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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Religious Festivals and the Spartan Army

According to Herodotus, in 490 BC Sparta agreed to send troops to assist Athens repel the Persian forces at Marathon, but said they “could not take the field until the moon was full.” Since the Spartans did respond vigorously when the time came, historians have puzzled for millennia about why exactly the Spartans “could not take the field.” There have been persistent attempts to find evidence of a helot revolt, for example, and W. P. Wallace (“Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35) came up with a theory of Arkadian discontent and intrigues. I myself have suggested a command crisis, which I explained in detail in my blog entry on Jan. 8, 2011. Yet the bottom line is that all these theories are essentially the product of dissatisfaction with the notion of a religious festival.

However, before we reach for alternative explanations to that which is readily available, a religious festival, we ought to admit to ourselves that we know very little about Spartan religious festivals. Most especially, we do not how they affected the readiness of the Spartan army. The assumption that a religious festival might delay departure of the army simply because of pious scruples may be entirely wrong.

What if, for example, the Spartan Army was given leave during religious festivals, or reduced to a skeleton of “duty officers” for each unit? Such a procedure would be perfectly normal in most societies because religious festivals, in all cultures over all times, are generally family occasions. Why should Sparta have been an exception? The very fact that there is no mention of how “odd” the Spartans were in this regard suggests that their behavior conformed to that of other Greeks and so elicited no comment.

If, as elsewhere, religious holidays in Sparta were celebrated in the family, then most likely the young men were exempt from sleeping in barracks and all men exempt from dining at their messes. Again, the fact that this is not explicitly mentioned is no evidence that it was not the case. There is no mention of men being exempt from duty and collective dining to participate in the Olympic Games either, but Spartan athletes were very prominent at the Olympics and they had to train in Elis for a month before the events just like all the other competitors. Likewise, Spartan spectators at the Games could not be eating and sleeping in Sparta while they were at Olympia. In short, the rules about living in barracks and eating at the messes were for “ordinary” days. The Olympics, war, and, arguably, religious festivals were “extraordinary” or “exceptional” days.

We know, further, that Spartans all had at least a state kleros, while wealthier Spartans had more extensive estates. Without knowing the yield of an acre of land using contemporary agricultural methods, I have no way of estimating just how large a kleros would have been, and without know how large each kleros was, I cannot estimate how many could have been located within easy walking/riding distance of Sparta’s barracks and messes. However, I think it is fair to say that not all 8,000 – 9,000 kleroi could have been within easy reach of the heart of Sparta. It is far more likely, that many kleroi were more than a half-day away from Sparta. Some may even have been located in Messenia, on the far side of Taygetos, or on Kythera. Reaching these estates to check up on things and to collect rents would have taken Spartans away from Sparta for days on end.

The requirement to be present in Sparta most of the time, meant that most of the time the estates were left in the hands of helots, perioikoi overseers or wives. Yet the fact that Spartiates were absent from their estates most of the time only reinforces the need for them to be present some of the time. Particularly if Spartiate/Helot relations were as bad as most commentators suggest, no Spartan would have risked leaving his kleros entirely in the hands of his helots or even perioikoi overseers. It would have been an essential for every Spartiate to periodically check up on things at his kleros or risk having it so mismanaged that he could not meet his syssitia (and, if he had sons, agoge) fees. If a kleros was left to a wife, the desire to visit periodically would have been even greater, particularly if she had the couple’s young children with her.

In short, Spariates would have periodically travelled to their distant kleroi and while doing so they would have been excused both from their military duties and exempted from eating at their syssitia. Probably, any man could apply for leave to go to his estates whenever he felt it necessary. Possibly, it was traditional for men to go to their estates during holidays, when men were given leave to be with their families in any case.

For the wealthier Spartiates from the so-called “better” families, the 400-500 families that made up Sparta’s elite, the need to visit estates would have been even more acute than for the poorest with only one kleros. The elite would have had multiple estates to look after, not to mention horse-farms, kennels, orchards etc. They would have needed to be away from Sparta more often than the others as a result. And it was this elite that, at least in the later years of the 5th century BC, occupied most of the positions of authority and power in the Spartan state.

