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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leonidas in Love

Although Helen, the ultimate femme fatale, was undoubtedly a child of Sparta, few people nowadays think of love when they think of Sparta. Certainly, Spartan art lacks the plethora of explicitly erotic art that is found elsewhere in Greece. Yet the historical record suggests that love – in contrast to lust – was indeed a feature of Spartan society. Herodotus, for example, explicitly states that King Anaxandridas refused to divorce his apparently barren wife out of affection for her, and only reluctantly agreed to take a second wife. Likewise, Spartan sculpture has a tradition of showing man and wife side-by-side in harmony and near equality (and strongly reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, by the way). Last but not least, Spartan law was the least misogynous among the ancient Greek city-states, and so it was the city-state in which women were most likely to be loved rather than despised.

Before this general background we have two historical figures, uncle and niece, man and wife, Leonidas and Gorgo. What can we glean about them from the historical record? Is there any indication of what their relationship might have been?

While we know that Leonidas was Gorgo’s uncle, we do not know when either was born and so do not know the age difference between them. Herodotus states that Leonidas was born only “shortly” after his brother Doreius, in which case he would have been roughly 60 years old at Thermopylae. Likewise, according to Herodotus, Gorgo was only about eight years old in 500, which would have made her 28 when Leonidas died at Thermopylae, or 32 years younger than he. Such an age difference would have been unusual in Sparta, and there are several reasons why I believe this is unlikely. First, Leonidas’ performance at Thermopylae in the forefront of the most bitterly fought phalanx battles of history is improbable for a man of sixty. Hoplite fighting was grueling even if it lasted only a few hours on a single day. Second, it would mean Leonidas had been nearly 50 when he married, again something that violated Spartan law and custom. Finally, it would mean that Cleomenes’ only child had not been born to him until he was over thirty, something which was also unlikely for a ruling king.

There are ways of explaining this age difference, of course. Gorgo might have been Leonidas' second wife, but then he would also have to have been childless by this earlier wife or his son by Gorgo would not have been his heir. Likewise, Gorgo might not have had elder siblings, even brothers, who died young.

Nevertheless, I believe is more likely that Leonidas was not much more than 45 at Thermopylae, 45 being the age at which Spartan reservists were no longer called-up for front-line service. Likewise, there is likely that Herodotus underestimated Gorgo’s age in his depiction of her encounter with Aristagoras either intentionally (in order to discredit Cleomenes), or more probably because he was unaware that Spartan girls did not marry until their late teens. Since in the rest of Greece a girl was married as soon as possible after her first period, any girl still in her father’s home was per definition a “child.” In Sparta, in contrast, teenage girls remained in their father's home and did not marry until they were between 18 and 20.  It is far more likely that Gorgo was a teenager rather than a small child in 500 BC. This would mean that "only" 15 years or so separated Leonidas from Gorgo.

While less unusual than a 32 year age difference, the age gap is still enough to mean that Leonidas would already have been in school by the time Gorgo was born, and make it unlikely that they spent much time together as children. The relationship would have been further complicated by the fact that Cleomenes was the son of Anaxandridas’ second wife, while Leonidas the son of his first. Leonidas’ full brother Doreius refused to serve Cleomenes and twice led expeditions abroad to set up colonies. While Leonidas appears to have been singularly loyal to Cleomenes, there is no indication that he was particularly favored or close to Cleomenes – except the marriage itself.

The fact that Leonidas was, after the departure of Doreius, Cleomenes’ heir apparent provides the most logical explanation of Leonidas’ marriage to Gorgo. Gorgo clearly presented the Sparta state with a problem since the most important duty of Sparta’s kings was to lead her hoplite army – something no woman, not even a Spartan woman, could do. This does not, however, mean that the throne could not be transferred – like other property – from an heiress to her husband or son. Sparta’s inheritance laws were notoriously woman-friendly, allowing for heiress to inherit. Therefore, the Spartans must have worried that any man who married Gorgo would claim the Agiad throne, if not for himself then for his sons by Gorgo. By marrying Gorgo to his half-brother and closest male relative, Cleomenes avoided any potential conflict between rival climants to the throne.

In short, the marriage of Gorgo and Leonidas was almost certainly dynastic. As such, it need not have involved any kind of inclination or affection on either side. But the case is not that simple.

First, as the closest male relative of Cleomenes, Leonidas would have been well positioned to claim the throne without taking Gorgo to wife, if he had found the marriage objectionable. Certainly, if he were the kind of man, as some historians have claimed, who was capable of committing fratricide and regicide to lay claim to the throne in 480 (see my blog entry "Leonidas the Murderer?"), than he need not have gone to the trouble of marrying Cleomenes’ daughter. He would have found ways of disposing of her as well as her father.

