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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sparta's Navy

 The Peloponnesian War is often seen as a conflict between a great sea-power (Athens) and a great land-power (Sparta), and many history books make disparaging remarks about Sparta’s “inability” to grasp the importance of sea-power. Yet, Sparta ultimately defeated Athens at sea. Clearly, Sparta’s pride was her army, not her navy, and clearly the Athenians were the “lords of the sea” throughout the Classical period, but the clich├ęs about Sparta’s lack of maritime power are overdrawn.

Above "Olympia," a replica of a classical Greek trireme built and manned by the Hellenic Navy

Sparta, unlike Athens, was not dependent on the sea for its very existence. Because it was self-sustaining in food and other necessities from ore to wood, Sparta did not need to tradeBecause Sparta was not dependent on trade, it did not need to control the trade routes. It did need to control its bread-basket Messenia, but that could be done with its army.  Thus, far from being negligent or backward (as some commentators suggest), the fact that Sparta could deploy a fleet at all is rather surprising.

In fact, based on Herodotus, it is arguable that Sparta had a credible fleet before Athens did.  Sparta’s first attempt to depose Hippias entailed, we are told, sending an army by sea (5:63) It hardly seems likely that Sparta would have sent their own modest fleet, if they had been facing a major sea-power at the time. True enough, the force dispatched was defeated on land by Thessalian cavalry, but it managed to successfully land troops in Attica, something that seems astonishing if the Athenians had truly had command of the sea at the time.

When Aristagoras convinced the Athenians to aid his rebellion against Persia, we are told the Athenians sent 20 triremes. That is respectable, but not overwhelming considering islands like Chias and Naxos could deploy fleets 100 strong. Obviously, Athens might have consciously chosen not to send too many ships, yet it seems odd they would risk the wrath of Persia with only a token force. Twenty triremes probably represented a sizable portion of their available fleet.

More to the point, Themistocles is credited with having convinced the Athenians to build a navy. He would hardly have earned the reputation as “father” of the Athenian navy if Athens already had a substantial fleet.  If the Athenian navy was indeed built up from a modest, auxiliary component of Athens’ military forces to her pride and primary arm in the ten years between 490 and 480 BC, then it is less surprising than usually assumed that a Spartan, Eurybiades, was elected to command of the combined Greek fleets opposing Persia in 480.

At the time of Eurybiades’ appointment, Athens new fleet and most of her crews were completely untested. Sparta’s fleet may have been smaller and not notably successful, but apparently the allies felt it was more experienced than Athens.’  In fact, it is less odd that Sparta was given precedence over Athens than that Sparta was given precedence over Corinth.  Corinth had a substantially larger fighting fleet and is credited by naval historians with having evolved the trireme – not Athens.

Once Athens had won the battle of Salamis, however, Athens’ domination of the seas began.  The navy was an instrument well suited to Athens radical democracy because it gave poorer citizens a means of contributing directly to Athens military power. Radical democracy in turn gave Athens the manpower to man her fleet. Middle class Athenians could remain hoplites and the sons of the wealthy could form the cavalry, while the great magnates financed the construction and commanded the fleet.  But it was Athens' citizen crews that made her fleet so good. No trireme manned by slaves or mercenaries could be depended upon to row so fast or fight so hard.

And Sparta’s fleet? We know that Spartiates were appointed to command the fleet as navarchos.  Beyond that, to my knowledge the names of no Spartans who served at sea have been recorded.  On the contrary, Spartiates were required to serve in the army and did not man the fleet.  This means that the Spartan fleet must have been manned by either perioikoi or helots or both
Helot crews would, of course, have been similar to slave crews – highly problematic as disloyalty or even mere disinterest could cost a battle. Does this explain the lackluster performance of the Spartan navy throughout most of the Peloponnesian wars?

Yet, helots would hardly have been capable of paying for the ships nor is it likely they would have been capable or entrusted with command aboard them. This suggests perioikoi most likely financed and commanded Sparta’s fleet.  This is yet another area in which the role of the perioikoi has been seriously overlooked. The fascination of ancient and modern observers with the unique live-style of the Spartiates themselves, and the alleged oppression of helots has resulted in serious academic neglect of an essential component of Lacedaemon’s success: the perioikoi.

The Spartan navy features in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

  Buy now!

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Spartan Diplomacy

Clausewitz claimed that war was diplomacy by other means. This may explain why Sparta, popularly known as a militaristic society, was in fact a city with a long history of effective diplomacy and high regard for the diplomatic profession. 

