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Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Good Spartan - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Spartan understanding of duty was far more complex than most modern literature portrays. As I pointed out at the start of the month, Spartans did not expect their soldiers to triumph or die, but rather to achieve strategic objectives — which sometimes entailed both retreat and even surrender. Ultimately, the most important thing in Spartan society was not victory, but loyalty.

In this excerpt for “A Heroic King” Leonidas attempts to tell a twenty-year-old Eirene, who has miscalculated rations for his unit and is ashamed of himself for being ‘thick,’ that loyalty to one’s charges is more important than being exceptional.

Leonidas waved Alpheus silent. “Maron, do you think I am a good Spartan?”

“Yes, sir! One of the best!” Maron told him, so earnestly that Leonidas would have laughed if the circumstances had been different.

“Do you think I know what is good for Lacedaemon?”

“Yes, sir!” Maron assured him.

“Then I want you to listen to what I am going to say very carefully, and I want you to remember it and remind yourself of it whenever you doubt yourself. Are you listening?”

Maron looked at him with wide, dark eyes under a forehead creased with concentrationanticipating that what Leonidas was about to say would be hard to understand and memorize. “Sparta needs good men. It needs clever men.” Leonidas heard Alpheus suck in his breath in outrage, but Maron just stared at him like a calf looking at the butcher. “And it needs men who are not so clever.” Alpheus let out his breath in relief, but Maron still looked like a steer awaiting slaughter.

Leonidas took a deep breath and dropped on to the ground to make himself more comfortable. He looked up at the branches overhead and had an inspiration. “Maron, what kind of trees are in this orchard?”

“Plums, pears, apples, apricots, and almonds.”

Leonidas nodded. “And which is the best fruit?”

“Do you mean, which do I like most?”

“No, which is most important for Lacedaemon?”

Maron frowned harder and glanced at Alpheus, but his younger brother lifted his shoulders and shook his head to indicate he didn’t know the answer, either. After a moment he gave up and admitted, “I don’t know, sir. I can’t work out which is most important.” As he spoke, he hung his head in despair over his own stupidity.

“That’s because they are all equally important,” Leonidas told him. He waited. “Do you understand what I am saying? We are all equally important. Lacedaemon needs us all.” Then he couldn’t control himself and added a little flippantly, “With some rare exceptions like Alcidas and my brother Brotus.” Alpheus laughed, but Maron was confused and looked back and forth between them. 

Leonidas grew serious again. “That was just a jokeabout my brother, I mean. I am very serious about Sparta needing you, Orsiphantus’ son Maron

“But I’m not good at anything!” Maron protested. “If you knew

Leonidas cut him short. “I know a great deal more about you, Maron, than you think. I know you are more dependable than most of the so-called ‘clever’ boysincluding your own brother here.” Leonidas said this with a quick grin at Alpheus, who understood him and smiled back. “I know you are conscientiousfar more so than I was at your age.” He paused and then asked, “Did you know I had a son by my first wife?”

Maron shook his head.

“Well, I did. He was killed in the same fires that killed your father. But if he had lived, he would be old enough for the agoge now, and there is no other youth in your entire age cohort that I would rather have had for his eirene.”

That took Maron by surprise, and he looked at Leonidas with wide, questioning eyes. “Really, sir?”

“Yes,” Leonidas assured him and waited.


“Because you sincerely care about the welfare of your charges. You are more concerned about helping them than about your own advancement. Most of your peers have those priorities reversed.”


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Debunking Myths: Death rather than Retreat

It is a common misconception nowadays that Sparta had a low prohibiting retreat. It is a myth.

This myth possibly originates from the monument to the Spartiates who died at Thermopylae which said (roughly tranlated):
Stranger passing by, 
Go tell the Spartans
That here, 
in obeidence to her laws,
we lie.
Yet, the law referred to here was not a law prohibiting retreat, but rather a law prohibiting Spartiates from abandoning their King. Once Leonidas made the decision to stand and fight to the death, the other Spartiates had no choice. 

Modern novelists have found inspiration in Xenophon's description of the merciless fate of Spartans found guilty by their allegedly brutal society of the “crime” of cowardice.  Xenophon writes:

…at Sparta everyone would be ashamed to be associated with a coward in is mess or to have him as a wrestling partner. When sides are being picked for a ball game that sort of man is often left out with no position assigned, and in dances he is banished to the insulting places. Moreover in the streets he is required to give way, as well as to give up his seat even to younger men. The girls of his family he has to support at home, and must explain to them why they cannot get husbands. He must endure having a household with no wife, and at the same time has to pay a fine for this. He must not walk around with a cheerful face, nor must he imitate men of impeccable reputation: otherwise he must submit to being beaten by his betters. When disgrace of this kind is imposed on cowards, I am certainly not surprised that death is preferred [in Sparta] to a life of such dishonor and ignominy. (Xenophon, Spartan Society, 9.)

