Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Thursday, May 1, 2014
The dramatic decline in the
Spartiate population between Thermopylae (480 BC) and Leuktra (371) has often
been cited as the cause of Sparta’s political decline as well. At Thermopylae,
a full call-up of all citizens over the age of 20 and under the age of 55,
enabled Sparta to field an army of 6,000 citizens (Spartiates) – not counting perioikoi
or helots. Yet at Leuktra, when again there was a full call-up of 35 age cohorts,
the Spartan army consisted of only 700 citizens.
The Great Earthquake of 464, on the other hand, is an event which allegedly took 20,000 lives in Sparta alone, and its role in Sparta’s decline needs to be re-examined. The accounts of the earthquake are nothing if not dramatic. Pliny claims only five houses were left standing, and there are less credible tales of youths surviving because they ran out of a gymnasium to chase a hare, while the army was saved by being marched out in time. While the details may be hard to credit, I think it is safe to say the earthquake was catastrophic without, notably, impacting the strength of the army.
(2) Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, The Classical Press of Wales, London, 2000.
(3) Thomas Figueira, “Population Patterns in Late Archaic and Classical Sparta,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 116 (1986), pp.165-213.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Saturday, March 1, 2014
These sayings are all too commonly taken at face value, despite serious grounds to doubt their authenticity. First and foremost, with the exception of the quotes attributed to Gyrtias and Damatria respectively, almost all these sayings are anonymous. “Anonymous” has been the author of most slander in the history of mankind, and while “anonymous” clearly does have an author and a real identity, he/she is very rarely who he/she purports to be.
Second, except for the quote attributed to Gyrtias, all are vague and generic, with nothing to suggest the date and context. Thus nothing about them requires an intimate knowledge of Spartan society or personalities. Yet the sayings undoubtedly convey an unattractive, not to say alienating, image of Sparta.
After all, what could be more alienating and repulsive than a mother so unnatural that she wants her son to die? The love of a mother for her child is one of the most primeval feelings in the world, a love that mankind has long acknowledged and cherished. Ancient Greek literature sets the standard. Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is understandable not because he brings Cassandra into her home, but because she is revenging the murder of Iphigenia. Medea remains a repulsive barbarian because she is willing to kill her children out of jealousy. The quoted sayings "of Spartan women" are clearly intended to make Spartan women sound like barbarians, like unnatural, unfeminine creatures, who deserve no sympathy even in their adversity.
Furthermore, all the sayings are predicated on cowardice on the part of young Spartan men. So, allegedly, while the women were upholding Sparta’s post-Thermopylae ethos of victory or death, the young men were deserting in droves having failed to absorb the proper ethos despite their allegedly harsh upbringing. Based on these sayings, Sparta was populated by cowardly men, a situation that seems hard to square with the historical record – even if we admit that Spartans were probably no braver than most other Greeks.
Keeping in mind that slogans and apocryphal stories often evolve to counter sentiments that those in power find dangerous, one could hypothesize that these sayings were developed as examples of the “good old days” and were supposed to depict model behavior. Maybe they were intended to inspire young men and women, who the older generation did not think were living up to the ideals of their own youth. But it seems odd that, if the Spartan elders wanted to motivate the younger generation to behave more like their ancestors, they did not put the slogans into the mouths of historical figures rather than anonymous ones. Surely it would have been more effective to give the women and their sons names? Wouldn’t, for example, the story of the young man killed by his mother after reporting “all the men are dead” have been more effective and intimidating if it had been attributed to the mother of one of the two survivors of Thermopylae?
The greatest pity is that most modern readers take them a face value and imagine Spartan women as unfeeling beasts – curiously without likewise adopting the image of cowardly Spartan men.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both retreated and surrendered in a variety of other engagements over the centuries (e.g. Hysiai, Sphakteria). The Spartans didn’t seem to think there was a “law” against retreat even under far less threatening and less hopeless situations than that presented to Leonidas at Thermopylae. Are we to believe Leonidas and his 300 were the only Spartans who lived and died by Sparta’s laws? Or could there be another explanation of the epitaph?
The answer, I believe, can be found in the fact that there were, according to Herodotus, in fact three separate monuments erected to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. First, there was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. This clearly referred to the other Peloponnesian allies that fought with the Spartans at Thermopylae on the first two days. (The Thespians appear to have erected their monument only at home, or a separate monument to the Thespians had disappeared by the time Herodotus visited the site of the battle.) Second there was the monument referred to above, and third there was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas.”
Leonidas had an option. Leonidas could have decided to pull-out of the Pass as soon as it became indefensible. Leonidas would not have broken any “law” if he had done so, because there was no law that required Spartans to fight until death rather than retreat or surrender.
But there was a law that required obedience to Sparta’s kings as long as they were beyond the borders of Lacedaemon in command of Sparta’s army. This law is documented and was widely respected. Sparta’s kings could be charged, tried and exiled once they were at home, but not during war, not while campaigning abroad. As long as they were commanding the army in a military engagement outside Lacedaemon, their troops were bound to obey them, and for the most part did.
What this means is that once Leonidas decided to stay and die – as he no doubt believed was his destiny based on the oracle from Delphi – his body guard had no option but to stay with him. There is anecdotal evidence recorded by Plutarch that Leonidas tried to save some of his companions by asking them to deliver dispatches, but the “older men” saw through him and refused. This is consistent with a king determined to face his destiny, but distressed by the knowledge that his decision will drag three hundred of Sparta’s finest with him.
The erection of two separate monuments and the epitaph makes sense in this context as well. Leonidas was the lion, who decided to go down fighting defiantly rather than live to fight a another day. After he had made that courageous decision, however, his bodyguard had no choice and for them, therefore, they lay buried in a foreign pass not as particular heroes but simply “in obedience to the laws.”
Wednesday, January 1, 2014