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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: “The Battle of Marathon” by Peter Krentz

The Battle of MarathonPeter Krentz provides a meticulous analysis of the Battle of Marathon in his recent release with Yale University Press, The Battle of Marathon (London: 2010). He provides a succinct description of the events leading up to the Persian-Greek confrontation on the famous plain north of Athens and then carefully dissects every aspect of the battle itself from the equipment to the topography. Krentz knows his sources well but does not drag his reader down into the weeds of academic bickering. Rather, he marshals the evidence in a coherent and comprehensible fashion, topic by topic. Particularly impressive is his analysis of the geography of the plain of Marathon (and how it has changed over the centuries), and the physical stamina required to run a mile in full panoply.

Krentz goes a long way to refute aspersions cast on the credibility of Herodotus’ account by later historians, and effectively defends the ancient historian’s version of events. Krentz’s key argument is that Athenian hoplites could indeed have “run” (defined as jogging at ca. 4.5 miles per hour or more) for one mile across a plain in full battle gear. He also does an excellent job of explaining why this would have been desirable. His analysis of the battle itself is altogether convincing and plausible.

Another outstanding feature of the book is the illustrations. The maps, charts and reproductions of contemporary art illustrate the points made in the text cogently. The variety of images, far more diverse that the standard fare found in most books on the topic, is impressive. I came away better able to visualize Persian forces, something I have long wanted to do. Indeed, Krentz’s impressive collection of contemporary art showing Persian warriors shames other sources that singularly fail to make it possible to imagine how these fierce fighters dressed and fought.

Yet, while Krentz’s book is a good reference, it is not a narrative. Anyone interested in the tale of Marathon will be disappointed. Krentz provides some skeletal, biographical facts about the key actors in the drama, but fails to describe or even sketch the personality of any of the leaders, not even Miltiades, much less bring them to life. He outlines the causes of the conflict, without conveying a sense of the “life and times,” or the society and issues at stake in a way that makes the reader identify with the protagonists. Most important, despite its merits, this book is evidently not intended (and so not constructed) to arouse emotions or create suspense. Maybe I am too much of a novelist, but I firmly believe it is possible – and more effective - to tell the story of Marathon in a way that is not only 100% accurate, but also exciting, moving and inspiring.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Spartan Childhood

Anyone who has had the privilege to grow-up – or at least holiday on – a family farm will appreciate just how glorious a Spartan childhood might have been. The happiness of any childhood depends on many factors – parents, siblings and a child’s own inclinations – but life on a farm has unique charms for children too young to fully appreciate all the work and worries of their elders. I have rarely met anyone, who spent time on a farm as a child, who did not remember it with nostalgia.

Spartan children, boys and girls alike, would have spent a great deal of their first seven years and many holidays thereafter on their parent’s – and possibly their grandparent’s – kleros. Because the kleros represented the essential economic foundation of public education and citizenship, it was, except among the very rich with multiple estates, the center of family life. No man or his wife (again with the exception of the very rich) could afford to neglect the kleros, and this meant that it could not be fully entrusted to paid (perioikoi) or unpaid (helot) overseers all of the time.

By my calculations, many kleros were located too far outside of Sparta to be within easy reach on foot or horseback. This is the reason that, as anyone who has read one or more of my novels knows, I hypothesize that many Spartans maintained small townhouses or apartments in the city of Sparta close to barracks and syssitia. Yet the very fact that kleros could only be visited during longer holidays (many Spartan holidays lasted from five to ten days), increases the likelihood that they were indeed visited during these holidays.

For the parents, the visit to the kleros would have been a busy time of taking inventories, checking on the health of livestock, making (or ordering) repairs to house, barns and the all-important pasture and property walls. There would have been inspections, discussions or sometimes altercations with helot tenants, and complaints or excuses to hear. The parents would have been faced with decisions and would have needed to leave behind instructions. Undoubtedly, for many parents these visits were associated with worries about whether the estate was yielding enough to pay syssitia and agoge fees. Any set back – a drought, a livestock illness, an insect plague, a fire – could threaten the status of the Spartiate or his sons.

But for the children, the holidays on the kleros would have been relatively care-free, a welcome break from the group-living, organized instruction and hardships of the agoge. It was a time without eirenes or mastigophoroi. The more a boy suffered in the agoge, the greater would have been his longing and affection for the days and weeks spent on the family farm, where he was free of institutional discipline and peer pressure.

Ultimately, whether a boy enjoyed the agoge or not, it was still school, and most would have looked forward to the holidays. These were opportunities to idly soak up the sunshine of southern Greece, or run barefoot not in competition on the race-courses of the city but purposelessly through pastures littered with scores of different sorts of wild flowers. It was a time when little boys could climb upon the motherly arms of the patient olive trees and older boys could scale the heights of the mightiest plane trees. It was a time to tend the many farm animals, to play with the puppies and cuddle with the cats of the kleros. It was a time to help herd the goats through the craggy upper pastures where gorse and thistle bloom bright, or wade in crystal clear creeks stumbling over rocks at the foot of narrow gorges. It was a time for rock-climbing and cave-exploring, and, for those near the coast, for sailing and fishing. Boys returning from an adventure dusty and sweaty could stop at one of the many fountains where chilly water bubbles out of the mountainside to wash away the sweat and dust before enjoying a home-cooked meal.

Whatever “Sparta” might have been, the Lacedaemonian countryside is one of the most beautiful and restorative places anywhere on earth. Spartan children would have learned early to appreciate it, treasure it and remember it with the fondness we all save for our favorite childhood memories. These memories would have contributed to the Spartan love of Lacedaemon and made the Spartan army stronger by reinforcing intellectual patriotism for Sparta’s laws and society with emotional attachment to the land itself.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hippeis and the Royal Bodyguard

While reading Herodotus the other day I came across the following passage:

"The prerogatives of the Spartan kings are these: ...they have a bodyguard of a hundred picked men...." (Herodotus, 6:56)

I stumbled over this because I, perhaps naively, had assumed up to now that the three hundred hippeis were the equivalent of the royal bodyguard. After all, according to other sources, "They were ... an infantry bodyguard for the king." (A.H.M. Jones, Sparta, New York, 1967, p. 63).  Or, Carledge describes them as "the crack royal bodyguard selected from the ten youngest age-classes." (Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC, London, 1979, p. 176.)

However, on re-reading Xenophon, I noted that he only describes how the three hundred hippeis are selected and the rivalry that Sparta encouraged among young men for the sake of winning the honor of such selection, but he does not describe their function, much less call them a royal bodyguard. 

There is also the question  of why, if each king was entitled to just 100 guardsmen, there were there three hundred hippeis?

Is it possible then that the royal bodyguards were something separate and apart from the hippeis? Did each king have a hand picked body-guard of 100 men, while the hippeis were appointed (indirectly) by the ephors and represented no a royal bodyguard but an elite unit under the control of the ephors?

There would be a certain logic to such a system. The hippeis would then represent the executive force and "bodyguard" of the elected representatives, i.e. the democratic elements of the Spartan state.  Perhaps the hippeis were even formed at a later date (as the ephors became more powerful) to counter-balance -- and out-balance -- the ancient tradition of royal bodyguards?

Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated!  I will be travelling next week and my next entry will not be until June 18.