Find Out More

Find out more about Helena P. Schrader's Sparta novels at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/ancient-sparta.html

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Imagining Sparta: 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. According to contemporary accounts, the Spartans were slow to adopt new styles of dress, 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 (alà 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!

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Imagining Sparta: "Beautiful" Spartan Women?


We know even less about what Spartan women might have looked like than we know about their men.  To my knowledge, no human remains that can be definitively identified as Spartan women have yet been uncovered. There are also far fewer contemporary portrayals of women in ancient art than men. Furthermore, unlike the images of men,  women in ancient sculpture and pottery are almost invariably shown well clothed. Aside from debunking modern voyeuristic fantasies about adult Spartan women going about very thinly clad, these do not reveal much about the real women they are intended to depict.

The written record is hardly more satisfying. Obviously, we have the Iliad and the tradition of Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth, a demi-goddess, and a Spartan. Herodotus tells of other beautiful Spartan women as well, notably the wife of King Ariston. But beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder and individual women, no matter how legendary their beauty, tell us nothing about the general appearance of Spartan women. 

More revealing is Aristophanes description of Lampito, the Spartan female character in his farce Lysistrata.  This play from the late 5th century BC intended to amuse Athenian males after their devastating defeat at Syracuse, reflects Athenian steriotypes of contemporary Spartan women. As such, it tells us almost nothing about what Spartan women actually looked like since the audience didn't have a clue either. In a sense, Aristophanes description is no more relevant to reality than depictions of Russian women in American movies from the Cold War as brawny tractor-drivers and factory workers. Still, even the most exaggerated caricatures usually have a grain of truth, and therefore I would like to quote Aristophanes:

Lysistrata: Dear Spartan girl with a delightful face, washed with the rosy spring, how fresh you look in the easy stride of your sleek slenderness.  Why you could strangle a bull!
Lampito: I think I could. It's from exercise and kicking my arse.
Lysistrata: What lovely breasts you have!

What this description suggests is that while Athenians, perhaps in deference to the tradition of Helen, were willing to concede Spartan women might have a pretty face, they presumed Spartan women, because they were known to exercise, developed massive, muscular bodies so unfeminine that they looked like they could "strangle a bull." I would note that portraying enemy women as masculine and non-vulnerable is a useful tool in reducing/eliminating any latent pity men might otherwise have felt for the women of the foe, and so this description may also serve overall propaganda purposes of making Spartan women repulsive to the Athenian audience.

Turning to the grain of truth this description might provide, as I noted in my earlier essay on Spartan appearance, Spartans were apparently generally taller than their contemporaries, which is probably the result of more meat in their diet.  Since one of the most striking differences about the rearing of girls in Sparta compared to treatment of female infants and children elsewhere is Greece was that they received the same food as their brothers, this meat-heavy diet would have been fed Spartan girls too. (Elsewhere in Greece, girls and women were fed a different, "simpler" diet with no "extras,"--to use Xenophon's words--than their brothers.) In short, the difference in height between Spartans and the citizens from other cities would have been even more extreme when comparing women to women than men to men.

In addition, Spartan girls were expected to run and even race -- hence Aristophanes' reference to  Lampito's "easy stride."  Indeed, if we are to believe Xenophon and Plutarch, Spartan girls were taught wrestling, and were expected to master the bow and javelin, and certainly to master horses -- all things that might make a comedian compare them to women capable of "strangling a bull." 


Certainly, Spartan girls could run, swim and dance. They took part in races both on foot and driving chariots, and they took part in public dances.  All this entailed spending a good deal of time outside in the fresh air, and that meant that Spartan girls were exposed to the elements and their skin would have tanned in the Greek sun.  It also meant that they grew up getting a great deal of exercise -- probably more than most girls get today, and they would very likely have been sleek and lean like their brothers, at least while growing up and in the agoge. After all, Xenophon and Plutarch stress that the girls were being treated like their brothers that regime produced the tall, lean youth of the agoge.


Girls in other Greek cities were, in contrast, not allowed to set foot outside their houses and were expected to be "sedentary." So while the Spartan girls grew tall and fit, women in the rest of Greece grew up stunted from a diet short on protein, rarely had access to fresh air, and did not exercise.  The impact on physical appearance of other Greek women would have been women significantly shorter than their own men (much less Spartans) and without muscles -- though not necessarily thin. (A girl who eats too much of a carbohydrate-intensive diet and does not move more than a few feet in the course of a day can still grow fat, but she is not likely to be lean much less strong.) In short, the contrast between the physical appearance of Spartan and other Greek girls and maidens would have been much more striking than between Spartan and other Greek boys and men.

