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Monday, August 15, 2016

Alternative Views of Spartan Sexuality - Excerpts from "A Peerless Peer"

Welcome to the Rave Reviews Book Club 2016 Book and Blog Party. Helena P. Schrader is delighted to participate in this an event featuring a wide-range of talent from all genres from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

If you leave a comment on this blog entry, you will qualify for a free ebook copy of "A Peerless Peer."  As I discussed in the last entry, Sparta differed significantly from other Greek cities with respect to it's laws against pederasty and attitudes toward women. In the following excerpts from "A Peerless Peer" I offer some alternative -- I believe far more plausible -- depictions of Spartan attitudes toward sex.

The first excerpt looks at reaching puberty in Sparta, starting with a helot mother's reflections and sliding into the views of a Spartan maiden and her grandmother:

Laodice had lived in Laconia long enough to know that the sexually active youths of the agoge considered helot girls “fair game.” Not that many of the youths of the agoge would actually rape the girls (though it happened now and again); most knew that using force against the helots working for another Spartiate could get them into serious trouble. The fact that Laodice’s girls were Leonidas’ helots made the situation even clearer. It was well known that Leonidas would not tolerate any abuse of his helots, and any youth who went too far would lose his hide.

The problem was that Laodice’s girls seemed to have picked up the Laconian attitude toward these youths—namely, that it was an honor to be deflowered by a true Spartiate. The neighbor girls candidly argued that there could be nothing better than a Spartiate lover who paid you in game he had hunted or trapped, or even made the girls pretty trinkets with rolled stones and carved figurines.

Their mothers had nothing to say against the practice. It seemed they had all done it in their youth, and could point proudly to this or that item that had been a gift of this or that Spartiate—now respectable citizens with wives and children and honors. So the mothers encouraged their daughters’ promiscuousness, saying that it added to the family diet and income, while the girls themselves loved being courted and bedded by the “golden” youth of the agoge.

The smarter girls even built up a dowry from the gifts of their Spartiate lovers to make them more attractive to their own class. To Laodice’s incomprehension, the offspring of such unions carried no particular stigma. They were simply raised like other helot children, either by the girl’s family or by the girl herself after she married.

To be sure, helot youths sometimes resented the deflowering of their future brides by their masters if they already fancied a girl, but there wasn’t much they could do to stop it. Mantiklos had gotten into a terrible fight because he caught the girl he was courting with a meleirene. He’d attacked her in his rage, provoking her brothers to come to her defense. Mantiklos had ended up with a broken nose, several cracked ribs, and more simmering hatred toward the Spartiates than ever. But Laodice knew that the more mercenary helot youths actively encouraged their sweethearts to get as much material gain from their lovers as possible.


As the summer progressed, even the Eurotas shrank to a ghost of its normal self. With baskets of washing on their heads, the helot women had to cross the mud flats left behind on the riverbed as the water retreated. The mud clung to their legs and drew them deeper into the morass with each precarious step. When finished, they had to trudge back with the wet laundry on their heads, and sometimes women lost their balance in the treacherous quagmire, spilled their laundry, and had to start all over again.

For the youths of the agoge, the low water meant they had to wade through the stinking mud just to go for a swim at all—and then wade through the mud again afterward, getting dirty and sweaty again. The boys therefore chopped down trees and built a precarious walkway across the mud to the deeper parts of the river; but this only led to fierce fights between gangs of boys defending the bridge and those trying to take it. Generally they all ended up in the mud flats on either side of the bridge, coated in mud like piglets.

Disgusted, the teenage girls withdrew and found their own swimming hole farther downstream. The currents of the river, flowing over the roots of some ancient plane trees on a little island, had carved out a deep pool. The girls could reach the island with dry feet, because the channel on the eastern shore had dried up and the girls could leap across the narrow gully. The maidens stripped down, hanging their chitons on the trees, and with squeals and giggles of delight slipped into the cool water. They sank under the surface and let the water sweep their long hair downstream, then popped up again to catch their breath and wring the water from their hair. Their high-pitched chattering and giggling seemed to carry for miles.