So if I am right and many citizens spent major (particularly long) holidays like the Karneia at their estates, then Pheidippides may have arrived in a Sparta when the army was dispersed and the commanders scattered about Lacedaemon on their distant estates. The ephors would have needed to recall at least the members of the Gerousia and the officers of the army as well as cancel leave for those units they wanted to send to Athens. The ephors could, I suspect, calculate pretty accurately how long it would take messengers to reach the lochagoi and other senior officers, and how long they would need to call up their troops and get them ready to march. That time frame alone – and nothing so impenetrable as piousness, helot revolts, foreign policy considerations, or even command uncertainties – might have determined the earliest possible day on which the Spartan army was able to march out for Marathon.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Of Those Who Died at Thermopylae…. Simonides on Leonidas

In his article “Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae” (The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 2 (1998), pp. 365-379) Michael A. Flower quotes an excerpt of an apparently longer poem written by Simonides about the Battle of Thermopylae. It was the first time I had run across this poem and thought you, my readers, might also enjoy the fragment, incomplete as it is, and poor as this English translation may be:

Of those who died
at Thermopylae,
glorious is the fortune,
fair is the fate.

Their grave is an altar.
Instead of lamentation,
they have remembrance,
for pity they have praise.

Such a shroud
neither mold
nor all-subduing time
can make obscure.

This shrine of noble men
chose the good reputation
of Greece
as its inhabitant.

Leonidas also bears witness,
king of Sparta,
who left behind a great adornment
of valor and ever-flowing fame.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Leonidas the Murderer?

It has become fashionable to denigrate the memory of Leonidas by associating him with suicide bombers (Cartledge) or by accusing him of murdering his brother. Thus Dr. Nic Fields in Thermopylae 480 BC: Last stand of the 300 dismisses Herodotus’ version of King Kleomenes’ death on the grounds that “the Spartans were notoriously abstemious” and concludes instead that: “It seems more likely that Kleomenes’ reign was cut short [sic] by murder, arranged and hushed up, on the orders of the man who succeeded him on the Agiad throne.” (p. 14)

There are a large number of problems with this thesis. First and foremost, of course, is that there is not a shred of historical evidence for it. Not one ancient source accuses Leonidas of fratricide. Herodotus, as Fields notes, has a completely different version of events. So we are talking about nothing more than a modern commentator’s fabrication.

Fields feels justified fabricating this story because, according to him, all Spartans (every last single one of them over hundreds of years) were “abstentious” and since none ever drank in excess, a Spartan king who drank too much is a historical (physical?) impossibility. Frankly, that’s a little much. Even Spartans were human beings, and human beings are fallible. Furthermore, we are talking here about one of Sparta’s kings. Even if one could argue that peer pressure on an ordinary citizen would have been too great in Sparta’s comformist society to ever allow anyone to deviate too far from the norms, a Spartan king clearly did have more leeway. The fact that Herodotos mentions the Spartans blamed his madness on his drinking habits underlines the facts that Kleomenes’ behavior was not considered normal in Sparta. Spartans as a rule were abstentious, Kleomenes was not. Fields’ argument is untenable.

Of course, Fields is not the first historian to conclude that the hero of Thermopylae was really a murderer on the run. Most accept the fact that Kleomenes might have had a drinking problem, but cannot believe that anyone would try to flay themselves alive. Because they cannot imagine something so appalling and hence cannot accept Herodotus at face value, they feel justified in accusing Kleomenes’ successor of regicide, fratricide and patricide (since Kleomenes was not only Leonidas’ king, but also his brother and father-in-law) all at once.

Yet, as W. G. Forrest points out in his excellent, concise work A History of Sparta: 950 – 192 BC : “A recent psychological study has pointed out that the details of [Kleomenes’] final self-mutilation are in fact consistent with a paranoid schizophrenic suicide.”

As so often, the evidence is with Herodotus – not those, who lack the imagination to believe him.

Yet even if we were to dismiss Herodotus’ version of Kleomenes’ death as implausible, would that justify pointing the finger at Leonidas?

