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Saturday, June 23, 2012

New Review of "The Olympic Charioteer"

“JPS” (not otherwise identified) published the following review of The Olympic Charioteer on April 16 of this year:

After "Are they singing in Sparta", this is Helena Schraeder's second novel on Sparta. This one takes place around 550 BC, during the time of one of the great-grandsons of Agesandros (the hero of the first novel). This great-grandson is the Olympic Charioteer. After having won once for Sparta, he is captured and enslaved by Tegea following a Spartan defeat (which is historical) and, contrary to the other captives, he is believed to be dead and not ransomed. I'll stop there, to avoid any spoilers.

The book has a lot going for it.

One strong point is to depict the live of slaves in Greek cities and contrast their status with that of the Spartan helots. This is part of the author's thesis to show that, at the time, Sparta had the most advanced political regime and society in Greece whereas other cities were ruled by either aristocracies or tyrants, including Athens.

Another point is to show the political life and internal conflicts that could lead to civil war (stasis) within the various cities. Despite its regime, Sparta could also be subject to this, especially if the two kings chose opposite camps.

A third point is to avoid presenting Sparta as the invincible city, which it was not, and to show the dilemma that Spartan Kings, Ephors and members of the Gerousia (the Council of 28 elders plus the two kings) had to face, and the choice that Sparta made. The alternative was to attack and conquer Tegea and its territory, and perhaps even Argos afterwards, just as Sparta had done with Messenia about a century earlier, or to seek alliance through treaties with its neighbors. Even if victorious, Sparta would have had to spread its limited armed forces (only 6000 full citizen hoplites although its lands, according to Aristotle, were sufficient to have a force five times larger than that) thinly, making it even more vulnerable to attacks and rebellions. Sparta chose to ally itself with Tegea, its northern neighbor. This pact of non-agression was the beginning of the Peloponnesian League of free city-states that Sparta dominated and lead, and which excluded Argos, which remained its arch-enemy.

There are a few little issues, however. Despite the author's research and knowledge of the subject, she sometimes get a bit carried away as when she has one character mentioning Alexandria as a possible destination for slaves to be sold. Alexandria, of course, did not exist in 550 BC and was founded by Alexander the Great more than two centuries later. Another little problem, at times, is that the story, which, of course, has a happy ending, seems a little bit too good to be true and some of the characters feel a little bit caricatured: the hero is very, very nice and the villains are, of course, perfectly awful, whether those in Tegea or the Corinthian chariot owner.

Nevertheless, this was a superb read which I thoroughly enjoyed, started and finished over the week-end. It is well worth four stars, although perhaps not five, given the little issues mentioned above.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Leonidas, the Reformer King

Most historians confine their commentary on Leonidas to his appearance and departure from the scene of history.  His reign was, after all, quite short (ten years) and there were no known changes to Spartan territory or law, no works of art or monuments, not even any natural disasters, that can be dated specifically to the reign of Leonidas.  It is therefore presumptuous of me to label Leonidas a “reformer king.” I know that.

Now that I have your attention….

Looking at Spartan history from the Messenian War(s) to Sparta’s dismal and ignominious end under Rome, the reign of Leonidas represents in many ways a turning point.  In crude terms, the archaic age extended from the mid-eight century to end of the 6th century  BC. The classical age followed. Thus Leonidas’ reign fell at the transition.

In Sparta, it is exactly that transition that represents a particularly sharp and significant break in Sparta’s development.  The emergence of Sparta as a distinct city-state coincides with the dawn of the archaic period. In this period, the Messenian War(s) sparked unrest that led the Spartans to introduce a unique set of laws. Likewise, Sparta’s most admired statesmen in the ancient world, Lycurgus and Chilon, both lived in the archaic period. While many doubt that Lycurgus was a real person and prefer to see him as a mere legend, Chilon was very certainly real, one of the ancient world’s seven “wise men.”

