Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unwanted Children

One of the ugliest aspects of ancient Sparta to capture the modern imagination is the idea of “unworthy” infants being tossed off a precipitous cliff to their death by cold-hearted elders. I recently stumbled across another blog where the outraged comments about this custom far outweighed all other comments about the “weird” Spartans.

The tradition of Spartan infanticide has its roots in Plutarch, who specifically describes this cruel custom (Lycurgus: 16), but I personally have number problems with the way the custom is handled in modern literature.

Taygetos -- the moutains behind Sparta

First, of course, is the simple fact that the alleged site of these murders on Taygetos has indeed revealed many skeletons – but only of adult males not infants. In short, there appears to be some truth to the notion that people were executed by being thrown off a particular cliff, but no evidence whatever that infants were killed in this way. That said, the actual method of murder is a more-or-less irrelevant detail; the issue is the systematic murder of infants deemed unlikely to grow up healthy and hardy enough to survive the agoge and be good hoplites.

My second problem with Plutarch’s account is King Agesilaus II. Agesilaus was King Agis’s brother, and allegedly attended the agoge because he was not heir apparent. He was also “lame.” So how did an infant that was lame and not the heir apparent to the throne avoid being murdered as an infant and survive the agoge? Did his lameness develop later? Possibly, but the historical record makes no reference to an accident or injury. It appears that at least by the late 5th century the definition of “unworthy” could be very subjective and even lameness was not necessarily grounds for elimination. 

Still, neither the lack of infant skeletons nor the singular case of Agesilas II actually refute or disprove Plutarch either. So we must admit the possibility that he is correct. Nevertheless, I still have a major problem with the modern discussion of Sparta’s policy, and it is the lack of context.

Most ancient Greek families were small. We do not hear of families with dozens of children as in the Middle Ages. Contemporary literature from comic opera to court documents make the notion of widespread sexual abstinence an unlikely explanation of the low birthrates. On the contrary, despite the ready availability of slaves, prostitutes and concubines, Greek literature, comedy, philosophy and legal proceedings assume frequent sexual contact between men and their wives. Birth control therefore had to come from contraception or infanticide. The documentary evidence is that infanticide in the form of abortions and exposure of unwanted infants after birth were the only effective contraceptive known in ancient Greece.

Historians hypothesize that at a woman in ancient Greece would have borne on average 4 to 6 children – and watched 2 to 4 of them die either due to intentional exposure or due to neglect. Most of those neglected/murdered infants would have been female because ancient Greek society was misogynous. Women were considered mentally and physically inferior to men, and they were a financial burden because they required dowries. In societies today with similar attitudes (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, east Africa, traditional China), female fetuses are more likely to be aborted, and female infants are more likely to die of neglect. It is estimated that 2 million female infants die each year because they are unwanted. The Greek comic poet Posidippus put it this way: “Everybody raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.”

In short, exposing unwanted children was a common (not to say universal) practice in ancient Greece. What shocked male commentators from the rest of Greece about the Spartan practice was that 1) it applied to males rather than (worthless) females, and 2) it was left to the state (elders of the tribe) rather than the father to decide a infant’s fate. It was not the fact of murdering children that other Greeks found offensive, but the fact that a father did not have absolute control over the fate of his sons. In Sparta and Sparta alone, an outsider (a tribal elder) could interfere in a father’s despotic control over his own family.

None of this makes the Spartan practice of murdering “unworthy” infants more palatable. It is and remains an aspect of Spartan society that I too find alienating. But I would welcome more recognition of the fact that infanticide was not one of the aspects of Spartan society that made it “weird” and different from the rest of Greece. Infanticide was the norm throughout ancient Greece – including in “enlightened” Athens.

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

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Marines! - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

Sparta was elected to lead the coalition of Greek cities opposing the Persian invasion in 480 BC not only on land but also at sea. Compared to Athens and Corinth, Sparta’s navy was small, but Sparta’s naval tradition was considerably longer than numbers suggest, and Sparta’s perioikoi marines may have enjoyed a strong reputation for competence since they often fought alongside the Spartans.  

Fighting as a marine, however, was a very different skill from fighting in a phalax on land. In the following excerpt from “A Peerless Peer” I describe a completely fictional naval engagement in which Leonidas commands a mixed Spartiate and perioikoi force that is providing marines for a Corinthian fleet bringing grain from the Black Sea. The point of the episode is to remind readers of Corinth’s dependence on imported food, to highlight the fierce fight for the Aegean Sea during the Ionian revolt, and give the reader insight into what such naval actions might look like.