Admittedly, after marriage Spartan women, unlike their husbands, were no longer compelled to exercise or to eat at common messes, so they might have become comparatively soft and fat.  However, they still had responsibility for their households and this entailed considerable amounts of outside work and exposure to fresh air and sunlight so that it seems unlikely that Spartan women completely lost their physical condition. Furthermore, because Spartan women did not marry until their late teens/early twenties, they would have been brought to childbed at the optimal age, while girls in other Greek cities generally married much younger and bore their first child at 15 or 16, with all the known negative consequences for their health.

Finally, I would like to suggest that Spartan women's education, literacy and economic power also had an impact on their appearance. Women who are raised to think they are important to their society, who are literate and encouraged to voice their opinions, women who have real power tend to stand straighter, hold their head high and move with confidence. I find it hard to image Spartan women sitting hunched over with bowed heads as the women of Athenian pottery do.  


In conclusion, Spartan women would generally have been taller than other women, more physically fit, tanned, and over time they would have aged better -- indeed they very probably lived longer  than women elsewhere in Greece! In addition, they would have held themselves with self-assurance and moved with greater confidence. Perhaps the combination of these things would indeed have made them seem strong (and brave) enough to "strangle a bull" when compared to their contemporaries.

Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                       Buy Now!

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Imagining Sparta: Monuments in Flesh

As a novelist, I have given considerable thought to what the Spartans in the Age of Leonidas might have looked like, as well as how they would have groomed themselves and dressed. From comments and correspondence, I gather that this is a topic of interest to many of my readers as well, so I thought it might be worth some joint speculation.
 
 


In terms of physical build, I have not heard of any archeological evidence based on skeletons, but would welcome any information you may have heard or read about. In the absence of such forensic evidence, I remain dependent on mixing ancient sources with modern experience and common sense.

Both Plutarch and – more importantly Xenophon – stress that Spartan youth (i.e. during the critical years of physical development and growth) were not allowed to eat “too much.” Xenophon speaks of “just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. [Lycurgus'] view was that boys under this kind of regime would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer, when so ordered; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. [Lycurgus] also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies did more to make them grow tall than one in which the food filled them out.” (Spartan Society:2) 

Plutarch, the less reliable source, writes: “The aim of providing [Spartan boys in the agoge] with only sparse fare is that they should be driven to make up its deficiencies by resort to daring and villainy. While this is the main purpose of their scanty diet, a subsidiary one is claimed to be the development of their physique, helping them in particular to grow tall. When people over-eat, their breathing is labored, thus producing a broad, squat frame. In contrast, if breath suffers from only slight delay and difficulty and has an easy ascent, the body is enabled to develop freely and comfortably. Good looks are produced in the same way. For where lean, spare features respond to articulation, the sheer weight of obese, over-fed ones make them resist it.” (Lycurgus:17).

It is startling the way Xenophon’s explanation of why the Spartans restricted the diet of youth to the necessary is focused on virtues very useful to an effective army in the field, while Plutarch’s speculation is more about cheating and “villainy.” Indeed, if one follows Plutarch’s reasoning, Spartan youth didn’t suffer any deprivation at all because they simply stole what they didn’t get in their official rations and the clever and better they were at theft, the fatter they would have become, defeating any “secondary” aim of improving the physique. 


Notable, however, is despite the different explanations of why the Spartans instituted a regime of sparse rations for youth, both authors suggest that it produced “tall” and (in Plutarch’s case) handsome men. Modern science, however, proves that too little food in fact stunts growth, not the reverse. Clearly the ancient commentators postulated a causal effect where there was none, but such a thesis would presumably have been based on two known facts: that Spartan youth ate less than their Athenian etc. equivalents and Spartans were, on average, taller than their enemies.

(The modern observer should take careful note of the fact that if Spartans were apparently on average taller than other Greeks, they probably did not suffer any real deprivation as children. Whatever “short” rations were common in the agoge, they were not so short that growth was in any way impeded since even if some youth may have been adept at theft, most would not have been.)

