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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Danger of Messenian Myths

We cannot know when the legends about the Messenian hero Aristomenes started. Many may have be invented only after the restoration of Messenian independence. Yet it is also quite probable that at least some myths dated back to the Messenian War(s) themselves and circulated as folk history among the Messenian helots. These stories of a glorious past and an immortal hero could well have contributed to simmering Messenian resentment of Spartan rule.
Based on this speculation, I included the following scene in "A Heroic King." In this scene, on the feast of the Dioskouria (honoring Castor and Polydeukes) the sons of a Spartan citizen and his helot mistress are sitting together.

Pelops sat astride one of the benches his uncle's men had made earlier in the day and explained to his wide-eyed younger brother Kinadon, "...and it was on a night just like this that Aristomenes and a companion slipped across Taygetos from Messenia. They were dressed all in white with golden headbands with bright stars on them, and they rode pure white horses!" Pelops narrated. "It was getting dark, just like this, but a moon was rising," he continued, pointing unnecessarily to the far side of the Eurotas. "And the light of the moond made Aristomenes and his companion on their white horses stand out in the darkenss. Aristomenes was tall with long, golden hair," Peplos explained to his awestruck younger brother. "And his companion looked just the same -- like twins, you see?"

"Leonidas doesn't look like Brotus," Kinadon protested.

"That's different!" Peplos retorted, dismissing the annoying interruption. "The Divine Twins looked so much alike that mortals couldn't tell them apart. And from a distance, Aristomenes and his friend looked just the same. When the Spartans saw these two beautiful youths on white horses riding along the side of Taygetos, they thought they were the Divine Twins come back to life!" Pelops started giggling. "The Spartans threw themselves down on their knees, and started worshiping Aristomenes of Messenia as if he were  god! And so he and his companion rode closer and closer, and the Spartans were so dumb they still didn't see through his disguise. So he rode right in among them and then jumped down and started---"

Pelops was cuffed so hard on the back of his head that he nearly fell off the bench. Reeling, he turned to see who had delivered the blow, and came face to face with his father.

"Since when do you tell tales of Aristomenes of Messenia?" Temenos demanded. Then, without giving his son a chance to answer, he added, "Aristomenes was a coward! A man who preferred to attack unarmed women and children. A man who attacked by night and in disguise. A man who impersonated Gods and raped priestesses! Where did you learn to admire such a creature? If Pelopidas has been telling such tales--"

"Temenous!" Chryse hissed, coming up beside him. "Not so loud! You're attracting attention. Of course my father didn't tell him about Aristomenes. They hear it from their friends."
"What friends? Laconian helots don't idolize Aristomenes."

"There are plenty of Messenians here -- working as attendants, or in the workshops and stores and factories. Aristomenes appeals to some Laconian helots too --"

"You mean because he fought us?"

"Yes, it's only natural--"

"Natural? Natural to admire a man who kidnapped girls, raped priestesses, and impersonated the Dioskouroi? Why do you think he lost the war despite all his tricks?" he demanded of his sons, but he did not give them a chance to answer. Instead, he declared himself, "Because the God were offended by his impious behavior!"

"Yes, Temenos, " Chryse tried to calm him. "Of course. Come along, boys. It's time to go home."

The boys had long since gotten to their feet, expecting this, and yet something got into Kinadon and he burst out angrily. "Why can't we stay? Why do we have to hide? Everybody knows about us! What more can they do after making you walk around naked with a dead ---" It was his mother who him him to shut him up, but his father's face was enough to make him wish she had killed him. His father hadn't known they knew....

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding Gorgo - "...only Spartan women give birth to sons."

If "with it or upon it" is the most famous quote attributed to Spartan women, the claim that only Spartan women "gave birth to men" is the second most famous. It is also materially different from the anonymous and vague versions of the "with-it-or-upon-it" quote.  First, it is specifically attributed to a real historical character (Queen Gorgo, the wife of King Leonidas of Thermopylae fame). Second, the context is explicit. According Plutarch, who recorded the sayings, Gorgo was asked by a woman from Athens "why it was that only Spartan women ruled their men." The greater detail and the fact that the exchange almost certainly took place in Athens (since Athenian women could rarely leave their homes much less their cities), increases the credibility of the quote and the probability that it was said -- if not by Gorgo -- by a real Spartan woman.