The girls were soon discovered by some off-duty meleirenes, who didn’t bother with the detour around the eastern shore and plunged right into the river, chasing the girls back to their island and their clothes. It was a silly game, as far as Gorgo could see. Disgusted with the brainless behavior of her friends, she grabbed her things and fled.

One of the meleirenes tried to cut her off at the gully, but she gave him a kick in the direction of his groin that he just managed to deflect and told him bluntly, “I’m not interested!” Her tone of voice was too decisive for him to mistake it as flirting. He let her go.

Gorgo ran barefoot across the floodplain, which was now starting to bake and crack, and scrambled up the far bank, pulling herself up on dusty saplings. Only when she reached the road did she untie her sandals from around her neck and put them on her feet. She started tramping at a good marching pace in the direction of her grandmother’s kleros.

When she arrived half an hour later, the staff greeted her with exclamations of dismay. She usually rode over, and today she looked much the worse for wear. “Good heavens, girl! You look like something the cat dragged in!” her grandmother’s old housekeeper exclaimed with humor.

Gorgo was reminded of the way her mother had always said that to her. She snapped unkindly at the old helot woman, “Maybe I am something the cat dragged in! Leave me alone!”

Overhearing this remark as she arrived, Chilonis exclaimed sharply, “Gorgo! You’ve no right to use that tone of voice to poor Irene! Apologize at once!”

Gorgo was in no mood to apologize to anyone. “Why should I?” she retorted. “She says I looked like something the cat dragged in, and all I said—”

“I heard what you said! It’s not what you said but the way you said it! What on earth has got into you? Apologize to Irene and then come with me.”

Gorgo had been late to mature. At thirteen, many had mistaken her for a child of ten or eleven. She had not started her monthly flux until this past spring, as she turned fifteen, and her breasts were only just starting to develop. Chilonis had therefore already diagnosed teenage moodiness and insolence, and she doubted if there were much she could do but wait for Gorgo to grow out of this unpleasant phase.

Gorgo turned to the helot and said in an angry, uncontrite voice, “I’m sorry if I was rude to you, but I don’t think it’s particularly nice to call someone ‘something the cat dragged in.’ I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if I said it to you!”

The woman opened her mouth, flabbergasted, and then looked at her mistress, who sighed and said simply, “I’ll deal with her, Irene. You go back to your work.”

Chilonis then led the way out of the kitchen to her own study and sat down to face the now sullen Gorgo. “If you’re going to go around dressed like a boy of the agoge, with your hair hanging unkempt about your shoulders and your feet filthy, you deserve to be told what you look like.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? Sit around combing out my hair and oiling my skin for all the boys to see, like Nausica and Alkyone and Phaenna?”

Chilonis noted that now Phaenna, Gorgo’s one and only friend, had apparently joined the clique of girls who were taking a pronounced interest in the opposite sex. That was normal. But she understood Gorgo, too.

Gorgo plopped herself down on the bench by the door, her long, lovely legs thrust out in front of her, but with her shoulders hunched and her head hanging as she picked absently at her frayed belt, and complained, “The only thing they can talk about is boys, boys, boys—who’s won what race, who’s had to go down to the pits, who’s been caught with some helot girl. It drives me crazy!”

“Um,” Chilonis commented. It could indeed be tedious—but it was also biological and inevitable. “Aren’t you interested in any of them?”

“The meleirenes?” Gorgo asked, horrified. “A bunch of pimply little runts, whose only interest in us is sex! And they don’t care which of us they get their hands on, either!” Gorgo shot back.

Chilonis laughed—because it was so true.

“I don’t see what’s so funny!” Gorgo demanded, her green eyes flashing and her lips thrust out in a stubborn pout. “You’re the one who always said a woman isn’t just a bedmate or a breeding factory—not to use the language they do!”