Specifically in this scene, Leonidas and his marines are trying to protect six ships that have been damaged in a storm and are now lashed together like a large float to enable the strong ships to drag the precious cargoes of the disabled ships to port. They are attacked by a squadron of Phoenician triremes under Persian command and manned by Persian marines.

Despite the unusual circumstances, thanks to a lifetime of keeping contact with their rank-mates and endless drill in adjusting their own movements to those of the men left and right, the Spartiates crossed onto the other ship in a line without serious gaps. That proved to be enough. When the Persian archers realized that the wall of bronze was moving toward them, they broke and ran. Only the fastest made it. Anyone who slipped and fell on the bloody deck or tripped over rigging and scattered weapons was stabbed mercilessly by the “lizard stickers” of the Spartan spears.

When the line of bronze shields and scarlet cloaks appeared along the side of the ship, the Phoenician captain shouted furiously and the trireme backwatered wildly, pulling itself free of its victim. As it withdrew, the Corinthian merchantman settled into the water and started to list noticeably. Leonidas turned and led his men up the incline, to get back to the fight that was taking place at the far side of the float.

By the time they were back aboard the “Golden Dawn,” the enemy was pouring over the railing on the far side. There were bodies strewn across the deck of the far ship—Greek bodies for the most part. Arrows were pouring down on them again. It flashed through Leonidas’ mind that he might die right here, along with every Lacedaemonian under his command. He could clearly expect no help from the two Corinthian triremes, which were both fully engaged. The sailors were proving surprisingly poor soldiers—something he hadn’t expected, since they were defending their own ships and lives and had nowhere to escape. But there was no point thinking about it.

He called a halt to dress their lines. They were two men short—the man with the eye wound and someone else. No time to identify the casualties. At least they were on a level deck now and they could advance across it at a steady pace, drawing on their discipline and training.

The second Phoenician hadn’t rammed, but had come alongside. The enemy troops poured over the gunnel along the whole length of the ship. Fortunately, they were the same poorly armed and unarmored men, and were just as undisciplined as their countrymen. Oddly, there seemed to be more of them, and the hindmost men were stabbing the men ahead of them in their backs! They were Greek marines!

At last Leonidas’ brain registered that there was another ship beyond the Phoenician trireme—the Corinthian freighter “Orcelle”!

The fool! But at the same moment, Leonidas felt such a rush of gratitude for the crippled Corinthian [captain commanding her] that it was as if he’d just been reinforced by the Guard. He increased the pace. Step and thrust, step and thrust. The enemy was going down before them with very little chance of defending themselves. The trick was to ignore the arrows, Leonidas decided. Raising his spear arm for the thrust, the man beside Leonidas took an arrow in the armpit and crumpled to the deck with a croaked-off wail. The man behind closed the rank with Leonidas without missing a beat. Step and thrust. They had cleared the deck of the “Golden Dawn.”

Ahead was a confused melee of sailors and an exceptionally large number of marines from the “Orcelle,” mixed with enemy archers and enemy marines. The sun broke over the horizon, and for the first time Leonidas could see that the Persians wore clothes of yellow and purple in bizarre stripes and chains of diamonds. It was the gaudiest sight he had ever seen in his life—all liberally splashed with red. And just beyond, the sun glistened blissfully on a calm and enchanting seascape.

By the time Leonidas made it aboard the Phoenician trireme, he realized that the Greek sailors had gained full possession of her after slaughtering the Phoenician crew. They cheered him and his marines as they crossed the trireme, heading for the “Orcelle.” Lychos was hanging over the side of his ship, clutching the rail. He was dressed in full panoply, and Leonidas knew that it must have half killed him just to put it on.

Leonidas shoved his helmet back and grinned up at the Corinthian from the deck of the captive trireme. “You stupid fool!”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Lychos grinned back at him. “I think the Phoenician captain died of pure astonishment when he realized a freighter was attacking him!”

“I sympathize!”

“It helped that my marines are first-class archers and sent him to Hades with an arrow in his throat.”

Leonidas threw back his head and laughed, then thought to ask, “Just how many marines do you have on board?”

“A lot. My father still won’t let me go anywhere without all the protection he can buy.”

“He’ll wring the marine captain’s neck when he finds out what you did!”

“But it was so beautiful, Leonidas! It was the most beautiful moment of my whole life—coming to your rescue.”

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Spartan Dress and Fashion

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, then 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 (alĂ  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. (Consider, 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 latter 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, 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, amethyst, 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 shells found in the Gulf of Laconia, after all, 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.

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

Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                       Buy Now!