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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Spartan Piety - Reflections on the Relgion of the Spartans

In the ancient world, Sparta was famous for its piety.  Individual Spartans could be granted leave even from a campaign to take part in a religious festival, and on two famous occasions recorded in Herodotus the entire Spartan army delayed deployment in an emergency because of the need to “honor the gods.” (The deployment to Marathon and Thermopylae).
But just what did “piety” or “honoring the gods” entail in Ancient Greece? I admit, I find it difficult to understand this concept of “honoring” fickle, unpredictable, immoral (as well as immortal) gods. And how could one ever please all the different gods of the Greek pantheon when they were so often at odds with one another?  In a polytheist world, honoring one god might offend another.
Yet in trying to understand Spartan society better, I discovered some very interesting aspects of Spartan religion.  First, Sparta’s patron was not, as I expected, Ares, but rather Athena.  On reflection, this made sense since Sparta was not, as modern commentators would like us to believe, a society obsessed exclusively with war, but a society which placed as high a value on training the intellect as the body. (See the excellent article by w. Lindsay Wheeler, “Doric Crete and Sparta, the home of Greek Philosophy,” in Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2). So giving pride of place to Athena was understandable. 
Even more fascinating was to discover how multi-faceted Spartan religious beliefs were, and what an important place gods with positive connotations – Apollo, Asclepius, Helios and even Aphrodite – played in Spartan society. Nikolaos Kouloumpis in his article “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) lists cults to Asclepius, Achilles, Hercules, Alexandra/Cassandra, Agamemnon, Castor and Pollux/ Polydeukes and Helios. And, of course, Sparta’s most important festivals, the Karneia and Hyacinthia, were dedicated to Apollo.  Even the Gymnopaedia, arguably the most famous of Sparta’s annual festivals, was dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, Dionysus and Leto, while the more infamous than famous festival of Artemis Orthia was, as the name implied, dedicated entirely to Artemis.  However, the cult of Menelaus and Helen was only slightly less important, although we do not know how the Eleneia was celebrated.
Turning from festivals to sanctuaries, Pausanias, in his detailed guide to the “significant” sites of Sparta, records ten temples/shrines to Athena, six to Zeus, and five to Aphrodite.  The Devine Twins, Castor and Polydeukes, Apollo, Artemis, and Poseidon and Asklepios all have four temples each.  In contrast, there are only three temples out of more than 150 temples, sanctuaries and shrines mentioned by Pausanias that are dedicated to Ares. Two are notably located outside of Sparta proper, one in Amyclae and the other even farther away in Geronthrai.  The only temple to Ares in Sparta itself is one in which the God of War is shown in chains, according to Pausanias because “in Lakonia they think the god of war will never desert them if they keep him in chains; [just as] in Athens they believe Victory will stay with them forever because she has no wings.” (Pausanisus, Book III, 15:6). 
While the large number of sanctuaries dedicated to Athena and Zeus hardly need an explanation given their power and prominence in the ancient Greek pantheon, it does seem odd that Aphrodite, Poseidon and Asklepios should receive comparatively more honors than the god of war in land-locked, warlike Sparta.  Poseidon might be explained in that he was also called the “Earth Shaker” and, given impact earthquakes had on Lacedaemon, the Earth Shaker was clearly a god to be appeased.  Notably one of Sparta’s temples to Poseidon is to the “Horse-Breeding” Posiedon, and so a reflection of Sparta’s interest and success in equestrian sports.
But why do Aphrodite and Asclepius place ahead of Ares in terms of the number of sites dedicated to them? One possible explanation would be the association of Aphrodite with Kythera, which was part of Lacedaemon for the better part of 500 years.  Allegedly, the worship of Aphrodite originated on Kythera, and conceivably the cult spread from there to the mainland of Lacedaemon.  However, it is notable that to date the only temple from the Classical period to have been identified on Kythera was dedicated not to Aphrodite but to Asclepius. (Again!)  Possibly the worship of the God of Healing also moved from Kythera to Sparta.  Alternatively, the need to treat battle injuries fostered a particular reverence for Asclepius. Such an interpretation and the fact that there appear to have been more temples to Asclepius than Ares suggests the Spartan’s trusted more to their own skills to win wars, than survive the aftermath.
In short, Sparta was filled with sanctuaries and temples to a great diversity of gods, demi-gods and heroes. By no means was Spartan worship narrowly focused upon the god of war, or even warrior heroes such as Achilles. Instead, the heroes Heracles, Castor and Polydeukes, whose greatest deeds were performed outside the context of war, receive more attention.  This plethora of religious/cult focus in turn suggests that Spartan society was far less narrow-minded and obsessed with things military than most modern commentators imply. 
Yet the essence of Spartan piety and how the Spartans related to these various gods still eludes me.  The very diversity of god and demigods suggests, however, that there was no one Spartan religion or one Spartan way of worship.  On the contrary, I suspect that each Spartiate chose the god or gods he felt closest to and developed a highly individualistic and private relationship with these deities.  At the same time, Spartans publicly took part in the seasonal rituals celebrated by the city for each of the gods in turn -- just as many people do today.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Suffering at Symposiums - Or a major difference between Sparta and Athens

