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Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Heroic King: Three New Reviews

To round off this year, in which the third and final book of my Leonidas Trilogy was published, I want to share three recent reviews of "A Heroic King," published on 

5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! December 8, 2012
By David

I thoroughly enjoyed this book just as I did Schrader's two previous books about Leonidas. This is exceptionally well written historical fiction and it is clear Ms. Schrader made great efforts in gathering research for this work. Schrader wrote this book through a historical foundation based on the writings of Heroditus and Plutarch regarding Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae. However, she also did a fantastic job of creating a wonderfully vivid Sparta through painstaking research and logical conclusions based on an insightful interpretation and analysis of Greece's history. I have read other works of historical fiction regarding the Battle of Thermopylae and I'll admit I enjoyed the movie 300 for what it was. I like Schrader's depiction of Leonidas best, and given her extensive research, insight, and the thoughtful approach she took to creating the story, I believe her portrayal of King Leonidas to be accurate. If you're a true Spartan at heart, then you will probably enjoy this book. If you want a great story about few standing against many with the fate of democracy and freedom hanging in the balance, then this book will not disappoint. The best part of the story is that it's true. 

5.0 out of 5 stars Book Review of the Heroic King December 11, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition

Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King is the third installment in the trilogy covering the life of the famous Spartan king, written by Helena Schrader. I have not had a chance to read the first two books but jumped at the chance to read this one because I wanted to see how Helena would approach the Battle of Thermopylae.

Helena Schrader graduated with honors in History from the University of Michigan and has earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She has published several books since 1993, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the former are several historical novels including six on ancient Sparta. She maintains a blog titled Sparta Reconsidered.

I approached A Heroic King as a person knowledgeable on the subject matter but curious about how the author would weave fact and fiction together. Would the story be convincing? Spartan names take some getting used to and I found myself struggling through the first two dozen pages as I tried to get to know the many characters - both historically familiar and unfamiliar. Knowledge of the vocabulary of Sparta was certainly helpful during this early part of the read.

Once the names were locked in, things moved along at a fine rhythm. There were many wonderful scenes -- Leonidas' election, the sacrificial ambassador's trip to see Xerxes, and Gorgo's shopping trip in Athens, to name a few. For a historical novel to be successful, you have to feel seamlessly transported back in time by the author. Then you can live the story and absorb the history along the way. Helena has successfully met this requirement by accurately capturing the lives and experiences of the people of Lacedaemon.

The Battle of Thermopylae was riveting - not mere choreography like the movie 300, but real tension created by 300 men trying to survive but also prepared to die. The reader has a first row seat as the realization of no escape transforms Leonidas and his men into determined heroes.

In sum, The Heroic King is a brilliantly written novel that gives life to one of the great cultures of history. Its mixture of drama and adventure can carry the reader forward at whatever pace he or she may desire.

My only concern in recommending the novel is for the reader who knows nothing of Sparta - whether they will have the perseverance to work through the new vocabulary. Like the saying "Don't judge a book by its cover", I say "Don't judge this novel by its first two dozen pages". Acclimate yourself and move on to a great adventure.

5.0 out of 5 stars, December 12, 2012
by  srh2767
Format:Paperback|Amazon Verified Purchase

Dr Schrader does a wonderful job of telling the tail of Sparta and King Leonidas. This book, along with "A boy of the Agoge", and "Peerless Peer" are wonderful, well written books. I've read several books about ancient Greece, Sparta, and the battle at Thermopylae, and Dr Schrader has really done a great job researching the facts that make her book even better.

Dr Schrader, if you end up reading this, I hope you go on to tell what happened to Gorgo and the rest of Sparta in the years after Leonidas died. 

Note: Starting in 2013, new posts to this blog will be made monthly, rather than weekly.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Proto-Christian Hero

Christians are about to celebrate the birth of Christ. 2,012 years ago, in Palestine, a man was born, who preached a new religion based on love of one’s fellow man. Dramatically, however, he not only preached this message of love, he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the rest of mankind in an unprecedented manner. This sacrifice, depicted in countless works of art and on crucifixes in churches around the world, has inspired awe and wonder for two thousand years.

By the time Christ was born, the ancient city and culture of Sparta was moribund. Yes, there was still an urban community on the site of the once great capital of Lacedaemon, but of the inhabitants of this Sparta no longer lived by the laws nor fallowed the customs that that made ancient Sparta unique and great.  And yet there is a bond between Sparta and Christianity in the form of Leonidas.
Leonidas lived roughly 500 years before the birth of Christ and did not benefit from his teachings or example. Yet, while working on my three-part biography of Leonidas of Sparta, I came to realize that Leonidas fascinates us to this day not because of his historical role (he lost a battle) but as a moral figure.  It was Leonidas’ conscious decision to sacrifice himself for his fellow Greeks that made him such an appealing historical figure.  Leonidas attracts us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom.
Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive – not an aggressive – battle.  Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him.  Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles or Hektor, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.

Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta, are what make his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Spartan Eloquence

In the ancient world, the Spartans were (in)famous for speaking rarely and employing as few words as possible to convey meaning. This was yet another area in which the Spartan tradition was the exact opposite of the Athenian one.  In Athens, the ability to sway the Assembly -- or the hundreds of jurors in a court case -- with a good speech was the very foundation of power and influence. Pericles and Alcibiades are just two examples of Athenian politicians, who owed their power largely to their skill with words.  