Returning to the theme of physical appearance, however, we clearly have a reasonable indication that Spartans were on average notably taller than most of their contemporaries. Since the ancient explanation (they received too little to eat as children) is implausible, we need to look for other possible explanations that would make the thesis (Spartans were generally taller) credible. 

Here the experience of modern Japan might be a useful corollary. As long as the Japanese diet was dependent almost exclusively on fish for protein, the Japanese were notoriously short; the introduction of meat led to the average height in Japan skyrocketing by roughly a foot in just two generations. If we remember that fish was the preferred food in Athens and the most readily available protein for all the island Greeks, while Spartans were envied for their rich pastures and game-filled forests, I think it is fair to postulate that the Spartan diet was more meat heavy than that of their major rivals. It is reasonable, therefore, to picture Spartans as unusually tall by contemporary standards.


It would be wrong to conclude, however, that they were broader as well as taller than their contemporaries. On the contrary, the ancient commentators stress that Spartans were slim, something they attributed to the fixed rations at the syssitia. Yet men who are too tall and too thin would have been incapable of marching long distances or fighting exceptionally well in a phalanx. So we are talking about lean, not skinny, men.

While it might be tempting to picture a Spartan in his prime looking something like a linebacker, I would caution that Sparta’s military successes were not solely a function of Spartan troops being able to push harder, but also march more rapidly (and move at night) and to cover difficult terrain. Likewise the emphasis on hunting, particularly for men in the reserves, suggests to me that Spartans were not excessively “top heavy,” but rather lithe and fleet of foot as well as broad shouldered and strong-armed. In conclusion, I postulate that Spartans had an all-round athletic build developed over decades of physical activity from sports and hunting to military drill and combined with a healthy, but protien-heavy diet that made them tough and lean but not stocky.

Turning to grooming, let me start by dismissing modern artistic depictions of Spartans that show them as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders alà Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army. Likewise, I reject descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence.

Herodotus, for example, makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans as Plutarch does if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and hygene. More important, 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. (Note, for example the hoplites on the magnificent frieze of the Siphnian Treasure at Delphi dating from Leonidas’ lifetime, the Krater of Vix also from this period, and the figurines of known Laconian origin now displayed in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.)


In addition to these sources, the admittedly dubious Plutarch 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.

Whether the locks depicted in ancient sculpture were in fact braided or plaited is not possible to tell from the stylized nature of the evidence. However, it is physically impossible to keep long hair in neat, orderly strands when engaged in sports and other strenuous activities unless it is carefully confined in some way. Thus, practical modern experience suggests that Spartan men did braid their hair, something that is consistent with – though not definitely proved -- by the archeological evidence.

Braiding has the added advantage of being something that can be done quickly and alone if necessary, or done elaborately with help. Thus it could have been a means for men to express individual taste and personality within the rigid limits of the Spartan prohibitions against displaying wealth in dress or personal ornament. I personally like to think of conservative, “old-fashioned” men just braiding their hair to keep it out of their faces, while the “dandies” of Spartan society creatively braided their hair at diagonals or in crossing patterns etc. – as in Africa today. This gave a man a great deal of freedom for individual expression – all without breaking any taboos about the use of jewelry or other ornaments.

Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                       Buy Now!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Imagining Sparta: A City Like No Other

The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides made a prediction in his History of the Peloponnesian War that has come true with a vengeance.  He wrote that “…[if] Sparta were to become deserted and only the temples and foundations of buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies beyond its frontiers. Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, 10, 2.)
  

This statement was as much a criticism of Athens’ building program under Pericles (that had diverted contributions from the Delian League, intended for defense against the Persians, to building extravagant temples in Athens) as a critique of Sparta.  Yet it has misled modern scholars and novelists to portray Sparta as if it were a primitive village of dirt and mud. 

For example, in his best-selling novel Gates of Fire, Stephen Pressfield calls Sparta “a village” adding: “The whole stinking place would fit, with room to spare, within His Majesty’s [Xerxes of Persia’s] strolling garden at Persepolis. It is … a pile of stones. It contains no temples or treasures of note, no gold; it is a barnyard of leeks and onions, with soil so thin a man may kick through it with one strike of the foot.” (p.188).