Second, while Spartan law did not give women any official say over their husbands, it hardly seems likely that Gorgo, who went down in history as outspoken even in matters that did not directly concern her, was going to meekly accept a man she did not want. In short, while there is no evidence of strong mutual attraction, there is good reason to suspect that both parties to the marriage found it acceptable.

There are two incidents in the historical record, however, that hint at something more than a marriage of convenience. First, is the famous scene in which Gorgo deciphers the significance of the apparently blank writing tablets sent by Demaratus. The way the scene is written, it is clear that Demaratus has sent a message to the Spartan state – not to Leonidas personally. But “no one” can figure out what the blank tablets meant until Gorgo suggests scraping the wax off them. The importance of this scene is two-fold. First, it is further evidence of Gorgo’s cleverness, but secondly, it shows that Gorgo was present when affairs of state were being discussed. A message to Sparta would most likely have been sent to the ephors or the Gerusia. If Gorgo was present when either of these bodies were meeting, it could only have been because Leonidas was willing to let her be present – a clear sign of respect.

And Gorgo returned the compliment. When asked by an Athenian woman why Spartan women were the only women in the world who “ruled their men,” Gorgo allegedly said it was because Spartans were the only women "who gave birth to men." Her classically Laconic answer went straight to the heart of the matter, accurately diagnosing the low status of women elsewhere in the Greek world as the product of misogyny. Only Spartan men, Gorgo implied, were man enough not to be intimidated by strong, out-spoken women. That is not the answer of a woman, who thinks little of her own husband.

This second incident is revealing for another reason as well. Since most Greek women were confined to the back of their own houses, did not take part in the dinner parties hosted by their own husbands, and only set foot outside for weddings, funerals and childbirth, it is hardly likely that Gorgo’s Attican interrogator was outside of her own four walls, much less outside her city when the exchange took place. The woman who asked Gorgo about the strange power of Spartan woman was in her own environment; Gorgo was the visitor. That means that Leonidas took Gorgo with him when he travelled abroad. That in turn suggests a far closer relationship than a conventional marriage.

Unfortunately, the only exchange between Leonidas and Gorgo that has been passed down to us, it is little more than ideological drivel. Allegedly, Gorgo asked Leonidas for his “instructions” or “orders” as he marched away to his death and allegedly he told Gorgo to do her eugenic duty to “marry a good man and have good children.” This text-book exchange is so stereotypical that it is very probably spurious, intended to give greater credence to the ideology contained by putting it into the mouths of heroes centuries after both Leonidas and Gorgo were dead.

In summary, Leonidas was the son of a man who defied the ephors for love of his mother. He married voluntarily a young woman, who had already established a reputation for being out-spoken and politically acute. He included her in contexts where affairs of state were being handled. He travelled with her abroad. He had at least one child with her. And he may have explicitly urged her to marry again and found a new family after his own death. A love story? Not necessarily, but it has the makings of one….

Read the Leonidas Trilogy, particularly Book II, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer, and Book III Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King for a more detailed portrayal of my interpretation of the relationship between Leonidas and Gorgo.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spartan Artists -- Not a Contradiction in Terms

Spartiates were allegedly only soldiers, but as I pointed out in my article “Choral Masters to Quartermasters” Spartan society wasn’t quite as simple as it is often made out to be. In fact, there is considerable evidence that Spartiates engaged in other activities besides soldiering, particularly in the archaic period.

One of these was sport, of course, and numerous Lacedaemonian victory dedications at the pan-hellenic sites attest to this fact. Stephen Hodkinson in his essay "An Agonistic Culture?" in Sparta: New Perspectives (Hodkinson, Stephen and Anton Powell, eds, Duckworth, 1999) records over 62 known Olympic victories by Spartans in the period from 720 - 304 BC. Olympia was only one of four sacred, pan-Hellenic games; there were also games held regularly at Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth and Nemea. In order to compete abroad, Spartan athletes would have had to train, and compete, at home first.

But sport helped maintain physical fitness and so could be considered training for soldiering. The evidence of Spartiate sculptors is therefore more surprising and intriguing.

According to Conrad Stibbe in his excellent book Das Andere Sparta no less than nine Lacedaemonian artists are known to have worked in Olympia alone. While the majority of these artists are described as Lacedaemonian, in two cases, Syadras and Chartas, the artists are explicitly referred to as Spartiate. While it is possible these were the only exceptions in Spartan history, it is more likely that they are the tip of the iceberg: the only surviving record over two and a half millennia of other nameless Spartiate artists.

Strikingly, Stibbe notes that the known Lacedaemonian artists worked for other states as well as Lacedaemon. That means they were recognized as outstanding artists and worked professionally on commission, not just as amateur artists adorning their own city’s monuments. Four of the nine were said to be students of a famous Cretan sculptor, and several of them engaged apprentices from other cities. Clearly, artistic work at Olympia was “international” not parochial.

Stibbe also notes that the Lacedaemonian sculptors worked not only in stone but in wood, ivory, gold, and bronze. Ivory and gold were used predominantly to decorate wood and therefore even if fragments of ivory and gold are found it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the total work of art. As so often when trying to understand Sparta and Spartan society, we are hampered by a paucity of archeological evidence that may reflect an absence of original material, destruction of the archeological record in earthquakes and flooding, or simply inadequate archeological investigation. Troy, after all, was considered mythical or fictional for almost two thousand years, unitl one amateur fanatic revolutionized our understanding of the Mycenaean period by insisting on digging in a spot that was not previously investigated. The site of Sparta itself may have been investigated, but much of Lacedaemon has never been systematically subjected to serious archeological study and new discoveries in Sparta’s “outlying” cities and temples may yet yield significant new finds.

An example of this kind of discovery is a particularly beautiful stone sculpture found on Samos that appears to be of Lacedaemonian origin. It portrays a hoplite with long braids (as worn at this time exclusively in Sparta) and with breast-spirals on the breastplate (also typical of Laconian hoplites in art). Although not yet 100% confirmed, the marble also appears to be Laconian. If this statute was indeed Lacedaemonian, it would represent a significant discovery documenting more of Sparta’s almost forgotten artistic golden age.

Meanwhile, we should not ignore the plethora of smaller art objects from bronze vessels and jewellery to statuettes and figurines found at Spartan sanctuaries which record a thriving industry for domestic craftsmanship if not high art. These are well catelogued by Reinhard Foertsch in his article "Spartan Art: It's Many Deaths," in Sparta in Laconia: Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium, Dec. 1995 (Cavanagh, WG and S.E.C. Walker, eds.) The same publication contains an excellent article by Maria Pipili, "Archaic Laconian Vase-Painting," which highlights the sophistication and high quality of 6th Century Laconian pottery.

Altogether, archeological research suggests that art was more common and more valued in Sparta than is widely acknowledged today. Spartiates certainly bought works of art and dedicated art objects at their sanctuaries. The extent to which they engaged in production of art themselves will never be known but, as noted above with respect to the two sculptors, at least in some cases Spartans were professional artists.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

“Memorial” by Alice Oswald – A Review

"Memorial" is a poem based on the Iliad in which the prize winning English poet Alice Oswald seeks to capture the spirit more than the narrative of the ancient work in modern language. Or, as Alice Oswald words it in her introduction: it is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” This is an audacious task, to say the least, and hence the most remarkable thing about Oswald’s work is that it succeeds remarkably well.

The Iliad is a lengthy, complex work in which Gods, heroes and mere mortals interact on a grand canvas that stretches from the fertile valley of the Eurytus across the broad Aegean to the towering walls of Troy. The names of the principal protagonists have echoed down the centuries: Achilles and Hector, Helen and Paris, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Ulysses, and the rest. The Iliad, for most of us, stands for the story of Helen’s abduction (whether voluntary or not), and the war that ensued, ending in the utter destruction of a great city. The Iliad is about ambition, hubris, pride, lust, jealousy, cowardice, betrayal, conjugal and fraternal love, heterosexual and homosexual love, vengeance, grief – and just about any other human emotion that I may have overlooked.

Oswald’s poem, in contrast, is just 70 sparse – not to say laconic - pages. Nor does it attempt to reconstruct a story that Oswald (like Homer himself) expects her readers to already know. The charm of “Memorial” is that reminds us that the Iliad itself was intended as a verbal memorial to the dead. Oswald draws the reader’s attention to the Greek tradition of “lament poetry.” This was burial ritual of the ancient world in which the mourners remembered the dead in verse composed specifically to record the deeds of the deceased. The Iliad is littered with the laments for individual combatants.

Oswald’s poem makes us stop and consider these men – Protesilaus, Echepolus, Elephenor, Simoisius. Never heard of them? That is exactly the point. These are men, mortals, not the demigods, the kings, the heroes. Yet they too gave their lives. Oswald’s poem reminds us of them.

Oswald’s images are brutal because she has translated the original, which was infamous for its reality. Thus, “Diores...struck by a flying flint, died in a puddle of his own guts, slammed down into the mud he lies, with his arms stretched out to his friends….” Or: “Pherecles…died on his knees screaming. Meriones speared him in the buttock and the point pierced him in the bladder.”