Chilonis sighed. It wasn’t easy being fifteen.

In this second excerpt,  Leonidas and a Corinthian youth Lycos, who has been partially crippled in an accident, discuss the difference in cultures after precipitously leaving an Athenian symposium.

They caused a small commotion when they reached the ship, and at first the helmsman was angry. He insisted on sending a crewman to tell Archilochos where his son was; but eventually the crew calmed down and went back to sleep, while Leonidas and Lychos settled on the deck between the steering oars. Leonidas accepted wine in his water, and they talked while the stars turned slowly overhead.

Lycos asked, “Why aren’t you married?” 

“I’m still on active service and have to live in barracks,” Leonidas answered, hoping Lychos had not heard that many Spartiates married anyway.

“That sounds horrible,” Lychos admitted candidly.

Leonidas thought about it. “You’ll laugh, but in a way it makes me enjoy the rest of life more.”

Lychos did laugh, but remarked, “Now, perhaps, you understand about my pain! It is horrible, but it reminds me that I am alive. And without it, if I were dead, I would not be sitting on this warm deck with a cooling breeze and my first real friend beside me.”

“I’m honored. But what of Chambias?”

“Chambias?” Lychos looked up at the stars. “Chambias has always been my friend because our fathers want it; but, you see, tonight he would have been like the Athenians—”

“And Euryleon!” Leonidas snorted.

“Yes, and Euryleon. He would have justified staying and drinking until he couldn’t walk in a straight line and had to vomit in the street while slaves guided him home. That’s what they’re all doing now, you know? They will drink until they can’t see straight or stand upright, and then they will stagger home, feeling miserable but telling themselves they are ‘real men.’ What does being pissing drunk have to do with manhood? I don’t understand it.”

Leonidas didn’t understand it either, so they were comfortably silent together until Lychos remarked, “When Kallixenos was my lover, he often hurt me. He knew he was doing it, yet he did it intentionally—just to see how far he could go, to test just how great my love for him was.”

“Then Kallixenos is more than an ass, he is a bastard.”

“He will be a very powerful bastard,” Lychos reflected. “He is the kind of man who would be a tyrant if he could be.”

“You know that in Sparta the sexual misuse of a child, male or female, is against our laws, don’t you?” Leonidas asked.

“And do all Spartans live by your laws?”

“Of course not. There are as many cruel and selfish men in Sparta as anywhere; but at least they have to do it in secret and fear the scorn of their neighbors and officers if they are discovered. If a child’s parents find out, for example, they can demand terrible punishment.”

Lychos thought about that and nodded. “You know, it sometimes seems as if you Spartans live your whole lives in fear of your neighbors and officers. You have so little chance to be yourselves, for better or for worse. You must all wear the same clothes. You even have to wear your hair and beards the same way! And you must behave in set ways and follow the same profession.”

Leonidas thought about this carefully, because there had been times when he had resented all these things; but he asked back, “Is it really all that different in Corinth and Athens? Don’t potters’ sons become potters and tinkers’ sons tinkers? And it seems to me the dictates of fashion are as stringent as our traditions.

“On the whole, yes, but there is no compulsion about it. I think what horrifies outsiders about Sparta is that it is all enforced by law and custom and is so, well, brutal.”

“But it was Kallixenos who hurt you,” Leonidas pointed out. “And Spartans aren’t really all the same. In fact, the reasoning behind us all having a kleros of the same size and all dressing in the same manner is that then the real differences—those of character rather than mere wealth or station—are more evident. On the surface, Kallixenos is a well-educated, well-mannered young man. I imagine that his good clothes and good looks deceive many about his true nature.”

“Yes,” Lychos admitted; “but so do your clothes and looks deceive, Leonidas. When we see you, muscular and tanned and standing straight as a spear, we see only a stupid Spartan hoplite, but you are far more subtle and complex than you appear to be.”

“I suppose we all are,” Leonidas concluded. They left it at that and drifted off to sleep.

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