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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Austerity-hit Spartans resent Athens - from the BBC

House guests this weekend, so rather than my own entry, I thought I'd share this article about Sparta today from the BBC.

BBC News, Sparta

The BBC's Paul Henley detects stirrings of dissent in Sparta as middle-class Greeks hit by the country's economic woes aim their ire at the Athens government.

Yiannis did not expect to be back in his sleepy home town of Sparta, in the Greek Peloponnese, at the age of 30. He sees his return as a personal defeat. Up until 18 months ago, the business graduate had a career in Athens for a finance company. But his job was a casualty of a national economic collapse that dwarfs most others in Europe and, ever since, he has been unable to find work. He ended up moving back in with his parents where he grew up. Having made constant unsuccessful applications for work, he says the growing feeling of uselessness is reducing him as a person.

"Now" he says, "I can't dream as I did before, I can't be optimistic about life or have any real ambitions. Perhaps my only chance is to move abroad."

War against Athens

Yiannis is one of a group who call themselves the "Indignant Spartans" and who went on a 250km protest march to Athens. The three-day march, in May, was a vent for their anger and a way of publicly underlining their belief that ordinary Greeks had been betrayed by their political elite and by the murky world of international finance.

About 10 of the group are sitting around a table, at dusk, at a friend's pavement cafe. They are, frugally, drinking water in the shadow of a statue of Sparta's ancient king, Leonidas, a symbol of the days when Sparta waged a bitter war against Athens. These days, much of that bitterness is returning.

The "Indignant Spartans'' stories are a microcosm of the troubles facing citizens everywhere in Greece, as another national austerity package kicks in, living costs and taxes rocket, consumers rein in spending, wages fall and jobs are lost.
And although the calm, olive and palm tree-lined streets these Spartans inhabit, amid the constant hum of cicadas, seem a world away from the tear gas and the pitched battles outside parliament in Athens, the spirit of provincial rebellion seems to be growing fast.

Vasilis, who is 33, puts it like this: "Sometimes during the past two months I have started to understand how easy it would be to turn, in an instant, from being a good, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen - into a terrorist."

He is not the idle, state-reliant Greek familiar from mocking articles in the foreign press recently.
Vasilis is an entrepreneur who built up a highly successful business chain from scratch during a working life which began, he says, at the age of 12 and has regularly involved 18-hour days. In the past year, he says he has lost €800,000 ($1,150,000; £700,000. Vasilis's restaurant and catering business faces bankruptcy. A single cafe became a collection of restaurants and a mobile catering business with regular wedding and business contracts. As customers began to trail off, Vasilis put his capital into a scheme to build a hotel on the coast. But the scheme was reliant on government-approved loans and grants which disappeared in the crisis. The hotel was never finished and he is looking bankruptcy in the face.

"I feel very angry inside," he says. "When you try to do the best for your country and your children and your neighbours, you still get treated like garbage by the authorities," he says. "It is psychological violence. Maybe the terrorists we see on the television - this is the process they have gone through."

His words are greeted with nods around the table.

Constantina says she has been independent since she was 17 and now, at the age of 43, finds herself borrowing money from her parents. She set up a graphic design business eight years ago. Labels for agricultural products and flyers for local shops are her mainstay. Constantina's graphic design business is starved of business All her clients are desperate to save money. She feels penalised by a tax system she predicts will be the final straw for her business within the next year.

"Maybe marching is the only way I can remain an active citizen of this country," she says.

George, who is 45, is a secondary school teacher and one of those supposed to feel thankful for the relative security of his job. "I do not feel at all lucky," he says. Civil servants' salaries were a number one target in the cuts and that will continue." He feels the faith he had in the future has gone. A house he was building for his family has been left a concrete shell. "The next few years will be the hardest of our lives," he says. "The Ministry of Education has already begun closing schools."

"The situation makes me want to revolt," says Panagiotis, a pastry chef in his 40s. The business he set up with his nephew is at risk from a dramatic loss of customers recently and a simultaneous hike in costs. The macaroons, mini ice-creams and chocolate eclairs he makes are among the first to be crossed off people's shopping lists in difficult times. The handful of people they employ have already taken pay and some could soon be made redundant. "I worry for my family," he says. "What will happen if I can not pay back the loans on the business? I want to go out into the streets and shout about it."

