are surrounded by a large cast of secondary characters, each of which is unique and complex. The resulting tapestry is a seamless mixture of plot, character development and historical events against the backdrop of a fascinating and unique society.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review of The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas

I recently read The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas by E.S. Kraay and thought readers of this blog might be interested in a review.

The novel is set roughly ten years after the defeat of the Greeks at Thermopylae but the main subject is the events of the summer of 480 BC and the impact they had on the two main characters. What makes this book exceptional and good reading is that it is not, except for one short chapter, the retelling of the familiar story of blood and gore and courage, but rather the story of a Thasian athlete seen through the eyes of others who knew him. The book is told in the first person from the perspective of the poet Simonides of Cos.

In Delphi, Simonides chances upon a party of men from Thasos, who have sought the advice of the Oracle about how to end a drought oppressing their island. Simonides, after hearing the oracle delivered to them, believes he can interpret it for them. He explains that it concerns righting wrongs done to a certain Thrasian athlete, Theagenes, who competed at the Olympic games in 480. He promises to explain himself by telling the story of Theagenes as the party makes its way back to Thasos.

The book moves at the gentle pace of a journey on foot and the story teller unravels his tale slowly, but as a result the voice seems all the more authentic, and at no time was I bored or tempted to leave the book unfinished. The story was, in its leisurely way, compelling. The characters took shape convincingly and their behavior is consistent and believable throughout. Particularly well drawn is the first-person narrator, Simonides himself. In fact, the use of the aging poet as narrator is one of the most engaging features of this novel. It is refreshing to have an aging, unattractive poet rather than an exceedingly handsome hoplite telling a story about, eventually, Thermopylae. The use of Simonides as story-teller also enables the book to be more reflective in tone, while adding wonderful authenticity through homilies and judgments that would seem out of place of another narrator or if this character were not so well-drawn.

Kraay’s historical research must have been first class also. He adds brilliant touches like allowing Simonides to quote Hesiod in appropriate ways and places. I also liked his use of small details – the food eaten, the scars left on boxers – to give the entire book texture and color. Most impressive, his description of Greek society rang true in a way rare in modern literature. Kraay manages to depict a society in which the array of different Gods were revered and omens taken seriously without making either seem ridiculous. His treatment of the Spartans is devoid of the usual hyperboles about mindless, uneducated brutes, although a shade stereotypic nevertheless. While I find it hard to believe Sparta would not call all her athletes back to Sparta when the decision was taken that one of her kings should set off for Thermopylae, I have no evidence to prove it and accept Kraay version as a legitimate interpretation.

The only part of the book that truly taxed my imagination was the way in which Simonides witnessed the Battle of Thermopylae, but this is a small flaw in an otherwise very good book. I recommend The Olympian to anyone, who likes reading about ancient Greece.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Night in Sparta

Not long after I started doing research for my novels on ancient Sparta I seized the opportunity to visit that part of Greece that had given birth to Sparta – the province of Laconia in the Peloponnese. The city itself was gone, destroyed by earthquakes, abandoned, ploughed under and washed away over the centuries to the point that even archeologists can find little of note left. But we know where Sparta once stood, and a new city was founded on this site in the mid-nineteenth century and called Sparti.

I flew to Athens and travelled down to modern Sparti by car, crossing the Isthmus of Corinth and stopping to visit the ruins of that powerful ancient mercantile city. Then I continued on the road past the towering mountain crowned with the ruins of Acrocorinth, leaving Agamemnon’s city of Mycenae for a different trip, and scorning to set foot in Sparta’s ancient rival Argos. I crossed the broad plain of modern Tripoli, ancient Tegea, and climbed the low hills to the south heading along the highway toward Sparti/Sparta.

I expected to find on the other side of those hills something, well, Spartan. The word itself connotes sparse, barren, bleak, even harsh. I expected an arid place in which little could grow. I expected a harsh, infertile landscape best suited to producing tough soldiers and citizens who disdained all luxury. Sparta, I assumed, had made a virtue of necessity when it condemned the display of wealth and banned coinage. Sparta, I thought, was surely a poor country in which learning survival – even by theft and conquest – was sheer necessity.

And then I came around the bend in the road and caught my first glimpse of Sparta’s heartland – the Eurotas valley. It defied all expectations and was one of the most fertile, flowering and naturally beautiful places I had seen anywhere in Greece! Instantly, my understanding of Sparta started to undergo revisions. Not only is the Eurotas valley green and fertile, the surrounding mountains, the Paron range to the east and Taygetos to the West, were not barren and covered with scrub growth typical of much of the Mediterranean, but richly forested. In short, Sparta had been exceptionally rich by ancient standards – even before it conquered the vast and agriculturally significant neighboring state of Messenia! No wonder Sparta had never developed significant trade with the rest of the world; it was completely self-sufficient.

I visited what few archeological remains there were, wandering between the olive trees and oleander bushes that cover the Spartan acropolis today to examine the odd wall of stone here and there as the sun went down. I sat on the stone steps of the Roman amphitheatre and gazed toward the western sky, now turned a luminous purple behind the rugged peaks of Taygetos, and listened to the crickets singing in frantic chorus. It was, for a moment, almost if the famous choruses of ancient Sparta, which had once drawn visitors from around the ancient world, were trapped indignantly in the bodies of the insects.

When it was so dark that I had to pick my way with great care across the rumble, I returned to my hotel and ordered wine. Remembering that the Spartans never drank their wine “neat” (unmixed), I ordered sparkling water as well and mixed this with the wine when it arrived. It was wonderfully refreshing and to this day I prefer my wine this way. It struck me that often less is better, that the saying “nothing in excess” originated from a Spartan philosopher and statesman, Chilon the Wise. Was it the very abundance of riches that had taught the Spartans the dangers of excess? Was it possible that it was because they had so much wealth that they were keen to ration it – or at least the display of it? Or had they collectively gorged themselves on their abundant resources at some point in the distant past and woken up with such a hangover that they decreed it should not happen ever again, making laws to not only water wine, and ration food, but to avoid all excessive self-indulgence?

Or was it the fear that differences in wealth – or at least the open display of such differences – would undermine solidarity in the Spartan ranks and so endanger morale in the army, the basis of Spartan power, that induced the Spartans to restrict conspicuous consumption? After all, in other city-states the sons of the rich served in the elite cavalry rather than marching in the dust with the middle class, while the poorest citizens pulled the oars in the bowels of the great triremes – a job so unpleasant and unglamorous that it was more commonly given to slaves. But all Spartans, regardless of wealth, were required to wear the same colors, carry the same arms and serve as heavy infantrymen. Spartans referred to themselves as “Equals,” and it is easier to maintain that sense of equality if no one is obviously much wealthier than his peers, if they had the same profession, ate the same meals in their messes, and were not allowed to hoards silver or gold. Sparta’s laws clearly reinforced the image of equality among its citizen-soldiers while not actually eliminating differences in wealth as many ancient commentators noted.

One thing was clear: the Eurotas valley could easily sustain the citizen population of Sparta, which never exceeded roughly 8,000 men, and here even a small estate could be a garden of plenty. Indeed, in such a beautiful setting, each farm would have been like a little piece of Paradise.

When I retired to my room, I was glad that modern Sparti is a sleepy town in summertime. No hordes of tourists come to see the unremarkable ruins of the Spartan acropolis or visit the tiny museum with its handful of artifacts, while the students of the local university are away on summer break. So the town soon fell silent below my window, just as ancient Sparta would have been with its citizens either dispersed to their estates or in barracks. But the stars were all the more visible, and in the silence, the singing of the crickets could again be heard. It was a cheerful sound. I was beginning to understand that Sparta was not at all the grim place most modern writers make it out to be.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Unnatural Mothers, Cowardly Sons

In Plutarch’s collections of Spartan sayings there are eighteen attributed to Spartan women (many of them unidentified) which share the familiar theme of “with your shield or upon it.” Presumably, all these women, named and unnamed, shared the Spartan ethos of preferring to see their sons dead than defeated or disgraced. They either express themselves in graphic and often insulting language to sons who failed to live up to their ideals, or reject comfort and exhibit no grief when told of a son’s death. Three of them even go so far as to kill their disgraced sons with their own hand.

These sayings are all too commonly taken at face value, despite serious grounds to doubt their authenticity. First and foremost, with the exception of the quotes attributed to Gyrtias and Damatria, all these sayings are anonymous. “Anonymous” has been the author of most slander in the history of mankind, and while “anonymous” clearly does have a real identity, he/she is very rarely who he/she purports to be.

Second, except for the quote attributed to Gyrtias, all quotes are vague and generic, with nothing to suggest the date and context. Thus nothing about them requires an intimate knowledge of Spartan society or personalities. Yet the sayings undoubtedly convey an unattractive, not to say alienating, image of Sparta.

After all, what could be more alienating and repulsive than a mother so unnatural that she wants her son to die? The love of a mother for her child is one of the most primeval feelings in the world, a love that mankind has long acknowledged and cherished. Ancient Greek literature sets the standard. Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is understandable not because he brings Cassandra into her home, but because she is revenging the murder of Iphigenia. Medea remains a repulsive barbarian because she is willing to kill her children out of jealousy. In this context, it is clear that the sayings attributed to Spartan mothers are intended to make Spartan women sound like barbarians, like unnatural, unfeminine creatures, who deserve no sympathy even in their adversity.

Furthermore, all the sayings are predicated on cowardice on the part of young Spartan men. So, allegedly, while the women were upholding Sparta’s post-Thermopylae ethos of victory or death, the young men were deserting in droves having failed to absorb the proper ethos despite their harsh upbringing. Based on these sayings, Sparta was populated by cowardly men, a situation that seems hard to square with the historical record – even if we admit that Spartans were probably no braver than most other Greeks.

Keeping in mind that slogans and apocryphal stories often evolve to counter sentiments that those in power find dangerous, one could hypothesize that these sayings were developed as examples of the “good old days” and were supposed to depict model behavior. Maybe they were intended to inspire young men and women, who the Elders did not think were living up to the ideals of their youth, to behave more courageously. But it seems odd that, if the Spartan elders wanted to motivate the younger generation to behave more like their ancestors, they did not put the slogans into the mouths of historical figures rather than anonymous ones. Surely it would have been more effective to give the women and their sons names? Wouldn’t, for example, the story of the young man killed by his mother after reporting “all the men are dead” have been more effective and intimidating if it had been attributed to the mother of one of the two survivors of Thermopylae?

More plausible to me is that all these sayings are the invention of Athenian or other enemy commentators intended to create/reinforce the “Feindbild” – the image of the enemy as alien and contemptible. The sayings had the two-fold benefit of making Sparta’s warriors seem less frightening, and Spartan women less human. Sparta’s warriors were diminished because these sayings proved that many of them were really cowards, who would run home to their mothers if they could. At the same time, unlike the Trojan women, who are frequently portrayed as loving mothers deserving of sympathy (see Euripides plays), these sayings make Spartan women seem so repulsively unnatural that Athenians could feel justified in any kind of atrocities against them.

The greatest pity is that most modern readers take the image of Spartan women evoked by these sayings at face value and imagine Spartan women as unfeeling beasts – curiously without likewise adopting the image of cowardly Spartan men.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review of "The Olympic Charioteer"

The following book review appeared on the blog "A Cup of Coffee and a Good Book" on August 3, 2010.

Helena P. Schrader’s The Olympic Charioteer is a brilliant tapestry of Ancient Greece, with brilliant characters and scenery. It is a story for everyone: those interested in history should find this to be a realistic portrayal of what might have happened during this time, while those who enjoy romance will get that fix as well. There are also liberal sprinklings of mystery, drama and action. A fascinating read!

The Olympic Charioteer takes the reader to ancient Greece and into a world of politics and intrigue, painting a picture of social and political life in Tegea and Sparta of the day. Although the story is fictional, Helena P. Schrader’s intense level knowledge of the era brings the story alive in a very authentic way. The story explores the conflicts between the two city-states that eventually led to the series of non-aggression pacts that later formed the Peloponnesian League.

Phillip is not just any slave. Not only does he possess a level of pride not typical of someone of his station, as well as a death wish, but when horse breeder and important politician Antyllus purchases him to save him from a horrible fate, he learns just how unusual Phillip is. For one thing, despite his insolence and sarcasm, Phillip has obviously had training in deportment and rhetoric. For another, he has a way with horses that rivals that of all Antyllus’s stable slaves.

Antyllus is training his team of chariot horses in hopes of an Olympic victory, but he needs a skilled driver. He recognizes potential in Phillip and teaches him to drive to assist in training sessions, and when Phillip learns so quickly as to surpass Antyllus in skill, the politician finds that he has found his Olympic charioteer—and that is when he finds out exactly where his mysterious slave came from.

Jennifer Walker
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

(I have re-ordered the paragraphs but made no changes to the original text. HPS)