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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dining in the Dark

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dining clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meals. These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Although it was common, popular and indeed considered a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens as well, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar in the ancient world because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship and failure to make the designated fixed contributions to the mess could cost a man his citizenship. To the spoiled palate of other Greeks -- most of whom would never have eaten at a Spartan syssitia -- it was furthermore assumed that the fare offered at these dining clubs was dismal.

Aside from the debatable question of the quality and taste of food prepared by different cooks at different messes over centuries, these characteristics of Spartan dining clubs are well established. Yet the reason(s) the Spartans instituted and maintained this peculiar tradition is controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different age cohorts dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide much more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to – and incidentally more successful at – undermine family structures and influence.

The problem with the comparison between 20th Century totalitarian states and Sparta is three-fold. First, it is questionable whether Sparta can be counted a "totalitarian" state at any period of its history, but it most certainly was not totalitarian during the archaic age, yet syssitia existed in this period also.  Second, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. The reason they sought to undermine the family was because they recognized families as inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stresses the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta. If Sparta was essentially conservative, than no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.

The final problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is hardly a good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but the fact is most men today also eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home among their work colleagues rather than their family. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many societies, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta), it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.

I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper among colleagues -- not so different at all from the business lunch today.

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, syssitia were not noted for the entertainment of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the tradition of Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the tradition of the Spartan syssitia was infinitely preferable to the custom of the Athenian symposia. In short, it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. Attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic efforts to undermine family and sexual relations reveal an alarming lack of objectivity.

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