Find Out More

Find out more about Helena P. Schrader's Sparta novels at:

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. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024


The common view of Sparta is of a society divided between the wealthy, politically privileged (albeit underfed, cowed yet brutal etc. etc.) Spartiates, and the oppressed, helpless, despised helots. As I have noted in earlier entries, this ignores the vitally important role of perioikoi, but today I wish focus on helot society, particularly the fact that it too was highly differentiated. Not all helots were equal – nor equally miserable.
Historical sources make reference to helots in a variety of positions. First and foremost, of course, the helots worked the land. But helots also played a – singularly undefined – role in the Spartan army. Helots accompanied the Spartan army to Plataea, for example, and they were ordered to set fire to the sacred wood after the battle of Sepeia. These army helots appear to be a collective body under the command of the king, not the individual attendants of Spartan rankers. 

However, each Spartan hoplite apparently also had a helot body servant to look after his kit and help him arm. We hear too of “Lacedaemonian” wet-nurses being highly valued, and finding service as far away as Athens, where such a nurse allegedly breast-fed the ultimate Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades. While not explicitly a helot, it is hard to imagine a Spartiate or even perioikoi woman taking a position that was usually held by a chattel slave. 

The same is even more true of hereditary “town-criers, flute-players and cooks” listed by Herodotus (The Histories:6:60). Because all these functions were important to the army, I have argued elsewhere that they were not despised professions, but it is unclear whether the jobs were filled by perioikoi or helots; either interpretation is possible. Last but not least, although not explicitly mentioned, implicit in a highly civilized society with a very tiny elite such as Sparta, were people doing all the menial tasks necessary to keep a developed but still non-mechanized society functioning. In short, helots most likely did all those tasks done by chattel slaves in the rest of the ancient world. Someone in Lacedaemon built roads, dug ditches, cleaned latrines, quarried stones and extracted ore from mines etc., and I think it is safe to assume that these jobs were done by helots.

As we look closer at helot society, let’s remember that rural helots retained a substantial fixed portion (probably 50%) of the produce of that land they worked. Allegedly, at the time of Lycurgus’ Great Reforms, there was one adult male helot on each kleros, who tilled the land for the benefit of himself and the Spartiate “master.” Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  As long as there is only one male heir to each tenant, such a system is more or less sustainable indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, human demographics do not produce perfect replacement and even in countries with primogeniture (such as medieval England) families die out in the male line on average every three generations. Without primogeniture, however, an excess of heirs rapidly reduces a family to penury. To avoid these consequences, societies evolve inheritance and marriage laws to regulate the distribution of wealth over generations.

Stephen Hodkinson in his excellent study Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000) traces the impact of inheritence laws on the concentration of wealth in Spartiate society, but helots were not land-owners and could not buy or sell land. Rather, they were transferred with the land from one Spartiate owner to another.  Still, the ancient historians tell us that some helots were wealthy enough by the end of the 5th century to buy their freedom. In short, the accumulation of wealth – albeit not land – was clearly possible even in helot society. Some helots were definitely richer than others. But how?

The key to understanding this is again demographics.  Unlike chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, helots had family units.  In consequence, the sexual relations and off-spring of helots were not controlled by their masters for their own purposes, but developed more naturally.  In Athens and elsewhere, the off-spring of slaves were unwanted extra mouths to feed (that also reduced the concentration and working life of a female slave) and so intercourse between slaves was prevented to the extent possible. The fact that it was not always possible to prevent slave women from getting pregnant would not have worried slave-owners unduly because in the ancient Greek world it was common to expose unwanted children – even of the children of citizens. The unwanted children of chattel slaves would therefore simply have been left to die. Athens did not suffer from a growing slave population, but could keep the slave population under control effectively by these methods and by selling off anyone who had become a burden or was unnecessary on the international market. Unwanted Athenians slaves, therefore, could end up in Persia, Egypt or Italy.

