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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The World's First Non-Agression Pact

Despite the undoubted effectiveness of Sparta's professional army, its foreign policy relied on diplomacy as much as the force of arms to solve its differences with neighboring city-states.  In fact, the Spartans demonstrated an acute appreciation of the limits of their power and of their vulnerability, which in turn gave rise to a cautious foreign policy that relied heavily on effective diplomacy. Among other astonishing accomplishments, Sparta produced the first known permanent alliance system in history, comparable to NATO: the Peloponnesian League. It all began with Tegea...

Herodotus records that sometime before the Persian invasion and probably in the mid-6th Century BC as we reckon time, the Spartans became restless and wanted to conquer their northern neighbors in Arkadia. As the Spartans were wont to do, they sent to Delphi for advice and received the following Oracle:

Arkadia? Great is the thing you ask. I will not grant it.
In Arkadia are many men, acorn-eaters,
And they will keep you out. Yet, for I am not grudging.
I will give you Tegea to dance in with stamping feet
And her fair plain to measure out with the line.

Taking this to mean that they would be successful, the Spartan army invaded Tegea only to suffer a devastating defeat. As Herodotus explains: “…and those who were taken prisoner were forced to wear on their own legs the chains they had brought, and to ‘measure out with the line’ the plain of Tegea as laborers. In my own lifetime, the fetters they were bound with were still preserved in Tegea, hanging up around the temple of Athene Alea.” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, 66)

Although Herodotus does not tell us just how many Spartiates were killed or captured, it is clear that Sparta was both defeated and that a significant number of citizens surrendered. (Incidentally demonstrating that Sparta did not have any kind of a “do or die” mentality!) Indeed, Herodotus suggests that Sparta suffered more than one defeat saying they “continually” had the worst of it against Tegea and “a long series of reverses” until the reigns of Anaxandridas and Ariston. These kings certainly lived in the second half of the 6th century and under their leadership, Sparta sent for a second oracle from Delphi.  This told them:

In Arkadia lies Tegea in the level plain,
Where under strong constraints two winds are blowing;
Smiting in there and counter-smiting, and woe on woe;
The earth, the giver of life, holds Agamemnon’s son.
Bring him home, and you will prevail over Tegea.

At this point, a clever Spartiate, Lichas, learned that a smith in Tegea had discovered a coffin ten feet long with a skeleton inside that was just as large. Interpreting this as the body of Orestes, Lichas reported what he had heard to the Gerousia. The Spartans pretended he had committed some crime and exiled him. He returned to the forge, explained what had happened and leased the plot of land with the bones. In secret, he then dug up the bones and brought them back to Sparta, and, according to Herodotus, “ever since that day the Lacedaemonians in any trial of strength had by far the better of it.”

But that is only half the story, for -- despite having recovered what was believed to be Orestes’ bones -- Sparta refrained from launching a new war against Tegea and negotiated a non-aggression pact instead.

Why? Herodotus is silent on this, so we are left to speculate.

We know Sparta opted to negotiate with Tegea rather than to resort to arms. We also know that the resulting “non-aggression” pact became a pro-type of all subsequent agreements with other cities in the Peloponnese, and so the core of the Peloponnesian League. We also know that a key feature of this agreement was that Sparta agreed to assist Tegea against external enemies (presumably they were thinking of Argos), but also that Tegea agreed to assist Sparta against internal revolts. This suggests that recognition of the threats inherent in a large subject population may have induced Sparta to seek an alliance in place of conquest. A number of historians point out that the end of the Tegean conflict probably fell in the lifetime and possibly the Ephorate of Chilon the Wise, and postulate that this universally respected Spartan leader may have been the voice of reason that held Sparta back from new aggression.

The course of history: the attack, defeat, new appeal to Delphi, successful relocation of “Orestes” and then the astonishing restraint demonstrated by Sparta in not attacking again suggest that Spartan society was probably divided between “hawks” and “doves.” Far from being a monolithic society with a single will and a robot-like population, Sparta was a complex society inherently vulnerable to internal division by the peculiar institution of the dual kingship. Since the Kings were equal in all things, any fundamental policy differences between the kings led inevitably to political strife. Each king could be assured support from his own relatives, friends, and clients in both the Gerousia and Assembly. This means that each king would seek to win majorities by various means of persuasion and the same kind of political maneuvering we are familiar with today in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. The “hawks” won the first round; the “doves” – very probably led by Chilon the Wise – won the second round.

The above hypothesis is the basis for my novel The Olympic Charioteer. The novel opens in Tegea, after Sparta’s defeat. In the absence of any historical record about the political system in Tegea at this time, I have used Tegea to portray one of the characteristic political developments of the period: the rise of tyrants on the backs of increasing political demands by the hoplite-class against the aristocratic elite. The novel moves from Tegea to Sparta, where the internal divisions between two factions in Sparta are revealed. The central character of the novel is one of the Spartiates taken captive in the Spartan defeat: a young man, who just before the start of the war had driven his father’s chariot to victory at the Olympic games.

