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Friday, February 25, 2011

A Nation of Theives?

Every scholar of Sparta knows Xenophon’s descriptions of how Spartan youths and boys were kept hungry so they would learn how to steal, and were punished only for being caught rather than for theft itself. Credible as Xenophon generally is, his commentary on this aspect of Spartan society is very questionable. Aside from the fact that thieves in any society can only be punished when caught, and many robbers undoubtedly view punishment as the price of poor performance rather than theft itself, the greater problem with this common depiction of Sparta is the notion that Sparta’s youth was continually stealing just to keep alive.

Admittedly, a nation of thieves may well fit Athenian views about their enemy. The French referred to the English as “perfidious.” Americans and Soviets routinely attributed treachery to each other throughout the Cold War. The Israelis and Arabs have no end of adjectives to describe the deceitful character of the other side. Rather like calling your enemy’s men “fags” and their women “whores,” attributing sly dishonesty and immorality to the enemy is standard fare in propaganda wars regardless of culture or century.

A nation of thieves does not, however, fit well with a society that even her enemies considered remarkably stable and orderly. How do you keep a society orderly, if the entire male population between the ages of 7 and 20 are actively encouraged to steal? More important, how do you keep an economy functioning at the high levels of efficiency needed to finance a brutal, 30 year war, if every farm, shop, house, workshop and warehouse must be locked and guarded against hoards of desperate, half-starved youth? There are thieves in every society, but high levels of crime are one of the most destructive factors to social stability and political credibility.

Admittedly, the theft of food alone might not be so devastating to an economy as the theft of all goods, but the accounts usually cited, supplemented with details such as the absurd story of a youth caught stealing a fox (which is not on anyone’s menu), suggest that theft as such was encouraged. It is this picture of Spartan youth which dominates modern portrayals of Sparta.

To his credit, Anton Powell, in his article “Dining Groups, Marriage, Homosexuality,” in Michael Whitby’s Sparta, notes that “theft offended against two ideals of Spartan society: obedience and respect for elders.” (Sparta, p. 102). However, rather than questioning if Xenophon’s account is accurate or complete, Powell tries to argue that the military benefits of teaching youth stealth and deceit outweighed the disadvantages of corrupting their morals. The problem with this argument is that such skills were conspicuously not necessary to the phalanx warfare at which Sparta was so good. Powell attempts to make a connection between guerrilla warfare and the custom of theft despite the fact that Thucydides states explicitly that prior to the Pylos campaign the Spartans had little experience of brigandage. Unable to square such a statement with his own image of Sparta, Powell hypothesizes a long history of (completely unrecorded!) helot revolts in which the Spartans learned guerrilla warfare – and so needed training in theft and stealth, but which Thucydides and Herodot knew absolutely nothing about.

Admittedly, the kryptea was an organization in which the skills of deceit and theft would have been useful, but we are told that only selected Spartan youth ever served in it, not all of them. Furthermore , as Dr. Nic Fields so significantly pointed out, Sparta probably did not have that repulsive institution unit until after the helot revolt of 465. There is, in fact, no credible indication whatsoever that Sparta had to deal with helot revolts of any kind prior to 465 – unless one counts the Second Messenian War as a major “helot” uprising. It is far more likely that both helots and perioikoi prospered throughout the archaic period.

Rather than inventing unrecorded wars, I think it makes more sense to examine the presumption that Spartan youth were encouraged to steal. It is far more likely, as Nigel Kennel argues in The Gymnasium of Virtue, that if Spartan youth were encouraged to learn stealth and theft at all, it was only in a very limited and restricted context, and/or only after the degeneration of Spartan society had set in in the mid-fifth century BC.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two New Reviews of The Olympic Charioteer

Jennifer Walker of SharedReviews ( wrote:

The Olympic Charioteer:

The Olympic CharioteerSoon after politician and chariot horse breeder Antyllus buys the slave Phillip from the quarry, it becomes clear that his new purchase is not just any slave. Phillip possesses a remarkable level of pride for his station; but more than that, he has a death wish. He nearly manages to achieve that goal when Antyllus purchases him just in time to prevent a horrifying end. Antyllus soon learns just how unusual Phillip is. For one thing, despite his insolence and liberal sarcasm, Phillip has apparently been trained in rhetoric and deportment. For another, his ability to handle horses rivals that of anyone Antyllus has ever met.

Antyllus hopes for an Olympic victory with the team of horses he bred, but he needs a skilled driver to give him the best chance. He teaches Phillip to drive them and assist in training sessions, and Phillip learns so quickly that he soon surpasses Antyllus in skill. Antyllus decides that he has found his Olympic charioteer, but when Phillip surprisingly refuses, the mystery of the slave's background is finally solved.

The Olympic Charioteer transported me back to ancient Greece and plunged me into a world of politics and intrigue. Author Helena P. Schrader deftly paints a picture of social and political life in Tegea and Sparta of the times, which I found fascinating. Schrader’s story is fictional, but she obviously has an intense level of knowledge of the time period, which brings the story to life in a very authentic way. She explores in this story the conflicts between these two city-states--a conflict that eventually led to the formation of the Peloponnesian League through a series of non-aggression pacts.

I found Helena P. Schrader’s The Olympic Charioteer to be a brilliant tapestry of Ancient Greece, with robust, lifelike characters and scenery. This story has a little something for everyone: it is a realistic historical fiction for those readers, with a sweet romance for those fans. There is even mystery, action and drama. It was a brilliant and fascinating read that I truly enjoyed. This book retails for $22.95 and is 416 pages. It is available at Amazon and other online retailers.