Yet this poem is anything but an orgy of blood and guts. On the contrary, rather than glorifying the violence and brutality, it makes it all the more horrible by directing it at individuals that are – sometimes with only the barest outline or a mere brush-stroke in words -- given individuality and humanity. Thus Pherecles was “brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen,” while Pylaemenes had a heart “made of coarse cloth and his manners were loose like old sacking.” Harpalion was “not quite ready for life, not quite solid, always shifting from foot to foot, with his eyes sliding everywhere in fear.” Yet another woman’s son “was the tall one, the conscientious one, who stayed out late pruning his father’s fig trees.” Or simply: “Koiranus…of Crete was a quiet man, a light to his loved ones.”

And their families too are brought to life with vivid urgency: “The priest to Hephaestus, hot-faced from staring at flames, prayed every morning the same prayer, “Please God respect my status, protect my sons Phegeus and Idaeus, calm down their horses, lift them out of the fight…Hephaestus heard him, but he couldn’t hold those bold boys back, riding over the battlefield too fast they met a flying spear….” Or: Laothoe, one of Priam’s wives, never saw her son again. He was washed away. Now she can’t look at the sea. She can’t think about the bits unburied being eaten by fishes.”

Yet even this might have been too much blood, guts and grieving, if Oswald had not interspersed her laments with sublime similes that are so evocative they are breath-taking.

Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains,
The thud of water losing consciousness
When it falls down from the high places….


Like fawns running over a field
Suddenly give up and stand
Puzzled in their heavy coats


Like the blue flower of the sea
Being bruised by the wind
Like when the rain-wind
Bullies the warm wind
Battering the great soft sunlit clouds
Deep scoops of wind
Work the sea into a wave
And the foam follows wandering gusts
A thousand feet high

Other images, however, evoke more than nature itself. Like a flash of lightning, they briefly illuminate scenes from the age of Homer, or offer vignettes of everyday life in the age of Achilles.

For example:

Like a good axe in good hands
Finds out the secret of wood and splits it open

Like two mules on a shaly path in the mountains
Carrying a huge roof truss or the beam of a boat
Go on mile after mile giving it their willingness
Until the effort breaks their strength

Like a goatherd stands on a rock
And sees a cloud blowing towards him
A black block of rain coming closer over the sea
Pushing a ripple of wind inland
He shivers and drives his flocks into a cave for shelter.
Memorial is a poem, not an epic poem, novel, play or history. Its magic lies in its ability to evoke an image and an emotion with the minimal use of words. As such, it is both laconic and laconian. I recommend it.

Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, by Alice Oswald, faber and faber, London, 2011.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Secrets of Sparta's Syssitia

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meals. These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Although it was common, popular and indeed considered a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens as well, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship; failure to be accepted or failure to pay mess fees could cost a man his citizenship.

The origins of this peculiar tradition are controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different ages dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to – and incidentally more successful at – undermining family structures and influence.

The problem with the comparison to 20th Century totalitarian states is two-fold. First, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these modern anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. They sought to undermine the family because families are inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stresses the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta in his essay. If Sparta was essentially conservative, then no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.

The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is not a particularly good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but most men today nevertheless eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.

I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, to the disappointment of visiting foreigners, syssitia were notorious for the absence of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the traditional Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. In short, attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic destruction of family and individuality reveal an alarming lack of objectivity.

A more appropriate parallel to the modern world might be membership in fraternities. Applicants to syssitia, as to fraternities, had to be accepted by existing members. This meant that far from being uniform, Spartan syssitia had different characters. Some syssitia would have been more intellectual than others, some more musical, some more conservative, and others outright radical. Some syssitia might have had close affiliations to one or the other royal house, and every Spartan with ambition would have expected and relied on support from his “fraternity brothers” throughout his life. 

Spartan syssitia also shared some characteristics of political associations. We know that Spartans scorned the Athenian custom of men hanging around in the agora discussing public affairs. Instead, Spartan men were supposed to discuss affairs of state behind the closed doors of their syssitia where, presumably, no helots, perioikoi or foreigners could hear them. While this may seem indicative of a paranoid or secretive society, it may in fact have been intended to encourage men to speak up more freely and more candidly that was possible in public. There are many people, after all, who shy away from speaking in a crowd or among strangers, yet nevertheless have opinions worth hearing. The syssitia would have provided a context in which such men could debate issues of importance and made their opinions heard.

Of course, to the extent that members of a syssitia were similar in their interests and inclinations and familiar with one another since childhood, the character of a syssitia may have the closest parallel in the modern world to the German “stammtisch” – that table in the local pub at which a group of men meets night after night to discuss everything from football to fashion and politics to pop-culture. Every “stammtisch” has its own clientele, its own group dynamics, and its own character – and they all get turned out at closing bell and sent home to their families, just as in Sparta.