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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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  1. What an outstanding article describing the Spartan ethos! Good and thorough research leads to good analysis. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! Glad to see you still visit this blog! Have you seen my new website? (Not that it has anything new, but its pulled some of the essays together to make them easier to find.)

  2. As a former soldier, this is completely reasonable. It's what they taught us.

  3. Helena, you have been publishing this criticism of my book "Isle of Stone" for years now. I appreciate your interest in my work, and am flattered by your apparent belief that my book somehow represents the typical "modern" take on the Sphacteria incident.
    However, I must take exception with some of your misrepresentations. First, my "whole book" is NOT devoted to how the surrendered soldiers were treated once they got home. That is a manifest exaggeration. The book is about two Spartan brothers and their mother. It is a particular tale about particular characters. Along the way it describes the upbringing and training of Spartiates, and attempts to understand how those characters understood their own worlds, in their own terms.
    Of the 359 pages of the original Penguin edition, fewer than a dozen deal with the events after the surrender. Fewer still address how those who surrendered were treated. Yet, contrary to your reading of the book, it does recognize the ambivalence Spartans felt toward those who returned from the island. To put it simply, the returnees were tainted by the episode, but Sparta was not a productive society, and needed every soldier she had. She couldn't afford to waste healthy men on spiteful gestures.
    Specifically, on p. 356, the novel reads: "In Sparta, the capitulators of Sphacteria remained in disgrace. The 120 Spartiates were still forbidden to attend their dining clubs, (or) hold public office...Yet even as the people shunned them, there was a general fear that the survivors might abandon the Spartan cause. The army was now undermanned and overstretched, having fewer than a third of the eight thousand troops it had in the time of Leonidas. To forestall their loss, all the ex-Equals were given new panoplies, free from the state, by magistrates who would barely look at them. Rumors were allowed to circulate that the capitulators might be pardoned after all--if they showed themselves worthy on the battlefield."

    In other words, while you may be correct that Sparta publicly and officially did not call them "tremblers", the difference between their position by law and their actual treatment by other citizens--the day-to-day way they were looked at on the streets--might have been totally different. That is what (among other things) you are misconstruing about the story. To my mind, while the men were not technically tremblers, they did not come home covered in glory either. And it is the novelist's job not only to reflect the received history, but to extrapolate beyond it, based on his or her understanding of how people behave.
    You may have chosen to portray these events differently. That is your prerogative as a writer. But the way I portrayed the events in the book are, In fact, entirely in accord with Powell's statement that the returnees were downgraded as citizens.
    The book has been praised by historians Barry Strauss and Paul Cartledge. Cartledge is one of the world's acknowledged authorities on the subject, and wrote of it "Nicastro knows his ancient sources intimately, but also has the born novelist's instinct to flesh out their bare bones all to plausibly."
    By the way, I am not as charitable as you about the fundamental motives for the Spartans' reluctance to waste men. It was about conserving a precious resource--elite manpower. When the human lives were not the "correct" type, be they helots or perioikoi, they could be as gratuitously brutal as any modern police state. THAT is a point--more than the one you are dwelling upon--that my book aims to make.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I'm flattered that you believe I have so much influence on people's views on Sparta that you wanted to rely to this entry at such length.

    Your book is titled "Isle of Stone" - referring to Sphakteria; it is a fundamental component of the book. This is the reason I say it is devoted to describing the treatment of the survivors. Of course, it is also a novel with characters, and every novel is about the characters as much as the setting.

    You are perfectly correct in saying your interpretation of Sparta is as legitimate as mine. It is arguably more "correct" because it is based on mainstream historical writings, above all those of Paul Cartledge. That's the point. My website and blog are titled "Sparta Reconsidered" precisely because I believe there are very sound reasons for challenging -- not to say discrediting -- Cartledge and company's portrayal of ancient Sparta. This blog was established to do just that: challenge Cartledge and those who subscribe to his bitter portrayal of a sick society that he calls Sparta.

    So, yes, I know you based your book on Cartledge and other historians of his school. I'm sure Cartledge and his followers loved it. I found it just as warped and unrealistic as I find Cartledge himself -- if not more so. The notion that a Spartan woman would long to live in Athens is like suggesting an American female corporate CEO would wish she lived under the Taliban. Oh, how lovely it would be to be kept imprisoned in the back of the house, denied sunlight and good food, forced to cover her face whenever she left the house, denied contact with all men but her family, and, most wonderful of all after being economically independent and powerful, not having the right to control more than a few pennies! No, I don't find that credible, ie. I don't find your characters credible either.

    The bottom line is we vehemently disagree about what Spartan society was like, and so what kind of characters that society was likely to produce. If you prefer me to remove all reference to your book and only talk about "contemporary novelists" then I would be happy to do that. Just let me know.