Overall Rating: 5.0
Acquired by: It was a gift
Category: Fiction Books
Published: Jan 31, 2011

Feature Ratings:
Genre: 5.0
Author / Illustrator: 5.0
Length: 5.0
Content: 5.0

Review Author: Jennifer Walker

ALSO, April Renn of wrote:

THE OLYMPIC CHARIOTEER by Helena P. Schrader is an interesting historical fiction set in Archaic Greece. It is well written with depth and details. It is a tale of one slave,two men with Olympic ambitions, two cities at war and the finest charioteer in Greece. It has tragedy, olympic triumph, romance, slavery, intrigue, alliances, struggles, Archaic Spartan society, love won and lost.  It is about the struggle of one slave who will become the greatest Olympic charioteer of all and his sacrifices, triumphs and the first non-aggression pact: the Peloponnesian League. This is a very intense story with many faceted characters. It expands on the Spartan culture and shows much research was done in order to write this story. It is packed full of action, adventure, tragedy, and is fast paced. If you enjoy learning more on the Spartan culture, their trials, triumphs, slavery and be transported to a different time and place this is the book for you. It is a great read and is fast paced. This book was received for the purpose of review from AME Virtual Author Tours and details can be found on



Monday, February 7, 2011

Sparta's far from Insignificant Fleet

The Peloponnesian War is often seen as a conflict between a great sea-power (Athens) and a great land-power (Sparta), and in many history books disparaging remarks about Sparta’s “inability” to grasp the importance of sea-power can be found. Generally, there are dismissive references to its “insignificant” fleet – despite the fact that Sparta ultimately defeated Athens at sea rather than on land. Clearly, Sparta’s pride was her army, not her navy, and clearly the Athenians were the “lords of the sea” throughout the Classical period, but I think it worth noting that the clich├ęs about Sparta’s lack of maritime power are overdrawn.
Sparta, unlike Athens, was not dependent on the sea for its very existence. Because it was self-sustaining in food and other necessities from ore to wood, Sparta did not need to trade and because it was not dependent on trade it did not need to control the trade routes. It did need to control its bread-basket Messenia, but that could be done with its army. Thus, far from being negligent or backward (as some commentators suggest), the relative unimportance of Sparta's fleet was a logical consequence of her geo-political position.  In fact, the ability of Sparta to deploy a fleet at all is rather surprising.

Furthermore, based on Herodotus, it is arguable that Sparta had a credible fleet before Athens did. Sparta’s first attempt to depose Hippias entailed, we are told, sending an army by sea (5:63). Sparta would hardly have sent its own modest fleet, if it had been facing a major sea-power, and significantly the force dispatched was defeated on land by Thessalian cavalry. This is an important early example of Sparta's vulnerability to cavalry, but equally importantly means that Sparta successfully landed troops in Attica, something that seems astonishing if the Athenians had truly had command of the sea at the time.

When Aristagoras convinced the Athenians to aid his rebellion against Persia, we are told the Athenians sent 20 triremes. That is respectable, but not overwhelming considering islands like Chias and Naxos could deploy fleets a hundred strong. Obviously, Athens might have consciously chosen not to send too many ships, yet it seems odd they would risk the wrath of Persia with only a token force. Twenty triremes probably represented a sizable portion of their available fleet.

More to the point, Themistocles is credited with having convinced the Athenians to build a navy. He would hardly have earned the reputation as “father” of the Athenian navy if Athens already had a substantial fleet. If the Athenian navy was indeed built up from a modest, auxiliary component of Athens’ military forces to her pride and primary arm in the ten years between 490 and 480 BC, then it is less surprising than usually assumed that a Spartan, Eurybiades, was nominally in command of the combined Greek fleets opposing Persia in 480.

On the contrary, it is arguable that at the time of Eurybiades’ appointment, Athens' new fleet and most of her crews were completely untested. Sparta’s fleet may have been smaller and not notably successful, but apparently the allies felt it was more experienced than Athens.’ In fact, it is less odd that Sparta was given precedence over Athens than that Sparta was given precedence over Corinth. Corinth had a substantially larger fighting fleet and is credited by naval historians with having evolved the trireme – not Athens.

Once Athens had won the battle of Salamis, however, Athens’ domination of the seas began. The navy was an instrument well suited to Athens radical democracy because it gave poorer citizens a means of contributing directly to Athens military power. Radical democracy in turn gave Athens the manpower to man her fleet. Middle class Athenians could remain hoplites and the sons of the wealthy could form the cavalry, while the great magnates financed the construction and commanded the fleet. But it was Athens citizen crews that made her fleet so good. No trireme manned by slaves or mercenaries could be depended upon to row so fast or fight so hard.

And Sparta’s fleet? We know that Spartiates were appointed to command the fleet as navarchos. Beyond that, to my knowledge, the names of no Spartan who served at sea has been recorded. The assumption is that Spartiates were required to serve in the army and did not man the fleet. This means that the Spartan fleet must have been manned by either perioikoi or helots or both.

Helot crews would, of course, have been similar to slave crews – highly problematic since disloyalty or mere disinterest could cost a battle. Does this explain the lackluster performance of the Spartan navy throughout most of the Peloponnesian War?

Yet, helots would hardly have been capable of building and paying for the ships nor is it likely they would have been capable or entrusted with command aboard them. This suggests perioikoi most likely financed and commanded Sparta’s fleet. This is yet another area in which the role of the perioikoi has been seriously overlooked. The fascination of ancient and modern observers with the unique live-style of the Spartiates themselves, and to a lesser extent their relationship with the helots has resulted in serious academic neglect of an essential component of Lacedaemon’s success: the perioikoi.