Sparta founded the first non-aggression pact in recorded history when it stopped seeking to conquer it's neighbors but sought defensive alliances with them instead. A series of bilateral treaties evolved into the Peloponnesian League. While initially this organization was an instrument of Spartan hegemony, which required Sparta's allies to follow her lead, in or about 500 BC the allies successfully asserted their power and effectively converted the League into an alliance in which every member - including Sparta - had an equal vote.

Sparta also sent an envoy to the Persian court late in the 6th Century, long before the Persians had become interested in Greece. Allegedly, the Spartan envoy warned the Great King against enslaving Hellenes - which prompted the bewildered master of the Eastern world to ask who (in the hell) the Spartans were?

After the diplomatic breech of murdering the Persian ambassadors sent to obtain earth and water in 491, the Spartans were concerned enough about diplomatic niceties to send two men to Persia as sacrifices to atone for the murdered ambassadors.
Furthermore, Leonidas used diplomacy not force to form a coalition of Greek city-states who opposed the Persian invasion of 480 BC.

Sparta's diplomatic culture deserves much more attention and research. A comprehensive work on Spartan diplomacy would be a welcome addition to existing scholarly literature - or have I missed something? If anyone is aware of a good source on Spartan Diplomacy, please let me know.
My novel The Olympic Charioteer imagines what it might have been like in Sparta the defeat by Tegea in the mid-sixth century BC -- an event that led to the creation of the Peloponnesian League.

Watch a video teaser of the book here:
Find out more about the book here:

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Public Administration - Sparta's Hidden Strength

  It is widely accepted that Spartan citizens were professional soldiers in as much as they trained for warfare from boyhood onwards. Furthermore, it is recorded in ancient sources that Spartiates were prohibited from learning and pursing other professions and so there were no potters or carpenters, shipwrights, smiths or other tradesmen among Sparta's citizens.  These facts have led most people to conclude that Spartan citizens were only soldiers -- ignoring the fact that Spariates were demonstrably more than soldiers. They were also the administrators of a large, prosperous and exceptionally complex state.

In the 5th Century BC, Lacedaemon stretched from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea and had an estimated population of 60,000 or more. It had at least three classes of inhabitants (helots, perioikoi and Spartiates). It had a public school – unlike any other city of its age. It had a great number of public festivals with complex rituals involving choral, dance and athletic competitions. It successfully competed in the pan-hellenic games. It pursued extensive diplomacy throughout the then known world. And all this in addition to pursuing a brutal war that dragged out over generations in the second half of the fifth and early fourth century.  In short, Sparta was a highly sophisticated society, which could not have been managed by two bickering kings, 28 men in their dotage and five amateurs elected for a single year.  Sparta’s centuries of pre-eminence in the ancient world – and its reputation for good governance and order – can only be explained by a well-functioning administration that kept Sparta’s institutions operating.

This logical conclusion is supported by various sources which make oblique reference to ill-defined dignitaries that supported the known institutions of the Spartan state. For example, the Paidonomos and his assistants, priests, “magistrates,” and “heralds.”  While there is no explicit evidence (except with respect to the Paidonomos) that these positions were filled by Spartiates, it is unlikely that the Spartans would have entrusted the education of their children, their relationship with the Gods, communication with the enemy or the enforcement of their laws to perioikoi, much less helots.  In short, there were many tasks and responsibilities in addition to soldiering that had to be performed by full-citizens, probably after they went off active duty in the army at age 30. 

Let’s start with the agoge.  Although Xenophon and others speak only of “the” Paidagogos, as if one man alone controlled the entire agoge, such a notion is illogical.  We know that effective education requires low ratios of instructors to pupils, and even taking into account an age cohort of eirenes providing a degree of internal discipline each year, it is not credible that there were no other agoge officials.  It is far more likely, given the size and importance of the agoge to Spartan society, that there was a relatively large college of instructors, or at least Deputy and Assistant Paidagogoi, maybe the Mastigophoroi. Admittedly, these are usually portrayed as a bunch of whip-wielding thugs, but it is more probable, given the complexity of Spartan education, that they were responsible and respected educators.

Descriptions of Spartan life suggest a variety of other activities that would also have been performed by Spartan citizens if not “professionally” then, nevertheless, with the conscientiousness expected of full or part-time public servants.  For example, Sparta was famous for its choruses and dance performances. Anyone who has engaged in either activity knows that large groups of people cannot be brought to perform harmoniously together without someone choreographing, directing, and conducting. Sparta undoubtedly had chorus masters, and it is seems highly unlikely that choral and dance masters would have been drawn from the ranks of the helots or perioikoi.  Just as with the agoge instructors, it is far more probable that these were adult citizens.