The Spartans, in contrast, valued simplicity in speech no less than in attire or architecture. Ancient “Laconophiles” collected examples of Spartan speech, all characterized by pithiness, while Xenophon stresses the – evidently unusual – ability of Spartan youth to hold their tongues except when directly addressed. Perhaps the most graphic example of the Spartan distaste for excessive verbiage, however, is the (probably apocryphal) story of the Samian ambassadors, who sought Spartan aid in their fight against Polycrates.  According to Herodotus, the Samians gave a very long speech after which the Spartan’s complained they had forgotten the start of the speech by the end of it.  When the Samians then brought a bag and said the bag needed flour, the Spartans replied that the word ‘bag’ was superfluous – and proceeded to give the requested aid. (Herodotus 3:46). 

Another, more famous example of Spartan succinctness was Leonidas reply to Xerxes demand that the 300 Spartiates at Thermopylae surrender their arms. Based on the speeches of various Athenian commanders recorded in Thucydides, it is easy to imagine what an Athenian commander would have answered. An Athenian commander would undoubtedly have given a long lecture to Xerxes on democracy and freedom, on honor and how beautiful it is to die for one's country. Leonidas confined himself to: "Come and take them."

Because Spartan eloquence was characterized by an absolute minimum of words, we describe minimalistic speech as “Laconic” even to this day.  Yet while the Spartan culture of reducing speech to its bare essentials and speaking only when necessary was described and admired by ancient observers, the reasons for Sparta’s culture of silence are less obvious.

W. Lindsay Wheeler in his excellent article “Doric Crete and Sparta, home of Greek Philosophy,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2), provides a possible answer. He notes that silence was a critical component of the Spartan educational system because it taught youth to give their thoughts "force and intensity by compression.” He suggests Spartans wanted their speech to be “short, concise and to the point, like their spear points.”  He goes on expound on the depth to which philosophy lay at the roots of Spartan society and culture. He argues that a society that valued philosophy based on observation, scorned idle chatter, and it is fair to assume that in Sparta men were expected to speak only when they had something worth saying. Sparta valued philosophers rather than sophists.

I think there may have been another factor at work here too, as I hinted last week's entry  about Gorgo's most famous quote. Whereas in Athens, men gained respect, influence and power through their ability to sway the Athenian assembly with their words, Spartans were more likely to gain respect and influence by proving their competency at arms.  Likewise, appointment to coveted office such as the Hippeis required living a "virtuous" life -- hardly something expected of Athenian elites. In short, in Sparta, what a man did counted for more than what he said.

This is not the same, however, as being uneducated and incapable of sophisticated expression. As Helmuth Graf Moltke, the novel-writing, strategic genius behind Prussia's military victories over Austria and France in the 19th Century pointed out, it is far more difficult to formulate thoughts concisely than to express them at length. Indeed, it is very easy to ramble on for hours without saying anything at all!  The Spartan form of minimalist expression required an equal command of language as the Athenian rhetorical tradition of long political speeches and theatrical monologues -- but a good deal more discipline.

As for silence, it too can convey meaning.  Silence can be threatening or sympathetic, disapproving or indifferent. Silence, especially when combined with action, can even be eloquent. I suspect, such eloquence was the kind most valued in Sparta.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

“… only Spartan women give birth to men.”

Queen Gorgo of Sparta’s most famous quote was an answer to an Athenian woman, who asked why “only Spartan women rule their men.”  The answer, that only Spartan women gave birth to men, was far more than a witty retort, it was a profound commentary on the differences between the societies. The most important point, of course, is that Gorgo did not claim Spartan women were superior at all, but rather that Spartan men were superior to their contemporaries.

Readers need to keep in mind that at no time in Spartan history was Sparta “ruled” by women. Spartan women were hardly Amazons, who scorned men and took to the battlefield themselves.  Spartan women could not vote in the Spartan Assembly, and they could not be elected to office, neither the Gerousia nor the ephorate, nor lesser positions such as magistrates. Every contemporary of Gorgo knew this, so the question was never meant to suggest Spartan women had political power, but rather that they had influence over their menfolk to an exceptional, indeed “unnatural,” degree.

As Gorgo’s answer likewise illuminates, Spartan women did not live separate, lesbian lives, disconnected and divorced from their male relations and focused on themselves.  The image of Spartan women living apart and satisfying their sexuality among themselves is a modern myth, based on the patently false misconception that Spartan males were “far away” “most” of the time.  In fact, ancient wars were short affairs and only conducted during the campaign season, so that Spartan husbands were never gone more than half a year and that very rarely. (Not until the Peloponnesian war did Sparta campaign year after year; throughout the archaic period Sparta was at war only sporadically with years of peace in between.) Furthermore, the barracks and messes at which Spartan men ate were much closer to the temples, markets and public buildings at which the women congregated than the work-places of most modern (commuting) husbands.

On the contrary, Spartan women viewed their role as completely integral and indeed traditional.  As Gorgo’s reply underscores, a Spartan woman’s principal contribution to society – like that of her Athenian counterpart – was to produce the next generation of (male) citizens.  There was nothing odd, offensive or sinister about respectable women in the ancient world identifying with the role of mother.  The idea that women might have other societal functions other than wives and mothers is a relatively new historical phenomenon and far from accepted in many parts of the world from Afghanistan to Africa.