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Two cities at war
Two men with Olympic ambitions
And one slave
The finest charioteer in all Hellas.

This is the story of a young man’s journey from tragedy to triumph, and the founding of the first non-aggression pact in recorded history.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sparta's "Peculiar" Dining Clubs

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meals. These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Today I take a closer look.

Although it was common, popular and indeed a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens, the Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory precondition for attaining citizenship; failure to be accepted or failure to pay mess fees could cost a man his citizenship.

The origins of this peculiar tradition are controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time from the desirability of men of different ages dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to a conscious desire on the part of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to – and incidentally more successful at – undermining family structures and influence.

The problem with the comparison to 20th Century totalitarian states is two-fold. First, modern anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. They sought to undermine the family because families are inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stresses the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta in his essay. If Sparta was essentially conservative, then no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.

The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is not a particularly good way to undermine family structure. It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but most men today nevertheless eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important.

There is no evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families. On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper.

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, to the disappointment of visiting foreigners, syssitia were notorious for the absence of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the traditional Athenian symposia. At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it. In short, attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic destruction of family and individuality reveal an alarming lack of objectivity.

A more appropriate parallel to the modern world might be membership in fraternities. Applicants to syssitia, as to fraternities, had to be accepted by existing members. This meant that far from being uniform, Spartan syssitia had different characters. Some syssitia would have been more intellectual than others, some more musical, some more conservative, and others outright radical. Some syssitia might have had close affiliations to one or the other royal house, and every Spartan with ambition would have expected and relied on support from his “fraternity brothers” throughout his life. 

Spartan syssitia also shared some characteristics of political associations. We know that Spartans scorned the Athenian custom of men hanging around in the agora discussing public affairs. Instead, Spartan men were supposed to discuss affairs of state behind the closed doors of their syssitia where, presumably, no helots, perioikoi or foreigners could overhear them. While this may seem indicative of a paranoid or secretive society, it might on the other hand have enabled men to speak more freely and more candidly than in public. There are many people, after all, who shy away from speaking in a crowd or among strangers, yet nevertheless have opinions worth hearing. The syssitia would have provided a context in which such men could debate issues of importance and have their opinions heard.

Of course, to the extent that members of a syssitia were similar in their interests and inclinations and familiar with one another since childhood, the character of a syssitia may have the closest parallel in the modern world to the German “stammtisch” – that table in the local pub at which a group of men meets night after night to discuss everything from football to fashion and politics to pop-culture. Every “stammtisch” has its own clientele, its own group dynamics, and its own character – and they all get turned out at closing bell and sent home to their families, just as in Sparta.

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


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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Debunking Myths about Sparta: The Absence of Art

Sparta is usually depicted as a bleak place and Spartans, lacking in art, architecture and even decoration. As with almost every other cliche associated with Ancient Sparta, that is wrong.  Contrary to popular legend, Sparta produced both works of art and artists.

According to Conrad Stibbe in his excellent book Das Andere Sparta (Philipp von Zabern, 1996) no less than nine Lacedaemonian artists are known to have worked in Olympia alone. While the majority of these artists are described as Lacedaemonian, in two cases, Syadras and Chartas, the artists are explicitly referred to as Spartiate. While it is possible these were the only exceptions in Spartan history, it is more likely that they are the tip of the iceberg: the only surviving record over two and a half millennia of other nameless Spartiate artists. 

Arguably Sparta's most famous sculpture; dating from the early 5th century it is affectionately known as "Leonidas" -- although it is unlikely to actually depict him.

Strikingly, Stibbe notes that the known Lacedaemonian artists worked for other states as well as Lacedaemon. That means they were recognized as outstanding artists and worked professionally on commission, not just as amateur artists adorning their own city’s monuments. Four of the nine were said to be students of a famous Cretan sculptor, and several of them engaged apprentices from other cities. Clearly, artistic work at Olympia was “international” not parochial.

Stibbe also notes that the Lacedaemonian sculptors worked not only in stone but in wood, ivory, gold, and bronze. Ivory and gold were used predominantly to decorate wood and therefore even if fragments of ivory and gold are found it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the total work of art. As so often when trying to understand Sparta and Spartan society, we are hampered by a paucity of archeological evidence that may reflect an absence of original material, destruction of the archeological record in earthquakes and flooding, or simply inadequate archeological investigation. Troy, after all, was considered mythical or fictional for almost two thousand years, until one amateur fanatic revolutionized our understanding of the Mycenaean period by insisting on digging in a spot that was not previously investigated. The site of Sparta itself may have been investigated, but much of Lacedaemon has never been systematically subjected to serious archeological study and new discoveries in Sparta’s “outlying” cities and temples may yet yield significant new finds.