In modern usage, the word symposium has come to mean “a conference organized for the discussion of some particular subject,” “a collection of opinions, especially a published group of essays,” or “any meeting or social gathering at which ideas are freely exchanged.”  The ancient Greek roots of the word have misled many into imagining that ancient symposiums resembled modern symposiums and were also primarily intellectual events.
Little could be farther from the truth. Ancient symposiums resembled drunken stag parties more than a modern symposium.  As a rule, large quantities of wine were consumed, maybe a few poems were recited (more likely dirty little ditties making fun of one’s elders, opponents or rivals), politics might be discussed (not necessarily at a niveau above that of a modern pub) and then there was a lot of drunken singing, or the participants competed in such “elevated” activities as seeing who could throw their wine farthest, while being entertained and/or serviced by prostitutes and the ancient equivalent of strip-tease dancers, before staggering home too drunk to see straight and requiring (sober) slaves to ensure a safe arrival. 
It was not uncommon for drunken bands of youth from rival symposiums to end up brawling in the streets, and the even a leading statesman such as Alcibiades could be accused of committing large-scale sacrilege with his friends after a symposium.  In short, ideas and politics might have been discussed occasionally at some of symposiums, but a symposium was primarily about male indulgence in excessive drink and sex -- not intellectual exchange.
Anyone familiar with Spartan society will understand why the Spartans disdained such activities and why Spartan authorities instituted laws (like not being allowed to light a torch at night) to prevent their young men from being seduced into such activities. But there is another feature of Athenian symposiums which was equally un-Spartan: the exploitation of women.
As James Davidson makes clear in his seminal work on Athenian society Courtesans and Fishcakes, a good Athenian host boasted about the “beautiful girls” and “babes” he would offer his guests. Since no respectable woman (wife, mother or daughter) was allowed to show her face or set foot in a symposium, all the women present were sexual objects, and almost all were slaves. Yes, there were the occasional so-called “hetaere” that like Japanese geishas were trained to cater to a more sophisticated clientele by having a smattering of education and skills such as playing instruments or singing, but very few of these women were free.  They too had to surrender all or some of their earnings to their owner (pimp). And hetaere were the “privileged” prostitutes, the “admired” prostitutes – what we might call “call girls” today or “courtesans” in the 17th and 18th century. But it only went downhill from here – to flute girl, household slave and “sex-worker” in a brothel.
As Anton Powell notes in Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC (London: 1988), prostitution was widespread, taxed, and consorting with prostitutes was considered perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible, even for youth of the upper-classes -- in Athens.  The only social restriction on male intercourse with prostitutes was that it was considered bad taste for a married man to bring a prostitute into the house where his wife lived, or to spend the money he received from his wife’s dowry on expensive prostitutes.  Powell also notes, however, that it was common for men to maintain concubines under the same roof as their legal wives, and that sex with slave girls did not even count as infidelity in the Athenian courts. Clearly, Athens was a paradise for the sexually active male.
The “pleasures” of Athenian society, and especially of symposiums, were restricted – as was democracy, intellectual achievement, and artistic creativity – to that half of Athens’ population that was male. Respectable women were excluded from the symposium, just as they were excluded from drinking wine, eating fish or meat, exercise, education and political rights.  As for the women allowed to participate in symposium, with very few exceptions, they were slaves with no choice in where they went, who they serviced, or what they were asked to do.  They did not even receive compensation for their services, since the high prices paid by the customers went to their male owners, enriching him, not them. For the women of ancient Athens, symposiums were torture chambers. 
It is to Sparta's credit that no such abuse -- much less the glorification of the abuse of women and children as these symposiums represented -- was sanctioned or recorded in Spartan society.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Leonidas Trilogy: Five New Reviews

S. Walters reviewed Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King
*****Excellent read August 16, 2013

I love reading about Sparta. This is a fiction book supported by historical fact. The author is extremely knowledgeable, and I plan to get the other two books in the trilogy.

****An excellent dramatization July 24, 2013

I found this entire series, of which is the final installment to be both entertaining and educational. Though a fictional dramatization of an non-fictional character, the story makes an excellent case for understanding the possibility of how things actually happened. Worth the read for the entire series for those who have an interest in Leonidas and Sparta.

R. Duenow "gciking" reviewed Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge
*****Putting a Human Face on Sparta June 8, 2013

One of best histories I've read on ancient Greece, rivaling Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. Most other histories tell only the story of Sparta and its heroes, but Helena Schrader's trilogy permits us to see more than just the people and politics of the time; it also permits us to see the human side of its leaders. She weaves a beautiful story based upon her extensive knowledge and exhaustive research which allows us to...Read More One of best histories I've read on ancient Greece, rivaling Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. Most other histories tell only the story of Sparta and its heroes, but Helena Schrader's trilogy permits us to see more than just the people and politics of the time; it also permits us to see the human side of its leaders. She weaves a beautiful story based upon her extensive knowledge and exhaustive research which allows us to understand and appreciate the Sparta Culture and leaders of the age.

The trilogy follows the life of Leonidas from boyhood, through adulthood and finally, his unlikely rise to become one of Sparta's two Kings. Her stories describe Sparta at the height of its power and their relationship to other Greek city states and the other dwellers in Lacedaemonia, the Perioikoi and the Helots, which I never fully understood before.

She also elaborates and provides the details of the Spartiate citizens and women who were far more liberated than any other women of the ancient world, including Athens.

All in all, Schrader's trilogy was thoroughly enjoyable and a must read for history lovers of the ancient world.

natasha reviewed Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge
*****Great book May 18, 2013

This book gives you a detail look into the young Leonidas. It explains the many ways he was made into such a great king.

Pulser "Books with heart & mind" reviewed Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge
*****Sparta brought back to life! April 25, 2013

I really enjoyed this book in more ways than one. The story was compelling and interesting, the characters were multidimensional and believable,the pace was exciting, and the history lessons and finally the truth about the real Sparta abundant!
The author does a wonderful job creating the character of young Leonidas and following him as he develops into a young man is very entertaining. I highly recommend this to those...Read More
I really enjoyed this book in more ways than one. The story was compelling and interesting, the characters were multidimensional and believable, the pace was exciting, and the history lessons and finally the truth about the real Sparta abundant!

The author does a wonderful job creating the character of young Leonidas and following him as he develops into a young man is very entertaining. I highly recommend this to those who enjoy historical fiction with real historical information of the highest quality. I will be ordering the rest of the series shortly.

The only improvement that I felt was needed, was in the description of the topography. It is obvious that the author knows the area very well and can describe it in minute details. However, for someone who has never been there a map would have been very helpful. With so many names of areas and rivers and mountains, my mind couldn't envision it all-but of course that could be my own personal shortcoming.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spartan Ethos:

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity among the Philosopher Warriors

What set Sparta apart from other Greek city-states was not language, religion, or even laws – all of which were shared in broad terms with the rest of the ancient Hellenic world – but a unique ethos that permeated all aspects of life.  While Spartan philosophy valued silence over empty words, simplicity over decoration and precision over expansiveness, Sparta placed the liberty, equality and fraternity at the center of their ethical system.  Love of liberty was shared by all the ancient Greek democracies, but the emphasis on equality and fraternity set Sparta apart. 

There is no clear explanation for the roots of Sparta's unique emphasis on silence, simplicity, and precision, although it probably had Doric roots. Doric architecture, for example, is the simplest of the three Greek architectural orders. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that by the 5th century BC, Sparta had cultivated a tradition that put conscious emphasis on silence and simplicity over eloquence and decoration.
What is often overlooked by modern commentators is that the silence cultivated in Sparta was not the silence of dumb animals, but of thinking men, who recognize that it is wise to think before speaking and to speak only when they have something worth saying. This is the essence of Spartan rhetoric and the reason it was so highly prized by philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. If one is looking for a more modern parallel, the example of the Quakers might be appropriate.

Simplicity in dress, architecture, and art was a natural expression of this fundamental philosophy that "less is more" and precision preferable to ambiguity and ambivalence. To say that Spartan dress and architecture were simpler than that of contemporary cities is not to say it was primitive, only that it was more precise and made more use of natural elements. The focus on the functional and the essential need not be associated with a disdain for beauty. Most modern observers admire the Parthenon in Athens today for the perfection of its proportions and would be irritated and distracted to see it painted brightly, as it was in ancient times. Likewise, modern architecture and design has rediscovered the Spartan love of the pure beauty of form and material.

The Spartan land reform (described in the essay on the Spartan government and constitution) made all Spartan citizens equals, or Peers; and they not only described themselves as such, but reinforced the notion of equality by discouraging anything that would set one citizen apart or above another. Sparta was the first city-state to introduce a uniform for its army: scarlet chitons and cloaks, and indeed uniform shields, all bearing the lambda, or L, for Lacedaemon. Spartans also wore their hair in the same fashion: the boys of the agoge going about shaved, the young men with short hair, and the men over the age of thirty growing out their hair and often wearing it braided. Not until the second half of the 5th century do artistic depictions of Spartans indicate that the neat appearance of the archaic period had given way to an unkempt, almost barbaric fashion.

All adult male citizens were, furthermore, bound together through three distinct and separate institutions. First, the sons of citizens were required to attend the public school system, the agoge, from the age of seven through the age of twenty. Second, all male citizens between and including the ages of 21 and 60 had to serve in the army. A distinction was made between the first 10 age cohorts, who were required to live in barracks and were in effect on active service, and the elder age cohorts, who lived at home but could be called up at any time, similar to reserve status today. Third, all male citizens were required to join a syssitia, or dining club, and to eat at this club every night (unless excused), providing set amounts of food from their estates to support the common meals. Although every citizen had to belong to a syssitia (also known as phiditia), each citizen chose which club he wanted to join and the existing members voted to admit the new applicant – or not. One veto from an existing member was sufficient to prevent a new member from joining. Unexcused absence from the mess incurred a fine – something not even the kings were exempt from. However, Spartiates (Spartan citizens) could be excused for a variety of reasons, from war to hunting and the Olympic Games.

