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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Spartan in Athens

In the excerpts below, Leonidas is in Athens for the first time and finds himself trying to explain Sparta. In the first he is attending a symposium at the home of a wealthy Athenian and is approached by a hetaera.

Leonidas laughed but retorted, “It is a long story. Do your master’s bidding with someone else.” 

Several others at once started clamoring for her to come to them, and Therapne shrugged and turned to smile at them; but Kallixenos said for all to hear, “You are a fool or a coward, Leonidas. You could have enjoyed her first and then told her she was barking up the wrong tree. What true man turns away pleasure like that when it comes crawling to him!” 

“What is the pleasure in being another man’s pawn?” 

“Don’t be so puritanical! What pleasure is more basic or universal than sexual satisfaction?” Kallixenos challenged him. 

“Satisfaction of the loins is animal, while the joys of love cannot be purchased.” 

Kallixenos looked at him, uncomprehending; but Therapne spun around and, clapping her hands slowly, declared: “And the lion has claws! Well said, Leonidas!” She went toward him again, her hips swaying provocatively and her eyes fixed on him. “But tell me, if you scorn the pleasure I offer you, where do you take your pleasure? Have you a mistress to whom you have sworn fidelity? Or is there some boy who has turned your head?” Her lips curled in a sneer and her eyes fell contemptuously on the little boy, who sat naked on his lover’s couch, blushing bright red with natural shame. 

“Mine is the pleasure of the sun breaking over Taygetos after a long, chilly night on watch; the pleasure of diving into the cool waters of the Eurotas after a morning in the dust and sweat of the drill fields; the taste of my helot’s apple tarts; or the sight of my dog, bursting with pride, when she brings me a stolen duck.” 

Kallixenos broke out laughing. “You are going to give your countrymen a reputation for garrulousness with answers like that.” 

Leonidas looked down, embarrassed and ashamed of himself. He had indeed said too much. Therapne reached out and stroked his thigh, smiling at him. “Are you sure?” 

“You can see for yourself you have aroused me, but I still prefer Beggar with her stolen duck,” Leonidas retorted stubbornly, lifting his chin and staring her in the eye. His loins were full to bursting, and he was acutely aware of wasting his youth as a bachelor, but his obstinate streak had taken over. He was full of sexual energy and resented the fact that he had no place to expend it in his current lifestyle, but he hated even more the feeling of being manipulated. These Athenians wanted to see him turned into a mere animal, panting and gasping in his desperation to satisfy the hunger of his loins. 

The Athenians protested that he had no right to insult such a magnificent example of womanhood, while the hetaera stared down at Leonidas with narrowed eyes, now full of hatred because she felt insulted. “I came here to make a friend, but you have made an enemy. Are you so certain that was in your city’s interests?” 

“I am certain that my city cannot be bought any more than I can. If Sparta fights the Persians, it will be in her own interests and not those of Athens or your master.” 

In this second excerpt, Leonidas speaks with a Corinthian youth, whose life he saved from a wild boar a few years earlier. They are together in Athens and becoming friends.

"You see what a favor you did me that day by Acrocorinth?” Lychos pressed Leonidas. The latter shook his head. “I was on my way to becoming just like Kallixenos. Indeed, I admired him and tried to imitate him. I looked up to him so much that I allowed him to be my lover, when I was younger—a sporadic affair that lasted almost until I was sixteen. I was still under his spell when the boar got me.” Leonidas stirred uneasily, and Lychos looked over at him. “Did you never have a lover? A man you let use your body any way he pleased because you thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world?” 

Leonidas sensed it was almost rude to tell the truth, but he was poor at lying. “No. Sparta is different.” 

“So everyone says,” Lychos agreed, staring at the stars. “One day maybe I will be able to visit there.” 

“You are welcome any time. You can stay at my kleros, and although our cooking is not so sophisticated as here, my housekeeper is an excellent cook.” 

“I love simple food. When sailing, we usually catch fish during the day and grill it at night over an open fire. It is better that way than in any sauce or fancy crust.” They both reflected on this for a moment, and then Lychos continued, “You aren’t married yet, are you?” 

That was a sore subject, particularly since Brotus had married for a second time before heading for Olympia. Leonidas shrugged and answered, “No more than you.” 

“My father has arranged it,” Lychos admitted, not looking at Leonidas. “Most Corinthians don’t marry until they are in their thirties, but he is afraid I won’t live that long and is desperate for an heir. The wedding was to take place after the Games, but we postponed it when you accepted our invitation.” 

Leonidas at once felt guilty. “I’m sorry to have disrupted your plans. Why didn’t you say something? We could—” 

“I don’t mind the postponement,” Lychos assured him. “I wouldn’t mind waiting for years. I’d rather not marry at all.” 

Leonidas didn’t understand. “Why?”

Lychos shrugged, clutched his knees, and looked at the stars. “Don’t you like your bride?” Leonidas ventured. 

Lychos shrugged again. “I’ve only met her once. At the betrothal. She seems nice … It must have been terrible for her when she learned her father was giving her to a cripple.” 

Leonidas thought about that a moment, impressed that Lychos could see things from the girl’s perspective, but he still couldn’t understand Lychos’ reluctance to marry. “But?” 

“It seems like a lot of responsibility,” Lychos admitted. “I’ll be responsible not just for her well-being but for her reputation and her happiness.” 

“I don’t think Kallixenos sees marriage that way,” Leonidas remarked dryly, his disapproval obvious. 

“No,” Lychos agreed. “But I don’t want to be like him. Why aren’t you married?” Lychos asked. 

“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 laughed, 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.”

... 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 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 tickers’ 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

The Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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