We also know that the Spartan kings kept records and maintained archives.  Control of such delicate material as oracles from Delphi, communication between the kings and their permanent representatives, correspondence between the ephors and commanders in the field or ambassadors to foreign capitals would hardly have been entrusted to anyone but Spartiates.  In all probability, therefore, there was at least one “archivist” for each royal house, and this position was probably filled by a Spartiate, who was either appointed or elected. He probably had deputies and assistants as well.

Then there is the issue of taxation. Taxation was particularly important in Sparta because citizenship itself depended on paying two kinds of tax: the agoge fees when immature, and the syssitia fees after attaining citizenship.  Someone had to keep track of who paid how much, and they had to do that each and every month.  Maybe each syssitia had a part time “treasurer” to keep track of fees, but the agoge was large and would have required at least one (and probably more) full-time “treasurers.” It is not credible that perioikoi would have been entrusted with control of records that revealed (and in part determined) the strength of the citizen body and so the army in future generations. 

Furthermore, taxes also had to be collected from the helots and perioikoi.  Spartiates who collected too much from their helots were subject to sanctions, so someone – and it had to be one of their peers – must have been keeping track of how much was due and how much collected.  Even if not explicit, it is also fair to assume that the perioikoi were subject to taxation, just as metics in Athens. Again, an institutionalized means of assessing and collecting those taxes would have been necessary to ensure everything functioned properly, and -- at least until Sparta’s population decline became critical -- such an apparatus would have been headed by Spartiates.  Given the size and expanse of Lacedaemon, my guess is there would have been many more than one citizen engaged in tax collection!

Once taxes were collected, they had to be put to work, so we come next to the business of financial management.  Sparta would have needed some mechanism to allocate funding to various state expenditures.  Money was needed for the army, of course, but also for the fleet, and for public works like roads and fountains and drainage systems and for public buildings from temples to theaters, and monuments to barracks. Managing such projects requires full-time public servants committed to ensuring that the intentions of the state (as expressed, one assumes, by the Assembly via the ephors) are fulfilled and that funds are not allocated incorrectly.

And finally there was the Spartan army.  Friend and foe alike admired the Spartan army not only for its relatively good performance on the battlefield but also for its organization and professionalism.  Yet as most soldiers will tell you, an army’s effectiveness is not simply a matter of fighting capacity. A good army is well fed, well equipped, and well-supplied. It has effective command-and-control mechanisms, efficient lines of communication, as well as adequate and flexible transport.   A good army has a medical corps and, in centuries past, good veterinarians as well. In short, there is a great deal more to creating an effective fighting force than drill sergeants.  Sparta’s army must have had not just good soldiers and officers, but good quartermasters as well.

While all these various positions were “honorary” in the sense that they were without remuneration, they were nevertheless jobs requiring considerable time, energy, dedication and skill. Spartiates may not have earned a living from these jobs, since they all had their estates, but they probably viewed their performance in such jobs as honorable public service. Whether elected or appointed, ambitious Spartiates would undoubtedly have competed for these positions, and a man's performance in such public service would have contributed to his reputation and prestige. Men in these positions would in turn have been influential, becoming part of the complex network of “leading” citizens that helped shape Spartan policy behind the scenes.  

There is nothing sinister about this. It happens in every society – including our own.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Sparta's Ephors: Citizens not Monsters

In the Hollywood film "300" the Ephors are depicted as monsters strangely determined to destroy Sparta. How five officials elected annually from among the citizens by the Assembly to enforce Sparta's laws should have been so corrupted is only one of the many mysteries of Hollywood. What follows is a short history of this uniquely Spartan institution.

The Ephors as depicted in "300"

The ephors, despite later importance, were not mentioned in the so-called Great Rhetra, which allegedly encapsulated Lycurgus’ constitutional reforms, nor did they appear in any of the surviving fragments of Tyrtaeus’ poetry.  Indeed, it appears that originally the ephors were little more than official servants of the kings, charged with executing the kings’ orders. In consequence, the ephors make no particular mark in history prior to the mid-sixth century.

