Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Myth of Spartan Pederasty

No myth about Sparta is as persistent or controversial as the claim that pederasty and homosexuality dominated Spartan society.  Even highly reputable historians such as Paul Cartledge subscribe to this theory.  However, the evidence against it is far more compelling than for it. 

Achilles and Patrokles - Ancient Lovers
Xenophon, the only historian with firsthand experience of the agoge (his sons attended it!), states explicitly: "… [Lycurgus] … laid down that in Sparta lovers should refrain from molesting boys, just as much as parents avoid having intercourse with their children or brothers with their sisters."  It is hard to find a more definitive statement than this and from the most credible source.  To dismiss this evidence simply because it does not suit preconceived ideas is arrogant.

Xenophon adds: "It does not surprise me, however, that some people do not believe this since in many cities the laws do not oppose lusting after boys."  This is the crux of the matter.  All of our written sources on Sparta come from these other cities, where pederasty was rampant.  In short, the bulk of the written record on Sparta stems from men who could not imagine a world without homosexual love and pederasty. But then, they also could not imagine women who were educated, physically fit, and economically powerful, who were not also licentious and lewd.  Modern readers ought to recognize that pederasty is not inherent in society – particularly not in a society where women are well integrated. 

This image shows the peplos, still worn by Spartan women but considered lewd by Athenians; Spartan women allegedly also learned to use the bow.
My position is supported by another ancient authority, Aristotle, who blamed all of Sparta's ills on the fact that the women were in control of things – a fact that he attributed to the lack of homosexuality in Spartan society generally. In this Aristotle exhibits an astonishing appreciation of psychology.  Modern research conclusively shows that male victims of child abuse generally grow into misogynous men.  The status of women in Athens fits this pattern perfectly, while the status of women in Sparta completely contradicts – indeed, refutes – the thesis that Spartan men were systematically subjected to sexual abuse by their elders as children. (An excellent discussion of child abuse in ancient Greece can be found in Enid Bloch's "Sex Between Men and Boys in Classical Greece: Was it Education for Citizenship or Child Abuse?," in Journal of Men's Studies, January 2001.)

Finally, Herodotus, who was always happy to provide some juicy little story about a man who covets a close friend's wife, or one who steals a rival's bride just before the wedding, has not a single tale in which there is mention of a Spartan with a male lover – either boy or man.  This omission is significant and should not be ignored.

The archaeological evidence from Sparta likewise demonstrates an almost complete absence of pornographic images on artifacts.  This is in sharp contrast to the plethora of explicitly pornographic art from both Athens and Corinth.  While pederasty is as frequently depicted in Athenian and Corinthian art as heterosexual sex, no homoerotic art originating in Sparta has -- to my knowledge -- been found or identified. (Please correct me, if I am wrong!)

On the other hand, some of the most important and lovely pieces of Spartan sculpture depict couples sitting side by side.  Regardless of whom the figures were intended to depict (Helen and Menelaos, Chilon and his wife, a Spartan king, and his queen), what is significant is the greater importance given to depictions of a man and wife sitting side by side – that is, in partnership – compared to depictions of sexual intercourse.  This is because marriage in Sparta was a partnership, not a tyranny as in the rest of Greece. Nor was a Spartan marriage merely for reproduction, it was also consciously intended to bring sexual satisfaction to both partners. Xenophon explains that Spartan laws required men and women to marry in their physical prime and not when too young (for girls) or too old (for men) and that they should be initially restricted in their sexual contact so as to not to become satiated, but rather to enjoy sex together.  Note that there is an explicit emphasis on the desirability of the female partner enjoying sex as much as the male.