In Lacedaemon, in contrast, Spartiates could not sell helots outside of Lacedaemon, and more important helots lived in family units. As everywhere else on earth where families exist, fathers would have taken pride in at least their male off-spring.  Male children would have been nourished and raised to adulthood to the extent possible. Females would have received less attention, food and affection (if the evidence of societies across the globe is any guide), but enough girls would have survived to adulthood to ensure survival of the family. Barring catastrophes, populations grow over time. Thus we can hypothesize a growing helot population from the age of Lycurgus (whenever that was) to the classical period – that fateful age when the helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population many times over (though probably not more than serfs outnumbered noblemen in Medieval Europe, by the way.) This is an important dynamic that explains why the imbalance between Spartiate and helot populations was so much greater than the imbalance between the Athenian citizen and slave populations.

This simple demographic fact might also explain why helots, who could not acquire land as their Spartiate masters clearly did, would have effectively become poorer over the generations. After all, if all the descendants of the original helot tenant of a kleros were tied to the same plot of land, then a finite plot of land would have been required to sustain entire clans rather than just one nuclear family by the time two hundred years had passed. In short, each individual would have been much poorer than his ancestor.  And while there may have been a general tendency toward impoverishment, it was clearly not the fate of all helots or there would have been no wealthy helots able to buy their freedom, and no one doing all the other jobs noted above.

Instead it appears that some form of voluntary or involuntary primogeniture ensured that only one man had the status of “tenant-in-chief” on each kleros.  He might have many children and many sons, but he had only one “heir.” If there were no sons, then very likely a son-in-law became the “tenant-in-chief,” and if there were no surviving children at all, the kleros was “vacant” and the Spartan state had to find new tenants from a pool of available helots.

In the more common case of a man having more than one son, the non-heirs (most likely the younger sons) would have been “free” to pursue their fortune elsewhere.  As the property of the Lacedaemonian state, of course, helots could not leave Lacedaemon, but to my knowledge there is no reason to think they could not hire themselves out within the boundaries of Lacedaemon. 

Thus younger sons who were lucky or particularly clever might have been apprenticed to learn a craft scorned by the wealthier perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth. Meanwhile, young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have had the option of hiring out for wages to the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites, or worked directly for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers or bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government.  Helot girls unable to find husbands would, like the daughters of the poor in every society across the globe over the last three thousand years, have found work as nursemaids and housemaids, waiting on the women and children of those better off than themselves.

In other words, helot society was more complex than Spartiate society. On the land there would have been at least three classes of helots.  There would have been “tenants-in-chief” on the prosperous estates of wealthy (even royal) Spartiates, who retained a large portion of significant revenues from the fertile land. Such helots would probably have been able to build substantial dwellings and to hire household help and additional labor when necessary (harvest etc.) without dividing up the inheritance and so keeping it in tact.  They would probably have lived better than many free men in other societies. (A good example of this pattern is the wealthy serfs of southwest England who built houses hardly distinguishable from the manors of the gentry.)  At the same time there would have been helots on poor, run-down or marginal estates that -- like their Spartiate masters -- were constantly on the brink of failure. Very likely, Spartiate masters living in fear of losing their citizenship or barely able to make agoge fees were harsh masters, constantly trying to squeeze more from the kleros or looking for ways to cheat the helots out of their share.  Finally, at the bottom of rural society would have been the itinerant agricultural workers without homes of their own, who sold their labor by the day or hour.

But, as I pointed out above, helot society was not exclusively rural.  Here too there would have been different strata of helots living very different life-styles.  Many helots, younger sons and sons of landless fathers, who were unwilling or unable to learn a craft would have made a living as attendants to Spartiates or laborers for the Spartan state and army.  Such helots probably lived in barracks, on their employer’s estates, or in small rented rooms, and would have formed a kind of urban proletariat similar to poor craftsmen in Athens and elsewhere.  However, there would also have been skilled craftsmen with workshops and stores.  While some of these might have barely scraped by, living in miserable slums or dark attic rooms rented from their more prosperous neighbors, others – as anywhere on earth – would have had a talent for business and sales. Exceptional craftsmen would have been able to charge more for their goods or found other ways to make money. These would have been able to afford apprentices and even slaves of their own. The more they had, the easier it would be for them to accumulate wealth by investing and lending. Such men, like the privileged “tenants-in-chief” on the kleros, would have lived in comparative luxury and would later be in the position to buy their freedom.