As Gorgo so brilliantly summarizes the situation, the difference between Spartan women and the women in the rest of the ancient world was not one of a fundamentally different role, but rather a difference in the way men viewed that role.  Athens was a virulently misogynous society. Its greatest philosophers viewed women as “permanent children” and the doctors attributed everything from stomach illness to asthma in women to a “wandering womb,” for which the best cure was sex (with the woman’s owner/husband of course.) Women could not inherit property, nor indeed control more money than was needed to purchase a bushel of grain. They were largely uneducated and almost all were illiterate, so it is hardly surprising that their educated, usually significantly older husbands considered them congenitally stupid. The discrepancy between the education and maturity of husbands and wives was aggravated by the fact that female children were fed less nutritious food in smaller quantities than their brothers, and were denied fresh air and any kind of exercise. The result was females stunted both physically and mentally, married as soon as they became sexually mature, and usually dead by the age of 30 or 35. In short, Athens' laws and customs condemned women to ignorance, stunted grown and an early grave – assuming they were allowed to live at all.  

There is little doubt that in Athens far more female infants were exposed than males. As it was aptly put in an Athenian law case, even a poor man would raise a son, while even a rich man would expose a daughter. The archaeological evidence supports the historical record; Athens suffered from a severe demographic imbalance in favor of males, something that is most similar to sex ratios in China and India where the systematic murder of female infants (either as embryos through abortion or after birth through exposure or neglect) is still widespread.

Sparta did not suffer either from the misogyny that created the imbalance in the population or from the consequences. In fact, by the late 5th Century BC, Spartan women appear to have significantly outnumbered men.  This imbalance may have been the real reason for the Spartan custom of “wife sharing.”

Returning to Gorgo's most famous quote, I would like to show how I put it in context in Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King:

Eukoline shoved her veil off her head and turned on Gorgo to ask in a tone that mixed disapproval with amazement, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule your men?” She did not mean it as a compliment.

“Because we are the only women who give birth to men!” Gorgo snapped back.

“As if I hadn’t given birth to two sons?” Eukoline retorted indignantly. “Athens has five times the number of citizens Sparta has!” she added proudly.

“Athens has 40,000 males who think that making clever speeches is the pinnacle of manliness.” All Gorgo’s pent-up anger at what she had seen since her arrival [in Athens] boiled over. “That’s why they are afraid to educate their daughters and keep their women in the dark ― physically and mentally!” Gorgo could not resist adding, “Sparta’s men prove their manhood with their spears and need not dismiss good advice just because it comes from the mouths of women!”

                                                             Buy Now!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How Do You Live At War?

The following review of "A Peerless Peer" was post posted on by "Thomas E." October 28. Thank you, Thomas, wherever you are!
Amazon Verified Purchase
This review is from: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer (Kindle Edition)
Doctor Helena P. Schrader is an accomplished historian and author of both non-fiction and fiction books. She also owns land in what was once known as Laceadeamon, or Sparta and writes about the place as if she can visualize it -- outside her front porch. In this, the second entry in her trilogy on Leonidas, she again hits the mark and builds even further upon what was a stellar entry in Leonidas of Sparta: A boy of the Agoge.

The first book took us through the early years in the life of Leonidas, focused as the title would indicate, largely on the agoge and the various rituals and training regimes that young men in Sparta underwent. It also let us know how romance and family relations in the city functioned, and how the perioiki and helots worked into this social system and structure. Now Leonidas is a grown man, a member of a mess, and a soldier in the army. He has taken it as his mission to become the "Peerless Peer" that the title aludes to, and we are given the opportunity to understand how a man could grow into one who would willingly sacrifice himself for his country.

We are given opportunity to see how the vaunted army functions, and how the kleros that maintains Spartan society actually works. For a city that strove towards an idyllic distribution of property that would make everyone equal, Schrader lays bare how one cannot legislate against greed and the machinations of the human spirit to protect ones family and build one’s own assets. There are villains and there are saints in Sparta, and Leonidas encounters them all.

The system of two kings is a recurring issue as well, in how it affects what is never more than a small city. The fact that Sparta was not always on a war footing comes up, and how families dealt with fathers, who basically were never around until they hit the age of thirty. It is a history book wrapped around a story that touches upon all the facets of the ancient world that one does not think about when envisioning such a place, but which make that place a real location that we visit through her writing. This is outstanding work, and we can all only hope that there is more to come.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

War by Other Means: Spartan Diplomacy

Clausewitz claimed that war was diplomacy by other means. This may explain why Sparta, popularly known as a militaristic society, was in fact a city with a long history of effective diplomacy and a high regard for the diplomatic profession.

Sparta’s diplomatic history started early. According to Herodotus, for example, Sparta sent an envoy to the Persian court mid-6th Century, long before the Persians had become interested in Greece. Allegedly, the Spartan envoy warned the Great King against enslaving Hellenes - which prompted the bewildered master of the Eastern world to ask who (in the hell) the Spartans were? After the diplomatic breech of murdering the Persian ambassadors sent to obtain earth and water in 491, the Spartans were concerned enough about diplomatic niceties to send to men to Persia as sacrifices to atone for the murdered ambassadors.

More significant, however, is the fact that Sparta founded the first non-aggression pact in recorded history when it stopped seeking to conquer its neighbors but sought defensive alliances with them instead. A series of bilateral treaties evolved into what became known as the Peloponnesian League. While initially this organization was an instrument of Spartan hegemony, which required Sparta's allies to follow her lead, in or about 500 BC the allies successfully asserted their power and effectively converted the League into an alliance in which every member - including Sparta - had an "equal" vote. Even if, as we know, some members of every alliance are always a little "more equal" than others, the principle of voting on major commitments of the Alliance was clearly established and largely respected.