The bonds of school, military, and club were designed to keep the society closely knit and not divided along family and clan lines. They did not, however, replace family ties, as some modern observers assume.
Attending the agoge, the public school, from the age of 7 did not sever family ties any more than sending children to school today does. There is no evidence that the small children slept in barracks – they may well have slept at home – but even if they slept in dormitories on school nights, they would still have gone home for holidays. Sparta had many holidays, and some were so important that observance of them was more important than going to war – even in an emergency. School children would have spent probably as much as one-third of any year away from school, much as they do today. Furthermore, Spartan girls went to the same schools and gymnasiums as their brothers – and future husbands. Spartan youth therefore had far more contact with the opposite sex than did their contemporaries in other Greek cities, which in turn meant that the bonds between the sexes were also stronger than elsewhere. Shared memories of a common schooling would have strengthened Spartan marriages, and parents would have been careful to pass on their experiences of the agoge to their offspring in order to help them survive this critical prerequisite of citizenship.
The military duties of Spartan men were likewise less onerous than modern military service in distant theaters of war, which can keep men away from their families for years on end. Until the Peloponnesian War, ancient warfare consisted of marching out, meeting the enemy on a flat, open plain, fighting a single battle, and then returning home – victorious or defeated – within a few weeks. Most campaigns lasted no more than a month or two, and they usually took place after the harvest was in. Sparta was not continuously at war until the second half of the 5th century. Before that, Spartan men would not have been away at war for more than a few months at a time, and by no means every year. Some men might have been absent at war no more than a month or two in their entire lives.
Finally, the fact that men ate their evening meal away from their families need not have been more disruptive of good marital or family life than the fact that most modern couples eat their midday meal apart. On the contrary, the rhythm of Spartan life might actually have fostered good family relations, because men and women probably would have shared the middle of the day together, when other activities were not possible because of the heat.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Spartan Dress and Spartan Dandies

Spartan dress and decoration differed from that of the rest of the Greek world sufficiently to provoke comment among ancient observers.  At the same time, Spartan dress remained essentially Hellenic.  The Spartans did not wear clothing fundamentally different from other Greeks, they were simply more conservative in the adoption of new styles, meaning that they retained archaic fashions, such as the peplos and long hair for men, long after Greeks from other cities had adopted new fashions.  When one considers the fact that new fashions were introduced primarily from Persia and Macedonia, than it is fair to say that Spartan dress was more purely “Greek” or “Doric” than the fashions of Athens.

The most obvious example of the conservative character of Spartan dress was the preference of Spartan women for the old-fashioned peplos, even after Greek women elsewhere had adopted the long chiton.  The peplos is the robe worn by almost all archaic kore, and these archeological models refute modern allegations that Spartan women went around in short skirts like Amazons. The ancient complaint that Spartan women were “thigh-throwers” did not refer to skirts or chitons so short they revealed a woman’s thigh, but rather to the fact that a woman wearing a peplos was very restricted in her movements – unless the side seam was opened to above the knee. Thus, while Athenian women in their looser cut long chitons could walk vigorously without revealing their legs, their Spartan sisters always showed some leg when they walked.  The characteristic Spartan bronzes that show a girl in a short skirt running or dancing do not depict mature Spartan women but rather girls; the most likely interpretation is that they depict girls in the agoge, and as such girls before puberty.

Another typical Spartan fashion that dated back to at least the archaic age was for men to wear their hair long. However, modern depictions of Spartans as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders (alà Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army) are not supported by ancient sources. A statue fragment found in the heart of Sparta and dating from the early fifth century (commonly – or affectionately – referred to as Leonidas) shows a man with a clipped beard and neat hair. Earlier archaic artwork unanimously shows men with short beards and long, but very neat, “locks” of hair. (Note, for example the hoplites on the magnificent frieze of the Siphnian Treasure at Delphi dating from Leonidas’ lifetime, the Krater of Vix and other figures of known Laconian origin displayed now in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.)

Likewise, I reject emphatically descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images likewise contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence. Herodotus makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, for example, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans  -- as Plutarch explicitly does -- if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and cleaning. Plutarch also claims Spartan men took particular care of their hair especially in the face of danger, and refers to an alleged quote from Lycurgus that long hair was preferred because it rendered a handsome man better looking, and an ugly one more frightening. 
The later quote suggests, of course, that while a handsome man might have groomed his hair assiduously, an ugly man might have consciously ratted his, but this hardly makes sense if one considers the need for a man to wear a helmet, as all Spartans did until they had reached the age of 61.  It is more likely to refer to the fact that hair braided back from the forehead tends to give the face greater prominence than a crown of curls such as other Greeks wore in the classical period.  Thus, while both a handsome and an ugly Spartan wore their hair neatly braided from the forehead, the effect was to highlight the good features of the former and the bad features of the latter. I would note further, that anyone familiar with African hair braiding knows that a great deal of variety, and so different effects, can be achieved without breaking the fundamental concept of long hair, neatly braided from the forehead. I like to imagine that Spartan dandies shocked and irritated their conservative elders by obeying the letter of the law (long, neatly groomed hair) while nevertheless developing individual styles.