By about 750 BC, however, the institution appears to have evolved somewhat farther. Each year, five citizens were elected by the Spartan Assembly to serve for one year and one year only. No one could be re-elected, so the composition of the ephorate was constantly (annually!) changing. It was not, therefore, a body "controlled" by any particular faction or even class. Yes, Sparta's most famous statesman and philosopher, Chilon, served as an ephor one year (and may have done much for the prestige of the institution), but we also know that some very poor and many obscure men also held the office.  The individual members of the ephorate were not particularly powerful either before or after their one year in office. 

Furthermore, because the ephors changed annually, the ephors as a body did not have a specific policy or even a consistent bias. A.H.M. Jones in his succinct book on Sparta (A.H.M. Jones, Sparta, Barnes and Noble, 1967) notes: "Roughly speaking the ephors represented the will of the majority. When feeling was strongly in one direction there would be continuity of policy. When opinion was equally divided, or fluctuated, the ephors reflected this instability. When a king like Agesilaus was carrying out a policy which all Spartans approved, the ephors gave him their full support. When a king like Achidamus was fighting the tide of public opinion, he would often be over-ruled or frustrated by the ephors." (p. 30) Nevertheless, as an institution, the ephors were very powerful.

The first recorded act of the ephors was when they forced a reluctant King Anaxandridas to take a second wife. This interference in the personal life of a king was justified by their concern over the future of the Agiad line and indirectly the Spartan Constitution. It was initiated because, according to Herodotus, the ephors were tasked with observing the heavens at regular intervals and interpreting the stars.  In other words, this first act of interference could be interpreted as more a religious than a political role, in that the ephors were simply interpreting the Will of the Gods, rather than acting in a constitutionally independent role.

In the centuries that followed, however, the ephors increasingly engaged in activities that are unashamedly political. By the late fifth century, the ephors could fine citizens -- even those elected to public office -- for misdemeanors and bring charges against them for more serious crimes.  The ephors also controlled relations with the perioikoi and helots (at some point initiating the practice of declaring war on the helots annually). The ephors drafted bills for presentation to the Assembly and set the agenda at Assembly meetings. They could summon the Assembly and presided at it.  The ephors decided (based on their estimate of the comparative volume of the shouted “ayes” and “nays,”) whether a motion had passed or not. Last but not least, they enforced the decisions taken at Assembly.

The ephors, furthermore, had diplomatic and military roles as well as political and administrative ones. Not only did they receive and dispatch ambassadors, they also named – and recalled – commanders such as Pausanias and Lysander.  They appointed the three hippagretai, who then each selected one hundred men from the citizens on active service (aged 21 – 30) to form the royal body guard.  After the Assembly voted for war, it was the ephors, who mobilized the troops.
Perhaps most important, two ephors accompanied whichever king commanded the Spartan army on campaign.  Thus, although the kings commanded absolute obedience while the Spartan army was outside of Lacedaemon, the ephors were expected to keep an eye on them and exercise their right to bring charges against the kings for any unconstitutional behavior on their return.  The mere presence of the ephors, therefore, acted as a curb on arbitrary and unlawful actions by the kings.  Last but not least, if a king was charged with a capital offense, the ephors sat in judgment of him along with the Gerousia.

The ephors as both representatives from the Assembly and executors of it's will were fundamentally a democratic institution. The power of these annually elected ordinary citizens exercised is an testiment to the degree to which the Spartan monarchy was a constitutional monarchy.

The Ephors play a significant role in the latter two books in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:

  Buy now!

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Sparta's Radical -- and Imperfect -- Land Reform

  The Messenian War(s) forced Sparta to adopt a new, radical constitution that was quite unlike any in the contemporary world. That new constitution included elements like an Assembly of citizens that would soon be imitated elsewhere, but one feature never found imitators -- until more than a millennia later -- land reform.
Today I look more closely at this radical feature of the Spartan Constitution.

Although this event is lost in the mists of undated ancient history, all ancient historians agree that at some time (probably in the late 8th or early 7th century BC, by our reckoning) Spartan society underwent a severe crisis.  A rebellion or civil war so threatened the continued existence of the city-state that the citizens were prepared to accept radical new laws reputedly developed by Lycurgus. These laws included a redistribution of the land.  The land was divided into equal plots of sufficient size to support a man and his family, and each citizen was given a plot, or estate – a kleros.  Henceforth the Spartans called themselves equals, or Peers – because they were equal not only in rights but also in wealth.