Modern writers are often guilty of both a too hasty reading of Thucydides and a failure to consider other evidence.  Thucydides complains that Sparta “is not regularly planned” – but then nor is London. And he says it is “simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way.”  This is not the same thing as saying Sparta was not a cosmopolitan city, it only means that Sparta had no plan and no walls and hence grew haphazardly -- as all major European cities did after their confining medieval walls were torn down. No one today would call Paris, Berlin or Rome “a collection of villages” simply because they are in fact many villages which have grown into a single metropolis after the need for fortifications disappeared and economic growth fueled urbanization. Why should we assume that just because Sparta was made up of five distinct villages in pre-Archaic times that it was not – in its years of glory – a cohesive, dynamic city?   


Sparta, April 2016, Photo by Author

Likewise, when Thucydides writes Sparta “contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence” he is not denying the existence of temples and monuments, only ones “of great magnificence” – such as Pericles built with stolen funds from Athens satellite states without their consent. In short, Thucydides never claimed that Sparta was not a major, metropolitan city, nor did he deny it had notable monuments, he was only making the astute statement that, judged by its buildings alone, future generations would over-estimate the power of Athens and under-estimate that of Sparta.

The assessment of Sparta's architecture has been aggravated for modern observers by the fact that today we cannot see what Thucydides did. Sparta was destroyed by earthquakes many times over the centuries. It was flooded by the Eurotas. It was abandoned. Nothing destroys architectural monuments so completely as abandonment.  Nor should it be forgotten that Sparta has not been systematically subjected to archeological excavation in almost a century. 
 
The Spartan Amphitheater, 2012, Photo by Author

Nevertheless, what has come to light demonstrates definitively that far from being a place full of primitive, mud structures, Spartan architecture was substantial, monumental (not the same as “magnificent”!), and very, very typical of Doric architecture throughout the ancient world. Sparta was, in fact, the ultimate Doric power. It attained its greatest artistic flourishing in the 6th rather than the 5th century BC, and consequently, its greatest monuments were archaic, not classical or Hellenistic. But they existed! We can still see some of the foundations and remnants to this day. Sparta was not just a heap of peasant hits, as Pressfield and other modern novelists would like us to believe. 

For anyone whose imagination is too weak to mentally reconstruct a great city from the remnants left in Sparta today, we have the meticulous record of an ancient travel guide. Pausanias traveled to Greece in the 2nd Century AD, long after Sparta’s decline from prominence and more than half a century after its “golden era” in the 6th Century BC.  Yet he needs 26 sections and more than 60 pages to describe the city! And that, although he claims he has not described everything but rather has selected and discussed only “the really memorable things.” (Pausanias, III.10. p. 37)

I would also like to point out that no Spartan has left a written description of his/her city that has survived to our time. Would a Spartan have found the Acropolis in Athens “magnificent” or simply “distant, intellectual and arrogant”? Would a Spartan necessarily have admired the altar at Pergamon?  Or found it “gaudy” and “busy”-- as many people see rococo architecture today?  Sparta was different from other cities of its age, particularly Athens. Does that necessarily mean it was less attractive?

Let me be heretical. We know that in ancient Greece most statues and temples were painted vivid colors and the statues of the gods were dressed in robes, ivory, gold, and jewels. What if Spartan austerity indeed extended to temples, statues, and monuments and these were adorned only with natural beauty – i.e. naked stone and marble sculptures set amidst flowering trees and running water? Isn’t that what we find strikingly beautiful in Greek architecture and sculpture today? The perfection of proportion, symmetry, and form in beautiful natural settings? Isn’t it the lifelike poses, gestures, and expressions that appeal to us? Would we rather see Venus de Milo painted in flesh tones with red lips and blond hair? Would we admire the Parthenon in Athens as much if it was dressed in bright paint?


Ancient Nemea Today, Photo by Author

What if Spartan homes were indeed devoid of elaborate interior paintings because, unlike their Athenian counterparts, they were not crammed into an over-crowded city and surrounded by high-walls that blocked out almost all daylight? Spartan houses could be built on a generous plan because the city had no plan. They could incorporate interior courtyards planted with fruit trees and herbs, they could surround themselves with gardens and orchards, they could sparkle not with gold and silver but the glinting of sunlight on water in internal fountains. Spartan homes could have windows that let in the light and they might have decorated their homes, as they did themselves, with things of nature: cut flowers, bowls of fruits, running water. Such things are transient; they rarely leave an archeological record.