But what on earth does it mean? I've had many people dismiss the quip as "sheer nonsense." Yet the answer was far more than a witty retort; it was a profound commentary on the differences between Athenian and Spartan society. 
Readers need to keep in mind that at no time in Spartan history was Sparta “ruled” by women. Spartan women were hardly Amazons who scorned men and took to the battlefield themselves.  Spartan women could not vote in the Spartan Assembly, and they could not be elected to office, not the Gerousia, the ephorate, or other lesser positions. Every contemporary of Gorgo knew this, so the question was never meant to suggest Spartan women had political power, but rather that they had influence over their menfolk to an exceptional, indeed “unnatural,” degree.

As Gorgo’s answer likewise illuminates, Spartan women did not live separate, lesbian lives, disconnected and divorced from their male relations and focused on themselves.  The image of Spartan women living apart and satisfying their sexuality among themselves is a modern myth, based on the patently false misconception that Spartan males were “far away” “most” of the time.  In fact, ancient wars were short affairs and only conducted during the campaign season, so that Spartan husbands were never gone more than a few months of the year and that very rarely. (Not until the Peloponnesian war did Sparta campaign year after year; throughout the archaic period Sparta was at war only sporadically with many years of peace in between.) Furthermore, the barracks and messes at which Spartan men ate were much closer to the temples, markets and public buildings at which the women congregated than the work-places of most modern (commuting) husbands.

On the contrary, Spartan women viewed their role as completely integral and indeed traditional.  As Gorgo’s reply underscores, a Spartan woman’s principal contribution to society – like that of her Athenian counterpart – was to produce the next generation of (male) citizens.  There was nothing odd, offensive or sinister about respectable women in the ancient world identifying with the role of mother.  The idea that women might have other societal functions other than wives and mothers is a relatively new historical phenomenon and far from accepted in many parts of the world from Afghanistan to Africa.

As Gorgo so brilliantly summarizes the situation, the difference between Spartan women and the women in the rest of the ancient world was not one of a fundamentally different role, but rather a difference in the way men viewed that role.  

Athens was a virulently misogynous society. Its greatest philosophers viewed women as “permanent children” and the doctors attributed everything from stomach illness to asthma in women to a “wandering womb,” for which the best cure was sex (with the woman’s owner/husband of course.) Women could not inherit property, nor indeed control more money than was needed to purchase a bushel of grain. They were largely uneducated and almost all were illiterate, so it is hardly surprising that their educated, usually significantly older husbands considered them congenitally stupid. The discrepancy between the education and maturity of husbands and illiteracy and tender age of wives was aggravated by the fact that female children were fed less nutritious food in smaller quantities than their brothers.  They were also denied fresh air and any kind of exercise. The result was females stunted both physically and mentally, married as soon as they became sexually mature, and usually dead by the age of 30 or 35. In short, Athens' laws and customs condemned women to ignorance, stunted grown and an early grave – assuming they were allowed to live at all.

There is little doubt that in Athens far more female infants were exposed than males. As it was aptly put in an Athenian law case, even a poor man would raise a son, while even a rich man would expose a daughter. The archaeological evidence supports the historical record; Athens suffered from a severe demographic imbalance in favor of males, something that is most similar to sex ratios in China and India where the systematic murder of female infants (either as embryos through abortion or after birth through exposure or neglect) is still widespread.

Sparta did not suffer either from the misogyny that created the imbalance in the population or from the consequences. Furthermore, Spartan girls received the same food as their brothers, attended the same school as their brothers until puberty, receiving thereby not only the same level of education but the opportunity to exercise in the fresh air. Spartan law also prohibited the marriage of girls "before they were old enough to enjoy sex," yet encouraged men to marry before the age of thirty ensuring that there was a far smaller age difference between the partners in Spartan marriage than in Athenian ones.

Returning to Gorgo's retort, her wit was razor sharp in noting that it was Spartan society as a whole, but particularly the men who had created the Spartan constitution, that had enabled women to enjoy the freedoms they did. This is how I put this exchange n context in Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King:

Eukoline shoved her veil off her head and turned on Gorgo to ask in a tone that mixed disapproval with amazement, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule your men?” She did not mean it as a compliment.

“Because we are the only women who give birth to men!” Gorgo snapped back.

“As if I hadn’t given birth to two sons?” Eukoline retorted indignantly. “Athens has five times the number of citizens Sparta has!” she added proudly.

“Athens has 40,000 males who think that making clever speeches is the pinnacle of manliness.” All Gorgo’s pent-up anger at what she had seen since her arrival [in Athens] boiled over. “That’s why they are afraid to educate their daughters and keep their women in the dark ― physically and mentally!” Gorgo could not resist adding, “Sparta’s men prove their manhood with their spears and need not dismiss good advice just because it comes from the mouths of women!”

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