Likewise, although often dismissed as simply “natural,” the forging of an alliance with Athens, Corinth, Aegina, (all hated rivals of one another!) and other lesser cities to oppose the Persian invasion of 480 was, in fact, a brilliant Spartan diplomatic achievement. I say Spartan, because the election of Sparta to lead on land and sea suggested that Athens would not have been able to hold this alliance together without Spartan influence. Arguably, it was Leonidas’ ability to put together a “coalition of the willing” to fight against Xerxes, more than his untimely death at Thermopylae, that was his greatest achievement.

Notably, some of Sparta’s best commanders were also excellent diplomats. Brasidas comes to mind.  Brasidas had only limited troops, the bulk of which were helot volunteers without the training of Spartiates. His success depended not on force of arms, but his ability to win over allies and detach cities from the Delian League. Likewise Sparta’s success in Syracuse was certainly not a military success, no Spartan hoplites were in action at any time! It was, however, an enormous diplomatic success that severely weakened Athenian strength and morale.

The weaker Sparta became, the important it was for Sparta to forge alliances and out-wit rather than out-fight her enemies. It may be an indication of weakness, but it was nevertheless a diplomatic coup that Sparta was one of the first city-states in Greece to forge an alliance with a rising Rome, for example.

All in all, Sparta's diplomatic culture deserves much more attention and research. A comprehensive work on Spartan diplomacy from the Archaic to the Roman Periods would be a welcome addition to existing scholarly literature.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Spartan Gifts

Did the Spartans give gifts? 

Obviously, gifts were an important feature of most ancient societies. Gifts were an important component of diplomacy, with monarchs or cities exchanging gifts as gestures of good will. Gifts were given to the gods, and to victorious athletes. Gifts were a feature of the cult of hospitality and friendship, and gifts were given to favored prostitutes and slaves. Gifts played a much more significant role in ancient Greek society as a whole than they do in ours today. 

But what about Sparta? In Sparta, after all, conspicuous consumption was disdained. Spartan laws prohibited the minting of gold and silver coins, and in the 5th Century BC, even the wearing of gold and silver was allegedly proscribed.  While there is good reason to think that descriptions of Spartan austerity are greatly exaggerated, there is no reason to think that Sparta was not comparatively less extravagant in the use of luxuries and display of wealth. 

In a society which frowned upon the display of wealth, gifts would necessarily have a different character than in a society, like Athens, where flaunting wealth was an essential component of social status and political power. For example, an Athenian Olympic victor was fed for the rest of his life at civic expense, was granted a front-row seat at all public festivals including the plays, and received other material rewards as well. Sparta's Olympic victors received only one reward: the privilege to "stand in front of their Kings in the line of battle" -- i.e. automatic membership in the elite unit, the Hippeis, or royal guard. 

In short, Spartans had the same cultural traditions of gift-giving, but very likely gave gifts that were more immaterial and practical. Personally, I picture public gifts being mostly "honors" -- prominence of place in processions or at festivals, or election to positions of prestige (committees judging the singing and dancing contests, for example) or ceremonial functions -- the Kings' cup bearer, the Kings' marshal, etc. Personal gifts were more likely to be practical things, game, honey, and other products from a man's kleros, or possibly a hunting dog or livestock. 

Gifts to women, on the other hand, were probably more conventional, things like jewelry, expensive fabrics, perfumes etc.  We know Athenians viewed Spartan women as particularly extravagant and luxury loving, and Aristotle blamed their love of wealth for the downfall of Spartan society. 

For those of us living today, however, gift-giving is a traditional aspect of the "Holiday Season," and our gift-giving is more materialistic than symbolic. So for any of you who would like to give a gift with a Spartan theme, I have created a few products. I'm just getting started, actually, but I hope you'll like one or the other of my t-shirts and mugs. You can look, select and buy online at: or

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Do You Raise A Man?

On October 28, the following review of  A Boy of the Agoge appeared on  It was contributed by "Thomas E." -- not further identified. I'd like to share it with you, and my thanks to Thomas E!

Helena P. Schrader has the kind of academic credentials that make you wonder what you did with your life. Growing up in Japan, Brazil, England, and the United States she has degrees from the University of Michigan, Kentucky, and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Hamburg. After writing several non-fiction books focusing on WWII, she turned her attention to fiction. This academic zeal for research shows up in her books, and is very prevalent in the "Leonidas" series. She also owns a home in what was once called Lacedeamon, or more commonly, Sparta.

This book is the first in a trilogy that walk through the life of Leonidas, the legendary king of Sparta. Unlike other such texts, this one makes liberal use of citations to the historical record, and where no such record is available the author explains why she choose to go the way she did. She is also very open about what is conjecture or writers license on her part. Obviously everybody knows how the book will end, so there is considerable pressure to make the parts in between worthwhile, logical, consistent, and reflective of what the historical and archaeological would have us believe occured. This is where Schrader shines.

As the title implies, this book focuses heavily on the Agoge, that almost mythical Spartan insitutation of education and training. The book actually opens with Leonidas receiving the oracle that damns him to his fate, and then jumps back to the future kings childhood. We are treated to life in the palace, and an indepth examination of life in the five villages that make up Sparta. The view presented here and throughout the series conflicts with more idyllic apperances in other tales, such as Gates of fire by Pressfield. Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae However, her examples all make sense, are explained, and ring true to how a society such as Sparta would develop.