Spartan homes would have had views like this from the windows. Who needs wall paintings? Photo by Author

Sparta, far from being a “stinking village” full of pigsties and mud-huts as modern novelists portray it, was a city – as Pausanias describes -- full of marble monuments, pure Doric temples, sun-soaked theaters and imposing stoas. It was a city with large villas set in blooming gardens. And it was a city where the barracks and civic buildings were interspersed between sunny open spaces set aside for running, ball-games and horse-racing. It was a city decorated with fountains and flowering trees. In short, it was a city much as we would plan one today.

The Sparta of my novels is this attractive city rather than the "stinking village" of Pressfield.



 

 BUY NOW!



                                               
                                                        BUY NOW! 
 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Helot Hero

The helots of Sparta were composed of two distinct groups: the native, Laconian helots descended from the earliest inhabitants of the Eurotas valley, and the Messenian helots, the inhabitants of the conquered territory of Messenia beyond the Taygetos.

Significantly, they were a Dorian people like the Spartans themselves, and they had a hero - the curiously invincible Aristomenes. A brief look at the legends that surround this Messenian hero tell us a great deal about the Messenians themselves. 


According to Pausanias, in the first three years of the Second Messenian War, Aristomenes led the Messenian army to victory in three pitched battles against the Spartans, the Battle of Derai, the Battle of the Boar’s Grave and the Battle of the Great Trench. As Pausanias tells the story, Aristomenes won the first of these battles outright and in consequence was offered the crown of Messenia by his grateful compatriots, which he declined. The following year he routed the Spartans so that they took flight “without shame.” Unfortunately, Aristomenes was brought to an abrupt halt in the midst of his pursuit of the defeated foe by the Dioskouroi. These deities, sitting in a pear tree in the middle of the battlefield, with unadulterated pro-Spartan bias, made Aristomenes lose his shield as he chased after the fleeing Spartans. Aristomenes stoped to search for it, breaking off his pursuit and (presumably) enabling the frightened Spartans to escape, regroup, and live to fight another day. The following year, having recovered from their shock it seems, the Spartans rallied and again confronted the Messenians in a pitched battle which came to be known as the Battle of the Great Trench. Again, Aristomenes was winning the battle – until Messenia’s allies, the Arkadians, treacherously changed sides. So, due to no fault of their own or that of their leader, the Messenians were forced to take refuge it the fortress of Eira.

With the retreat to Eira, the hero Aristomenes transforms from a battlefield hero like Achilles into a guerrilla leader. In all legends describing the later phases of the Second Messenian War, Aristomenes distinguishes himself not in pitched battles but with daring raids and even more miraculous escapes. In one daylight attack, he is said to have captured dozens of Spartan maidens dancing in honor of Artemis and held them to ransom. In a night raid, he attacked an entire army of Corinthians coming to Sparta’s aid and slaughtered them in their sleep, killing, it is said, more than 100 men personally. Perhaps less heroic but more significant, he was credited with plundering Amyclae and generally making life on the western edge of the Eurotas so uncertain that the Spartans abandoned much of their farmland. This in turn led to food-shortages, civil strife and then revolution. In his most daring raid of all, Aristomenes allegedly slipped under cover of darkness into Sparta’s principle temple, the temple of the Bronzehouse Athena, and there dedicated either a captured shield or his own shield. The dedication of his own shield would be the most prominent kind of “calling card,” but would have deprived him of the very shield he supposedly dedicated later to a different temple (Trophonius in Boeotia), and from which it was later borrowed by the Thebans before confronting the Spartans at Leuktra. The dedication of a captured Spartan shield (one of the kings’ or polemarchs’ shields perhaps?) would have been equally shocking and humiliating to the Spartans.