Thus, rather than being something frightful and dangerous that male relatives needed to vigilantly guard (as in the rest of Greece), female sexuality was perceived in Sparta as a positive factor that contributed to a good marriage, to healthy children, and so to the well-being of the state.
This acceptance of women's sexuality is further underlined by the fact that while Athenian plays demean and insult women (see any of Euripides' plays), the poems of Alkman, considered the most Spartan of all poets by the ancient Greeks, openly admire women.  His poems, written in the second half of the 7th century BC, were the lyrics of songs performed at public festivals by girls' choruses. Alkman also wrote poetry expressing his own adoration of the Spartan girls he worked with.  He was considered by ancient scholars to be the first love poet – a notable distinction for the poet whom the ancients viewed as "the most Spartan"!  None of Alkman's texts can be classed as pornographic, but many modern commentators assert – because the texts of the lyrics, designed to be sung by girls' choruses, praise the girls' beauty – that the songs were lesbian in nature.  This is nonsense.  Boys' and men's choruses sang about bravery and girls about beauty because those were the virtues admired in each respective group.  What the texts (and the fact that Alkman was so revered in Sparta) tell us is that the Spartans enjoyed light-hearted music and tributes to female beauty in a public context -- not merely in the back alleys of the red-light district.

Furthermore, while female sexuality was recognized and respected, Spartan males were expected to find sexual satisfaction within marriage.  Thus Sparta was reputed to have no brothels at all within the city limits, and Spartans claimed to know neither whores nor adultery.  To date, the archaeological evidence supports the assertion that there were no brothels in Sparta, and the absence of heterosexual (as with homosexual) pornographic artwork further supports the thesis that in contrast to other cities, sex in Sparta was a private – rather than a public – affair.

Given the fact that Spartan sexuality was so different from that of the other Greeks, it is not surprising that foreign observers of Sparta in the archaic and classical periods have a great deal to say about Spartan sexual relations.  The fact that the most famous adulteress of ancient myth, Helen of Troy, was Spartan contributed to the general view of Spartan women as licentious, a view explicitly underlined by Aristotle in his diatribe against Spartan women.  The legal right to "wife sharing" further influenced the view of women as sexually uncontrolled – even though the law was clearly designed to serve the state's need for new generations of citizens, not women's lust, and could only occur with the husband's consent.  Likewise, the fact that Spartan women were educated, outspoken, and seen in public elicited universal condemnation from other Greeks.  Thus Euripides says in Andromache: "Spartan girls could not be chaste even if they wanted to. They leave home, and with naked thighs and their dresses loosened, they share the running tracks and gymnasiums with the young men."  It was inconceivable to an Athenian that a woman could go to school with boys and engage in sports in front of boys without becoming sexually degraded as well.  Modern readers, however, should not lose sight of the fact that Athenian playwrights were attacking their enemy when they described Spartans.  Describing the wives of an enemy as whores and the men as "faggots" was (and still is) a common – if juvenile – means of belittling a foe.

In conclusion, contemporary sources suggest that Sparta was not a particularly homoerotic society, and certainly there was no institutionalized pederasty or homosexual behavior prior to the mid-5th century BC. On the contrary, in Sparta women's sexuality was not only recognized but respected and to a degree encouraged.  Spartan artifacts furthermore suggest that Sparta was indeed more prudish than other Greek societies.  The evidence suggests that sex in Sparta was a private matter, sought inside marriage, rather than public entertainment pursued at symposia and on the streets as in Athens. The Spartan ideal of sex was an activity between equals, not an act of domination by an adult male upon a child, a slave, or an illiterate and powerless wife. 

My depiction of Spartan society in the Leonidas trilogy is based on the above analysis. Pederasty plays no role in the Agoge.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

A History Lesson on Messenia - Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

Sparta'a conquest and control of Messenia was both as source of wealth and an Achilles' heel. In this excerpt from "A Peerless Peer" the young (22 year old) Leonidas makes his first trip to Messenia in the company of his Messenian attendant.

When it became completely dark, they had no choice but to find a relatively sheltered fold in the mountains and settle in for the night. They tethered and fed the horses, and then dug themselves into the leaves to set up a tent. They cooked a meal over a fire they built at the entrance to the tent, then crawled inside and lay down with Beggar between them.

After a moment Leonidas asked, “Is this safe?”

“The fire will keep away the wild beasts,” Mantiklos assured him.

“I was thinking of your countrymen,” Leonidas answered, remembering with unwanted vividness all the childhood stories of Messenians slitting the throats of unsuspecting Spartans. It even occurred to him that Mantiklos, up to now kept in check by the fact that they had
been with the Spartan army where Leonidas was surrounded by his comrades, might have been awaiting this opportunity.