The Messenian helots are touched upon, and the rituals of growing up are expounded upon. How would a child orphaned early develop, and in an almost Harry Potter like fashion, how would such a child wield wealth? How do you grow up to be the man that offers himself up as sacrifice? This book lays the foundation. It is a great read, and yet it is the weakest of the trilogy. It is where one must start, and nobody will be disappointed by it. Just know that what follows is even better.

To read more about the Leonidas Trilogy click here.

To see the video teaser on YouTube click here.

To buy t-shirts or mugs with Leonidas and Gorgo motifs click here

Saturday, October 27, 2012

First Review of "A Heroic King"

This past week the first substantive review of "Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King" was posted on Here it is:

5.0 out of 5 stars

Format:Kindle Edition

A wonderful story and superbly constructed! Ms Schrader has outdone herself with this one! Although this is the third volume in a trilogy, it could easily be a stand-alone book. The author cleverly clues the reader in on the events leading up to the climax of her narrative without re-hashing her previous two volumes.

The more knowledgeable reader will be brought smoothly up to date in the all-too-brief life of Leonidas while those with more limited background in the field will be, for lack of a better word, "educated". Granted, as this is a novel and not a textbook, there is much of the author herein, but Ms Schrader has indeed done her homework. One gets the feeling that we are not getting some sort of "fantasy" Sparta but rather an interpretation which gives the impression of cleaving pretty closely to reality. The interplay between and among her characters is totally believable and although perhaps not in conformance with the common impressions of Spartan life, nevertheless her descriptions are perfectly believable and do not strain the imagination.

Of course the element of suspense is not present, as we all know how it came out, but Ms Schrader's description of the preparation for and the conduct of, the final stand in the pass of Thermopylae are as good if not better than any I've read previously. She somehow has managed to vividly capture the blood, sweat, fear, and emotion that must have been very real for the soldiers involved and this has been skilfully transported to the reader by the author.

A side note: Having myself lived for several years in Greece, I wonder if Ms Schrader realizes how closely, in her descriptions of daily life in ancient Sparta, she has actually conveyed to the reader an accurate description of personal interactions in any small Greek city today?

This is in sum a superb and easily readable book. As with her previous volumes, it would be totally suitable for older teens with an interest in the period...indeed, I can see its use as a supplementary textbook. My congratulations to the author and my appreciation to her for "breaking the mold" and not cluttering up the book with the usual steamy sexual interludes (in this case probably homosexual). My mother would enjoy this one! 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Spartan Agoge Revisited

The image of the Spartan agoge in most literature is a catalogue of horrors no loving parent would inflict upon his/her children.  Paul Cartledge even makes a great fuss about the word agoge being used for cattle as well as children – although the English word “to raise” is also used for both children and cattle without, to my knowledge, all American, British and Australian children being denigrated to the status of livestock. (Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, London, 2001.)

The assumption in literature and film is that Spartan boys (and possibly girls) were taken from their homes at age seven and never again had anything to do with their parents. Instead, they were allegedly under the exclusive tutelage of the Paidonomos and his whip-bearing assistants, elected herd leaders, “lovers” and eirenes (whatever these were). The boys are described as learning virtually nothing, running around practically naked, stealing to eat, fighting constantly with each other, while being intimidated and abjectly obedient to their elders.

Yet what we know of Spartan society as whole is not consistent with such an educational system.

First, there is strong evidence that family ties were as strong in Sparta as elsewhere.  No society, in fact, has ever succeeded at destroying the institution of the family -- even when they tried, as in Soviet Union and Communist China.  We know from modern experience that attendance at even a distant boarding school does not inherently indicate a lack of parental interest in a child’s development. Thus, it is ridiculous to think Spartan parents lost interest in their children just because they were enrolled in the agoge.  The agoge, after all, was located in the heart of Sparta. Far from never seeing their families ever again, the children of the agoge would have seen their fathers (who had to take part in civic activities and eat at their syssitia) and school- and army-aged siblings almost daily. 

In addition to the comfort of daily contact with fathers and brothers and probably mothers as desired, we can assume that the agoge was not opened 365 days a year.  Just like every other school in history, the agoge will have had “holidays.”  We know of at least 12 festivals each year.  (See Nikolaos Kouloumpis, “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1.) The Spartans, furthermore, were notorious for taking their religious festivals extremely seriously.  Soldiers on campaign could return home for festivals particularly important to their specific clan, and the entire army was prohibited from marching out during others. (Hence the Spartan army was late for Marathon and only sent an advance guard to Thermopylae.)  It is not reasonable to assume that what applied to the Spartan army did not apply to the public school! Far more probable is that the agoge closed down for every holiday and, like school children everywhere, Spartan girls and boys gleefully went “home for the holidays” along with their eirenes, herd-leaders, instructors and all other citizens.

The equally common presumption based on fragmentary ancient sources that the boys never got enough to eat and routinely took to stealing to supplement their diet is inconsistent with a functioning economy. No society can function if theft is not the isolated act of criminal individuals but rather a necessity for all youth between the ages of 7 and 20. If all the youth were stealing all the time, the rest of society would have been forced to expend exorbitant amounts of time and resources on protecting their goods.  Every estate would have been turned into an armed camp, and there would have been nightly battles between hungry youth and helots desperate to save their crops and stores. Nothing of the kind was going on in Sparta, a state known for its internal harmony and low levels of common crime. 