The legends of Aristomenes miraculous escapes are, if anything, even more spectacular than the stories of his victories and raids. These include (aside from getting out of Sparta unharmed after the above shield dedication): seducing a priestess of Demeter after being captured and bound up by unarmed women and seducing the virgin daughter of a farmer after being captured and bound by Cretan archers. Without doubt the most spectacular and exciting of his escapes, however, followed being knocked out by and brought to Sparta unconscious. Here he and all other captured Messenian troops were thrown off a precipice into a gorge that should have ended in certain death. Aristomenes' companions, we are told, all died, but -- depending on which version of the legend one prefers -- either Aristomenes’ shield itself acted as a primitive parachute to catch the wind and soften his fall or an eagle (possibly the eagle emblem on the face of the shield itself) caught him on its wings and brought him safely to the floor of the gorge. On regaining consciousness, Aristomenes found himself in a dark crevice surrounded by the bones and rotting corpses of those who had been thrown off this precipice before him. Having survived the fall, Aristomenes was still at risk of starving to death in this macbre rock chamber.  According to legend, he spotted a fox feeding on the corpses, and took hold of its tail. The fox (involuntarily and biting Aristomenes the whole way!) led Aristomenes out of the pit, as it fled by the way it entered the crevice.

Yet all these deeds of valor could not halt the inevitable – Sparta’s conquest of Messenia. The ancient Greek sources explain that the gods had (for whatever reason) set their hearts against Messenia. After fourteen years of defying Sparta, eleven of them from the fortress Eira, Aristomenes and his seers received a sign warning them of impending defeat. As the legend makes clear, Aristomenes did not see it as his duty to die in an already lost battle. True to his incarnation as guerrilla leader (rather than his Achillian earlier phase), he ordered “those providing cover in their bravery” to keep fighting, while he led the women and children out of the fortress under cover of darkness (by some accounts, incidentally, with Spartan complicity).

Aristomenes according to legend led the column of refugees to safety in Arkadia with his son commanding the rear guard. Here, so the legend goes, Aristomenes and five hundred of the bravest Messenians conceived a plan to attack Sparta by night (presumably while the bulk of the Spartan army was still besieging a now all-but-abandoned Eira). Unfortunately, the Arkadian king Aristocrates again betrayed the Messenians (one wonders why they fled to Arkadia in the first place?), and so the plan was abandoned. Aristomenes sent the surviving Messenians off to establish a colony on Sicily, while remaining behind to continue his fight against Sparta.

There are two versions of Aristomenes’ end. One version sees him going to Rhodos with his youngest daughter and her husband. There he allegedly died and was buried, and it was from here that the Messenians of the 4th Century retrieved his remains for a shrine in the re-established Messenia. The other version of his end is more obscure. Although it is not explained how, in this version of Aristomene’ life he somehow fell into Spartan hands again and this time they took no chances with throwing him off cliffs. Instead, they dissected him, discovering in the process that he had a “hairy” heart. Unfortunately, no one knows just what this signified, but curiously, according to Ogden, hairy hearts were attributed by the ancient Greeks to six other men including “Aetolia, the beloved of Herakles” and Leonidas I, the hero of Thermopylae!


But the legend of Aristomenes includes other characteristics that are less obviously “heroic,” albeit very much in the Homeric tradition of fallible heroes.

One of these characteristics, perhaps inevitable in a popular hero, is Aristomenes undeniable sex appeal. On at least two occasions, Aristomenes is freed from captivity by women who fall in love with him. In one instance, he is rescued by the “virgin” daughter of a Messenian farmer, who at Aristomenes’ urgings serves too much wine to Aristomenes’ Cretan guards, and then, when the Cretons are in a drunken stupor, cuts Aristomenes’ bonds so he can kill his erstwhile captors and escape. In a second, more sensational episode of the Aristomenes legend, Aristomenes is shown charming (seducing?) a (presumably virgin) priestess of Demeter.

This second seduction is one of three incidents in the Aristomenes legend in which Aristomenes seeks to to capture unarmed Spartan women and girls for ransom. In the incident referenced above, Aristomenes and his companions try to carry off unarmed women celebrating a festival to Demeter at Aigila in Laconia, but the women defended themselves so effectively with their sacrificial knives and spits that they succeed in either killing or frightening off his companions while capturing Aristomenes himself. Aside from Aristomenes’ prowess as a seducer (since he subsquently seduces the chief priestess), this incident is not terribly heroic. Not only does he attack unarmed women, he fails in his attempt and -- on top of all that -- is himself captured by mere women.

The other two legends about the capture of maidens are more ambiguous. To be sure, in both the other episodes involving the capture of women, Aristomenes’ is successful. In one case he snatches girls dancing in honor of Artemis at Caryae and in the other he snatches fifteen virgins (presumably from Sparta itself) when “the defeated Spartans were celebrating some nocturnal rites called the Hyacinthia.” (See David Ogden, Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta’s Nemesis, p. 39) The Messenian version of this latter event significantly recounts how some of Aristomenes men try to rape the girls, but Aristomenes kills his own men rather than let the captive girls be violated, thereby demonstrating his high moral character. Furthermore, he returns the girls "intact" to their fathers after their ransoms are paid, and the grateful girls later plead for his life when he is captured by the Spartans and put on trial. (Note: no further information about when this trial occurred or whether the Spartans heeded the pleas for mercy by the grateful girls is provided by my source.)

The Spartan version of these episodes is (not surprisingly) quite different. The Spartans claim the girls were carried off and raped and then killed themselves from shame. Alternatively, King Teleklos rushed to their defense, only to be killed by the Messenians – and this incident triggered the First Messenian War. Then again, according to another interpretation in Messenian legend, the “girls” were in fact “beardless” youth who attacked the Messenians, and they, in self-defense, killed the youth disguised as girls, but this understandable act of self-defense was wickedly used by King Teleklos as a transparent excuse to attack Messenia, as he had always intended form the start…..

Returning to Aristomenes, there is another aspect of all three of these incidents that would have been more obvious to ancient Greeks than to us: in each case Aristomenes seized (or attempted to seize) the girls when they were in the act of worshiping one or another deity. In short: all three episodes constitute an act of sacrilege. One other legend underlines Aristomenes sacreligious character particularly dramatically.

Ogden provides the following quote from Polyaenus, (Ogden, p. 63):

When the Spartans were making a public sacrifice to the Dioscuri, Aristomenes the Messenian and a friend mounted white horses and put golden stars around their heads. In the course of the night, they manifested themselves at a moderate distance before the Spartans, who were celebrating their festival outside the city with their women and children. They thought there had been an epiphany of the Dioscuri and launched themselves into drinking and great pleasure. But Aristomenes and his friend dismounted from their horses, drew their swords and slaughtered a great many of them before riding off again. (Polyaenus 2.31.4)

This was clearly an act of inexcusable sacrilege. It entails not just attacking unarmed men (with their wives and children present), who were in the act of worshiping the gods, it involves impersonating the gods themselves. If, as Ogden suggests, this incident was intended to explain how Aristomenes incurred the enduring hostility of the Dioscuri, it would have to pre-date the Battle of the Boar’s Grave and so would have occurred at the very start of the Second Messenian War. This in turn suggests that at that time the Messenians could ride right up to the border of Sparta. If combined with the capture of Spartan maidens at another festival, it might have provided the kind of provocation that made the notoriously pious Spartans mad with rage and determined to defeat Aristomenes at all costs. In short, the incident might in fact offer significant insight into the roots of the Messenian Wars – or at least the bitterness with which they were apparently pursued.

It is also noteworthy that the conquered Messenians would keep alive legends in which their greatest hero shows decidedly sacrileges tendencies. One explanation would be that they preferred to attribute their defeat to the hostility of the gods than to their own failing. They needed, however, to explain the unrelenting hostility of the gods, and Aristomenes’ impudence did just this. Another explanation might be that, as a conquered people, they felt abandoned by the gods and identified with a hero who was impious. Precisely because the Diosouri were some of Sparta’s most honored gods, being disrespectful of them was in effect being disrespectful to Sparta, so this particular legend might have been particularly popular – especially since it shows the Spartans being duped by such a cheap trick.

Another consistent feature of the Aristomenes legend is the frequency with which the hero is humiliated. Aristomenes is not just captured by women and (lowly) Creton archers, he is wounded in the buttocks, loses his shield (by divine intervention) in the middle of a battle, is turned back during another night raid by Helen (of all figures!), forced to retreat to a fortress, then to flee his homeland, and yet he remains defiant and capable of outwitting and escaping his opponents. In short, for all his failings and defeats – or rather because of them – the Legend of Aristomenes is ideally suited to giving a defeated people hope. Aristomenes is defeated – but never killed (unless we want to believe that story with the hairy heart), and so he was an ever-present companion to the Messenians, promising a better future -- just as soon as the bias of the gods in favor of Sparta ended….


The Messenian Wars are the subject of Are They Singing in Sparta? Aristomenes is a secondary character in the book.