W. P. Wallace in his excellent article, “Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia” (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35), at least suggests some plausible reasons why the Spartan state might have wanted to rid itself of Kleomenes. Wallace presents some weak but nonetheless cogent evidence that an Arkadian league formed at about this time and Herodotus also speaks of Kleomenes stirring up trouble in Arkadia. Wallace argues that, if Kleomenes was being successful in turning some of the Arkadian states against Sparta, than the Spartans may have felt he had to be taken out of circulation once and for all. But even this does not justify putting the blame for any surreptitious regicide on Leonidas.

People, who subscribe to this theory, argue that because Leonidas succeeded to the throne, he had to have the most to gain from murdering his brother, and so he must have been the man behind it. But Leonidas was Kleomenes’ heir at the latest from the day his elder brother Dorieus died, possibly from the day Dorieus departed Sparta. Why would he have waited almost 40 years until he was over 50 years of age to suddenly become ambitious and covet his brother’s throne? Did he, after serving Kleomenes almost his entire life, suddenly turn against him because of “troubles” in Arkadia? Surely Kleomenes had made other, more dramatic blunders, from Athens to Argos, that would have given him a pretext for murder -- had he been so inclined. But we hear nothing of Leonidas being disloyal after Kleomenes’ earlier debacles.

Another thing I would like to know from those who charge Leonidas with murder is what Gorgo was doing while her husband murdered her father? Gorgo, of all Greek women, is known for being out-spoken. Are we to believe that she just stood by and let her husband kill her father without a word of protest? More: that after her husband murdered her father, she continued to be a loyal wife, assisting him and asking for his instructions as he marched out to his death? Surely, the woman, who as a child had told her father not to take bribes, would have gone on record protesting her father’s murder and then avenging his death or scorning the murderer?

Or are we to believe she was an accomplice? That she supported her murderous husband like some ancient Lady MacBeth?

If so, someone needs to provide an explanation of why Kleomenes’ only child and heir, evidently greatly favored by him as a child, suddenly wanted him murdered in a barbaric fashion. Trouble in Arkadia hardly seems a sufficient reason for such an appallingly unnatural sentiment. Indeed, explaining why Gorgo allowed her husband to kill her father is psychologically a great deal more difficult than explaining how a man as consistently unstable as Kleomenes came to commit suicide!

Last but not least, what action or statement by the historical Leonidas and/or Gorgo justifies imputing to them the level of moral perversion inherit in fratricide and patricide? What did Leonidas or Gorgo ever do or say to give historians the right to dismiss them as brutal, self-serving criminals? The arrogance is staggering.

It is sad that modern commentators feel compelled to propagate errant nonsense about a historical figure. To be sure, we know too little about the real Leonidas to know what sort of man he was, but that hardly justifies untenable accusations of sadistic fratricide just because we are uncomfortable with the disturbing but completely plausible explanation provided by Herodotus.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Review of “Xerxes” by Ren A. Hakim

XerxesRen A. Hakim’s work Xerxesis a film script which describes Xerxes’ reign, and particularly his campaigns against the Greeks, predominantly from the Persian perspective. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert on Persian history), the book is on the whole accurate, with many scenes and quotes taken directly from Herodotus. It certain bears no comparison – in the positive sense – with the script of “300” with its comic-book and supernatural elements.
The most remarkable aspect of the work, however, is that Hakim effectively makes Xerxes a multi-dimensional human being. At last, Xerxes is not an abnormal monster or flat caricature of a despot. Hakim’s Xerxes is human and he is understandable. I was particularly impressed by Hakim’s ability to pull me onto Xerxes side during the Battle of Salamis. During this episode I found myself fully identifying with Xerxes rather than the Greeks.
Other aspects of Xerxes’ character were less convincing. Xerxes’ relationships with women were on the whole mishandled. On the one hand, we have an honorable man with what we are told is an undying love for the woman married to his best friend. We also see a husband, who is patient and forgiving to a selfish and insolent wife. Then more than half-way through the script we discover that he also has a large harem. While not inherently inconsistent, I found it irritating that for half the book (script) Xerxes was portrayed as a virtuous, monogamous man faithful to his wife and scrupulously respectful of his best-friend’s wife, and then suddenly he turns into an oriental despot sleeping with multiple women – and not, as we are explicitly told, because he has changed but merely because the author failed to reveal this side of him earlier in the manuscript. I personally found the relationship between Xerxes and his adored, but untouchable, Suraz trite in the early part of the novel, and his relationship with his wife implausible, mostly because his wife is a caricature, without positive attributes that would explain Xerxes’ loyalty to her. Xerxes reaction to Suraz’s daughter, later in the script, was in contrast highly believable.