“You are well armed and well trained. It is unlikely that the kind of men who live in the wilderness could kill you. And there is Beggar, too.”

The bitch lifted her head at the sound of her name, looked over at Mantiklos, then yawned and flopped her head back down, obviously intent on sleep after the long, hard journey.

“Do you regret your decision [to seek employment with me]?” Leonidas asked abruptly, the cold keeping him from sleep.

“No. But sometimes I wish I were not so alone.”

 “Alone?” Leonidas turned on his side and propped himself on one elbow to look at his attendant. They were never alone. They lived in barracks, drilled in units, went to the baths and gymnasia in groups, and sang in chorus. The rarest thing in the life of a young Spartiate
and his attendant was solitude.

“The others, the attendants, they’re all Laconian. They look on me with as much suspicion as you do. Not to mention your comrades! Sometimes I get very tired of all that suspicion and hostility.”

“It’s hard to forget two hundred years of warfare.”

“Especially when you declare war on us every year!” Mantiklos snapped back.

“That does not seem to bother the Laconian helots,” Leonidas pointed out. “And we only declare war on you because you are so hostile. We live in peace with the perioikoi, and Tegea, and all the cities of the League, which were our enemies once,” Leonidas pointed out.

“But not with Argos!” Mantiklos reminded him. “You only make peace with people who submit to you. Like hounds, the others have to lie down and offer you their jugular. Then you accept them as long as they run in your pack. But if men are as proud as you, then you cannot abide them, and you fight until one or the other of you is destroyed.”

“Then all Messenia needs do to have peace is to submit—truly submit—to us.”

“But that doesn’t make sense! You admire courage above all else. You should respect us more for not being submissive! You should admire our spirit.”

“But you would never be satisfied with our admiration. You want control of your country back. You want independence for Messenia.”

“Of course we do!”

“But we can’t afford to give it to you. We can’t support the Spartan army—not in today’s world where other armies are so well equipped—without the riches of Messenia.”

“Then you will always live in fear of us.”

They were silent for a few moments, each following his own thoughts. After a while Leonidas asked in a low, earnest voice, “Why did you want to serve me?”

“I wanted to learn what the Spartan army was really like, from the inside. I wanted to understand what made it so good, so I would know how to fight it.”

Leonidas held his breath for a moment, registering that this was more dangerous than the murder he had feared. He should have thought of this earlier. “And now you will stay here and start training rebels?”

Mantiklos laughed. “If only it were that easy!”

“What do you mean?”

The other shrugged, then sat up to readjust the sheepskins he had spread over himself to help keep warm before asking, “Do you think there are many Messenians like me?”

“I have no idea.”

“You will see. Most of my countrymen are craven. They want their freedom only if others are willing to fight and die for it. They want independence only if it does not cost them anything. The bulk of my countrymen are whiners—always complaining and moaning about their fate, but unwilling to take any risks to change it.” With these words, Mantiklos lay down again and turned his back to Leonidas.

The following day they kept to the coastal road following the shore of the Gulf, and at last Mantiklos seemed to lose his inhibitions and began to talk. He started hesitantly, but when he realized that Leonidas was interested, he talked more and more expansively. He told Leonidas about the battles that had taken place in the surrounding countryside during the First and Second Messenian Wars.

Of course, Leonidas had already heard about these battles. They were an essential component of agoge curriculum. But he pretended otherwise, responding rather with wonder and pressing Mantiklos for details, because Mantiklos’ version of what had happened was very different from what was taught in the agoge.

Mantiklos stressed again and again that his forefathers had been heroic freedom fighters, while Leonidas’ forefathers represented brutal and corrupt power. Mantiklos’ ancestors had been crushed by greater numbers, greater wealth, superior weapons—never by the cleverness or courage of their adversaries. Yet when Leonidas looked around him, he saw that Messenia was richer and more prosperous than Laconia. Messenia should have had numbers and wealth on her
side. As for weapons, it does not take long to imitate the weapons and tactics of one’s adversaries. They taught that at the agoge, too: if the enemy has something that you find hard to defeat, then learn what it is and how to counter it—fast.