In short, in addition to the oppressed, abused and miserable helots familiar to every student of Sparta, there were also large numbers of comparatively well-off helots, who enjoyed considerable freedom, a reasonable standard of living for their age, and were far from discontented with their lot in life.  These helots were what enabled the Spartan state to function so well throughout the archaic period. 

(This article was first published on this blog in May 2013.) 

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Perioikoi

It is one of the ironies of recorded history that we generally know much more about the tiny, ruling elite in any society than about the masses that actually composed it. Thus we know about the lives and loves of medieval kings, but little about the peasants that represented more than 90% of their subjects. Likewise, Lacedaemonian history is dominated by the tiny class of Spartiates, albeit a great deal has also been written about the allegedly unjustly oppressed helots. The segment of Lacedaemonian society that has received the least scholarly attention is the “middle class” – the perioikoi. 

The lack of modern literature on the perioikoi is undoubtedly a result of the lack of historical and archeological information about this segment of Spartan society. The fact is, we know almost nothing about them -- not their origins, their history, the density of population, their laws or the nature of their relationship with the ruling Spartiates or their relationship to helots.

The lack of archaeological finds has led some historians to hypothesize that they were an essentially rural population, hardly better off than the helots themselves. Yet the very fact that they provided hoplites in at least equal numbers as the Spartiates casts serious doubt on this conclusion. I would also note that the archaeological finds in Sparta itself hardly reflect the might and wealth that we know Sparta enjoyed. For whatever reasons, the existing archaeological evidence from Lacedaemon is an incomplete, indeed inadequate, reflection of the society that inhabited the region in the 7th to 3rd Centuries BC.

John Chadwick in “The Mycenaean World" claims that the Mycenaeans found a native population on the Peloponnese, which they subjugated. When the Dorians invaded, they conquered the remnants of the Mycenaeans. This sequence of events might explain the three class system in Lacedaemon: the helots were the original inhabitants already reduced to serf-like status by the Mycenaeans, and the Mycenaeans became the perioikoi after the Dorian invasion. All three groups were essentially ethnically distinct and status depended on who had conquered whom. The situation appears to have been stable until the Spartans invaded Messenia and subdued another Dorian population. But all this is speculation.

Yet, while we know almost nothing about the perioikoi, we can infer a great deal. We know, for example, that in the later years of the Peloponnesian war, perioikoi hoplites were fully integrated with Spartan units – and that implies comparable levels of training, equipment and above all trust. While the enemies of Sparta (and modern commentators) make much of the hostility of the helots to Spartiate rule, the loyalty of the perioikoi is rarely questioned – or mentioned, despite its significance. 

We also know that Sparta had a fleet but that Spartiates had virtually no opportunity to gain the extremely complex knowledge necessary to build and sail ancient vessels. We know that Spartiates were prohibited from pursuing any profession other than that of arms and civic service, yet Lacedaemon had extensive international trade. We know further that Lacedaemon produced and exported timber, pottery, and bronze works. It had mines and quarries, and, of course, every kind of craft necessary to daily life in the ancient world from carpentry and metal working to tanning and basket-weaving. Who provided the manpower and the know-how for all these various industries, if the Spartiates were prohibited and the helots were working the land?

The logical answer is the perioikoi. Furthermore, by ascribing to the perioikoi these various urban professions generally held by citizens in other Greek cities, we quickly see a way in which the perioikoi could have been both integrated and co-opted into Spartan society despite their undeniable second-class political status. The Perioikoi had no voice in Spartan policy and yet were expected to risk their lives side-by-side with the Spartiates. It hardly seems credible that they would have accepted this situation for long – particularly in the bad years of the Peloponnesian War – if they had not enjoyed other benefits.

The financial benefits of a monopoly on industry and trade throughout the rich territory of Lacedaemon could be such an incentive. The very restrictive nature of Spartan citizenship, which confined Spartiates to the army and civic duties, opened immense opportunities for the perioikoi to enrich themselves. Even if completely excluded from land-holding (which to my knowledge they were not, but which might have been the case when the Spartiate population was expanding in the archaic era), there would still have been ample opportunities to not only earn a living but make a fortune as well. The experience of other societies shows that a manufacturing and trading middle-class can indeed prosper even when politically disenfranchised (see, for example, Medieval France). This, I believe, is the key to perioikoi loyalty and the essential character of the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract.

While Spartiates reserved political power to themselves and evolved a culture that disdained the public display of wealth; the perioikoi traded political enfranchisement for the dual benefits of economic freedom and security. Behind the shields of Sparta’s incomparable army, the perioikoi were free to enrich themselves for generations. Only after Sparta fell into decline and her citizen ranks grew too thin to guarantee the protection of Lacedaemon did the Spartiate-Perioikoi contract begin to unravel. The decline of Spartiate population forced an increasing dependence on perioikoi troops, which put perioikoi at ever greater risk. As long as Sparta was winning wars, that might have been acceptable, but once Sparta was defeated at Leuktra a perpetual disenfranchisement of the periokoi became untenable. Throughout the archaic period, however, the division of labor between Spartiate and perioikoi appears to have worked admirably.

Perioikoi play an important role in both A Peerless Peer and A Heroic King:



                                                        BUY NOW! 

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Sparta's Secret Weapon: Women

Sparta's power is usually attributed to the incomparable Spartan army -- and sometimes the factors that contributed to the creation of that army: Sparta's education system, it's unique constitution, it's laws, discipline and ethos. 
The importance of Spartan women is almost wholly
 overlooked, yet it was arguably critical.


No, Spartan women did not fight in the army. They did not don armor or drive war chariots or fight with bow and arrow. They were not amazons. What they did is run the Spartan economy, freeing their men to concentrate on defense. Lets look at that more closely.
The importance of women to any economy has been increasingly recognized and acknowledged over the last quarter century.  Raising female literacy has become an important goal of international aid organizations, because no factor is more important in decreasing both infant mortality and birthrates than female literacy.  Indeed, various studies demonstrate a strong inverse relationship between levels of female education and poverty. Female literacy is often used as measure of development when comparing nations and regions. More recently, development and aid programs have shifted their focus from grants to governments and male dominated organizations to micro-credits to women.

When applied to Ancient Greece, of course, the modern approach appears fatally flawed. No one can seriously argue that Athens was “under-developed” or that it was poor – or can they? After all, based on factors such as literacy, infant mortality, and longevity not to mention per capita income and income distribution, Athens would certainly be rated an undeveloped or “less developed” country today!

Yet by ancient measures of wealth, Athens was comparatively well off – even if, as Thucydides argued, the monuments it built with tribute money sent from its subject cities created the impression of a city twice as rich and powerful as it “really” was.  On this point, however, I take issue with Thucydides: any city that can force other cities to pay for a monumental building program in a distant metropolis deserves to be seen as a great power. (EU take note! The Greeks ares still doing it!) Thucydides was, however, trying to make another point: that monuments alone do not constitute power – a point he underlined by saying later generations would underestimate Spartan power if they judged it on the basis of its monuments.

It is when we look at Spartan power that we need to reconsider the importance of women.  Sparta, like Athens, was a recognized power in the ancient world. From at least the 6th century to the early 4th century BC, it was one of Greece’s “leading” states. It had a large alliance system and eventually broke the back of Athens’ empire, to briefly dominate the Greek world. Based on the amount territory controlled, Lacedaemon had a strong economic base from which to develop its power. It had sufficient rainfall, fertile river valleys, and several natural harbors. It had natural resources, though neither gold nor silver, and it had timber for building ships, marble for monuments, and a benign climate. In short, it had all the objective criteria necessary for becoming a powerful state – except manpower.

That is to say, if we consider only the Spartiates, then Lacedaemon reached its pinnacle of projected power (not necessarily its greatest moment!) at a period of time when the Spartiate population was tiny – less than two thousand men. And if we accept the prevailing view that the Spartiates were unpopular oppressors of their own population and their allies, much less their enemies, then this is an even more remarkable achievement. How could 2,000 men – regardless of how well drilled and physically fit – control a hostile domestic population more than ten times as strong, and all the allies in the Peloponnesian League – and then defeat a great empire like Athens?

Obviously, one answer is that Sparta’s subject classes, perioikoi and helot, and Sparta’s allies were not as hostile to Spartan leadership as is popularly assumed.  Another answer is that Spartan women played a significant role in the Spartan economy, effectively doubling the size of the ruling class. Both, I believe, are true, but today I want to focus on the role of Spartan women.

The ideal Athenian woman “knew as little as possible” and was neither seen nor heard. Her job was to go a virgin bride of 12 or 13 to the house of a citizen and then (despite being still a child) produce as many children as her husband wanted (but let him kill as many of her children as he wanted) until she died.  Oh, and she was allowed to rule over the slaves and her husband’s concubines as long as she didn’t set foot outside the house, show her face even in the doorway, and never expressed an opinion on anything. Xenophon, a liberal strongly influenced by contact with Sparta, thought it was advantageous for women to learn to read and calculate a little so they could manage their husband’s household better, but the more common opinion was expressed by Meander that teaching women to read was like giving more poison to a horrible snake. As Aristotle makes clear, many leading Athenian men would have been much happier, if there had been no need for women at all. Women being the source of all evil, only a society without any women at all could be a real utopia.

Real Athenian society and real Athenian woman obviously did not live up to this ideal. Poorer women had to work just to survive and to help their husbands in their shops and workshops. Not all Athenian women had the “privilege” of being locked up in the dark, stuffy, cramped rooms at the back of an Athenian house for their entire life. Women did step outside their house – at least for weddings, funerals and religious festivals. They probably even opened their mouths and said things, though that is hard to prove. But whichever way one looks at it, Athenian women made no contribution to Athenian economic, intellectual or military power.

In Sparta, in contrast, women were from birth onward better treated than their sisters in Athens. They were fed the same food as their brothers, attended the public school, and engaged in sport so that they grew up strong and healthy. Most important, they were not forced into marriage when still immature, and so not subjected to the trauma of childbirth until they were 18 or older, something modern medicine considers vital to female health. In consequence, Spartan women would have been healthier throughout their lives and lived longer than Athenian women. This would have had the important and often overlooked consequence that there must have been many more grandmothers in Sparta than in Athens. This is more than anecdotally significant.  Recent studies suggest that older, infertile females play a significant role in the survival of young in very primitive societies. We should not dismiss the notion that in Ancient Greece too they could have played a significant role in child-rearing and household management – if they were there.  In fact, however, as there probably weren’t many grandmothers in most other Greek cities because girls married and died very young.

Equally important is the fact that Spartan women were educated in the public agoge. We have no historical record of what they learned there and if you assume even Spartan males received little training in literacy, than neither did the girls. But the notion that Spartiates were largely illiterate or only marginally literate has been effectively debunked by various scholars (see particularly Ellen Millender, “Spartan Literacy Revisited, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20 ) and it is more reasonable to assume that the girls, like their brothers, left the agoge with functional literacy and numeracy. This is where modern evidence from the developing world suggests that such women were much more competent in the economy than women who lacked literacy and numeracy.  In short, Spartan women were in a position to actually conduct economic transactions for their husbands.  Allegedly, Spartiate women dominated the agora (where bachelors were not supposed to be seen at all) and this again reinforces the image of women who were cable of conducting business. 

Could such economically savvy women have contributed to Sparta’s ability to project its power? Could, for example, Sparta afford to send harmosts, generals and admirals overseas because they had competent administrators in their women?  Did female management of the Spartiate kleros and other estates ensure that Spartiates had the economic resources necessary to remain professional soldiers and provide administrators for an imperial power? Did Spartiate women not only manage kleros, but administer tax collection, customs and other economic functions inside Lacedaemon? Probably not, or Aristotle would have mentioned it. Nevertheless, in light of modern experience, we need to reassess the role of Sparta’s better educated, healthier and longer-living women and ask whether they didn’t contribute much more to Sparta’s power and status than just the soldiers they brought into the world in childbed. 

Spartan women -- mothers, wives and daughters -- are vital characters in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

Buy Now!                                         Buy Now!                                       Buy Now!