His words are a thinly-veiled warning to Athens: "I want people to understand that my personal revolution must become a national revolution."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thespeia and Thermopylae

The reason I made no post last week is that I was in Greece. A sudden change of plans made it possible for my husband and I to get away for almost ten days. With the help of cheap airlines and a willingness to improvise, we took off for Thessaloniki.
On our fourth day, we reached Boiotia and after driving several hours in the blistering summer heat (ca. 100 F), we made the turn-off to Thespeia. We left the flat cultivated fields beside the National Road, with its road-side taverns, furniture show-rooms and telephone lines, and headed into low, rolling hills. The character of the land changed almost instantly. The valleys were golden with the stalks of harvested wheat broken here and there by olive orchards or stands of other trees, and the hills were semi-arid.
Eventually, we came to a T-intersection in an obscure village without signs, but at once a young man got up from the roadside cafe, and offered assistance in educated English. He seemed a little surprised that we wanted to go to “the village” of Thespeia, but when we assured him that was our destination, he told us to turn left and go until we reached the school then turn right and continue six kilometers.

His directions were exactly correct. After six kilometers, we found ourselves facing a marble monument dominated by the larger-than-life statue of a hoplite. Despite my rudimentary Greek, it was possible to decipher enough of the dedication to know the monument was erected to commemorate the 700 Thespians who died with Leonidas at Thermopylae. The dedication included a quote from Herodotus.
We continued into the modern village, which perched on top of a low, but steep, hill with a surprisingly good view of the surrounding countryside. To the east, not far away, was another long, curving hill. To the north the plain, and to the west and south distant mountains almost lost in haze beyond gently rolling, cultivated countryside. The village was surprisingly large – larger than other villages that rated a dot of equal size on my Baedeker map. There were numerous shops and cafes of the type not intended for tourists, churches, of course, and, in a school play-ground surrounded by bright colored children’s carousels, a more human-sized hoplite also commemorating the dead of Thermopylae. Yet, as far as I could see, no other memorials marked Thespeia’s history – no heroic leaders from the wars of independence, no resistance fighters against the Germans, neither statesmen nor novelists, nor men of science. In short, Thespeia appears to have played no role in history worth mentioning even on home-town monuments -- except for those 700 citizens willing to die rather than retreat before the invading army of Xerxes.

We returned by the road we’d come, still perplexed by why this little city had made such an enormous sacrifice in 480 BC. The loss of 700 citizens must have been far more devastating for little Thespeia, than the loss of 300 Spartiates to the powerful state of Lacedaemon, Why did the Thespeians alone voluntarily stay behind with Leonidas on the third day of the Battle of Thermopylae?
Back on the national road, we continued north up the broad central valley of Boiotia. Was this the route Leonidas took north? Having collected troops in Thebes (whether willing nor not) and Thespia, wouldn’t he have followed this easy route through the fertile plane, in the hope/expectation of gathering more troops from the other cities of Boiotia? After all, they were the cities most immediately threatened by Persia, if the Pass at Thermopylae failed to hold.

Certainly, this was the route by which the Athenians, Thebans and other Greeks went forth to confront Philip of Macedon. The “Lion Monument” still marks the spot where the Macedonians prevailed over the Greek alliance, allegedly standing on the spot where the members of Thebe’s Sacred Band were buried. Although like Thermopylae, this monument marks a Greek defeat, unlike the monument at Thermopylae this one is not defiant. The lion is not roaring or fighting, or even lying slain with hundreds of arrows in his corpse as does the Lion of Luzern. This lion is simply sitting like a great cat, his tail curled around his legs, and staring with hate-filled eyes into the distance (at the now vanished mound of Macedonian dead.)

Not far beyond the above monument at Chaironeia, we turned east to cross the Kallidromo before the slopes became too high, believing this would have been Leonidas’ most probable route to Thermopylae. This proved extremely informative because, while the mountains did not appear terribly formidable from the plane on which we had been driving, we soon discovered we were actually on a plateau and a deep gorge and rugged terrain separated us from the coast.

