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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Writing about Thermopylae: Part I

The Leonidas Trilogy has been in the making for roughly five years, and – obviously – from the very start I knew that the final book would end at Thermopylae.

OK, I admit, there were some days when I thought: “Do you really have to do that? Hasn’t everything already been said? Wouldn’t it be enough to end the book as Leonidas marches north?”

But reality always set in relatively quickly. People read about Leonidas because of Thermopylae. They want to read about Thermopylae. If I didn’t write about Leonidas at Thermopylae, my readers would feel cheated. It wouldn't matter that my declared objective was to write about his life, not his death. So, I accepted my fate. I would have to write about Thermopylae – but first I had all the rest of the book(s) to write….

It was wonderful. With each chapter I came to know – and like – Leonidas better. I met his friends. Watched Gorgo grow up, become an alluring woman and partner for Leonidas. The project grew and evolved. There was so much to tell! But with each completed chapter, I was a step closer to Thermopylae.

At some indefinable point I started to unconsciously drag my feet. Oh, I had lots of good excuses. I had guests. I had to work on many weekends. I was even Acting Consul General for a while. But in reality I was procrastinating. I didn’t want to face Thermopylae.


Well, frankly, I don’t like killing people. Certainly not people I like. And I like Leonidas – and Alkander and Prokles and Maron and…. You get the picture.

The far greater problem, however, was the competition. Precisely because so many people from Herodotus onward have already written about Thermopylae, my readers have expectations. Unlike most fiction, where the author’s only burden is to carry an inert reader along, fiction describing a familiar incident means dragging the reader in directions they may not expect to go. In the first case, your reader is on a raft and you are the current of the river. In the second case, the reader is in a power boat trying to go in the direction he wants based on the charts provided by descriptions familiar to him.

The direction of the river, of course, is set by history. I can’t change that. (Well, some novelists do, but I’m a historian.)  I can’t have Leonidas escape alive – and I wouldn’t want to. So the first thing I did was sit down and read as many accounts of Thermopylae as I could readily get my hands on. I make no pretense of reading everything, but I believe my reading covered a sufficient spectrum to be called comprehensive, starting with Herodotus, Bradford, Fields, and Holland. I also visited the physical site and walked around the battlefield myself.

The combination of research and personal inspection gave me the skeleton for the story. I knew the geography, climate, and the bare facts. That was the easy part.

The greater challenge, however, was confronting the literary aspects of the story.  But enough for today, I’ll talk about the literary challenges in my next post. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Marathon, Religion and Military Preparedness in Sparta

In 490 BC, the Persians landed a large force on the plain of Marathon.  This military expedition had already crushed the city-state of Eretria, and Athens saw its very existence threatened.  Athens at once sent a runner to Sparta begging for aid. The Spartans notoriously agreed to come only after the full moon. The delay resulted in the Spartans missing the battle of Marathon altogether. 

This Spartan delay in responding to an urgent summons has puzzled historians for almost two thousand years.  Herodotus stated explicitly that "it was the ninth day of the month, and they [the Spartans] could not take the field until the moon was full," which most historians take to mean that Sparta was celebrating the Carneia and out of piety delayed deployment. Plato, however, claimed that the Spartans arrived too late for the Battle of Marathon because they were delayed by a helot revolt, an uncorroborated theory that has become very popular with modern historians. More recently, W. P Wallace in his article, “Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia,” (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35) suggests that King Cleomenes was creating so much anti-Spartan sentiment among the Arkadian cities that the Spartans could not risk deploying their army until King Cleomenes was back in Sparta. In my essay "The Importance of Marathon for Sparta -- and Leonidas," I argue that since the Spartan army was then always commanded by one of her kings and King Cleomenes was either in Arkadia or mad and King Leotychidas was either still on Aegina or discredited that the Spartans needed to select a non-royal commander which in turn required the approval of the Spartan Assembly -- a procedure that took (a finite and predictable amount of) time. (I.e. "after the full moon.")

Yet the bottom line is that all these theories – helot uprising, Arkadian discontent, or a crisis in command – are essentially the product of dissatisfaction with the explanation provided by Herodotus: a religious festival. Before we reach for alternative explanations, however, we ought to admit to ourselves that we know very little about Spartan religious festivals. Most especially, we do not how they affected the readiness of the Spartan army. The assumption that a religious festival might delay departure of the army simply because of pious scruples may be entirely wrong. 

What if, for example, the Spartan Army was given leave during religious festivals, or reduced to a skeleton of “duty officers” for each unit? It is certainly normal for religious festivals, in all cultures over all times, to be family occasions. Why should Sparta have been any different?  The very fact that there is no mention of how “odd” the Spartans were in this regard suggests that their behavior was conform to other Greeks and elicited no comment.