We do not know the exact size of these "kleros," but they were designed to ensure each citizen could produce enough food to contribute to his syssitia and also pay the agoge fees for his sons.  We also know that from the inception of the reforms, Spartan citizens were not expected to till this land themselves. On the contrary, they had helots, agricultural workers of non-Doric descent, who tilled the land for them. Presumably, 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.” According to the law each party, the Spartiate master and the helot, received 50% of the harvest. Officially, neither the Spartiate nor the helot actually owned the land, which belonged to the state. Both were hereditary “tenants.”  

It is also probable that not all land in Lacedaemon was divided up. The kings almost certainly retained large estates that were not carved up during the reforms. Furthermore, Because citizens needed to be within walking or riding distance of their syssitia's and barracks, the immediate vicinity of Sparta (that is, in the Eurotas valley) was most likely the land divided into equal portions,  More distant parts of Lacedaemon (such as Kythera or on the coast of Laconia) probably remained in the hands of their former owners, while land conquered later, notably in Messenia, may have been divided on a basis other than strict equality.

Another factor influencing the distribution of land over time would have been inheritance laws, particularly the right of women to inherit.  Furthermore, it is only possible to sustain equal distribution of a fixed amount of land if there is only one male heir to each plot of land. Human demographics do not, however, produce perfect replacement.  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.  An excellent short discussion of Sparta's land reform is provided in Paul Cartledge's Sparta and Laconia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (Routledge, London, 1979), and a more comprehensive treatment of the subject can be found in Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth, London, 2000).

Thus, inevitably, with time the equality of wealth created during the Lycurgan reforms was eroded.  By the second half of the 5th century BC, wealth had become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer families.  Spartan citizens were no longer equally wealthy.  

Yet even if Spartans were not in fact equally wealthy, the myth of equality remained powerful, and laws prohibited the hoarding of wealth, particularly the ownership of gold and silver coins (possibly all gold and silver).  The ostentatious display of wealth was frowned upon socially.  This set Sparta apart from the other Greek city-states, where the landed aristocracy, wealthy merchants, and manufacturers engaged in extravagant displays of wealth and competed for the honor of donating the most generous gifts to their respective cities.  In short, Spartan dress, taste, and style were shaped by the ethos of equality, by the very definition of Spartan citizens as "equals" -- Peers. 

Most important, while some Spartan citizens accumulated wealth and became richer than their fellows, and while the citizens of other cities could be reduced to beggary, all Spartans were guaranteed a minimum standard of living – something most modern observers would applaud rather than condemn.

The need and impact of the land reform is a major theme in Are They Singing in Sparta? (ebook: A Song for Sparta)  a novel set during the Messenian War:


Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The World's First Democracy

The Spartan constitution, commonly dated to the early 7th century BC, is the first known constitution that vested supreme power in the hands of an Assembly composed of all citizens.  Thus, Sparta was the first known functioning democracy – roughly 150 years before the introduction of democracy in Athens.

 As is typical of early, innovative institutions, later modifications introduced in other cities made the Spartan democracy appear conservative as time went by.  Sparta, for example, never entirely freed itself of its kings.  Two jointly ruling hereditary monarchs from different families held restricted and mostly ceremonial functions throughout Sparta's history as an independent state – very much as the English monarchy functions today.

Another notoriously conservative aspect of the Spartan constitution was the Council of Elders, or Gerousia.  Although this body was elected, as were similar institutions in other cities, the Elders had to be over 60 years of age and were elected for life.  In consequence, they were not subject to the most effective of democratic censures: the need to be re-elected.

Nevertheless, Sparta's constitution explicitly gave precedence to the Assembly.  The Assembly, which is believed to have met on a monthly basis, was composed of all adult male citizens.  Although it could vote only on the bills presented by the Council, the common misconception that the Assembly could only vote 'yes' or 'no' is belied by accounts of lively (not to say rowdy) debates.  (Note, too, that modern legislatures also vote on bills presented and do not evolve legislation spontaneously during debate. Modern legislators also ultimately vote either 'yes' or 'no' on the bills introduced.)  Certainly, the Spartan Assembly was powerful enough to exile kings.  

Yet, the Spartan Assembly never attained the absolute tyranny of the Athenian Assembly – a point praised widely by ancient writers, who saw in Sparta's more balanced (bicameral) democracy a means of controlling the fickleness of the mob.  Most people today, used to representational democracy, would feel more comfortable in Sparta's democracy than in that of Athens, where many officials were chosen by lottery and the votes of illiterate and impoverished citizens were easily manipulated and purchased by demagogues.