Archaic Sparta saw not only the establishment of this new, revolutionary form of government (arguably the first democracy in history), but also a significant flourishing of the arts and trade. Sparta’s most significant monuments (e.g. the Menelaion, the Temple of the Bronzehouse Athena, Kastor's Tomb, the Amyklaion, the royal palaces, the Canopy, just to name a few) were constructed in the archaic period. Sparta’s most famous poets – Tyrtaios, Alkman – lived and worked in the archaic age. Sparta also produced significant works of art and export quality products. (See my entry: Spartan Artists: Not a Contradiction in Terms).

Sparta in the classical period in contrast is characterized by artistic stagnation and such a dramatic end to Sparta’s competitiveness in trade and manufacturing that those who study only classical and Hellenistic Sparta are completely unaware of Sparta’s impressive earlier accomplishments. Indeed, based on descriptions of the Spartan state and constitution written at the end of the fifth century and later, Sparta appears to have become a city-state that disdained luxury and by inference art itself. In short, Spartan society underwent a radical, indeed revolutionary, change in the mid-fifth century BC, immediately following Leonidas' death.

The fact that Leonidas was the last of the archaic kings not just in terms of timing, but in terms of policy is demonstrated by the fact that he took an active interest in world affairs and was elected to lead an international coalition of forces. (See: Leonidas the Diplomat) This fits in well with Sparta's archaic reputation for opposing tyrants and the creation of the Peloponnesian League in the second half of the sixth century. In short, Leonidas' interest in world affairs and his willingness to compromise rather than rely upon brute force were a continuation of the policies of his father and half brother.

Even more significant is the possibility that Leonidas’ domestic policies were tolerant and liberal. We know that in 479, only a year after his death and before his successors could make any significant changes to Spartan policy, the Spartans were able to deploy thirty-five thousand helot auxiliaries outside of Lacedaemon. This suggests widespread support for the Spartan state among the helot population. (The hypothesis that the Spartans took thirty-five thousand rebellious, hate-filled, and untrustworthy armed helots with them, when marching out to face the undefeated Persian army, is ludicrous. Such armed and rebellious helots would have posed an even greater threat to the Spartiates than the Persians themselves!) In addition, in 480 BC Sparta had a fleet of twenty triremes, requiring almost three thousand five hundred helot oarsmen. That is almost forty thousand helots so loyal to Sparta that the Spartiate elite could -- literally -- entrust their very existence to them. Leonidas, if not his predecessors, must have done something to win that loyalty.

Yet little over a decade later, the only recorded helot revolt against Sparta erupted. This is highly significant because we know that revolutions do not occur when people are most oppressed, but rather when rising living standards decline sharply and rising political expectations are abruptly disappointed.

This clearly suggests that in the late archaic period, Lacedaemon's helots enjoyed a slow but steady increase in living standards and political rights. In the post-Leonidas era, however, helot hopes and expectations were bitterly disappointed, leading to the explosive situation that culminated in the helot revolt of 465 BC.

Taken together, the artistic flourishing, international and diplomatic successes and helot loyalty, paint a picture of Leonidas' reign that tells us more about King Leonidas than his death at Thermopylae.  While it may be impossible to date the artistic achievements to Leonidas precisely, certainly his role in the anti-Persian coalition and the demonstrable loyalty of the helot population in 479 are a tribute to Leonidas personally and specifically.

Could Sparta’s archaic golden age have continued if Leonidas and his closest companions had not died at Thermopylae? Probably not indefinitely. Athens was on the rise; conflict was almost inevitable. Yet there is little doubt that the helot revolt of 465 BC traumatized Spartan society and set it on a course toward brutal internal repression. The revolt caused Sparta to create despicable institutions such as the kryptea and to commit acts of brutality such as the “disappearance” of thousands of helots who had been led to expect reward. In addition, the helot revolt led to mistrust of Athens and increasingly rabid xenophobia. At least some of the might have been avoided had Leonidas remained at Sparta's helm.

It is not too far-fetched to hypothesize that had Leonidas survived longer, he would have continued the enlightened policies of the archaic kings, who had lived in harmony with the helot population for well over a century. Certainly if Leonidas had lived longer, neither Pausanias nor Leotychidas would have been given a chance to turn Sparta’s allies into enemies. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Go Tell the Spartans....