I would also like to note that no ancient source claims that Spartan women did not adorn themselves.  On the contrary, in Euripides’ plays and Aristotle’s political commentary both, Spartan women are despised and castigated for being exceptionally vain, luxury loving and self-indulgent. Thus, while Spartan men are portrayed as (stupidly) restrained and austere, Spartan women are loathed for being even more fond of self-adornment than Athenian women, who are themselves viewed as excessively fond of cosmetics, perfumes and jewels.
This suggests that even if, as some argue, Spartan laws prohibited not only the use of gold and silver currency but also gold and silver objects d’art, than Spartan women found other means of adorning themselves. One option would have been to make jewelry from other materials – ivory, copper, bronze, lapis lazuli, jade, coral, amber etc. etc.  In addition, the garments could have been decorated with bright colored embroidery or borders with beads of bronze, copper, ivory etc. Alternatively, the peplos themselves might have been made of brightly colored fabrics.  The most precious purple dye was produced from muscles found in the Gulf of Laconia, and Lacedaemon undoubtedly exported this dye and or fabric stained with it.  Other important dyes, such as indigo, were also produced in Lacedaemon. 

Anthropology, archeology and art history show us that there is almost nothing as universal as human vanity. Throughout history and throughout the world, men and women have been astonishingly inventive in developing ways to adorn themselves and make themselves appealing to one another.  Sparta, a society far closer to our own than many others the world has known, was certainly no exception.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Spartan Architecture

Acropolis of Athens, 2012, Photo by author.
The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides made a prediction in his History of the Pelopponnesian War that has come true with a vengeance.  He wrote that “…[if] Sparta were to become deserted and only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies beyond its frontiers. Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, 10, 2.)

This statement was as much a criticism of Athens’ building program under Pericles (that had diverted contributions from the Delian League, intended for defense against the Persians, to building extravagant temples in Athens) as a critique of Sparta.  Yet it has misled modern scholars and novelists to portray Sparta as if it were a primitive village of dirt and mud. 

For example, in his best-selling novel Gates of Fire, Stephen Pressfield calls Sparta “a village” adding: “The whole stinking place would fit, with room to spare, within His Majesty’s [Xerxes of Persia’s] strolling garden at Persepolis. It is … a pile of stones. It contains no temples or treasures of note, no gold; it is a barnyard of leeks and onions, with soil so thin a man may kick through it with one strike of the foot.” (p.188). Nicolas Nicastro is only willing to concede the dominant superpower of Greece was “an agglomeration of sleepy villages.”

These and other modern writers are guilty of both a too hasty reading of Thucydides, and a failure to consider other evidence.  Thucydides complains that Sparta “is not regularly planned” – but then nor is London. And he says it is “simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way.”  This is not the same thing as saying Sparta was not a cosmopolitan city, it only means that Sparta had no plan and no walls and hence grew haphazardly -- as all major European cities did after their confining medieval walls were torn down. No one today would call Paris, Berlin or Rome “a collection of villages” simply because they are in fact many villages which have grown into a single metropolis after the need for fortifications disappeared and economic growth fueled urbanization. Why should we assume that just because Sparta was made up of five distinct villages in pre-Archaic times that it was not – in its years of glory – a cohesive, dynamic city?   

Sparta, April 2016, Photo by Author

Likewise, when Thucydides writes Sparta “contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence” he is not denying the existence of temples and monuments, only ones “of great magnificence” – such as Pericles built with stolen funds from Athens satellite states without their consent. In short, Thucydides never claimed that Sparta was not a major, metropolitan city, nor did he deny it had notable monuments, he was only making the astute statement that, judged by its buildings alone, future generations would over-estimate the power of Athens and under-estimate that of Sparta.

The assessment of Sparta's architecture has been aggravated for modern observers by the fact that today we cannot see what Thucydides did. Sparta was destroyed by earthquakes many times over the centuries. It was flooded by the Eurotas. It was abandoned. Nothing destroys architectural monuments so completely as abandonment.  Nor should it be forgotten that Sparta has not been systematically subjected to archeological excavation in almost a century. 

The Spartan Amphitheater, 2012, Photo by Author
Nevertheless, what has come to light demonstrates definitively that far from being a place full of primitive, mud structures, Spartan architecture was substantial, monumental (not the same as “magnificent”!), and very, very typical of Doric architecture throughout the ancient world. Sparta was, in fact, the ultimate Doric power. It attained it greatest artistic flourishing in the 6th rather than the 5th century BC, and consequently its greatest monuments were archaic not classical or Hellenistic. But they existed! We can still see some of the foundations and remnants to this day. Sparta was not just a heap of peasant hits, as Pressfield and Nicastro would like us to believe. 