Nigel Kennel argues persuasively that theft was only allowed during a limited period of time at a single stage in a boy’s upbringing (Nigel Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995). As for only being punished for being caught, that is very nature of all punishment -- seen from the thief’s perspective.  After all, no undiscovered crime is ever punished.  Nothing about that has changed in 2,500 years.

The notion that the boys constantly fought among themselves and were encouraged to do so is equally untenable.  Boys of the same age cohort would inevitably serve together in the army. The Spartan army was famous for the exceptional cohesion of its ranks. You don’t attain such cohesion by fostering competition and rivalry to an excessive degree.  A strong emphasis on competition was prevalent throughout ancient Greece.  Spartan youths engaged in team sports, and there would have been natural team spirit and team rivalry.  It is only reasonable to assume that now and again such competition and rivalry turned bitter and could degenerate into fights.  But Sparta, even more than other Greek city states, needed to ensure that such rivalries did not get out of hand because all citizens had to work together harmoniously in the phalanx.

As for the youth of the agoge being abjectly respectful and obedient to their elders, such behavior is incompatible with high-spirited, self-confident youth – yet this is what the agoge set out to produce. Spartan discipline appears to have produced exceptionally polite young men by ancient standards, and since observations about Spartan youth at, say, the pan-Hellenic games do not require inside knowledge of Spartan society, we can assume that these reports have a certain validity. But there is a vast difference between being polite and respectful on the surface and being cowed, intimidated and obedient to an exceptional extent. English school-boys of the 19th and early 20th Century also had a reputation for politeness that had nothing to do with being beaten down or docile.

The thesis that Spartan youth learned almost nothing (except endurance, theft, competition and manners) is untenable for a society that for hundreds of years dominated Greek politics and whose school was admired by many Athenian intellectuals.  Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic maneuverings, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been the illiterate brutes some  modern writers make them. Spartans knew their laws very well, they could debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries.  Indeed, Plutarch claims that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Lycurgus:20)  Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers, notably Pythagoras. Spartans also had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by the many contests and festivals for poetry in the form of lyrics, and ancient sources stress the Spartan emphasis on musical education and on dance. Last but not least. the abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone, if no one in your society can read!  

Looked at from a different perspective, everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers -- and the skills needed by a good soldier then as now include far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience. A good soldier in the ancient world also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognize poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more. All this knowledge was transmitted to Spartan youth in the agoge.

Finally, let me turn to the most offensive aspect of the popular image of the agoge: alleged institutionalized pederasty. Without getting into a fight about the dating and nationality of the sources alleging institutionalized pederasty to Spartan society, the status of women in Sparta is more widely attested and can be considered incontestable.  Yet the high status of Spartan women is completely inconsistent with a society composed of men who suffered child abuse as children.  

Aristotle himself fumed against the power of women and attributed it to militaristic society in which homosexual love was not common. More important, modern psychology shows that abused boys grow up to despise women. Whatever else one can accuse the Spartans of doing, despising women was not one of them. Athenians, notably Aristophanes and Hesiod, on the contrary, very clearly did despise women, and it was in Athens and Corinth that the archaeological evidence suggests widespread pederasty. Sparta stands out as the exception, which is probably why it was so profoundly misunderstood.

Stripped of common misconceptions about the nature of the Spartan agoge, the institution starts to look not only tolerable but even admirable – something that would be consistent with the historical record.  We know that many men we admire for their intellect, including Socrates himself, were admirers of the Spartan agoge. It is time that modern observers of Spartan society stopped relying on familiar but illogical commentary and used common sense to assess the Spartan agoge.

My novel Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge hypothesizes and portrays an agoge consistent with the above insights. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Messenian War(s) Re-examined

Last week I noted that no event shaped Sparta’s early history more dramatically than the conquest of Messenia. Despite all the uncertainties surrounding it, historians agree that Spartan control of Messenia shaped its society and policy for centuries thereafter.  The conventional account of the Messenian war, however, suggests that Sparta fought two wars, and was victorious in both, but nevertheless experienced a period of severe domestic unrest between the two wars that resulted in the founding of Sparta’s only known colony and in the introduction of the Lycurgan constitution. Periods of intense domestic unrest, however, rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.

The history of modern revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly in a crisis that threatens recent gains.  If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.

What if, following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia – and then got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver on that promise?  What if, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the war to Laconia? (Remember all those legends of Aristomenes raiding Spartan temples and disrupting Spartan festivals?)

Such a situation would have produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new, revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict with organized, well-armed Messenian forces. 

Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.

The paranoid excesses of late classical Sparta (krypteia, mass executions, etc.) followed the Helot Revolt of 465, but they probably took the disproportionate form they did because there was still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. It is more likely that the trauma of a lost war rather than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army made Sparta what it was.

Note: The next two weeks I will be in Lacedaemon and unable to update this blog.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Significance of the Messenian War(s)

Modern histories of Sparta tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without providing a great deal of detail.  The reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the city’s early history), the literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous. Indeed, Cartledge considers Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us only in fragments, the “only” reliable literary source, while pointing out that the ancient historians Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.

Yet, arguably, nothing was more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a highly unusual and unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia.  W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire people resulted in permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict with Messenia.

The facts of conquest which are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years. Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long as the conquest of Troy.  Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.

We also know that in the first quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to Lycurgus. (I know there has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the Spartan constitution, but I find W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan revolution to the period between 700 and 670 cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp. 55-58.)  Furthermore, we know that Sparta’s only colony was established near the turn of the 8th Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.