Herodotus refers to three separate monuments erected before his time to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. There was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. There was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas,” and a special monument erected by the Spartans with a dedication that in one common translation ran: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, in obedience to the laws, we lie.”

This simple epitaph has, I believe, been the source of much confusion about Sparta down the ages. It is widely interpreted to mean that the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae had no option of retreating. Allegedly, these men lay buried in the Pass at Thermopylae, so far from home, because Sparta’s “laws” forbade retreat regardless of the odds or the certainty of death.

But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both surrendered and retreated in a variety of other engagements over the centuries. The Spartans didn’t seem to think there was a “law” against retreat even under far less threatening and less hopeless situations than that presented to Leonidas at Thermopylae. Are we to believe Leonidas and his 300 were the only Spartans who lived and died by Sparta’s laws? Or could there be another explanation of the epitaph?

 The answer, I believe, can be found in the fact that there were, in fact, two Spartan monuments: the one to Leonidas and the one to the other Spartiates. If we separate the two, then we see the glimmer of an answer because it suggests that the “law” that the 300 obeyed may not have applied to Leonidas at all.

Leonidas had an option. Leonidas could have decided to pull-out of the Pass as soon as it became indefensible. Leonidas would not have broken any “law” if he had done so, because there was no law that required Spartans to “fight until death rather than retreat one step.”

But there was a law that required obedience to Sparta’s kings as long as they were beyond the borders of Lacedaemon in command of Sparta’s armies. This law is documented and was widely respected.  Sparta’s kings could be charged, tried and exiled once they were at home, but not during war, not abroad. As long as they were abroad on campaign, their troops were bound to obey them, and for the most part did. 

What this means is that once Leonidas decided to stay and die – as he no doubt believed was his destiny based on the oracle from Delphi – his body guard had no option but to stay with him. There is anecdotal evidence recorded by Plutarch that Leonidas tried to save some of his companions by asking them to deliver dispatches, but the “older men” saw through him and refused. This is consistent with a king determined to face his destiny, but distressed by the knowledge that his decision will drag three hundred of Sparta’s finest with him.

The erection of two separate monuments and the epitaph makes sense in this context as well. Leonidas was the lion, who decided to go down fighting defiantly rather than live to fight a second day. After he had made that courageous decision, however, his bodyguard had no choice and for them, therefore, they lay buried in a foreign pass not as particular heroes but simply “in obedience to the laws.” 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sparta's Self Confident Citizens

The Spartan Assembly is often portrayed as a body of dumb, possibly illiterate, automatons, a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Kings, Gerousia and ephors.  This view of the Spartan Assembly is based on constitutional provisions that appear to have restricted debate, the absence of secret ballots, and the assumption that Sparta’s notoriously obedient soldiers would “take orders” in the Assembly just as they did on the battlefield. 

However, as any officer can tell you, the best soldiers are not automatons who wait for orders, but thinking, self-confident men who take the initiative and act without – or even against – orders if necessary.  Furthermore, the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea is a dramatic case in point demonstrating that Spartans didn’t always obey orders – not even on the battlefield.  It further highlights the fact that commanders in the Spartan army did not command obedience:  Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Last but not least, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out act as advisors to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.

Second, the Assembly had real powers, officially more than the kings.  The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia whenever vacancies occurred due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation.  The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions such as Pausanius and Phoebidas.  Thus, despite the inability to introduce legislation and the public nature of the vote, the Spartan Assembly did exercise real power.

Most important, however, the Spartan Assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite is unlikely to have been docile. The men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world rose through the ranks of the army – and all had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Even if some citizens were indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there would have been ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority.  Certainly the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy as the example of the Assembly (“the Spartans” – not the ephors or Gerousia) throwing the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well demonstrates.

What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders, but self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment.  Sparta’s citizens were not docile or mindless pawns, but thinking and responsible citizens – every bit as confident that their voice in politics mattered as were the citizens of Athens.  The differences between Athenian and Spartan democracy were many, and both were imperfect from the modern standpoint, but the Spartan citizen’s individual status within his polity should not be denigrated.