An Example of Spartan Bronze Work
An example of this kind of discovery is a particularly beautiful stone sculpture found on Samos that appears to be of Lacedaemonian origin. It portrays a hoplite with long braids (as worn at this time exclusively in Sparta) and with breast-spirals on the breastplate (also typical of Laconian hoplites in art). Although not yet 100% confirmed, the marble also appears to be Laconian. If this statute was indeed Lacedaemonian, it would represent a significant discovery documenting more of Sparta’s almost forgotten artistic golden age. 

Meanwhile, we should not ignore the plethora of smaller art objects from bronze vessels and jewellery to statuettes and figurines found at Spartan sanctuaries which record a thriving industry for domestic craftsmanship if not high art. These are well catalogued by Reinhard Foertsch in his article "Spartan Art: It's Many Deaths," in Sparta in Laconia: Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium, Dec. 1995 (Cavanagh, WG and S.E.C. Walker, eds.) The same publication contains an excellent article by Maria Pipili, "Archaic Laconian Vase-Painting," which highlights the sophistication and high quality of 6th Century Laconian pottery.

Altogether, archeological research suggests that art was more common and more valued in Sparta than is widely acknowledged today. Spartiates certainly bought works of art and dedicated art objects at their sanctuaries. The extent to which they engaged in production of art themselves will never be known but, as noted above with respect to the two sculptors, at least in some cases Spartans were professional artists.

In all my novels set in Sparta I attempt to convey the complexity and sophistication that this fascinating society displayed.



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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Debunking Myths: A Nation of Thieves

Every scholar of Sparta knows Xenophon’s descriptions of how Spartan youths and boys were kept hungry so they would learn how to steal and were punished only for being caught rather than for theft itself.  Credible as Xenophon generally is, his commentary on this aspect of Spartan society is very questionable.
Admittedly, a nation of thieves may well fit Athenian views about their enemy.  The French referred to the English as “perfidious.” Americans and Soviets routinely attributed treachery to each other throughout the Cold War. The Israelis and Arabs have no end of adjectives to describe the deceitful character of the other side. Rather like calling your enemy’s men “fags” and their women “whores,” attributing sly dishonesty and immorality to the enemy is standard fare in propaganda wars regardless of culture or century.

A nation of thieves does not, however, fit well with a society that even her enemies considered remarkably stable and orderly. How do you keep a society orderly, if the entire male population between the ages of 7 and 20 are actively encouraged to steal? More important, how do you keep an economy functioning at the high levels of efficiency needed to finance a brutal, 30-year war if every farm, shop, house, workshop, and warehouse must be locked and guarded against hoards of desperate, half-starved youth? There are thieves in every society, but high levels of crime are one of the most destructive factors to social stability and political credibility. 

Admittedly, the theft of food alone might not be so devastating to an economy as the theft of all goods, but the accounts usually cited, supplemented with details such as the absurd story of a youth caught stealing a fox (which is not on anyone’s menu), suggest that theft as such was encouraged. It is this picture of Spartan youth which dominates modern portrayals of Sparta.

To his credit, Anton Powell, in his article “Dining Groups, Marriage, Homosexuality,” in Michael Whitby’s Sparta, notes that “theft offended against two ideals of Spartan society: obedience and respect for elders.” (Sparta, p. 102). However, rather than questioning if Xenophon’s account is accurate or complete, Powell tries to argue that the military benefits of teaching youth stealth and deceit outweighed the disadvantages of corrupting their morals.   

The problem with this argument is that such skills were conspicuously not necessary to the phalanx warfare at which Sparta excelled. Powell attempts to make a connection between guerrilla warfare and the custom of theft despite the fact that Thucydides states explicitly that prior to the Pylos campaign the Spartans had little experience of brigandage. Unable to square such a statement with his own image of Sparta, Powell hypothesizes a long history of (completely unrecorded!) helot revolts in which the Spartans learned guerrilla warfare – and so needed training in theft and stealth, but which Thucydides and Herodot knew absolutely nothing about.   

Admittedly, the kryptea was an organization in which the skills of deceit and theft would have been useful, but we are told that only selected Spartan youth ever served in it, not all of them. Furthermore, as Dr. Nic Fields so significantly pointed out, Sparta probably did not have that repulsive institution unit until after the helot revolt of 465.  There is, in fact, no credible indication whatsoever that Sparta had to deal with helot revolts of any kind prior to 465 – unless one counts the Second Messenian War as a major “helot” uprising. Taken all together, the evidence suggests that both helots and perioikoi prospered throughout the archaic period.

Rather than inventing unrecorded wars, I think it makes more sense to examine the presumption that Spartan youth were encouraged to steal.   It is far more likely, as Nigel Kennel argues in The Gymnasium of Virtue, that if Spartan youth were encouraged to learn stealth and theft at all, it was only in a very limited and restricted context, and/or only after the degeneration of Spartan society had set in in the mid-fifth century BC. 

The first book in my Leonidas Trilogy depicts the Spartan Agoge based on what we know about Spartan society as a whole and common sense.