A family holiday in Sparta might have implied that even the young men were exempt from sleeping in barracks and all men exempt from dining at their messes.  Again, the fact that this is not explicitly mentioned is no evidence that it is not possible. There is no mention of men being exempt from duty and collective dining to participate in the Olympic Games either, but Spartan athletes were very prominent at the Olympics and they had to train in Elis for a month before the events just like all the other competitors. Likewise, Spartan spectators at the Games could not be eating and sleeping in Sparta while they were at Olympia. In short, the rules about living in barracks and eating at the messes where for “ordinary” days.  The Olympics, war, and, arguably, religious festivals would have been “extraordinary” or “exceptional” days.

We know, further, that Spartans all had at least one state kleros, and that wealthier Spartans had more extensive estates.  Without knowing the yield of an acre of land using 5th Century agricultural methods, I have no way of estimating just how large a kleros had to be to support a man and his family, and without knowing how large a kleros had to be, I cannot estimate how many could have been located within easy walking/riding distance of Sparta’s barracks and messes. However, I think it is fair to say that not all 8,000 – 9,000 kleroi could have been within a couple-hours reach of the heart of Sparta.  It is far more likely, that many kleros were more than a half-day, even a day or two, away from Sparta.  Some may even have been located in Messenia, on the far side of Taygetos, or on Kythera.  Reaching these estates to check up on things, and to collect rents, would have taken Spartans away from Sparta for days on end.

The requirement to be present in Sparta most of the time, meant that most of the time the estates were left in the hands of helots, perioikoi overseers or wives.  Yet the fact that Spartiates were absent from their estates most of the time only reinforces the need to be present some of the time.  Particularly if Spartiate/Helot relations were as bad as most people make them out to be, no Spartan could afford to leave his kleros entirely in the hands of his helots or even perioikoi overseers. It would have been necessary for Spartiate landlords to periodically visit their estates in order to ensure nothing was so mismanaged as to endanger payment of his syssitia and, if he had sons, agoge fees. If a kleros was left to a wife, the desire to visit periodically would have been even greater, particularly if there were young children with her.

In short, Spariates would have periodically travelled to their distant kleros and while doing so they would have been excused both from their military duties and exempted from eating at their syssitia.  Probably, any man could apply for leave to go to his estates whenever it suited him. Possibly, it was traditional for men to go to their estates during holidays, when men were given leave to be with their families in any case.

For the wealthier Spartiates from the so-called “better” families, the 400-500 families that made up Sparta’s elite, the need to visit estates would have been even more acute than for the poorest with only one kleros.  The elite would have had multiple estates to look after, horse-farms, kennels, orchards etc.  They would have needed to be away from Sparta even more often than the poor. And it was this elite that, at least in the later years of the 5th Century, occupied most of the positions of authority, power and command in the Spartan state and army.

What this means is that Pheidippides may have arrived in Sparta when the entire Spartan army was dispersed and the commanders scattered about Lacedaemon on their distant estates. The ephors would have needed to recall at least the members of the Gerousia and the officers of the army as well as cancel leave for those units they wanted to send to the aid of Athens. The ephors could, I suspect, calculate pretty accurately how long it would take messengers to reach the lochagoi and other senior officers, and how long they would need call up their troops and get them ready to march.  That time frame alone – and nothing so impenetrable as piousness, helot revolts, foreign policy considerations, or even command uncertainties – might have determined the date the Spartan army marched out to Marathon.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Leonidas Twice

Leonidas! The Hero of Thermopylae. In 480 BC he would defy an army half a million strong. 

But who was he?

The Leonidas Trilogy tells his story in three novels. From his boyhood in the infamous Spartan agoge to the final stand of the 300 at Thermopylae, I have sought to bring Leonidas and his wife Gorgo to life. To explain them. To understand them. To give them substance and spirit.

This is Sparta! As you've never seen it before. The Leonidas Trilogy - A Video Teaser.

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom by Alfred S. Bradford is in contrast about the history of Sparta from its founding to its ignominious end. Here's my commentary:

Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta by Alfred S. Bradford – A Review
It is human nature that reactions are often governed by expectations, so my disappointment with Alfred S. Bradford’s history of Sparta, Leonidas and the Kings of Sparta: Mightiest Warriors, Fairest Kingdom, was largely my own fault.  The title and jacket description, not to mention Bradford’s qualifications as a professor of ancient history at the University of Oklahoma, led me to expect too much. I had hoped for a work that provided insight on the role of Sparta’s kings in Sparta’s long history, perhaps an analysis of evolving constitutional conflict between the kings, the Gerousia, Assembly, and Ephors.  Certainly, I hoped for some new, unfamiliar descriptions and details about the personalities of Sparta’s most famous kings.

Instead, Bradford has done little more than collect the familiar stories told about Sparta from a wide range of sources and line them up in chronological order.  Even this is a tall order, and Bradford is to be commended for having covered nearly a thousand years of history in just 226 pages without for a moment dropping the pace or losing direction. Also to be applauded is Bradford’s care to mention Sparta’s literary and artistic achievements, and his even-handed treatment of the Peloponnesian War.  Altogether, his commentary improved in quality with the quality of his (later) sources.

Equally important, Bradford appears to pride himself on his accessibility, and this book is written in an easy modern style that will certainly make it just that to readers looking for an easy introduction to Spartan history. In fact, I suspect that Bradford’s intended audience was not fellow scholars, but rather young people coming to the topic of Sparta for the first time.  If this is correct, then his book is a valuable contribution to Spartan history as a transition from comic books and fantasy to serious scholarly works on Sparta.

In this context, I found Bradford’s occasional personal comments perfectly appropriate and engaging. Throughout the book, I sensed his genuine interest in his topic and respect for his subjects. That in itself is very refreshing, and I came away feeling like I’d like to meet Bradford one day and spend an afternoon talking in an outdoor cafĂ© on the main street of modern Sparti – exchanging views, arguing, laughing – and toasting the memory of the dead.

If am correct and Bradford was writing for an audience without previous knowledge and only superficial interest in Sparta, I image he did not want to “bore” his reader with conflicting theories. Nevertheless, I must admit I was put off by Bradford’s blithe disregard for differing opinions and his failure to admit any uncertainty about interpretation of evidence.  Although much of the information Bradford presents is highly controversial, Bradford rarely even mentions alternative theories, much less conflicting opinions.  

Equally disturbing, Bradford boldly states his opinions as if they are indisputable fact.  For example, he states on page 70 that “Ariston was extremely popular….” Interesting.  I’d like to know how he knows that as I’ve never read this in any other source. It might be true, of course, I don’t claim to have seen every source on Sparta, and, if true, it would be very significant. Unfortunately, Bradford tells me neither his ancient source for this information, nor does he explain his assessment by describing things Ariston did to win the love of his subjects. In fact, what he does tell us about Ariston is that he tricked his best friend into giving up his wife. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would endear Ariston to his subjects. (Herodotus, who is the source for this tale, by the way, makes it clear that it was against the will of both the husband – and erstwhile friend of Ariston – and his wife.) In short, Bradford makes statements that are not supported either sources or by his own argumentation.  

I was also disappointed by the near absence of analysis, at least in the early parts of the book. Again, let me take a couple of examples.  On page 46, when describing the krypteia, he claims members “killed any helots they found.” Now, finding helots was not very difficult since by all accounts they vastly outnumbered the Spartiates, and they provided all menial labor to the Spartan state.  All the krypteia had to do to “find” helots was sit down in the middle of any square or on the side of any country road and wait for the helots to come by. Since, according to Bradford’s account, they killed all the helots they “found,” the kypteia must have slaughtered endlessly, year in and year out, generation for generation.  So how did any helots survive to be the servants and agricultural workers that Sparta needed? And who was left to work the estates of the Spartiates dependent on their labor in order to be professional soldiers? Or, turning to another example, on page 47 Bradford writes: “The Spartans were magnificent specimens, men and women both, the most handsome people in Greece, with the best-behaved children.” Really?  All of them? That’s hard to believe, but I suppose it is theoretically possible.  But then Bradford continues: “They knew right from wrong and they practiced honor without compromise.” That is little short of amazing, but OK -- except that nine pages later Bradford writes that “Chilon’s world was a world of injustice.” Hm.  So suddenly, within a hundred years or so, by Bradford’s own account, the Spartans have gone from being men who without exception practiced honor without compromise and all knew right from wrong, to a society full of injustice. How did that happen? Why? Again, I’m not saying this is impossible, but I expect a historian who makes assertions such as these to marshal his arguments and set them out coherently so the reader can follow his logic and come to the same conclusion.

Finally, I found it disconcerting that sources were not readily or consistently identified, even when direct quotes were made. With all due understanding for the desire to avoid cluttering a popular history with a lot of footnotes, I find the use of quotation marks or italics to indicate direct speech without providing a reference on the source improper.  Just to give one random example, in Chapter 16, Bradford uses quotation marks to indicate verbatim citation of a speaker in no less than eight places, but provides sources for only two quotes in his “Notes.” What about the others? Where did they come from and why didn’t they rate a proper citation? 

For all my complaints, I confess I liked the book, particularly the conclusion, and for young adults it may be a good introduction to Sparta. However, I would recommend W. G. Forrest's classic work "A History of Sparta: 950 - 192 BC" or Nigel Kennel's "Spartans: A New History" before Bradford to anyone with a serious interest in Spartan history.