Politically, I find it hard to believe that there would have been so many revolts against Persian rule (Babylon, Egypt, Ionia – all more than once), if Darius and Xerxes had been as benevolent and just as Hakim portrays them. Yet the hyperbole is justified, I think, by the fact that most accounts err in the opposite direction. Hakim is probably right that most accusations of personal atrocities and vindictiveness are fabrications by Persia’s enemies, particularly the Greeks.

Hakim is, furthermore, clearly drawing a parallel between the Persian invasion of Greece in retaliation for the sack of Sardis and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. To make this point, the Persian kings are shown to see themselves as the enlightened rulers of a just world fighting against barbaric elements that wreck murder and destruction on innocent people. The thesis is completely legitimate; no doubt the Persian kings did see themselves as the “civilizing” power of their own age, and Americans need to be aware that we are seen as an “evil empire” in much of the world today -- no matter how we see ourselves. In this respect, Hakim’s Xerxes makes a valuable contribution. I hope that Hollywood will not do too much damage to her ambitious undertaking.

As for the minor historical errors, readers of this blog need to be prepared for the complete eradication of the Eurypontids, who are replaced by Leonidas’ brother Cleombrotus. Less inaccurate than implausible is a personal duel between Leonidas and Xerxes which Xerxes wins. (Why he then has Leonidas’ head cut off and displayed is not explained.) Last but not least, the Spartans are given no credit for either enduring Persian fire stoically or, indeed, having any significant role in the Battle of Plataea. Otherwise, most depictions of Spartans – from Demaratus craving revenge to Pausanias’ greed – are within the realm of serious, historical fiction.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Significance of Recent Excavations on Kythera

Last week I summarized the archeological finds on Kythera with relevance to Kythera’s Lacedaemonian ties. Aside from personal interest, the finds are important for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, they prove definitively that perioikoi settlements were not, as Graham Shipley suggested in “Perioecic Society” (Sparta, ed. Michael Whitby, pp. 182-189) merely “peasant communities” with little urban character and that Perioikoi “never … erect[ed] monumental civic buildings or temples.” (p. 186). Mr. Tsaravopoulos’ very cursory investigation of the site at Paleokastro on Kythera have already revealed key features of urban settlement, notably fortification walls and temples. This was in just one month of digging with amateur helpers. There is every reason to believe that further excavations will uncover more evidence of an urban center from fountain houses and gymnasium to, possibly, theaters. If a perioikoi city that is not, to my knowledge, hardly mentioned in ancient sources could be this urbanized, it is only reasonable to assume that Gytheon, Pellana, Geronthrai, Epidauros Limera, and other more frequently named perioikoi settlements were considerably larger and more urbanized.

Second, the digs at Paleokastro also indicate that the Spartans did not scorn walls in all circumstances. If, as Mr. Tsaravopoulos believes, the walls date from the Lacedaemonian period, then we can conclude that Sparta was probably the exception rather than the rule and other cities in Lacedaemon were fortified.

The really exciting aspects of Spartan Kythera, of course, remain to be discovered. Was there a permanent Spartan garrison stationed on the island, and if so how large was it? Did Spartiates have property on the island and so a personal interest in it? Or was all land held by perioikoi? What other gods besides the Dioskouroi, Poseidon, Asclepios and (allegedly) Aphrodite were honored here? And given Kythera’s prominent position on one of the busiest sea-lanes of ancient times, what role did Kythera play in Sparta’s naval strategy? Were there shipyards here? Were squadrons of Lacedaemonian triremes stationed here, ready to launch at short notice and prey upon enemy merchantmen or engage enemy warships? Is there any truth to Mr. Tsaravopoulos’s thesis on how the island was captured by Nicias?

I’ll stay in touch with Mr. Tsaravopoulos, try to visit the digs on my next trip and hope to learn more about Spartan Kythera as it is slowly rediscovered.