So Leonidas did not discard what he had learned in the agoge. He thought that the agoge version could not be so far from the truth, or he would be Mantiklos’ attendant and Mantiklos the wealthy hoplite—not the other way around. But he realized that the way one was told about the deeds of one’s ancestors had a huge impact on one’s perception of oneself.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Speech like Spearpoints

In the ancient world, the Spartans were (in)famous for their culture of silence. Ancient “Laconophiles” collected alleged examples of Spartan speech all characterized by pithiness, and Xenophon stresses the – evidently unusual – ability of Spartan youth to hold their tongues except when directly addressed. Perhaps the most graphic example of the Spartan distaste for excessive verbiage, however, is the story of the Samian ambassadors, who sought Spartan aid in their fight against Polycrates.  According to Herodotus, the Samians gave a very long speech after which the Spartan’s complained about having forgotten the start of the speech by the end of it.  When the Samians then brought a bag and said the bag needed flour, the Spartans replied that the word ‘bag’ was superfluous – and then proceeded to give the aid requested. (Herodotus 3:46). Because Spartan eloquence was characterized by an absolute minimum of words, we describe minimalist speech as “Laconic” event to this day.  But while the Spartan culture of reducing speech to its bare essentials and speaking only when necessary was described and admired by ancient observers, the reasons for Sparta’s culture of silence are less obvious.

W. Lindsay Wheeler in his excellent article “Doric Crete and Sparta, home of Greek Philosophy,” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 3, # 2), claims that silence was a critical component of the Spartan educational system. He alleges that silence was purposely imposed on youth so that “their thoughts should gain force and intensity by compression” and so their speech would be “short, concise and to the point, like their spear points.”  He goes on expound on the depth to which philosophy lay at the roots of Spartan society and culture. Clearly, a society that valued philosophical thought based on observation of nature, scorned idle chatter, and it is fair to assume that in Sparta men were expected to speak only when they had something worth saying.

During a recent intensive training course in administering first aid to the victims of traumatic injuries, I was struck by an additional feature of the Spartan culture of silence – its utility on the battlefield. The training focused on providing first aid to trauma victims in an environment without medicine, medical technology or specialized first-aid kits. It was heavily informed by recent military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the causes of battlefield injuries have changed dramatically since the age of Sparta, the result – severed limbs, massive hemorrhaging, life-threatening puncture wounds and crippling fractures – would have been familiar to any Spartan ranker. Astonishingly, despite all the advances in modern medicine, the first response probably has not changed much in two and a half millennia. 

This is where the Spartan culture of silence might have proved its utility – if it was not part of the very reason for evolving it in the first place.  In warfare, serious casualties are inherently traumatic, which means the victims inevitably suffer from shock and hypothermia. Both conditions worsen, if a patient is agitated and unable to keep still. If, on the other hand, a victim has been trained to remain still and silent in ordinary circumstances, then they have a better chance of also remaining calm (and so preserving rather than squandering their strength, blood and breath) in a crisis too. 

Furthermore, it appears (but I would welcome a medical opinion on this!) that the natural pain-killers the body produces in situations of extreme trauma are more effective if adrenaline levels are lower. Thus, developing behavior that reduces or shortens the period in which adrenaline is pumped into the body, may increase the speed with which natural painkillers are released into the bloodstream.  Thus, far from being super-macho heroes, who ignored pain (as portrayed in most cartoons, films and novels), Spartans may literally have experienced less acute pain when dealing with battle wounds. 

If we accept that this was a possibility, then it is even possible that Spartans, having observed how calm and stillness improved the survival rate among battlefield casualties, concluded that cultivating these behavior patterns in their children and youth would help them to respond accordingly on the battlefield. In short, the culture of silence and self-control may have helped Spartans to experience less pain and survive more readily on the battlefield, and the fact that self-control and silence was effective on the battlefield may have reinforced the culture of silence in the agoge and among adult, male citizens.    
Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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