After winding our way on increasingly difficult roads for some time, we came around a curve and suddenly could see the sea in the distance. In Leonidas’ time the coast, however, was much nearer than now, and all the flat, cultivated land had to be imagined away. We continued our descent, but, I confess, we missed a turn or two and joined the National Road just a mile or so south of Thermyplae itself. This was too close to have been the route Leonidas took with his thousands strong force, but the last part may, in fact, have followed the general contours of the route taken by the Immortals when they circumvented the defended pass to fall on Leonidas in the rear. The Persians, of course, would have had to first cross much more difficult terrain to the north before joining the last portion of our drive down to the coastal road.
So we had reached Thermopylae. It was late afternoon, the sun still high and blistering.

The National Highway has been widened at this point to allow tourists to halt. To the right is the official monument with a very nice frieze and the larger-than-life sculpture of Leonidas with raised spear. There are also two boards providing brief historical information about the site including useful diagrams of the three phases of the battle. Beyond, on the same side of the road, is a monument marked by an bronze eagle, to all who have given their lives for Greek democracy.

To the left of the road is the actual site of the battle. Most prominent is the mound or hillock believed by most historians to have been the site of the final stand of Leonidas’ troops after his own death. Hundreds of Persian arrowheads were found in the mound, but apparently no human remains as would be the case if it were the traditional mound raised over a mass grave. (Note: beneath the Lion of Chaironeia the bones of exactly 297 men were found.)
From the hillock one has an excellent view north across three “walls” that clearly post-date the battle and may or may not represent someone’s (more or less informed) attempt to mark the likely position of the ancient walls. Certainly one can gain a feel for the landscape -- if one remembers that the coastline would have run where the national road now forms a concrete and asphalt border to the killing fields.

For me, the mood and my ability to focus on the distant past was slightly impaired by the bizarre activities of a half-dozen young people in red t-shirts and white trousers that had set up an improvised altar with a Corinthian helmet, small replicas of the Leonidas statue and other trinkets. They were harmless enough, but one wonders what and who they were trying to deify? Leonidas? Their gestures seemed a tawdry contrast to the unpretentious but profound nature of Leonidas and his actions.

Not more than 300 yards beyond the last of these walls are the “hot springs” for which Thermopylae is named. These still gush hot, sulfurous water into a small pool. Given the heat and the smell, they were hardly inviting, but we did re-fill our water bottles at the spring in front of the monument on the far side of the road. I hope Leonidas and his troops also had ready access to fresh, drinking water. Just walking to the top of the hillock in the Greek summer sun left me drenched in sweat.

It was a long journey for me to Thermopylae, which lies thousands of miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was born, and took me almost half a century to reach, but it was worth the trip. I would not have felt right writing the third book of my Leonidas Trilogy without having been there personally – and I’m glad I went in the height of summer. I hope my readers will benefit from this pilgrimage even more than I, and that my books will in part fulfil the adminishment of the ancient monument that urged passers by to tell of Leonidas' obedience to Spartan law.

"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, in obedience to her laws, we lie."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Secrets of Spartan Cuisine

Spartan cuisine has a terrible reputation. It is consistently described as scanty, primitive and boring. The “black broth,” allegedly served at every Spartan mess, has come in for particular derision, with the usual assumption being that it was an unappetizing broth at best and – for the clique of Sparta-haters that like to see in Sparta some kind of evil cross between orcs and Nazis – it was a soup made of clotted blood. I have even read books where Spartans are described eating dogs (presumably because this makes them seem more barbaric and bestial), although there is not a trace of evidence, to my knowledge, that the breeders of the much prized Kastorian hounds were dog-eaters. Modern conceptions of Spartan cuisine was most humorously expressed in a banner ad run by a restaurant while the film “300” was showing in cinemas that said: “Forget about Sparta, Persian cuisine was better.”

Leaving aside the modern descriptions that have more to do with fantasy than history, ancient references to the shortfalls of Spartan cuisine came, of course, from the pens of foreigners. One wonders just what exposure to Spartan cooking these commentators actually had? Nor are the oldest accounts so negative. To my knowledge – and please correct me if I am wrong – Herodotus says little about the nature and quality of Spartan food beyond stressing that the kings had double portions and received the meat of sacrificial bulls at set intervals. He also notes that the kings did not eat double rations, but shared out their extra portions with those they wished to favor/reward. Presumably, in Herodotus’ time Spartan cuisine wasn’t bad enough to rate a bad review.