Interestingly, Xenophon’s description of the treatment of cowards generally is an expanded version of Herodotus’ description of the fate of Aristodemos, the sole Spartiate survivor of Thermopylae.  According to Herodotus, “.. [Aristodemos] was met upon his return with reproach and disgrace; no Spartan would give him a light to kindle his fire, or speak to him, and he was called a Trembler.”(Herodotus, The Histories, Book Seven: 231)

Yet while the ancient sources on Sparta agree on what the treatment of “cowards” was, many modern writers jump to incorrect conclusions about just how Sparta defined “coward.” 

In fact, not every man, who had the misfortune to fall into enemy hands, was in Spartan eyes a cowardThe best evidence of this is the surrender of 120 Spartiates to the Athenians in 425 BC, after being cut off by the Athenian fleet on the island of Sphakteria. 

There are modern authors who would have us believe that all these 120 men, including their officers, were treated like “tremblers” or “cowards” after their return to Sparta -– allegedly because they chose to surrender rather than fight to the death as did Leonidas and his 300. However, the historical record clearly and unambiguously shows that this was not the case.

Had Sparta believed that these men ought to have died rather than surrender, then Sparta would have treated the men as dead. In short, Sparta would have written them off and continued to pursue the war as if they had all died.  Yet quite the reverse happened! Instead of continuing as if the men were dead, Sparta sued for peace again and again, and – one presumes – on ever more humiliating terms. The sole objective of these peace offers was to obtain the release of the captive “cowards.” The increasing desperation with which Sparta sought to have these captive Spartiates returned to Sparta is the most eloquent evidence that these men were not disgraced.  

On the contrary, as Anton Powell underscores in Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC, (London:1988), although the captive Spartiates were degraded from full-citizenship status to lesser citizenship on their return from Athens, this was not because of a presumption of wrong-doing, but fear that they might have been infected by Athenian ideas.  Furthermore, they were later completely reinstated and some were even elected to public office! Such treatment is not consistent with the social ostracism described by Herodotus and Xenophon. 

The key to understanding the situation is the exchange, recorded by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book IV, 40), between an Athenian and one of the captured Spartiates. The Athenian mocked the prisoners by saying that the “real Spartans” were the dead. The Spartan answered: “spindles (by which he meant arrows) would be worth a great deal if they could pick out brave men from cowards.” As Thucydides stressed “the whole Greek world” was amazed that Spartiates surrendered precisely because they failed to understand – as do most modern commentators – that Spartans did not admire senseless sacrifice. 

There was a world of difference – at least to professional soldiers like the Spartans – between Leonidas’ position at Thermopylae, and the situation faced by the Lacedaemonian troops trapped on Sphakteria in 425 BC. Leonidas learned that he was out-flanked and the Pass at Thermopylae no longer defensible only after daybreak on the morning of the third day of the battle. In that moment, the most important strategic concern became saving the lives of as many Greek hoplites as possible. Leonidas was not interested in glory – much less futile gestures.  He was interested in preserving Spartan independence from Persia, and this in turn depended on ensuring that Sparta and her allies would have the means to fight the Persians on another day at another place. Leonidas had a very clear strategic objective in sacrificing himself and his troops: giving the rest of the Greek forces time to withdraw.  Leonidas and his 300 Spartiates, along with the Thespians and Thebans, remained in the pass not to die, but to delay the advance of the Persians long enough for the rest to get away. 

The Spartiates at Sphakteria, on the other hand, could gain nothing whatsoever by dying where they were trapped. The Spartan high command, the Gerousia, and the kings all recognized that fact. The fact that they pointedly refused to give orders to the local commander is a clear indication of the fact that they did not have any higher strategic aims that they were following in this instance. The commander on the ground was given instructions (according to Thucydides) to “make your own decision about yourselves, so long as you do nothing dishonorable,” precisely because the Spartans expected their junior commanders to be able think and act in accordance with sound military principles about when and what sacrifice was commensurate to the tactical objective. The fact that the commander after consultation with his men chose to surrender – despite the admonishment not to do anything “dishonorable,” underlines the point that the Spartiates in no way considered their actions “dishonorable” or “cowardly.” They were acting reasonably to prevent unnecessary casualties in a situation where no military utility could be gained by further sacrifice.

The Spartan attitude can be illustrated by the alleged retort of a Spartiate offered a fighting cock “willing to die,” who replied he preferred a cock “willing to kill.” Likewise, the following quote of the Eurypontid king Agesilaus is relevant here. When asked which of the two virtues, courage or justice, was the better, Agesilaus allegedly answered: “Courage has no value if justice is not in evidence too; but if everyone were to be just, then no one would need courage.”

The Spartans did not expect men to sacrifice themselves senselessly.  The primary purpose of Spartan arms was to inflict damage on the enemy, not to die.  Yes, Sparta expected their men to be willing to die – if it would further Sparta’s interests, but not to die for no purpose, as would have been the case at Sphakteria.  Thus there was no approbation associated with the surrender of the 120 on Sphakteria, and the men who surrendered were not viewed as cowards – particularly since the majority of them were only following orders.

The fate described by Herodotus and Xenophon was reserved for individuals, who failed to follow orders or, like Aristodemus, deserted comrades, who were engaged in a military action. Not the act of surrender was abhorrent to Spartans, but the rather the failure to stand by one’s comrades and kings. 

Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

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