For anyone whose imagination is too weak to mentally reconstruct a great city from the remnants left in Sparta today, we have the meticulous record of an ancient travel guide. Pausanias traveled to Greece in the 2nd Century AD, long after Sparta’s decline from prominence and more than half a century after its “golden era” in the 6th Century BC.  Yet he needs 26 sections and more than 60 pages to describe the city! And that, although he claims he has not described everything but rather has selected and discussed only “the really memorable things.” (Pausanias, III.10. p. 37)

I would also like to point out that no Spartan has left a written description of his/her city that has survived to our time. Would a Spartan have found the Acropolis in Athens “magnificent” or simply “distant, intellectual and arrogant”? Would a Spartan necessarily have admired the altar at Pergamom?  Or found it “gaudy” and “busy”-- as many people see rococo architecture today?  Sparta was different from other cities of its age, particularly Athens. Does that necessarily mean it was less attractive?
Let me be heretical. We know that in ancient Greece most statues and temples were painted vivid colors and the statues of the gods were dressed in robes, ivory, gold and jewels. What if Spartan austerity indeed extended to temples, statues and monuments and these were adorned only with natural beauty – i.e. naked stone and marble sculptures set amidst flowering trees and running water? Isn’t that what we find strikingly beautiful in Greek architecture and sculpture today? The perfection of proportion, symmetry and form in beautiful natural settings? Isn’t it the lifelike poses, gestures and expressions that appeal to us? Would we rather see Venus de Milo painted in flesh tones with red lips and blond hair? Would we admire the Parthenon in Athens as much if it was dressed in bright paint?

Ancient Nemea Today, Photo by Author
What if Spartan homes were indeed devoid of elaborate interior paintings because, unlike their Athenian counterparts, they were not crammed into an over-crowded city and surrounded by high-walls that blocked out almost all daylight? Spartan houses could be built on a generous plan because the city had no plan. They could incorporate interior courtyards planted with fruit trees and herbs, they could surround themselves with gardens and orchards, they could sparkle not with gold and silver but the glinting of sunlight on water in internal fountains. Spartan homes could have windows that let in the light and they might have decorated their homes, as they did themselves, with things of nature: cut flowers, bowls of fruits, running water. Such things are transient; they rarely leave an archeological record.

Spartan homes would have had views like this from the windows. Who needs wall paintings? Photo by Auhthor

Sparta, far from being a “stinking village” full of pigsties and mud-huts as modern novelists portray it, was a city – as Pausanias describes -- full of marble monuments, pure Doric temples, sun-soaked theaters and imposing stoas. It was a city with large villas set in blooming gardens. And it was a city where the barracks and civic buildings were interspersed between sunny open spaces set aside for running, ball-games and horse-racing. It was a city decorated with fountains and flowering trees. In short, it was a city much as we would plan one today.

This Sparta is the setting of my novels about Leonidas:



Buy "A Boy of the Agoge" Now!

Buy "A Peerless Peer" Now!
Buy "A Heroic King" Now!



Friday, May 31, 2013

The Spartan Economy: A Closer Look at Helot Society

The common view of Sparta is of a society divided between the wealthy, politically privileged (albeit underfed, cowed yet brutal etc. etc.) Spartiates, and the oppressed, helpless, despised helots. As I have noted in earlier entries, this ignores the vitally important role of perioikoi, but today I wish focus on helot society, particularly the fact that it too was highly differentiated. Not all helots were equal – nor equally miserable.

Historical sources make reference to helots in a variety of positions. First and foremost, of course, the helots worked the land. But helots also played a – singularly undefined – role in the Spartan army. Helots accompanied the Spartan army to Plataea, for example, and they were ordered to set fire to the sacred wood after the battle of Sepeia. These army helots appear to be a collective body under the command of the king, not the individual attendants of Spartan rankers. But each Spartan hoplite did, apparently, also have a helot body servant to look after his kit and help him arm. We hear too of “Lacedaemonian” wet-nurses being highly valued, and finding service as far away as Athens, where such a nurse allegedly breast-fed the ultimate Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades. While not explicitly a helot, it is hard to imagine a Spartiate or even perioikoi woman taking a position that was usually held by a chattel slave. The same is true of hereditary “town-criers, flute-players and cooks” listed by Herodotus (The Histories: 6:60). Because all these functions were important to the army, I have argued elsewhere that they were not despised professions, but it is unclear whether the jobs were filled by perioikoi or helots; either interpretation is possible. Last but not least, although not explicitly mentioned, implicit in a highly civilized society with a very tiny elite such as Sparta, were people doing all the menial tasks necessary to keep a developed but still non-mechanized society functioning. In short, helots most likely did all those tasks done by chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world. Someone in Lacedaemon built roads, dug ditches, cleaned latrines, quarried stones and extracted ore from mines etc., and I think it is safe to assume that these jobs were done by helots.

As we look closer at helot society, let’s remember that rural helots retained a substantial fixed portion (according to reliable sources 50%) of the produce of that land they worked. Allegedly, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  As long as there is only one male heir to each tenant, such a system is more or less sustainable indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, human demographics do not produce perfect replacement and even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England) families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs rapidly reduces a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.

Stephen Hodkinson in his excellent study Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000) traces the impact of inherence laws on the concentration of wealth in Spartiate society, but helots were not land-owners and could not buy or sell land. Rather, they were transferred with the land from one Spartiate owner to another.  Still, the ancient historians tell us that some helots were wealthy enough by the end of the 5th century to buy their freedom. In short, the accumulation of wealth – albeit not land – was clearly possible even in helot society. Some helots were definitely richer than others. But how?