Xenophon, the classical Laconophile, does devote some space to describing Spartan diet. He stresses that in the agoge the eirenes were supposed to “furnish for the common meal just the right amount for [the boys in their charge] never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough.” (Xenophon, Spartan Society, 2) He goes on to say that Lycurgus fixed the rations in the messes of the citizens “in such a way that they should have neither too much nor too little food.” Clearly, both of these passages address the issue of quantity not quality.

Returning to Herodotus, it is noteworthy that he listed three hereditary professions in Sparta (Her. 6:60): heralds, flute-players and cooks. This passage is part of Herodotus’ description of the privileges of Sparta’s hereditary kings, and implicit is that hereditary office was a mark of distinction. Given Sparta’s modern reputation for bad cooking, the inclusion of cooks in the ranks of the hereditary professions is striking – if usually ignored. Equally important is the fact that they are mentioned alongside heralds and flute-players, professions that had clear relevance for the army. This suggests that cooks too were considered important for the readiness of the army, possibly because cooks provided food when the army was in the field. On the other hand, maybe the importance of cooks came from the fact that syssitia cooks were responsible for enforcing Lycurgus’ laws on moderate rations and no excessive drinking? If the latter, then cooks clearly had a very important function in Spartan society!

Whatever the reason cooks were viewed with particular respect, however, it is hard to imagine men who viewed their profession as a privilege taking no pride in their work. It likewise seems unlikely that men who learned their profession from their fathers and taught it to their sons were lacking in skill and dedication. Certainly, cooking is an art, and some people are naturally better than others, but every Spartan cook would have learned from his father and grandfather a great variety of ways to prepare a meal, and the usual assumption that a meal at a Spartan mess was a “Spartan” version of a bad institutional meal today seems questionable.

The bad reputation of Spartan cuisine may have originated from the fact that most Greeks favored sophisticated cooking with complicated preparation, spices, crusts, sauces and heavy on fish. Spartan cooking was simpler and included more meat, especially game. The lack of elaborate sauces, crusts, exotic spices and seafood may have made Spartan cooking seem plain to an Athenian aristocrat’s palate, but that is not necessarily the same thing as being bad.

Syssitia cooking would have been based on the contributions which members brought from their kleros. Any kleros in Lacedaemon would have provided fresh and/or preserved fruits and nuts – apples, pears, plums, apricots, figs, lemons, almonds and chestnuts. There would have been olives and olive oil as well as grapes and wine, all freshly produced. Fresh eggs, fresh milk and homemade butter and cheese from cattle, sheep and goats would have been readily available too.

Each syssitia cook would have been able to collect fresh bay leaves, rosemary, mint, oregano and thyme from the fields to help garnish roast pork, kid, and lamb grilled over an open fire. They would also have had kitchen gardens for growing coriander, leeks, beans, asparagus, fennel, cucumbers, peas, squash and cabbage. And while Spartan cuisine may have been short on seafood, full citizens were encouraged to hunt and to share their game with their messmates. The surrounding forests were rich in pheasant, hare, deer and wild boar. These meats too would have been grilled and then garnished with leeks and onions, bay leaves, chestnuts or other variations of native produce we cannot imagine.

Last but not least, a Spartan diet would have included fresh, warm bread, including white bread, as Lacedaemon was one of the city-states with soil suitable for wheat, and Xenophon specifically mentions that wealthy men contributed wheat flour to the messes. In short, even without seafood and fancy sauces these raw ingredients – meats grilled over open fires, vegetables and herbs fresh from the garden, bread still warm from the oven – need not have been bland or monotonous.

I even suspect that Spartans (at least secretly) enjoyed the native honey, tasting still of pine, yew and wild-flowers. Sweet bread with raisons or sesame seeds, cakes with crushed nuts drowned in honey, apple tarts and plum pies are all perfectly imaginable based on what can be produced natively and is still sold in the region today.

If this was the nature of Spartan cuisine, Spartan children might grow strong and Spartiates grow old on it -- and never even notice how “deprived” they were.