Find Out More

Find out more about Helena P. Schrader's Sparta novels at:

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.


  1. Hi,Helena. Great text and good points you are trying to make.

    Spartans certainly can't be put into any modern mold, or stereotype. Yes, they could be strong, tough and frightening and sing and aprreciate art in all forms at the same time.

    That is a luxury of living in a BC, and not modern time. We tend to look at things so bluntly, so black and white.It is true that chivalry is a long gone ideal..

    I am not sure that they (Spartiates) actually made those pieces of art (Vix crater being a superb example of late Archaic Spartan art)...It was rather periokoi field of work. It would be interesting to test those sources who claim artists were Spartiates.

    But nonetheless art was certainly held high there,as everywhere in Greek world. There is such beautifull and recognizable Spartan-Lakonian style of black figure,which I like the most,alongside Corinthian...not every town or city had it's own style you know. Sparta had to be a serious artistic centre, especially because of their close connections with Crete.

    We known though they certainly were literate, from those inscriptions in Olympia, on dedicated items..they were probably made by athletes themselves (especially since they are somewhat crude in form). So you are definitely right, Spartans were not dumb brutes, but very smart and spohisticated - brutes.

    I will only slightly dissagree with sport being extra curricular activity..or Games being the activity which helped them maintain physicall fitness in Sparta. As today.If that was what you were trying to imply in the first place.Maybe I missunderstood.

    Sport did not exist in meaning it has today,as an extra activity..It was rather a direct product of military training which itself included all those disciplines in which Greeks competed in official Games. All Pahnellenic games had disciplines closely connected and inspired by old funeral games which were inspired by war skills.

    Yes. All cities had their athletes who trained especially for it,and had to proove they trained for many monts before Olympic games. They were proffesional athletes in every sense of the word. But Spartans had soldiers who had their primary duty and as an extra participated in the Games, probably having some extra training for the specific discipline,but not as much as others. (same as SAS for example, or GSG9 participating in the games which consist out of the obstacle course, long march and shooting range - alongside amateurs from civilian population who practice those courses in between the jobs, or Bear Grills participating in Survivor for example ;) ) ..Spartans were so good and dominated Olympics not because their athletes had better trainers or were more dedicated to Olympic games, but because they all did those sprints,wrestling and jumps in daily bases, for decades. So few of them interested in participating had much easier job than farmers and fishermen from other towns, like GSG9 member would have on a civilian obstacle course. (I am Orthodox and we swim for the Holy cross in the winter, in the river. In most cases members of special police units win, when they don't win army members do, and rarely civilians although we all participate together.that is the parallel).

  2. So Spartans weren't good soldiers because they did sports, but were good at sports because they were superbly trained soldiers. Although sport and war skill was one and the same back then. Same as if today we would have Olympic games in obstacle course, CQB, rappel down the helicopter, hostage takedown, shooting range and assembling weapons...Guess who would win?

    Spartans dominated Olympic and Pythian games, at least until Persian wars..(as you know their fall started immediately after Persian wars, and Olympic games are the strongest indication of that...). That domination was in sprint aka stadion, wrestling and pentathlon, as well as the boys competition (also in disciplines of strength). Perfect parallel with agoge and heavy hoplite warfare Spartans were best at (again until Peloponnesian wars when light tactic prevailed)which relied almost entirely on pure strength and endurance in strength - not endurance, speed, agility etc.

    Spartans did not win in light competitions, did not run for several stadions etc...They were heavyweight fighters, Tysons, not that agile like Asian fighters, but fast enough like wrestlers.

    This man competed in 120+ kg class, and was unbeatable.His name is Alexander Karelin and he is what I have in mind when talking about Spartans (since we know ancient games did not have weight cathegories,and wrestling is that kind of a sport,lighter wrestler can not prevail over ,much,heavier..Spartan wrestlers were with Crotonian the best)

    Crotonians had good Olympic athletes, and their best wrestler was their best athlete too.Milon. Their athletes dissapeared from the list immediately after their defeat from Locri and Regnum in 480 BC, same year in which Croton sent it's force to aid mainland Greeks against Persians...See the parallel with Sparta, how much can be learned from Olympic victors.

    Spartans would be strange to modern men, they would be considered sick or demented fanatics, beasts, they would have that insane look Karelin has, they would eat their enemy with the look, after all they lived in a brutal time, and were the epitome of merciless efficiency. They were feared back then and would be today, and with good reason, they would implement all that skill, more than two decades of training and all that muscle and expensive government issued equipment..into destroying the enemy.

    That kind of reputation made us demonize them today, because we need to fit everything into present perspective...and we fail to realize Alexander Karelin is not the meanest man in the world, as often stated, but actually really nice and pleasant guy, and Spartans were brutal warriors in battlefield but sophisticated souls out of it, they admired art, music, poetry, acting, history and who knows what else that we will never know.

    I am proud to say I spent all my adult life in the gym, served compulsory military service, worked as a bouncer, bodyguard and had a lifelong dream of becoming Gendarmerie member which I could, if I wasn't blessed with a love of my life and a son in that period. But I also enjoy reading, I paint from early age and play piano, even though I have trouble reaching my back in the shower,or scratching my shoulder (180cm, 115kg) and have scars the size of a full size pencil..I enjoy art.And that was long before I knew that much about Spartans.
    And I bet they were much more tougher than me.and much more sophisticated at the same time.