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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Of Dining Clubs and Families

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meals.  These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Although it was common, popular and indeed considered a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens as well, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar in the ancient world because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship and failure to make the designated fixed contributions to the mess could cost a man his citizenship. To the spoiled pallets of other Greeks -- most of whom would never have eaten at any a Spartan syssitia -- it was furthermore assumed that the fare offered at these dining clubs was dismal.

Aside from the debatable question of the quality and taste of food prepared by different cooks at different messes over centuries, these characteristics of Spartan dining clubs are well established. Yet the reason(s) the Spartans instituted and maintained this peculiar tradition is controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different age cohorts dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire of the Spartan state to weaken family ties. 

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

The problem with the comparison between 20th Century totalitarian states and Sparta is two-fold. First, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. The reason they sought to undermine the family was because they recognized families as inherently conservative. Yet Powell himself stressed the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta! If Sparta was essentially conservative, than no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. The experience of 5,000 years of history supports this fact. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change — not the other way around.

The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is hardly a good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but the fact is most men today also eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home among their work colleagues rather than their family. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important. 
I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families.  On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.  

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, syssitia were not noted for the entertainment of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the tradition of Athenian symposia.  At the latter, men allegedly caroused together, indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female, before staggering home drunk. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. Attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a Totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic destruction of family and individual will reveal an alarming lack of objectivity. 

The Sparta of my novels reflects the above reality rather than the artificial austerity of most modern writers. Read:

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spartan Ethos - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Sparta sought to inculcate its citizens with common values and attitudes by requiring the sons and daughters of citizens to attend a public school for 14 years. In a society as small as Sparta’s, this state school was not larger than in a small town in the U.S. and the results were much the same: close identification with the institution and widespread familiarity with the character strengths and weaknesses of classmates. Furthermore, the headmaster of the school was an elected official, who could be dismissed by the Assembly if he lost the confidence and respect of his fellow citizens.

In the following excerpt from “A Heroic King” a foreigner interested in enrolling his son in the Spartan agoge is given a lesson about Spartan culture from a Deputy Headmaster.

An eirene in the distinctive short haircut of his position, wearing an unbleached chiton under a leather corselet, pushed two boys with shaved heads, bare feet, and ragged chitons into the office. “You sent for us, sir,” the eirene explained, coming to attention with his hands at his sides and looking respectfully over Alkander’s shoulder.

Alkander excused himself to [the visiting Corinthian] Lychos and went to stand in front of the boys. While the eirene stood very straight and still, the miscreants were eight-year-olds, and they had not yet absorbed the agoge discipline to the same degree. They kept squirming and sneaking glances at Alkander. “Do you know why you are here?” Alkander opened the interrogation.

“Alpheus says it is just for throwing stones at some stupid helots,” one of the boys announced in a defiant tone, with an angry look at his eirene.

“And you do not think that is reason enough to have to face me?” Alkander answered the boy’s tone rather than his words.

The boys continued to look sullen, and one of them asked, “What’s wrong with throwing rocks at helots?”

“Well, tell me this: Can the Spartan army fight without food?” Alkander asked.

The boys shook their heads vigorously.

“Do you produce food for the Spartan army?”

They shook their heads even more vigorously.

“Does your father produce food for the army?”

“Of course not! He’s Spartiate,” the bolder boy countered indignantly, and then dropped his eyes before his eirene could cuff him.

“But Spartiates have to eat,” Alkander told him reasonably. “If you don’t produce food and your father doesn’t produce food, who does? Does your mother plow and plant the grain?”

“Of course not!” The talkative boy sounded very angry.

“Who does?” Alkander insisted.

“Helots!” he spat out.

“Exactly. So you, your father, and the Spartan army all depend on helots to survive, don’t you?”

Sullen silence answered him. “Don’t you?” Alkander insisted.

“But farming is slave work, helot work! It’s for stupid beasts!” the other boy insisted.

“Do you know a beast that can plow and plant and harvest?”


“The character of your actions was fundamentally hostile to the Spartan state, because no matter how small or minor your actions may seem, they were directed against a pillar of our society: the freedom of Spartiates to focus on their duties as citizens.” Alkander looked from one boy to the other. They were both frowning, but he hoped it was now more from puzzlement than from resentment. “Without helots to work our estates and grow our food, we would be like the other Greeks, who have to earn a living first and are soldiers second.” Again he paused to let this sink in before asking, “For sabotaging the Spartan state, your punishment has been very mild, hasn’t it?”

The boys started squirming in anticipation of the cane.

“Eirene.” Alkander turned to Alpheus. “I think these boys should go without bread, cheese, sausage, honey, or any other farm produce until they learn to appreciate the importance of agricultural labor. They are to be allowed to eat only those things they can gather, trap, or hunt from the wild.”

“Yes, sir,” the eirene answered dutifully, looking uneasy. At eight, the boys could not yet hunt, had barely learned the fundamentals of trapping, and had not yet learned how to distinguish edible from poisonous plants.

“I want to see these boys again in a week.”

“Yes, sir,” the eirene swallowed nervously, recognizing that his obedience to these orders would be assessed by the state of the boys in the next interview.

“Dismissed,” Alkander ordered, and the eirene shooed the boys back out into the hall.

Alkander turned to Lychos and opened his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “You see the limits of our discipline.”

“I see that you demand understanding as well as obedience.”

“That is the objective, but those boys learned contempt for helots from their parentsevidence that my predecessors failed to impress upon earlier generations our interdependence and respect for each man, free or unfree.”

Lychos raised his eyebrows at that. “Would you teach the boys respect for slaves?”

Alkander tilted his head. “Why not? A man’s status has little to do with his character. After all, a slave can be set free, or a freeman can be captured. There is a young man here, a Chian, who was born free but taken captive by the Persians when he was still a boy. The Persians cut off his genitals so brutally that he was lamed. Yet he freed himself by running away. Didn’t he show his greatest courage whenas a slavehe ran away?”

Lychos bowed his head in concession. Alkander continued, “I try to teach the boys that a man’s characternot his status, his clothes, or his looksis what makes him valuable. I try to point out that a helot who is hard-working and honest is better than even a king who is deceitful, corrupt, or profligate.”

“Using, I presume, Leotychidas and not Leonidas as your example of a profligate king,” Lychos quipped.

Alkander laughed briefly, but then grew serious. “The Spartan agoge teaches paradigms for living rather than facts.”

“And what is the most important paradigm of all?” Lychos asked.

“Consciousness of our mortality.”

Lychos started, but then nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course. You want to prepare the boys to die for Sparta.”

“No, not at all!” Alkander countered emphatically. “We make our sons confront death when trapping, hunting, and sacrificing so that they learn to appreciate the sheer beauty of life.” He paused and then tried to explain. “Look at it this way: A Spartan youth does not need a fancy new himation to make him feel good; just being warm will satisfy him. Nor does he need exotic fish rushed into the city on ice and doused in spicy sauces in order to feel well fed; just filling his belly will do that. Just as deprivation makes a man satisfied with very little, consciousness of his mortality makes a man treasure each and every day. At its best, consciousness of the shortness of life makes a man use each day the way a miser spends gold. Does this make sense
to you?” Alkander stopped himself to ask the Corinthian.

Lychos nodded slowly. “I think for the first time I am beginning to understand Leonidas.”