Conventionally, these facts are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan reforms. The later, however, are usually seen as contemporary with Tyrataios and were, therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a revolt of some kind. Historians have therefore postulated that the allegedly brutally oppressed Messenians suddenly and within just two generations were capable of financing hoards of hoplites and fielding entire hoplite armies.

This taxes my imagination, so next week I will present an alternative theory.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

RELEASE OF "A Heroic King"

The third and final book in the Leonidas Trilogy, "A Heroic King" was released on September 15. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1. 

“A bastard?” the Chairman of the Ephors exclaimed in horror. “You’re saying that the ruling Eurypontid King of Sparta is a bastard?”
“I’m saying more than that,” Leotychidas replied coolly. Leotychidas was a tall, lanky man with the large nose typical of the Eurypontids.  He was the ruling king’s closest male relative, albeit only a second cousin, and he was officially his heir because Demaratus, at 49, had yet to produce a son. Leotychidas continued in an aggressive and self-satisfied tone, “I’m saying he does not have a drop of Herakles’ blood in his veins and has no right to sit upon the Eurypontid throne.”
“This is impossible!” A second ephor protested, no less outraged than the first. “He was born to King Ariston’s queen in the royal palace and immediately acknowledged by his father.  He never attended the agoge, and at his father’s death, almost seven Olympiads ago, he ascended to the throne without question.  He has no brothers. He is the only child King Ariston ever sired.”
“Ariston never sired anyone! He was as sterile as a mule!” Leotychidas sneered. “Have you forgotten he had three wives and the first two, maidens of good stock, gave him no sons, but produced children by their subsequent husbands?”
There was dead silence in the ephorate, the small but venerable building adjacent to the more imposing Council House and backed up against the Temple to Fear.  The five men sitting in the marble, throne-like chairs at the center of the chamber were just ordinary Spartan citizens. They had been elected to a one year term as ephor by the Assembly.  Each man owed his election to a varying combination of a distinguished career in public service, an effective election campaign among his fellow citizens, and the endorsements of influential members of Spartan society. Once elected, however, these ordinary citizens collectively became extremely powerful, which was why by law no one could be elected twice. The duties included receiving and dispatching ambassadors, issuing fines to citizens found guilty of breaking the law, and the dismissal of magistrates or commanders accused of wrong-doing. The ephors also served as advisors to the kings and in extreme cases could bring charges against them. 
The men gathered in this room were prepared for these duties. They were not prepared to hear that one of the kings, who had reigned for a quarter century already, was illegitimate. Yet what Leotychidas said was true: Demaratus’ father had had three wives all of whom had had children by subsequent or previous marriages, but only one of whom had ever given Demaratus a child.
Technarchos, the chairman of the five ephors, was a man respected for his hard-work and common sense.  In the army he had risen to the rank of enomotarch, but was passed over for promotion to company commander.  On attaining full citizenship, however, he had been appointed Deputy Head Master of the public school, the agoge, with responsibility for the 20-year old eirenes.  For twenty years he had fulfilled this demanding position with firmness and fairness, but he was not credited with particular subtlety or wit. Recovering first from his shock, he protested simply, “Demaratus was Ariston’s issue by his third wife.”
“Indeed!” Leotychidas agreed eagerly.  “A woman who had been the wife of Agetus, son of Alcides, and borne him children.  There was no question of her fertility, but she produced only one child in her whole, long marriage to Ariston and that son ― Demaratus ― was born too soon to have been sired by the king.  He was the son of Agetus.”
“That cannot be!” One of the other ephors, a man who had benefited from Demaratus’ patronage, insisted frowning. “Why would Ariston raise up the son of another man as his own?”
“Because he was ashamed to admit his impotence, and because he wanted to deny me my rightful place,” Leotychidas retorted sharply, adding in a more reasonable tone, “You need not take my word for it.  I have found a witness, a man who was ephor the year that Demaratus was born and he can bear witness to the fact that King Ariston knew Demaratus was not his son.”
The ephors looked at one another in astonishment.  It was 49 years since the birth of Demaratus. Since the legal minimum age for election to the office of ephor was thirty-one and ephors were usually men in their forties or fifties, any surviving ephor from the year of Demaratus’ birth would now be close to ninety years of age.  None of the men present were aware that such a man still lived.
Leotychidas opened the door leading directly into the Temple of Fear, and called into the darkened temple. He held the door open while a very decrepit old man, bent with age and clutching the arm of a young helot, entered the chamber.
The old man had so little hair left that he could not plait it from the forehead in the Spartan fashion and it was simply combed back over his scalp until it could be bound into a single, thin braid at the back of his neck.  The skin on his face and neck was splotched with age-spots and sagged upon his fleshless bones.  His eyes were grey with cataracts, and his mouth seemed to cave into his toothless mouth.  He shuffled forward until the helot holding him up came to a halt in front of the five city officials. There he just waited.
Techarchnos cleared his throat and asked politely, as was appropriate when faced with a man of such a venerable age, “Who are you, father? And why are you here?”
“I am Lakrates, son of Paidaretos,” he said in a surprisingly firm voice although his words were slurred somewhat for lack of teeth. “I am almost 100 years old, but I am here to be heard.”
“We are listening, father,” Technarchos assured him.
“Then listen well! I was ephor in the reign of King Ariston. On the very day that Demaratus was born, we five ephors were attending upon King Ariston when a messenger burst in upon us to announce the birth of a child to Ariston’s new queen.  Ariston was most astonished and in front of us he counted on his fingers the months since his marriage and ― with an oath ― declared ‘The child cannot be mine.’”
“But he accepted Demaratus! He brought him to the Elders! He doted on the boy!” The ephor who owed his post to Demaratus’ patronage protested with evident alarm.
“That may be,” the old man admitted pressing his lips together so that they completely disappeared into the cavity of his mouth. “But that does not change what he said,” he added stubbornly, and insisted, “He counted on his fingers and declared Demaratus could not be his child!”
“But why did you and the other ephors keep silent about this?” One of the other ephors asked skeptically. Although he owed Demaratus no particular favors, he was a reasonable man and found it hard to credit that such a significant utterance could simply have gone unnoticed for half a century.
“We did not! We told the Gerousia, but they were displeased. They were all Ariston’s men!” The old man spat out bitterly and his foul breath made the ephors recoil involuntarily, but the old man continued passionately. “They said the Eurypontid king had need of an heir and if the Gods had seen fit to give his queen a healthy son, then a month or two did not make any difference.”
Since a man had to be over sixty to be eligible for election to the Gerousia, members of this body at the time of Demaratus’ birth were all long since dead. No one could prove or disprove the accusation of the old man, but there was no denying that there had been a period when the Gerousia was dominated by clients of King Ariston.  They had been elected when the Agiad King Anaxandridas was still too young to have much influence with the citizens.  Only after they died out was Anaxandridas able to balance out the composition of the Gerousia by getting some his own candidates elected in Assembly.
“I say the Gods have made it perfectly clear that Demaratus was not meant to become king since he too has failed to produce an heir,” Leotychidas took up his appeal. “I, in contrast, have three fine sons. That alone should tell you where the Gods stand in this dispute!”
The ephors looked with varying degrees of alarm and discomfort at their fellow citizen. Although Leotychidas was not without his supporters, he was far from popular and had never distinguished himself either at arms or in other forms of public service.  What he was asking seemed utterly impossible to these five ordinary men, who for more than a quarter century had seen in King Demaratus a descendant of Herakles and representative of the Gods on earth.
The situation was particularly delicate because the ever erratic Agiad King Cleomenes was clearly going mad.  Last year, after a decisive victory over Argos, he had mindlessly slaughtered captives, burned down a sacred wood and ordered the army to withdraw rather than destroy the city of Argos once and for all. Since no one trusted Cleomenes any more, Demaratus was effectively Sparta’s only king. To suggest that he was not rightfully king, effectively made Sparta kingless ― at least until the issue could be resolved one way or another. Without a king to command it, Sparta’s army could not take the field.
The more he thought about the implications, the more Technarchos felt as if his head was spinning. He was a man with an acute appreciation of his own limitations, and he recognized that this dilemma was beyond him. He resolved to speak privately with the one member of either royal family who had over time demonstrated strength of character and leadership capabilities, Leonidas. Out loud, he declared, “We must consult with the Gerousia.”
Leotychidas smiled a crooked, sinister smile and shrugged, as he replied. “But of course. Consult the Gerousia.  But I am the rightful Eurypontid king and when I have been recognized, I will remember who sided with me and who tried to stand in my way ― even after the truth had been revealed.”

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Importance of Leonidas

The final book in my trilogy on the life and death of Leonidas is now just one week away from publication, causing me to reflect on the purpose of the project. Why did I write and why should anyone read a biography, in novel form or otherwise, of King Leonidas of Sparta? In my earlier entries about Leonidas I have sketched many of his unique characteristics and emphasized his importance, often under-estimated, in Spartan history. But except for scholars of ancient history, who cares?

As a historian, of course, I think history matters because of what it teaches us about human nature. Furthermore, history shapes and influences us – even when we don’t know it. While ancient Sparta probably seems obscure and irrelevant to many modern readers, anyone familiar with ancient sources rapidly recognizes that ancient Greece was remarkably “modern.” Accounts of debates, intrigues and scandals in ancient Athens sound astonishingly similar to what goes on in modern legislatures. The fact that the monuments we see on the Acropolis today were paid for by Athens “Allies” should have been a warning to the EU….

As for Sparta, it was the role of women in Sparta that first awoke my interest  and preference — for Sparta, but I soon realized that Sparta shared far more with modern Western society than just the treatment of women. For example, Sparta was the only ancient Greek city to introduce public education for all future citizens, just as we have in Western countries today. Sparta sought to ensure a minimum standard of living for all citizens by giving each citizen an estate large enough to support him and his family, rather the same way that welfare payments and other forms of subsidies for the poor are intended to prevent abject poverty in modern Social Democracies. Despite its overwhelming military might, Sparta had only one vote in the defensive alliance it founded and headed   a situation comparable to that of the U.S. in NATO today.  Spartan artistic and architectural style was minimalist and functional rather than highly decorative    something evocative of Scandinavian design today. All these factors convinced me that writing about Sparta would underline the degree to which humans have shared values across millennia.

But Leonidas is more than just a Spartan  even if he is arguably the quintessential Spartan.  And Leonidas was more than a Spartan king — even if he is Sparta’s most famous king.  Leonidas is important not as a historical personality but as a moral figure.  Leonidas fascinates us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom.

Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive   not an aggressive   battle.  Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him.  Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.

Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta or Leonidas’ historical role, were the factors that made his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.

The five years of my life spent researching and writing about Leonidas have been well spent. They have opened my eyes about many aspects of human nature and enriched my understanding of the human condition. And most of all, they have inspired me to keep writing and keep searching for my own destiny.