Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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.

1 comment:

  1. Helena ,you have covered it all. And did that superbly !

    I would make a small contribution in the form of a reference to an article by Armijo, R., H. Lyon-Caen, and D. Papanastassiou called "A possible normal-fault rupture for the 464 B.C. Sparta earthquake."

    The earthquake is very scientifically examined but is understandable.And more importantly they concluded it was devastating.