The key to understanding this is again demographics.  Unlike chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, helots had family units.  In consequence, the sexual relations and off-spring of helots were not controlled by their masters for their own purposes, but developed more naturally.  In Athens and elsewhere, the off-spring of slaves were unwanted extra mouths to feed (that also reduced the concentration and working life of a female slave) and so sexual intercourse between slaves was prevented to the extent possible. The fact that it was not always possible to prevent slave women from getting pregnant would not have worried slave-owners unduly because in ancient Greece it was common to expose unwanted children – even the legitimate children of citizens. The unwanted children of chattel slaves would therefore simply have been left to die. And if a slave became superfluous after infancy, it was still easy to dispose of them by selling them on the  international market. Unwanted Athenians slaves, therefore, could end up in Persia, Egypt or Italy. In short, Athens did not suffer from a growing slave population, because control of the population was in the hands of the slave-owners, who had an interest in keeping it in proportion to their demands.

In Lacedaemon, in contrast, Spartiates could not sell helots outside of Lacedaemon, and furthermore helots lived in family units. As everywhere else on earth where families exist, fathers took pride in at least their male off-spring.  Male children were therefore nourished and raised to adulthood to the extent possible. Most probably, female children received less attention, food and affection (if the evidence of societies across the globe is any guide), but enough girls survived to adulthood to ensure survival of society. Thus, we can hypothesize a growing helot population from the age of Lycurgus (whenever that was) to the classical period – that fateful age when the helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population many times over (though probably not more than serfs outnumbered noblemen in Medieval Europe, by the way.) This is an important dynamic that explains why the imbalance between Spartiate and helot populations was so much greater than the imbalance between the Athenian citizen and slave populations.

This simple demographic fact may also explain why helots, who could not acquire land as their Spartiate masters clearly did, would have become poorer over generations. After all, if all the descendants of the original helot tenant of a kleros were tied to the same plot of land, then a finite plot of land would have been required to sustain entire clans rather than just one nuclear family by the time two hundred years had passed. In short, each individual would have been much poorer than his ancestor.  While there may have been a general tendency toward impoverishment, it was clearly not the fate of all helots or there would have been no wealthy helots able to buy their freedom, and no one doing all the other jobs noted above.

Instead, it appears that some form of voluntary or involuntary primogeniture ensured that only one man had the status of “tenant-in-chief” on each kleros.  He might have many children and many sons, but he had only one “heir.” If there were no sons, then very likely a son-in-law became the “tenant-in-chief,” and if there were no surviving children at all, the kleros was “vacant” and the Spartan state had to find new tenants from a pool of available helots.

In the more common case of a man having more than one son, the non-heirs (most likely the younger sons) would have been “free” to pursue their fortune elsewhere.  As the property of the Lacedaemonian state, of course, helots could not leave Lacedaemon, but to my knowledge there is no reason to think they could not hire themselves out within the boundaries of Lacedaemon. 

Thus younger sons who were lucky or particularly clever might have been apprenticed to learn a craft scorned by the wealthier perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they could have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth.

Meanwhile, young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, probably had the option of hiring out for wages to the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites, or worked directly for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers or bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government.  Helot girls unable to find husbands would, like the daughters of the poor in every society across the globe over the last three thousand years, have found work as nursemaids and housemaids, waiting on the women and children of those better off than themselves.

In other words, helot society was more complex than Spartiate society. On the land there would have been at least three classes of helots.  There would have been “tenants-in-chief” on the prosperous estates of wealthy (even royal) Spartiates, who retained a large portion of significant revenues from the fertile land. Such helots would probably have been able to build substantial dwellings and to hire domestic help and additional labor when necessary (harvest etc.) without dividing up the inheritance and so keeping it in tact.  They would probably have lived better than many free men in other societies. (A good example of this pattern is the wealthy serfs of southwest England who built houses hardly distinguishable from the manors of the gentry.)  

At the same time there would have been helots on poor, run-down or marginal estates that -- like their Spartiate masters -- were constantly on the brink of failure. Very likely, Spartiate masters living in fear of losing their citizenship or barely able to make agoge fees were harsh masters, constantly trying to squeeze more from the kleros or looking for ways to cheat the helots out of their share. Finally, at the bottom of rural society would have been the itinerant agricultural workers without homes of their own, who sold their labor by the day or hour. 

But, as I pointed out above, helot society was not exclusively rural.  Urban helots would also have had different strata living very different life-styles.  Many helots, younger sons and sons of landless fathers, who were unwilling or unable to learn a craft would have made a living as unskilled workers, some as attendants to Spartiates, others as laborers for the Spartan state and army.  Such helots probably lived in barracks, on their employer’s estates, or in small rented rooms, and would have formed a kind of urban proletariat similar to poor craftsmen in Athens and elsewhere.
However, there would also have been skilled craftsmen with workshops and stores.  While some of these might have barely scraped by, living in miserable slums or dark attic rooms rented from their more prosperous neighbors, others – as anywhere on earth – would have had a talent for business and trade. Exceptional craftsmen would have been able to charge more for their goods or might have found other ways to make money. These would have been able to afford apprentices and even slaves of their own. The more they had, the easier it would be for them to accumulate wealth by investing and lending. Such men, like the privileged “tenants-in-chief” on the kleros, would have lived in comparative luxury and would later be in the position to buy their freedom.

In short, in addition to the oppressed, abused and miserable helots familiar to every student of Sparta, there were also large numbers of comparatively well-off helots, who enjoyed considerable freedom, a reasonable standard of living for their age, and were far from discontented with their lot in life.  These helots were what enabled the Spartan state to function so well throughout the archaic age.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Spartan Economy: The Role of the Perioikoi

It is one of the ironies of recorded history that we generally know much more about the tiny, ruling elite in any society than about the masses that actually composed it. Thus we know about the lives and loves of medieval kings, but little about the peasants that represented more than 90% of their subjects. Likewise, Lacedaemonian history is dominated by the tiny class of Spartiates, albeit a great deal has also been written about the (allegedly unjustly) oppressed helots.  The segment of Lacedaemonian society that has received the least scholarly attention is the “middle class” – the perioikoi. 

The lack of modern literature on the perioikoi is undoubtedly due to the lack of historical and archeological information about this segment of Spartan society. The fact is, we know almost nothing about them -- not their origins, their history, their laws, or their legal relationship with the ruling Spartiates and subordinate helots. 

The lack of archeological finds has led some historians to hypothesize that they were an essentially rural population, hardly better off than the helots themselves.  Yet the very fact that they provided hoplites in at least equal numbers as the Spartans casts serious doubt on this thesis.  I would also note that the archeological finds in Sparta itself hardly reflect the might and wealth that we know Sparta enjoyed. For whatever reasons, the existing archeological evidence from Lacedaemon is an incomplete, indeed woefully inadequate, reflection of the society that inhabited the region in the 7th to 3rd Centuries BC.

John Chadwick in “The Mycenaean World" claims that the Mycenaeans found a native population on the Peloponnese, which they subjugated.  When the Dorians invaded, they conquered the remnants of the Mycenaeans.  This sequence of events might explain the three class system in Lacedaemon: the helots were the original inhabitants already reduced to serf-like status by the Mycenaeans, and the Mycenaeans became the perioikoi after the Dorian invasion.  All three groups were essentially ethnically distinct and status depended on who had conquered whom.  The situation appears to have been stable until the Spartans invaded Messenia and subdued another Dorian population. But all this is speculation.

Yet, while we know almost nothing about the perioikoi, we can infer a great deal. We know, for example, that in the later years of the Peloponnesian war, perioikoi hoplites were fully integrated with Spartan units – and that implies comparable levels of training, equipment and above all trust.  While the enemies of Sparta (and modern commentators) make much of the hostility of the helots to Spartiate rule, the loyalty of the perioikoi is rarely questioned – or mentioned, despite its significance. 

Furthermore, we know that Sparta had a fleet but that Spartiates had virtually no opportunity to gain the extremely complex knowledge necessary to build and sail ancient vessels. We know that Spartiates were prohibited from pursuing any profession other than that of arms (and civic administration – see my earlier entry "Not Just Soldiers"), but Lacedaemon had extensive international trade. We know further that Lacedaemon produced and exported timber, pottery, and bronze works. It had mines and quarries, and, of course, every kind of handcraft necessary to daily life in the ancient world from carpentry and metal working to tanning and basket-weaving. If the Spartiates were prohibited from performing these tasks and the helots were working the land, who provided the manpower and the know-how for all these various industries?

The logical answer is the perioikoi. Furthermore, by ascribing to the perioikoi these various urban professions generally held by citizens in other Greek cities, we quickly see a way in which the perioikoi could have been both integrated and co-opted into Spartan society despite their undeniable second-class political status.  The Perioikoi had no voice in Spartan politics and yet they were expected to risk their lives side-by-side with the Spartiates. It hardly seems credible that they would have accepted this situation for long – particularly in the bad years of the Peloponnesian War – if they had not enjoyed other benefits. 

The financial benefits of a monopoly on industry and trade throughout the rich territory of Lacedaemon would have been such an incentive. The very restrictive nature of Spartan citizenship, which confined Spartiates to the army and civic duties, opened immense opportunities for the perioikoi to enrich themselves.  Even if completely excluded from land-holding (which to my knowledge they were not, but which might have been the case when the Spartiate population was expanding in the archaic era), there would still have been ample opportunities to not only earn a living but make a fortune with industry and trade. The experience of other societies shows that a manufacturing and trading middle-class can indeed prosper even when politically disenfranchised (see, for example, Medieval France).  This, I believe, is the key to perioikoi loyalty and the essential character of the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract. 

While Spartiates reserved political power to themselves and evolved a culture that disdained the public display of wealth; the perioikoi traded political enfranchisement for the dual benefits of economic freedom and security.  Behind the shields of Sparta’s incomparable army, the perioikoi were free to enrich themselves for generations.  Only after Sparta fell into decline and her citizen ranks grew too thin to guarantee the protection of Lacedaemon did the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract begin to unravel. The decline of Spartiate population forced an increasing dependence on perioikoi troops, which put perioikoi at ever greater risk. As long as Sparta was winning wars, that might have been acceptable, but once Sparta was defeated at Leuktra the perpetual disenfranchisement of the periokoi became untenable.  Throughout the archaic period, however, the division of labor between Spartiate and perioikoi appears to have worked admirably.

Perioikoi play an important role in my  Leonidas' Trilogy: