Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Birth of Sparta - Causes of the Spartan Revolution


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" [sic!] literary source, while pointing out that the ancient sources Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.

Yet, 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 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. (I know there has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the Spartan constitution, but I find W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan revolution to the period between 700 and 670 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 seen as contemporary with Tyrataios and were, 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 (krypteia, mass executions, etc.) followed the Helot Revolt of 465, but they probably took the disproportionate form they 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 sparked the revolution that made Sparta the unique society it was.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sparta's Ancient Roots: Homer's Helen

Helen of Sparta – What Homer’s Helen tells us about Sparta



Raphael Sealey in his study Women and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: 1990) makes a strong case that the marriage customs and status of women as portrayed in the works of Homer are incompatible with customs in classical Athens. He argues that: “The Athenian and Homeric concepts of marriage are so markedly different that one cannot have developed from the other.” (p. 126)

Sealey furthermore argues that the depiction of Helen in both Iliad and Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of the Athenian theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her “dear child,” while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen. In the Odyssey, Helen is depicted in Sparta apparently enjoying the respect of the entire population and providing wise advice to her husband.  It is striking that such a portrayal of Helen is consistent with Spartan tradition, where Helen was honored alongside Menelaos, temples were built to her and an annual holiday was celebrated in her honor.  

One particularly intriguing aspect of the Helen portrayed by Homer in the Odyssey is that she, like Gorgo, is shown to be cleverer than her men! She is the first to recognize Telemachos (Odyssey 4:138:32), and it is Helen who deciphers the significance of an eagle carrying a goose (Odyssey 15:160:78).

This begs the question if Homeric traditions with respect to women had a stronger influence on Sparta, particularly Archaic and pre-revolutionary Sparta, than they did on Athens. Is it possible that Doric traditions generally owed more to the world described in the works of Homer than did Ionian traditions?  Admittedly, we do not know just what society the Iliad and Odyssey actually describe and many argue that the world of Homer, like Homer himself, are completely fictional.  Yet repeatedly, archeological evidence has come to light that verifies elements of the great epics previously dismissed as “fiction” (e.g. helmets with boars tusks).

We know that women in Sparta enjoyed exceptional freedom and status compared, particularly, to women in Athens. While this difference is traditionally attributed to the laws of Lycurgus, it is unreasonable to presume that something as fundamental as attitudes toward women would change abruptly.  It is far more likely that women in Sparta already enjoyed higher status and that the revolution in Sparta that followed the First Messenian War only codified, institutionalized and developed to new levels pre-existing tendencies. The fact that Cretan women, Achaian women and women in Gortyn also had notably more freedom and status than women in classical Athens is further evidence that there was a wider, pre-classical tradition which contrasted sharply to the misogynous practices and laws of classical Athens.

It would be interesting to know if Doric traditions differed markedly to Ionic traditions in other spheres as well – and equally intriguing to investigate to what extent (if any) Ionic traditions were influenced by Asiatic customs. Is it possible that Athenian misogyny had more to do with the influence of the East – of Babylon and Persia – than with the roots of Greek civilization? Was Sparta’s comparatively greater respect for women perhaps more “Greek”? If so, was Sparta's entire society and ethos closer to its "Greek" roots than those of Athens? 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Life in Sparta: Hardship or Happiness?


During the Peloponnesian War Sparta’s enemies allegedly joked that it was no wonder the Spartans were willing to die in battle -- because no one would have liked to live the way they did. Aside from the fact that these commentators probably knew very little about the way Spartans actually lived, the assumption is that lack of luxury and the pervasive deprivation to which Spartans were condemned by their laws made them unhappy men.  Yet Xenophon, a noted Laconophile who lived and campaigned with Spartans for decades, argued the other way around: that precisely because the Spartans learned to get along with very little, they were actually happier. 


The view west from Sparta to Taygetos -- a good reason to for good spirits!

Certainly modern efforts to measure happiness have produced various indexes which prove that there is no direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Unscientifically, I would add that in my personal experience the Nigerians surrounded by corruption, pollution and collapsing infrastructures are much happier and have a greater joie de vivre than do the Norwegians – a people with one of the highest standards of living and one of the most equitable and developed societies on earth.

Without getting too deeply into the philosophical topic of what constitutes happiness, I would like to suggest that happiness has less to do with objective circumstances and more to do with a state of mind – i.e. attitude rather than possessions. We all know that whether a glass is described as half empty or half full depends on whether the observer is a pessimist or an optimist, but as my father pointed out: the optimist and the pessimist are both wrong – but the optimist is happier.

When outsiders looked at Spartiate society and (based on what they knew) decided such a life wasn’t worth living, they may indeed have accurately described how they would have felt if forced to live the way the Spartans did. However, they tell us nothing about the way the Spartans themselves felt. They are describing Spartan society as “half empty” – but that is not necessarily the way the Spartans saw it. The historian has to look beyond the opinion of outsiders and search for hints about Spartans attitudes toward their society.

Returning to the opening comment, I would argue that, in fact, men are very rarely willing to die for something they don’t think work preserving. Troops notoriously break, run and surrender when they have lost faith in what they are fighting for. If Spartan rankers thought that their way of life wasn’t worth living, then they would have welcomed defeat as a way of introducing revolution and constitutional reform. Indeed, if young Spartans thought the Spartan way of life was so abdominal that it was better to die than live as they were supposed to live, then idealistic young Spartans would have deserted to the Athenian side, helped defeat the oppressive regime they hated, and introduced Athenian-style democracy. In short, witty as the Athenian joke is – and it made me laugh out loud – it does not describe the Spartan frame of mind.

So how do we come closer to the Spartan attitude toward life? What made Spartans willing to die for Sparta? Was it really just a mindless fear of showing fear? A fanatical devotion to a code of honor? Or was Xenophon on the right track when he suggested that the Spartans learned to enjoy life – and love it better – by learning self-control and restraint?

As evidence of a certain, if not joie de vivre, at least contentment, I would like to first draw attention to those pieces of Spartan art that we have to date uncovered. Unlike the art of some warlike cultures (notably the Aztecs), Spartan art depicts many peaceful scenes: farm animals, lions and mythical beasts, bulls and horses (lots of horses!), riders with and without hunting dogs, chariots with horses and charioteers, girls running, married couples side-by-side, a king watching the correct weighing of goods for export, youths and maidens and hoplites, lots of hoplites. It is notable that the facial expressions on the human figures are uniformly benign. A convention certainly, but I would argue that a society that rarely smiled would not have conventionalized the smile as the expression in its art.

As a witness to Sparta’s love of life I would also like to call Sparta’s most famous philosopher, Chilon. According to a variety of ancient sources, Chilon was the origin of the quintessential laconic advice “Know Thyself” – inscribed in the forecourt to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Maria Papadopoulos points out in her contribution to “Sparta: A city-state of Philosophers: Lycurgus in Montaigne’s essais” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 7, No. 1, July 2011), however, that this expression is a condensation (laconic interpretation!) of the longer command from Apollo to “know that you are not a God, know that you are mortal, know that the finitude called death is an irreducible component of life. Live accordingly.”  If Papadopoulos is correct, then Chilon’s admonishment to “know thyself” was not so much advice to know one’s own abilities and limitations, but advice to live each day in anticipation of death – which is much the same thing as “Carpe Diem”—usually translated as “use each day.” Arguably “using” each day is not the same as enjoying each day, and yet as Papadopoulos goes on to note: “The ancient Spartans trained hard but they enjoyed themselves [too]: feasts, dancing and singing, creative imagination and satirical banter and a temple dedicated to the God of Laughter….”

Combined I think these fragments of evidence suggest that the Spartans themselves did not find their lifestyle so burdensome and certainly not intolerable. The “deprivations” and hard work that strangers found so depressing were in contrast of little importance in a society that learned to love life itself in full consciousness of its transience.  A man who keeps in mind the alternative (death) loves even the simplest things in life.  This, I postulate, was the secret of Sparta’s love of life.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The True Parallel To Sparta: Christendom

This month, I'm delighted to welcome W. Lindsay Wheeler back to "Sparta Reconsidered" with a new -- highly thought-provoking - guest blog.  He would welcome feed-back, so don't hesitate to contact him at the email address provided at the end of the article. 

The True Parellel to Sparta is Christendom

Far too many modern textbooks put Athens at the start and center of our cultural understanding. Skipping over two thousand years, we go, as it were, from Athenian democracy straight to modern civilization. But there is a bump in the road, the English Classicist J. Burnet, for example, notes that “…The Platonist tradition underlies the whole of western civilization”. (93) The Platonist tradition had nothing to do with Athenian democracy; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all, excoriated democracy. That being the case, the question then becomes where did Plato’s teachings arise? From Sparta as Socrates points out. 

Many modern textbooks equate Sparta with dictatorship and totalitarianism with a number of academics conjoining Sparta with Nazi Germany.

Nazi Germany?!?!  

If Sparta provoked Socrates and Plato, then what is the true parallel of Sparta should be in line with the Platonist tradition, right? The real parallel of Sparta is Christendom! *

The most glaring characteristic shared by both was serfdom of the helots in both Crete and Sparta and the feudalism exhibited by most of Europe. Just like in India, these Indo-Europeans created caste societies of soldiers, workers, tradesmen, priests, royalty and aristocracy.

There is a continuation of Indo-European life and practice from the Doric Greeks of Crete and Sparta, thru Rome, to Christendom. “Christendom was all but conterminous with the Roman Empire.” (Urquhart) Roman laws, ideas, institutions, practices were carried over into Christendom.

From her early history, Rome and her culture have been influenced and directed by Doric customs for both Cicero and Plutarch point to the tribes of the Sabines as bringing Doric (Spartan) Culture to bear upon City upon the Tiber, during the earliest kingly reigns: the idea of mixed government of King, Senate, and assemblies, the regard for religious involvement (auguries), and military customs and dress. There is a continuum from Sparta to Rome and then from Rome to Christendom.

At the Fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into a state of war brought on by the countless invasions of migratory nations. This state of Nature forced all nations to create, naturally and organically, into the warrior caste system which mirrored Sparta, of King, Aristocracy and commons. As Diachercus of Messina labeled Sparta’s government a Tripolitcus, many European governments unconsciously replicated a tripartite government system of royalty, aristocracy and commons. The crucible of Nature, hence the Natural Law, worked its designs unconsciously upon European people. This same pattern/paradigm can be seen with the Spartans, the early Roman “Republicanism” of the Roman kings, and the monarchies of Europe.

Another grand parallel is that the Doric Greeks, the Romans and Christian Europe were heavily intertwined with religion. Spartan and Roman kings and later Roman Emperors along with other Roman office holders had religious duties. Sparta and Rome were both very cognizant not only of Divine Providence but also Divine Involvement. Religion played such an integral part in Rome that their constitutional law was divided between two spheres, the res divina and the res publica. Thru St. Augustine, the conceptual duality of the spheres,  res divina and res publica inherent in Roman constitutional law formed the political order of Christendom, i.e. Throne and Altar:

Two there are, august emperor, by which this world is principally ruled: the consecrated authority of bishops and the royal power.” (Mastnak quoting Pope Gelasius I c. 494 A. D., pg 2)

The idea of Church and State formed an integral whole from Sparta, thru Rome, to Christendom.

The Altar was Roman Catholicism. And here too, not only did Sparta lay the groundwork for Hellenism that created the environment for Christianity’s birth and growth through Plato but also, thru Plato, formed the consciousness, intellectualism and dogma of Roman Catholicism. In his book Plato’s Gift to Christianity, The Gentile Preparation For and The Making of The Christian Faith, Prof. Ehrlich all but names Plato as the founder of Christianity. Cochrane observes that there are “…undoubted affinities between Christianity and Platonism.” (pg. 376) As Rome Hellenized (Horace), Christianity in turn Hellenized and itself, in turn, took up Roman clothing accoutrements, laws, titles and customs thus creating Roman Catholicism.

Christendom was a Catholic theocracy, and the English Anglican divine, W. R. Inge, writes that
“If we had to choose one man as the founder of Catholicism as a theocratic system, we should have to name neither Augustine nor St. Paul, still less Jesus Christ, but Plato, who in the Laws sketches out with wonderful prescience the condition for such a polity, and the form which it would be compelled to take.” (26)

Nature created the warrior cultures of Europe. They did this by the natural effervescence of environment and racial proclivities (Dumezil’s trifunctionality) and second by reinforcing those proclivities by consciously copying and imitating the Natural Order, the Cosmos that is embedded in Plato’s writing down of Doric philosophy. The Natural Law, found in the Dorian’s creation of philosophy, formed the basis of Western Culture’s religion, ethics, contemplative thought and the order of their societies, consciously and subconsciously.

The Sparta/Rome/Christendom/Christianity continuum was all formed by Nature and God. Western Civilization has a continuous trajectory from classical times to the Throne and Altar of Christendom. And this belies the grandest equivalent between Sparta and Christendom, the telos of these societies was directed toward spiritual objectives—theosis for the Dorians (Wheeler) and salvation for the Christian, thus the authoritarianism of both these societies. On the other hand, the whole modern world is from the imagination and will of mortal, fallen man not only divorced from Nature but from God, all based on hatred. That the historical event of Christendom doesn’t even touch the minds of modern academia and to see all of modern academia miss this so obvious correspondence is scandalous.

If the German National Socialists were channeling the whole of Sparta, it woulda/shoulda recreated Christendom but they were egalitarians, having a great hatred for royalty, aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church. Hitler was a demagogue. Where else have demagogues appeared? Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn traces Nazism to Athens and its democracy where demagogues lived and ruled.†

There were no demagogues in Sparta. Sparta is not only the foundation of the Throne but of the Altar of Christendom as well. Sparta’s true parallel is Christendom.

W. Lindsay Wheeler, November 12, 2014
wheelerplatsis@hotmail.com

Notes:

* Christendom: “In its historical sense, the term usually refers to the medieval and early modern period, during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power juxtaposed with both paganism and especially the military threat of the Muslim world.” (Wikipedia) For this purpose, from the Edict of Constantine to the French Revolution, where the Roman Catholic Church, Monarchy  and the classical republics such as Venice, existed as a unified civilization of Europe.

† “The modern totalitarian parties are all fundamentally ‘democratic’.” (Kuehnelt, 246)  In the anakylosis, Socrates and Plato both said that dictatorship comes out of democracy. “It was German liberalism and German bourgeois democracy which had turned National Socialist”. (ibid, 262)

References:

Burnet, J. (1924) Philosophy. In R. W. Livingstone, (Ed.) The Legacy of Greece. Oxford, England:  Clarendon Press.

Cochrane, Charles Norris (1940) Christianity and Classical Culture, A Study of Thought and Action From Augustus to Augustine. NY: Oxford University Press: 1980 University Press paperback.

Inge, W. R. (1924) Religion. In R. W. Livingstone, (Ed.) The Legacy of Greece, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von [1952](1993) Liberty or Equality. Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press.


Mastnak, Tomaž (2002) Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Urquhart, F. (1908). Christendom. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 10, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03699b.htm

Wheeler, W. Lindsay (2011) Macrocosm/Microcosm in Doric Thought. Self-published: academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/1619468/Macrocosm_Microcosm_in_Doric_Thought_Part_I




Saturday, November 1, 2014

Chilon the Wise

It may surprise many modern readers that Plato, writing a history of philosophy in the 4th Century BC, claimed that all early philosophers were “imitators, lovers and disciples of Spartan education.”  Furthermore, the seven “wise men” that Plato considered the fathers of philosophy included two Lacedaemonians, one of which was Spartiate: Chilon the Wise. Although in the 5th century BC it had become common to speak about “seven” wise men, whose selection varied from writer to writer so that a total of 17 are actually named on one list or another, Chilon – like Solon of Athens – is always among the seven.

So just who was Chilon of Sparta?

Based on the stories told about Chilon, which include personally meeting the famous writer of fables, Aesop, and Hippokrates, the father of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, historians conclude that Chilon lived in the first half of the 6th century BC, or – one might say – in the Golden Age of Sparta.  Furthermore, he is said to have been an ephor during the 56. Olympiad, or between 556 and 554 BC, by which time, the sources say, he was “very old.” Modern historians such as Conrad Stibbe suggest he was somewhere between 60 and 75 when he was elected ephor in ca. 555 BC.

Chilon was a Spartiate, but apparently not from a “leading” or royal family. The fact that his descendants married into both royal houses, however, is an indication of just how highly he was regarded by his contemporaries and admired by subsequent generations of Spartans.  Particularly significant is that a great-granddaughter of Chilon was selected by a later college of ephors as the bride for the then childless Agiad King Anaxandridas.  Anaxandridas had been married for many years to his niece, who appeared to be barren, and the ephors after futilely urging the king to set aside his wife and take a new wife, convinced him to take a second wife.  This wife (who is nameless in Herodotus) promptly became pregnant and gave birth to a male child, who later became one of Sparta’s most controversial kings, King Cleomenes I.  What is striking about this particular marriage is less that the college of ephors would put forward the name of a girl descended from one of their own predecessors, than that Anaxandridas, who would have been a reigning king at the time Chilon was an ephor, would accept her as his bride.

The importance of this fact is best understood when we remember that Chilon is credited by ancient and modern historians with raising the status of the ephorate to a body almost as powerful as the kings.  The ephors are not mentioned in the so-called Great Rhetra which allegedly encapsulated Lycurgus’ constitutional reforms, nor do they appear in any of the fragments of Tyrtaeus’ poetry that have survived. Originally, the ephors appear to have been 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-6th century.

The first historical act of the ephors was the already mentioned incident in which 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 to follow, however, the ephors increasingly engaged in activities that are unashamedly political. By the late 5th century, the ephors could fine citizens for misdemeanors and bring charges against them for more serious crimes, even those elected to public office.  They 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, and 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 among the 21 – 30 year olds to form the royal body guard.  After the Assembly voted for war, it was the ephors, who mobilized the troops, and two ephors accompanied whichever king commanded the Spartan army on campaign.  The latter was clearly intended as a check on the behavior of the kings.  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 on their return.  If a king was charged with a capital offense, the ephors sat in judgment of him along with the Gerousia.

But returning to Chilon himself, Conrad Stibbe in his excellent work on archaic Sparta Das Andere Sparta (Mainz: 1996) credits Chilon with conceiving of the Peloponnesian League.  As he points up, throughout Sparta’s previous history, complete subjugation of a conquered people followed successful Spartan conquests. This was true for the conquest of the heartland of Lacedaemon, the Eurotas Valley in the 9th century and for the conquest of Messenia in the second half of the 7th century. Yet after a bitter war with Tegea during the first half of the 6th century BC, in which Sparta suffered at least one humiliating defeat resulting in the enslavement of Spartiate hoplites, Sparta chose a different path. Following a decisive victory over Tegea under the leadership of King Anaxandridas, Sparta made the revolutionary decision not to subjugate and occupy Tegea, but rather to form a defensive alliance with its defeated foe. This course was unprecedented in Greek history at the time. (Note: My novel The Olympic Charioteer deals with this period of Spartan history.)  Furthermore, the alliance with Tegea was not a one-off event, but rather signaled a completely new Spartan foreign policy that was pursued throughout the rest of the century. Under both Anaxandridas and his sons, Sparta built up her power and prestige not through direct conquest but through the formation of a system of alliances, first on the Peloponnese (under Anaxandridas and Cleomenes) and with all of Hellas under Leonidas.

Yet while Chilon sought peace and alliances with Sparta’s democratic neighbors, he was according to ancient tradition together with Anaxandridas the driving force behind a series of military actions undertaken by Sparta to depose tyrants in Sikyon, Samos, and Athens. The fact that Chilon and Anaxandridas are mentioned as working together to depose the tyrants is significant because it suggests a joint policy – something that makes the later marriage of Anaxandridas to a great-granddaughter of Chilon more understandable. 

Interestingly, Chilon is described in Herodotus as a seer and Chilon’s first act of extraordinary wisdom was advice that, had it been followed, would have spared Athens the tyranny of Peisistratos in the first place.  Chilon’s wisdom was thus associated with Sparta’s opposition to tyranny.  According to legend, when the father of Peisistratos, Hippokrates, was in Olympia, he received a sign from the Gods.  A cauldron full of sacrificial meat he had donated to the gods boiled over without a fire being lit under it.  Although Hippokrates recognized that this could only be a message from the gods, he could not interpret it, and turned to Chilon for advice.  Chilon told him not to marry and if he was already married to disown any son he already had.

The Spartan Chilon was according to ancient tradition also a contemporary of the fable-writer Aesop.  According to legend, Chilon told the former slave that Zeus’ job was to “humiliate the mighty and rise up the humble.” While this was clearly a reference to Aesop’s own fate, it is a strikingly revolutionary statement nonetheless – heralding the Christian notion that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Likewise with respect to women, Chilon set revolutionary standards of behavior that were uniquely Spartan.  While the Athenian philosopher Socrates showed utter contempt the intellect of his wife, refusing to even take leave of her after he was condemned to death, Chilon was depicted on his grave sitting side-by-side with his wife. Even more impressive, one of his daughters, Chilonis, was recognized by name as a disciple of Pythagoras. In short, while the Athenians contended that women were permanent children with brains incapable of developing rational thought,[i] Sparta’s greatest philosopher encouraged his daughter to study under the greatest of his contemporaries.

But it was hardly for his attitude toward women or former slaves that Chilon attained so much fame among his fellow Greeks. Rather, Chilon was admired and honored by subsequent generations of Greek philosophers and their Roman and modern admirers primarily for his “wisdom.” Chilon was the author of some 600 verses familiar to the ancients that they admired greatly. Unfortunately, none of these have survived into the present, at least none have been identified as the work of Chilon. More famous, however, were three – typically Laconic – sayings that were craved over the entrance to the Delphic oracle and attributed to Chilon. Let me close these brief essay on Chilon by quoting him.  I think many would find his advice relevant even today:

Sponsorship brings misfortune.
Nothing in excess.
Know thyself.


Chilon plays a minor -- but important -- role in my novel: The Olympic Charioteer.








[i] Good sources on Athenian attitudes for women can be found in the Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Waves and Slaves, (New York: 1975), Sue Blundell’s Women in Ancient Greece, (London:1995) and in the chapter on “Citizen Women in Athens,” in Anton Powell’s Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC, (Portland, Oregon: 1988). 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Spartan Education

The image of the Spartan educational system (the "agoge") in most literature is a catalogue of horrors no loving parent would inflict upon his/her children.  Paul Cartledge even makes a great fuss about the word agoge being used for cattle as well as children – although the English word “to raise” is also used for both children and cattle without, to my knowledge, all American, British and Australian children being denigrated to the status of livestock. (Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, London, 2001.)

The assumption in literature and film is that boys (and possibly the girls) were taken from their homes at age seven and never again had anything to do with their parents. Instead they were under the tutelage of the Paidonomos and his assistants, elected herd leaders, “lovers” and eirenes (whatever these were). The boys are described as learning virtually nothing, running around virtually naked, stealing to eat, fighting constantly with their peers, but intimidated and abjectly obedient to their elders.

Yet what we know of Spartan society as whole is not consistent with such an educational system.

First, there is strong evidence that family ties were as strong in Sparta as elsewhere.  No society, in fact, has ever succeeded at destroying the institution of the family -- even when they tried to as in Soviet Union and Communist China.  We know from modern experience that attendance at even a distant boarding school does not inherently indicate a lack of parental interest in a child’s development. Thus, it is ridiculous to think Spartan parents lost interest in their children just because they were enrolled in the agoge.  The agoge, after all, was located in the heart of Sparta. Far from never seeing their families ever again, the children of the agoge would probably have seen their fathers (who had to take part in civic activities and eat at their syssitia) and school- and army-aged siblings daily. 

In addition to the comfort of daily contact with fathers and brothers as desired, we can assume that the agoge was not opened 365 days a year.  Just like every other school in history, the agoge will have had “holidays.”  We know of at least 12 festivals each year.  (See Nikolaos Kouloumpis, “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1.) The Spartans, furthermore, were notorious for taking their religious festivals extremely seriously.  Soldiers on campaign could return home for festivals particularly important to their specific clan, and the entire army was prohibited from marching out during others. (It was because of religious holidays that the Spartan army was late for Marathon and only sent an advance guard to Thermopylae.)  It is not reasonable to assume that what applied to the Spartan army did not apply to the public school. Far more probable is that the agoge closed down for every holiday and like school children everywhere, they gleefully went “home for the holidays” along with their eirenes, herd-leaders, instructors and all other citizens.

The equally common presumption based on fragmentary ancient sources that the boys never got enough to eat and routinely took to stealing to supplement their diet is inconsistent with a functioning economy. No society can function if theft is not the isolated act of criminal individuals but rather a necessity for all youth between the ages of 6 and 21. If all the youth were stealing all the time, the rest of society would have been forced to expend exorbitant amounts of time and resources on protecting their goods.  Every Spartan farm ("kleros") would have been turned into an armed camp, and there would have been nightly battles between hungry youth and helots desperate to save their crops and stores. Nothing of the kind was going on in Sparta, a state known for its internal harmony and low levels of common crime. 

Nigel Kennel argues persuasively that theft was only allowed during a limited period of time at a single stage in a boy’s upbringing (Nigel Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995). As for only being punished for being caught, that is very nature of all punishment seen from the thief’s perspective. No undiscovered crime is ever punished.  Nothing about that has changed in 2,500 years.

The notion that the boys constantly fought among themselves and were encouraged to do so is equally untenable.  Boys of the same age cohort would inevitably serve together in the army. The Spartan army was famous for the exceptional cohesion of its ranks. You don’t attain such cohesion by fostering competition and rivalry to an excessive degree.  A strong emphasis on competition was prevalent throughout ancient Greece.  Spartan youths engaged in team sports, and there would have been natural team spirit and team rivalry.  There can be no question that now and again such competition and rivalry turned bitter and could degenerate into fights.  But Sparta more than other Greek city state needed to ensure that such rivalries did not get out of hand because all citizens had to work together harmoniously in the phalanx.

As for the youth of the agoge being abjectly respectful and obedient to their elders, such behavior is incompatible with high-spirited, self-confident youth – yet this is what the agoge set out to produce. Spartan discipline appears to have produced exceptionally polite young men by ancient standards.  Since observations about Spartan youth at, say, the pan-Hellenic games or on visits to Sparta does not require inside knowledge of Spartan society, we can assume that these reports have a certain validity. But there is a vast difference between being polite and respectful on the surface and being cowed, intimidated and obedient to an exceptional extent. English school-boys of the 19th and early 20th Century also had a reputation for politeness that had nothing to do with being beaten down or docile.

The thesis that Spartan youth learned almost nothing (except endurance, theft, competition and manners) is untenable for a society that for hundreds of years dominated Greek politics and whose school was admired by many Athenian intellectuals and philosophers.  Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic manoeuvring, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them. Ancient sources stress the Spartan emphasis on musical education and on dance, and Spartans certainly knew their laws by heart.  They could -- and effectively -- did debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries. 

Indeed, some sources claim that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus:20)  Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by the many contests and festivals for poetry, particularly in the form of lyrics. The abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read!  

Last but not least, while everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers, the skills needed by a good soldier included far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience. A good soldier also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognise poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more. All this knowledge was probably transmitted to Spartan youth in the agoge.

Finally, let me turn to the most offensive aspect of this common picture: institutionalized pederasty. Without getting into a fight about the dating and nationality of the sources alleging institutionalized pederasty to Spartan society, one indisputable fact is that modern psychology shows that abused boys grow up to despise women. Whatever else one can accuse the Spartans of doing, despising women was not one of them. Athenians, notably Aristophanes and Hesiod, on the contrary, very clearly did despise women and it was in Athens and Corinth that the archeological evidence likewise suggests widespread pederasty. In Sparta the situation was so different that Aristotle fumed against the power of women and attributed it to militaristic society in which homosexual love was not common. Sparta stands out as the exception, which is probably why it was so profoundly misunderstood.

Stripped of common misperceptions about the nature of the Spartan agoge, the institution starts to look not only tolerable but even admirable – something that would be consistent with the historical record.  We know that many men we admire for their intellect, including Socrates himself, were admirers of the Spartan agoge. It is time that modern observers of Spartan society stopped relying on familiar but illogical commentary and used common sense to assess the Spartan agoge.


My novel Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge hypothesizes and portrays an agoge consistent with the above insights. 





Monday, September 1, 2014

Ancient vs. Modern Perspectives on Sparta

This month I’m pleased to have W. Lindsey Wheeler as a guest blogger. He brings a refreshing perspective through meticulous analysis that contradicts the conventional sophistry that has been taught about Sparta over the last 400 years. He is the author of numerous articles and a book on Sparta. For us he simply compares ancient with modern commentary on Sparta and the Spartan culture.


The magisterial scholar of the Doric Greeks, Prof, Karl Otfried Mueller, in the 1820s, wrote that the academics of his day considered the Spartans “a horde of half-savages”.  In the Twentieth century, it is much of the same.  The renowned American classicist Edith Hamilton described Sparta as a backwater  and writes, “The Spartans have left the world nothing in the way of art or literature or science.”

On the other hand, Herodotus records that Anacharsis the Scythian had visited the different states of Greece, and lived among them all, quipped that ‘all wanted leisure and tranquility for wisdom, except the Lacedæmonians, for these were the only persons with whom it was possible to hold a rational conversation’.”

One of the leading modern experts on Sparta, Paul Cartledge notes their lack of “high cultural achievement”.

But Socrates said:  “…namely that to be Spartan implies a taste for intellectual rather than physical exercise, for they realize that to frame such utterances is of the highest culture”. In other words, Socrates, who the Delphic Oracle said was “the wisest man in Greece,” notices that the Spartans had “the highest culture”.

Elizabeth Rawson condemns the heritage of Sparta in her very first line of her work as “a militaristic and totalitarian state, holding down an enslaved population, the helots, by terror and violence.”

Yet in the Protagoras (§347e-§348a), Plato writes “The best people avoid such discussions and entertain each other with their own resources…These are the people, in my opinion, whom you and I should follow”. These “best people” are the Spartans that he is alluding to.

Xenophon puts this speech in Socrates’ mouth:
“Lycurgus the Lacedæmonian now—have you realized that he would not have made Sparta to differ from other cities in any respect, had he not established obedience to the laws most securely in her? Among rulers in cities, are you not aware that those who do most to make the citizens obey the laws are the best….For those cities whose citizens abide by them prove strongest and enjoy [the] most happiness” (Mem., IV, iv, 15-16; Loeb 317 ª; Laced., viii, 1.)

The Bible states that whenever two or more witnesses speak on a condition as the same, we are to accept the statement as true. Plato and Xenophon are two different witnesses to Spartan culture and both use the adjective “the best” to describe the Spartans on two different occasions; one on their intellectual system and on their law-abiding.
The classical scholar, A. H. M. Jones writes that: “Sparta produced no art and no literature and played no part in the intellectual life of Greece” and notes Sparta’s “cultural sterility.”

On the other hand, Socrates had this to say in the Protagoras: “The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are to be found more sophists than anywhere on earth.”

Plutarch, in his biography of Lycurgus, writes that Lycurgus formed a “complete philosophic state”.

Paul Cartledge compares Lycurgus as “a mixture of George Washington – and Pol Pot
This is what Polybius said of Lycurgus: “…for securing unity among the citizens, for safeguarding the Laconian territory and preserving the liberty of Sparta inviolate, the legislation and provisions of Lycurgus were so excellent that I am forced to regard his wisdom as something superhuman” (Polibius 1959: 493).

Cicero admired the Spartans and as a young man visited their city. The ancient Romans had high regard for the Spartans.

As one can see there is a major disconnect between the ancient perception of Sparta and the modern perception of Sparta. All the ancients had a great respect and admiration for Sparta. Socrates, Pythagoras and the Seven Sages of Greece were all emulators, disciples and admirers of Sparta. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The sign of imitation of these people along with the admiration of Plato, Xenophon and Cicero show that Sparta was recognized in ancient times for having the highest, most vibrant and most authentic Greek spirit in the Classical world. 

Could all the ancients have been wrong? Does modern academia know more about Ancient Greek Culture and standards than the Ancient Greeks themselves? I call that hybris!

To explore the topic more fully and for the references of the above quotes please read Part I, The Case of the Barefoot Socrates at: