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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.