Oddly, the Spartan Assembly is often disparaged today as a body of dumb, illiterate automatons. It is dismissed as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Kings, Gerousia and ephors.  This view of the Spartan Assembly is based on constitutional provisions that appear to have restricted debate, the absence of secret ballots, and the assumption that Sparta’s notoriously obedient soldiers would “take orders” in the Assembly just as they did on the battlefield.

However, the Assembly enjoyed very real powers, officially more than the kings. The Assembly elected the ephors every year and members of the Gerousia, whenever vacancies occurred in the latter due to death. Hence men with political ambitions had to lobby and ensure a majority of votes against rivals. Also, according to most interpretations of the Great Rhetra, the Assembly had “the final say” on legislation. The Assembly forced more than one king into exile (e.g. Cleomenes I, Leotychidas, Pleistoanax) and could condemn commanders who exceeded instructions such as Pausanius and Phoebidas. Thus, despite the inability to introduce legislation and the public nature of the vote, the Spartan Assembly did exercise real power.

Most important, however, the Spartan Assembly was made up of her soldiers and her soldiers knew that they represented the might and power of Sparta. A body in which a large minority was composed of virile young men, in peak physical condition, who have been raised to think of themselves as the elite is unlikely to have been docile. 

Furthermore, we have clear evidence that these men did not obey anyone blindly — not even on the battlefield. An excellent example of this is the famous case of Amompharetus refusing to obey Pausanias’ orders on the eve of the Battle of Plataea. This case highlights the fact that commanders in the Spartan army did not command obedience: Amompharetus was not, after all, summarily executed or even relieved of his command. Instead, Pausanias tried to reason with him and finally ordered the rest of the army to move out. Last but not least, Sparta had sufficient confidence in the judgment of its individual commanders to repeatedly send men of “ordinary” status out to act as advisers to foreign powers, such as Gylippus in Syracus.

The Spartan Assembly was made up of the same men who were to be officers and admirals, magistrates, governors, ambassadors and military advisors around the world. Thus while some citizens may have been indifferent to politics and willing to do what others advised, in every generation there would have been ambitious young men willing to challenge existing authority. These ambitious men had a voice (and probably a following) in the Assembly. Certainly, we know that the Assembly as a whole could be quite rowdy. It was “the Spartans” - not the ephors or Gerousia - who notoriously threw the Persian emissaries of Darius down a well!

What the above suggests is that Spartan citizens were anything but mindless automatons manipulated by their officers and political leaders. They were self-confident citizens with a highly developed sense of their own power and confidence in their own capabilities and judgment. Sparta’s citizens were not docile or mindless pawns, but thinking and responsible citizens with a say in the policies of their city-state.

The differences between Athenian and Spartan democracy were many, and both were imperfect from the modern standpoint, but the Spartan citizen’s status within his polity should not be denigrated. Sparta was very much a democracy in any sense of the word.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Making of Sparta - the Messenian War(s)

Arguably, nothing was more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a radically unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia. W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire people resulted in permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict with Messenia.
The pass between Lacadaemon and Messenia through the Taygetos Mountains.
Modern histories of Sparta tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without providing a great deal of detail. The reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the early history), the literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous. Indeed, he describes Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us only in fragments, as the “only” reliable literary source, while pointing out that the ancient sources Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.
The facts of conquest which are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years. Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long as the conquest of Troy. Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.

We also know that in the first quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to Lycurgus. (There has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the Spartan constitution, but W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan revolution to the period between 700 and 670 are cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp. 55-58.) Furthermore, we know that Sparta’s only colony was established at the turn or very end of the 8th Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.

Conventionally, these facts are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan reforms. The later, however, are usually dated to the lifetime of Tyrataios and therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a revolt of some kind. So the allegedly brutally oppressed Messenians were -- within just two generations -- capable of financing hoards of hoplites and fielding entire hoplite armies.

This taxes my imagination. Periods of intense domestic unrest rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.

The history of modern revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly in a crisis that threatens recent gains. If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.

What if, following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia, invaded – and then got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver on that promise? What if, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the war to Laconia?

Such a situation would have produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new, revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict with organized, well-armed Messenian forces.

Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.

The paranoid excesses of late classical Sparta (e.g. the krypteia) followed the Helot Revolt of 465, but they probably took the disproportionate form the did because there was still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish relations today. I believe it was more likely the trauma of a lost war than an unbroken series of victories by an invincible army that made Sparta what it was.

  Are They Singing in Sparta? (ebook: A Song for Sparta)  is a novel set during the Messenian War: