Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Corruption of Spartan Society




The Sparta of Plutarch bears very little resemblance to the Sparta of Herodotus. By the first century AD, Sparta had become a brutal backwater living according to rigid rituals that the inhabitants exploited to attract tourism. These rituals, allegedly based on the Constitution of Lycurgus, were not Lycurgan at all, but rather the product of much latter law-making. 

We know for example, that after the defeat at Leuktra in 371 Sparta fell into a serious decline, and 150 years later King Cleomenes III (235-222) introduced "reforms" aimed at "restoring" the traditional Spartan institutions which had been all but forgotten. This "restoration," however, included many new "traditions" introduced by the stoic philosopher Sphaerus of Borysthenes, who was charged with redesigning both the agoge and the syssitia. 

After Sparta's defeat by the Achaean League in 188, Sparta was forced to abrogate it's constitution altogether and live according to the laws of the other Achaean States.  An attempt to return to the old ways in 143 BC was, after such a long hiatus, hardly a genuine "restoration" as it would have been impossible to exactly replicate even the already corrupted and altered laws and traditions of Cleomenes III. 

But the real decay in Sparta's culture and legal tradition began even before Leuktra. It began not long after Thermopylae with a documented dramatic decline in the Spartiate population. 

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. This dramatic decline in manpower was a serious disadvantage on the battlefield, where Sparta’s enemies could deploy (as they did at Leuktra) forces 50 deep to Sparta’s 12-man-deep line. It was also a dangerous disadvantage in economics and politics as well because the subject population of perioikoi and helots was not declining at the same rate. In short, a shrinking ruling class of Spartiates was trying to dominate an ever larger body of disenfranchised inhabitants. Like apartheid or feudalism, regimes dominated by too tiny elites generally evolve or collapse sooner or later. This is the reason Sparta’s population decline has long been a focus of scholars.

While some scholars (e.g. Chimes (1) below) have questioned the magnitude of the decline, most accept the numbers and prefer to concentrate on blaming the Spartan’s for their problems.  Aristotle, of course, blamed Sparta’s women for everything since they could inherit property, and women are, according to him, inherently greedy, grasping and irrational. Hodkinson (2) ran demographic models to demonstrate how female inheritance leads to concentrations of wealth over seven generations. Other historians focus less on how wealth became concentrated in a few hands and more on the fact that as increasing numbers of Spartans lost their citizenship due to poverty, the Spartan state failed to respond adequately to the resulting crisis by opening the citizenship ranks. 

In short, the Spartans, due to their abnormal laws (female inheritance and polyandry) and their fanatical and irrational adherence to these laws, are to blame for their own decline. But as Figueira (3) has pointed out, Sparta’s population was growing or at least stable throughout the archaic period.  Either the laws on female inheritance and polyandry did not exist in the archaic period, or they cannot be made responsible for the decline in Sparta’s population in the classical.

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.  

Meanwhile, while some historians dismiss the ancient accounts as incredible, Hodkinson goes to the other extreme of dismissing “modern guesswork” about women and children being more heavily impacted by the earthquake simply because it is not mentioned in ancient sources. Given the misogynous bias of our ancient sources and the focus of most ancient accounts on Sparta’s military strength, I have no problem using common sense in the absence of a specific reference. Ancient sources rarely mention women or children in any other context either!

Following Figueira’s overall thesis that the Great Earthquake was the catalyst that set off a chain reaction leading to Sparta’s decline, I’d like to suggest that the impact might have been even more dramatic than Figueira contends.  My thinking is as follows: If  – as is reasonable – women and young children were killed in disproportional numbers, then the size of the Spartan army would not have been seen to decline for almost thirty years.  This is because the youth of the agoge were not disproportionately affected, so youths would have continued to graduate from the agoge and fill the ranks of the army for at least 14 years after the earthquake. Thereafter, for at least another 10 to 15 years, it would have been easy to maintain front-line strength by retaining men who would normally have gone off active service, i.e. by increasing the number of reserve age-cohorts on active duty.  Only when the age of the reservists made it unpractical to retain them, would the dramatically reduced numbers of graduates from the agoge become evident in the army.

The number of children entering the agoge, on the other hand, would have declined dramatically in the first seven years because of the children killed outright and thereafter because of the missing mothers -- or more acutely, the missing wives. The men already married, who marched to safety, would have lost their wives, while the youth in the agoge would have lost their future brides.  Obviously, some women survived, but if the number of surviving women was significantly disproportionate to the number of men, then the situation might have fostered the introduction of polyandry. It is significant that polyandry is not mentioned in Herodotus. The hypothesis of disproportionate casualties among women, maidens and girls would help explain not only the population decline of the second half of the 5th Century but also the evolution of such a peculiar custom for this part of the world at this period.

The shortage of Spartiate women would also explain the emergence of new-classes of quasi-citizens such as mothakes/mothones, nothoi, and neodameis. If there was a shortage of Spartiate female sexual partners following the earthquake, it would be only natural for the men, particularly the bachelors, to take perioikoi, helot or even foreign women – if not to wife – at least to their beds. They would then, particularly in face of the increasingly acute military manpower shortage, have had a strong interest in seeing the sons of these unions educated and at least partially integrated into the system. The fact that none of the above terms is found in reference to pre-earthquake individuals suggests to me that such classes of quasi-citizens either had not existed before or had not existed in sufficient numbers to be worthy of mention.

All in all, the thesis of “missing mothers” seems to explain more about Sparta’s decline in the later 5th Century BC than any other theory I have seen put forward.


(1)    K.M.T. Chimes, Ancient Sparta: A Re-Examinaton of the Evidence, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1952.
(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, December 1, 2015

Leonidas VIII: Final Reflections

Christians are about to celebrate the birth of Christ. 


The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

2,015 years ago, in Palestine, a man was born, who preached a new religion based on love of one’s fellow man. Dramatically, however, he not only preached this message of love, he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the rest of mankind in an unprecedented manner. This sacrifice, depicted in countless works of art and on crucifixes in churches around the world, has inspired awe and wonder for two thousand years.

By the time Christ was born, the ancient city and culture of Sparta was moribund. Yes, there was still an urban community on the site of the once great capital of Lacedaemon, but the inhabitants of this Sparta no longer lived by the laws nor fallowed the customs that that made ancient Sparta unique and great.  And yet there is a bond between Sparta and Christianity in the form of Leonidas. 




Leonidas lived roughly 500 years before the birth of Christ and did not benefit from his teachings or example. Yet, while working on my three-part biography of Leonidas of Sparta, I came to realize that Leonidas is important not as a historical personality but as a moral figure.  It was Leonidas’ conscious decision to sacrifice himself for his fellow Greeks that made him such an appealing historical figure.  Leonidas fascinates us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom.

Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive – not an aggressive – battle.  Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him.  Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles or Hektor, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.

Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta or Leonidas’ historical role, are what make his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.



Sunday, November 1, 2015

Leonidas VII: Leonidas' Legacy

No Spartan has left a larger footprint in history and art than Leonidas. Not the commander of the Spartan army that actually defeated the Persians, Pausanias, nor the Spartan that eventually defeated Athens after the gruesome thirty-years war, Lysander, are half so well remembered .  Lycurgus and Chilon are familiar names only to classical scholars; Leonidas is a cult and comic-book hero, not to mention there is a chocolate company named for him.





Leonidas was, of course, a legend in his own time. The Spartans built him a monument at Thermopylae, notably separate from the monument to the rest of the 300, and a second monument was built to him at home in Sparta as well. His body was brought home after the Persians had been driven out of Greece.  But, unless it is an accident of archeology, larger monuments were built to the victors Pausanias and Lysander than to Leonidas.  In short, Leonidas’ appeal appears to have been greater in the modern world than the ancient. This might have many explanations – starting with the political agenda of his successors (or those who controlled his immature son) or discomfort with commemorating a devastating defeat.  The modern world, perhaps influenced by the Christian tradition of honoring sacrifice, is impressed by Leonidas’ defiance and devotion to duty more than his defeat.

There is also a modern tendency to assume that Leonidas’ behavior was “typical,” that he was indeed only doing what Spartan society expected of him, or acting “in accordance with the law.” This assumes that Spartans were “never” allowed to retreat and always chose death over either retreat or surrender.  The Spartans, of course, knew better. 

Sparta had suffered many severe defeats before Thermopylae, and in no other did an entire fighting force die to the last man for a lost cause. For example, there is good reason to believe that Sparta lost the First Messenian War, and it was ensuing economic and social dislocation that led to unrest and revolution.  Certainly, Sparta was given a resounding thrashing by the Argives at Hysiai in 669 BC, but even so the Spartans retreated rather than die to the last man.  Roughly one hundred years later, Sparta again over-reached herself in an attempt to conquer Tegea, and again there were survivors; they were enslaved in Tegea and forced to do agricultural labor for Tegean masters. In 525 BC, a Spartan expedition against Samos likewise ended in humiliating defeat, but not the extermination of the expeditionary force.  Finally, in the reign of Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes, a Spartan force under Anchimolius was attacked by Thessalian cavalry 1000 strong at Phalerum, and, according to Herodotus, “many Lacedaemonians were killed…and the survivors driven back to their ships.”  Note, again, the survivors were driven back to their ships, which they presumably boarded and used to return to Lacedaemon. There is not a word about dying to the last man.

Nor did “death rather than surrender” become the standard for future Spartan commanders after Thermopylae. The history of the Peloponnesian war is littered with Spartan defeats; none were massacres.  Even in the infamous case of 120 Spartiates trapped on the island of Sphakteria, the record shows that they surrendered and were taken off into (brutal!) Athenian captivity.  Nor were they written off by an indignant population as cowards, "tremblers" or otherwise disgraced and worthless.  Had they been so viewed, Sparta would not have sued for peace and made serious concessions to Athens to have them returned. Even their collective degradation from full-citizen status on their return is not indicative of disapproval of surrender. On the contrary, it more likely reflects fear that men who had been in Athens for almost four years might have become subverted (brainwashed, is the Cold War term) by Athenian democracy.  After an unknown period, they were collectively reinstated, and some even ran for public office. That would not have been possible, if the majority of Spartans had felt they should have committed suicide rather than surrender.

Leonidas’ legacy was not one of blind, mindless self-sacrifice. His example was one of devotion to duty, even unto death, for a good cause.  Leonidas did not die for the sake of dying – much less take his comrades with him to a senseless death.  He had clear military objectives that he hoped to achieve by his last stand: 1) giving the other Greek contingents time to withdraw and live to fight another day, and 2) increasing Persian respect for/fear of Spartans.  Once the pass at Thermopylae was turned, Leonidas knew the Persian army would advance unopposed into Central Greece. He could not know where it would next be confronted by land-forces, but he must have feared that it might sweep through Central Greece to the Isthmus of Corinth. He must have feared that Sparta might find herself virtually alone facing the onslaught.  Anything he could do to make Xerxes hesitate to take on a Spartan army must have seemed worthwhile.  That is a legacy worth preserving.

Last but not least, as a devout Spartan, Leonidas undoubtedly believed he had to fulfill the Delphic Oracle. He knew he had to die, if Sparta was to be saved. In that sense, he was from the start a sacrificial lamb, but not until the position at Thermopylae was betrayed, did his sacrifice inherently encompass defeat as well.  He probably hoped when he set out for Thermopylae that he could die in a victorious battle – or at least an indecisive one. He certainly hoped and expected that alive or dead his advance force over 6,000 strong could hold the Hot Gates until Sparta’s full army could reinforce the advance guard. When it became clear he would die in a hopeless situation, he tried to minimize the losses by ordering the withdrawal of the allied contingents (and almost certainly all the Perioikoi troops that would have been with him).  He even tried to save some of the Spartiates by giving them dispatches for delivery somewhere. They saw through him and refused. They refused out of loyalty, out of friendship, out of personal affection for Leonidas, both the man and the king. They did not act for military reasons but for personal ones. Yet their legacy too is worth honoring.


Sparta's culture and military ethos are a fundamental focus of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas.

A Boy of the Agoge                         

 

                                A Peerless Peer



                                                                                     A Heroic KIng

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Leonidas Part VI: Leonidas the Soldier

No, this is not about Thermopylae. This is about Leonidas’ entire military career. 




First and foremost, Leonidas was one of the few Spartan kings, who was a professional military man. Unlike the Spartan kings before and almost all the Spartan kings after him, Leonidas “enjoyed” the complete program of military training imposed on Spartan citizens from boyhood through ten years of active service, and a lifetime in the reserves thereafter. Thus, Leonidas was one of the only Spartan kings as familiar with every formation and drill employed by the Spartan army as his troops, and as adept with the use of weapons as his fellow citizens. Equally important, having been an ordinary ranker, he knew exactly how they thought, felt and reacted. Leonidas was as much a soldier as he was a commander. This was a significant advantage. It was what made other Spartan commanders like Brasidas and Lysander effective as well.  

Nor was his experience confined to the drill-field.  Although Sparta in the late archaic was not a city perpetually at war (though readers of Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire can be forgiven for being misled into believing this), in Leonidas’ lifetime Lacedaemon was engaged in a number of significant military campaigns. Thus, while Leonidas never fought the more than 20 campaigns Pressfield fantasizes about, he would have gained second- or first-hand experience from a more limited number of wars. 

First, when Leonidas was still a child or youth (depending on his date of birth), Sparta made an unsuccessful attempt to drive the tyrant Polycrates out of Samos.  Notably, this required deployment of a considerable force by sea and involved a forty day siege as well as an assault in which some of the Spartans managed to break into the city, but were then cut off and killed. The rest returned.  The failure and the loss of life must have been the topic of many discussions in syssitia across the city for many years of come – probably with recriminations and a lot of “Monday-morning-quarterbacking.” Leonidas, as a young Spartan male serving in the syssitia as part of his upbringing, would undoubtedly have listened avidly to the accounts of this campaign as told by the veterans, who took part.

Roughly ten years later, Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes undertook an invasion of Attica, again by sea.  Once again, Sparta’s expeditionary force was defeated and driven back to their ships, this time by Thessalian cavalry.  Leonidas was by this time very likely in his late teens, if not already a young man. Conceivably, he even took part in this expedition, but if so only in a subordinate capacity as an ordinary ranker. Whatever his age and role, Leonidas would have learned a valuable lesson, at least second hand, about the capabilities of cavalry and the advisability of not under-estimating it.

Cleomenes undertook no less than three additional campaigns against Athens.  In the first, he successfully dislodged the Athenian tyrant Hippias, but in the second, in which he sought to drive out Cleisthenes and restrict Athenian democracy, he found himself bottled up on the acropolis by the outraged Athenian masses and had to negotiate a truce to withdraw – with his tail between his legs. Given the small and evidently informal nature of these first two campaigns (Herodotus suggests both campaigns were conducted with small volunteer forces), it is unlikely that Leonidas was an active participant in either of these expeditions. 

Burning from the humiliation of his second defeat, however, Cleomenes called up the full Spartan army and the allies of the Peloponnesian league.  Spartan law at this time, however, did not allow the full army to deploy outside of Lacedaemon without both kings in command, so Cleomenes was accompanied on this fourth campaign against Athens by his co-monarch Demaratus.  Demaratus was not as enthusiastic about invading Attica as Cleomenes – and nor were the Peloponnesian allies. Cleomenes’ army got as far as Eleusis, but there the Corinthians drew the line. They had no quarrel with Athens, and they refused to continue. Demaratus sided with the Corinthians. The allied army disintegrated, and the conflict between Cleomenes and Demaratus hog-tied the Spartan army as well. The Spartans had no choice but to return, undefeated but humiliated again.

Leonidas was almost certainly present with the Spartan army during this last campaign against Athens. Depending on his date of birth, he might already have been a junior officer.  Regardless of his military rank, as Cleomenes half-brother and heir apparent, he almost certainly knew what was going on in the command tents, if not directly, then indirectly.  While the campaign would have provided him with no combat experience, it would certainly have taught him a great deal about operations involving multi-national forces – a lesson that would be very important for his later life.

The next major military campaign of Leonidas’ lifetime was the campaign against Argos that culminated in the dramatic Spartan victory at Sepeia. This campaign again involved the entire active Spartan army, so Leonidas’ participation is almost 100% certain.  Significantly, it also contained a nautical component: the Spartan army was ferried across the Gulf of Argos from Thyrea in Lacedaemon to Nauplia in the Argolid. There followed a massive confrontation with the full Argive army that was at least as numerous if not larger than the all-Spartiate force facing it.  Although the Argives had learned how to read the Spartan signals, Cleomenes cleverly took advantage of this to mislead the Argives into thinking the Spartans were standing down for a meal. As soon as the Argive phalanx broke up, he attacked. The ensuing slaughter allegedly deprived Argos of a generation of fighters, but Cleomenes singularly failed to follow up his battle-field victory with the occupation of the undefended city of Argos. The “lessons learned” for Leonidas would have started with the flexibility of deployment offered by seaborne transport, and included the importance of intelligence (the Argive familiarity with Spartan signals),  and, of course, the advantages of surprise.  

What Leonidas thought of his brother’s slaughter of prisoners and the burning of a sacred wood is unrecorded, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume he shared popular Spartan opinion – and this was to put Cleomenes on trial for treason.  The accusation was that he had taken a bribe not to take Argos when it lay undefended before a victorious Spartan army -- probably because the prosecution could think of no other plausible reason why such a splendid opportunity would be wasted after over two hundred years of bitter hostilities.  Herodotus specifically says that Cleomenes was charged by his “enemies” and that he was acquitted because he convinced the ephors that he could not get favorable signs from the gods.

By this time, Lenoidas was probably already married to Gorgo, and he was Cleomenes’ heir.  It is unlikely that he would have been counted among Cleomenes’ enemies.  It is almost equally improbable that he approved of Cleomenes behavior. Cleomenes was acquitted of taking a bribe and he defended himself with weapons (the will of the gods) against which the ephors were helpless; that is not the same thing as saying his actions were applauded even by his supporters.  Furthermore, Leonidas will have taken careful note of the fact that failure to exploit a victory – much less defeat -- could put a king in jeopardy.

The next significant military engagement of Leonidas’ lifetime was one in which Sparta played no direct role and yet it may have been the most decisive military moment in Leonidas life prior to Thermopylae: the Battle of Marathon. To summarize, Leonidas very probably led the two thousand Spartiates that arrived in Marathon after a dramatic forced march that enabled them to cover the distance from Sparta to Athens in less than three days -- but one day after the decisive battle had been fought. He would have toured the battlefield in company with Athenian commanders and fighters, gleaning a great deal of information about the Persians, their weapons, armor, tactics and morale.  He would also have gained considerable respect for Athenian (and Plataean) fighting capacity.  Leonidas would have seen first-hand at Marathon that Greek hoplites could withstand Persian missiles and Persian cavalry and inflict dramatically higher casualties than they suffered. However, it would also have left a psychological scar: the sense of having come too late.

And so we come to Thermopylae. Leonidas’ determination to deploy when he did, even if he could take only 300 Spartiates with him was, I believe, dictated by his experience at Marathon. Leonidas, who undoubtedly appreciated the military importance of Thermopylae and Artemisium, was determined not to come too late a second time. 

This is not the same thing as believing he was undertaking a suicide mission.  Leonidas had no reason to believe that the force he took north was not sufficient to hold the Pass until Sparta and other cities, the Karneia and the Olympic Games over, could deploy their main forces. Leonidas did not, after all, march north with just 300 men. In addition to the Spartiates, he had perioikoi troops, allies from the Peloponnesian League, Thespians, Thebans and Phocians. Leonidas had between 6,000 and 7,000 Greek hoplites at Thermopylae, a pass that at that time narrowed down to a cart track at two places.

To be sure, Leonidas allegedly knew from the Delphic oracle that his own fate was sealed. He presumably expected to die, but there was no reason to assume his death would be futile. On the contrary, Delphi had promised to save Sparta, if one of her kings fell in battle.  Leonidas most likely believed (or wanted to believe) that although he would die, his army would be successful.  Nor did he expect all the Spartiates he took with him to die. The fact that he took only the fathers of living sons north with him was not because he expected them all to die, but because he expected some of them would die. He did not want to risk the extermination of even a single Spartiate family – not when he had so many men to choose from.

Leonidas’ tactical competence at Thermopylae has been questioned primarily because of his failure to put Spartiates on the mountain trail by which the pass was turned.  The argument is that he failed to take the risk to his flank/rear seriously, and the positioning of Phocian troops on this critical route was amateurish. Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. But even with hindsight, it is not completely convincing that Leonidas should have risked splitting his already very small force to send, say, 100 Spartiates to guard what was essentially a goat-trail.  Furthermore, one thousand men out of a force just six to seven thousand strong, represents a very significant commitment of troops available, and suggests Leonidas took the threat seriously indeed. To imply that a hundred Spartans would have been better than a thousand Phocians reflects modern fascination with the Spartan military myth, but can hardly be conisdered a serious military assessment. Leonidas’ evident assumption that the locals with the greatest stake in a successful defense of Thermopylae and the best knowledge of the terrain would be the best defenders of the flanking path is more convincing than modern dismissals of such logic. It is tempting to judge a strategy by its result – but that is not always fair.

Otherwise, Leonidas appears to have developed a highly effective strategy for defending the Pass, one that effectively neutralized the superiority of numbers on the Persian side and enabled a comparatively small number of defenders to hold the overwhelming might of Xerxes army for two days. Although – or rather because -- Herodotus does not give us the casualties of the first two days, we can presume that they were not inordinate. The defense of the “Middle Gate” which was wider than the “Eastern” or “Western Gates” appears to have given the Greeks the optimal opportunity to reduce Persian pressure but bring sufficient of their own troops to bear. Equally impressive, Leondias evidently welded the diverse contingents together and succeeded in getting them to cooperate.  Herodotus says that the allies fought in relays, or turns, so that the troops from each city had time to rest, refresh themselves and tend their wounds between taking their turn at the front. While this sounds logical and reasonable, it is far from self-evident. It would also have required considerable skill in execution – or each change would have produced confusion that the Persians could have exploited.


Leonidas' military career is described in books II and III of the Leonidas Trilogy.

A Peerless Peer  

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A Heroic King
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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Leonidas V: The Reformer King


Most historians confine their commentary on Leonidas to his appearance and departure from the scene of history.  His reign was, after all, quite short (ten years) and there were no known changes to Spartan territory or law, no works of art or monuments, not even any natural disasters that can be dated specifically to the reign of Leonidas.  It is therefore presumptuous of me to label Leonidas a “reformer king.” I know that.



Now that I have your attention….

Looking at Spartan history from the Messenian War to Sparta’s dismal and ignominious end under Rome, the reign of Leonidas represents in many ways a turning point.  In crude terms, the archaic age extended from the mid-eight century to end of the 6th century  BC. The classical age followed. Thus Leonidas’ reign fell at the transition.

In Sparta, it is exactly that transition that represents a particularly sharp and significant break in Sparta’s development.  The history of Sparta as a distinct city-state coincides with the dawn of the archaic period with the Messenian War that sparked the unrest that led to the introduction of Sparta’s unique laws. Archaic Sparta saw not only the establishment of this new, revolutionary form of government (arguably the first democracy in history), but also a significant flourishing of the arts and trade. Sparta’s most significant monuments (e.g. the Menelaion, the Amyklaion) were constructed in the archaic period. Sparta’s most famous poets – Tyrtaios, Alkman – lived and worked in the archaic age. Sparta produced sculptors – some of whom were explicitly described as Spartiate – of such international  renown that they produced works for Olympia, while Sparta developed  export-quality pottery in the 6th century.  Sparta’s archaic bronze works were even more outstanding and competitive, reaching a peak in quality and creativity in the early 6th century.  Not least important, Sparta’s most admired statesmen in the ancient world, Lycurgus and Chilon, both lived in the archaic period. While many doubt that Lycurgus was a real person and prefer to see him as a mere legend, Chilon was very certainly real, one of the ancient world’s “wise men.”

Sparta in the classical period in contrast is characterized by artistic stagnation and such a dramatic end to Sparta’s competitiveness in trade and manufacturing that those who study only classical and Hellenistic Sparta are completely unaware of Sparta’s impressive earlier accomplishments. Indeed, based on descriptions of the Spartan state and constitution written at the end of the fifth century and later, Sparta appears to have become a city-state that disdained luxury and by inference art itself.  Certainly Sparta’s exports of finished products declined, and a sharp drop in number of artifacts from this period found at the sites of Spartan temples may indicate that domestic production was also severely restricted. (Alternatively, younger layers of deposits were lost due to flooding, earthquakes etc.)

Assuming the existing archeological record and the writen depictions of Spartan society more-or-less accurately describe classical and later Spartan society, then Sparta underwent a radical, indeed revolutionary, change in the mid-5th century.  The question is why?

There are a number of possible answers: A) the Persian Wars, B) the Great Earthquake of 465 and subsequent population decline, C) the Helot Revolt; D) the bitter war with Athens, and E) All of the Above.

So  what does this have to do with Leonidas?  My thesis is that Leonidas was the last of the archaic kings not just in terms of timing but in terms of policy. Sparta obtained its reputation for opposing tyrants and built up the Peloponnesian League in the second half of the 6th century during the reigns of Leonidas’ two predecessors, his father and half-brother.  These policies reflect on the one hand an interest in world affairs, and on the other a willingness to negotiate and compromise rather than rely on brute force.

The evidence for Leonidas’ cosmopolitanism is first and foremost his election to lead the coalition of Greek states that opposed the Persian invasion of 480. This fact has far too often been interpreted simply as a tribute to Sparta’s position as the leading Greek power of the age.  This ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the same coalition of forces preferred Athenian leadership to submitting to command by Leonidas’ successor Pausanias ― and Pausanias had just led the coalition to a spectacular victory at Plataea! Sparta was not less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation in arms was greater. If simply being Spartan was all that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have asked Sparta to send King Leotychias or another Spartan general to replace Pausanias, but it did not. Just as Pausasias was not elected in 478, Leonidas was elected in 480, not because he was Spartan but because of who he was.  In 481, Leonidas personally enjoyed the trust of the coalition partners.

Leonidas probably gained that trust through personal contact, and that suggests a degree of travel within the Greek world. He probably attended the pan-Hellenic games regularly, for example. (Other Spartan kings of his age were competitors.) He may also have met leaders from other cities in Sparta itself, if they came to see the Gymopaedia or Hyacinthia, for example.  However, Gorgo allegedly made her famous statement about why Spartan women “rule” their men to a woman from Attica. Since Athenian women weren’t supposed to set foot out of their home let alone outside their cities, it is far more likely that the exchange, if it occurred at all, took place in Attica than Lacedaemon. The most logical explanation would be that Gorgo travelled with Leonidas to Athens at some point in his reign. As the Persian threat grew, it would have been very logical to find Leonidas garnering support for a united stand against the invaders by travelling to all major Greek cities, first and foremost Athens, but also Thebes and Corinth.  

During Leonidas’ lifetime, Sparta not only took an active interest in world affairs and exported significant works of art (sculpture, bronze, pottery) overseas, it also commanded respectable naval resources. In the reign of Leonidas’ father, Sparta undertook an expedition against Samos and his half-brother launched a seaborne attack against Attica. The significance of a navy is that it required loyal oarsmen. Rowing a warship is notoriously back-breaking, tedious, stinking work. It was so unpleasant that it was a form of punishment in later centuries and criminals would be condemned to “the galleys.” Slaves, chained to the oar-banks, is an image we carry around with us from films like “Ben Hur.” In fact, however, in the ancient world, particularly in ancient Greece, the crews of warships were predominantly citizens.  This was because no city could afford to entrust the maneuverability and speed of their fighting ships to anyone who did not have a stake in the outcome of an engagement.

The most probable source of competent seamen was the perioikoi residents of Lacedaemon. Perioikoi towns, unlike land-locked Sparta, were often located on the coast (Epidauros Limera, Boiai, Kardamyle, Asine, Pylos, and, of course, Gytheon, to name only a few.) On the other hand, the perioikoi element at Plataea equaled Sparta’s, suggesting that the perioikoi elite did not greatly outnumber the Spartiates themselves. Another source of seamen would have been helots, but if helots were as oppressed and hostile to Sparta as most historians claim, then it would have been suicidal to trust the oars of naval ships to helot oarsmen.

On the other hand, conditions for helots were not as consistently severe as generally presumed, then there might have been at least some loyal helots.  Possibly special incentives in the form of emancipation or increased status was offered to helots who served in Sparta’s fledgling navy, or, alternatively, conditions for helots were generally improving throughout the later part of the 6th century when Sparta was evidently enjoying a period of prosperity and comparative peace.  The very fact that the Spartans could take 35,000 helot auxiliaries with them to Plataea suggests widespread support among the helot population. (Suggestions that the Spartans took 35,000 rebellious helots with them when marching out to face the undefeated Persian army are ludicrous.) In short, in 480 BC Sparta had a fleet of at least 16 triremes requiring almost 3,000 oarsmen and 35,000 light troops, all of whom were deemed loyal to the Spartan state. Sparta were putting her future in the hands of these helots.

But roughly one decade later the only recorded helot revolt against Sparta erupted.  This is highly significant because we know that revolutions occur neither when people are content nor when they are most oppressed or exploited.  Uprisings are most likely to occur when a long period of rising living standards and political expectations is abruptly ended by economic or political crisis. My hypothesis is that during Cleomenes’ reign helots had enjoyed a slow but steady increase in living standards, something that accelerated under Leonidas and was combined with rising political expectations. In the post-Leonidas era, however, these hopes and expectations were sharply shattered, leading to the explosive situation that culminated in the revolt.

Leonidas was undoubtedly the last of the archaic kings. Sparta’s archaic age saw the foundation and development of Sparta’s political system, flanked by a highly sophisticated foreign policy and the evolution of a powerful alliance system.   Archaic Sparta witnessed the blossoming of artistic and musical accomplishment, the growth of trade in finished products with a wider world, and the growth of naval capability. The archaic was Sparta’s golden age. Would it have continued if Leonidas and his closest companions had not died at Thermopylae? Probably not indefinitely, but possibly the helot revolt that led to intense paranoia in the later 5th century could have been avoided. Likewise, if Leonidas had still lived, neither Pausanias nor Leotychidas would have been given a chance to turn Sparta’s allies into enemies.  



Read more about Leonidas the King in the third part of the Leonidas Trilogy:
A Heroic King.





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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Leonidas IV: The Diplomat

Fans of “300” may find it hard to think of Leonidas as a diplomat.  In the Hollywood cartoon, Leonidas is portrayed as the brutal antithesis of a diplomat: he personally throws a Persian ambassador down a well.  But there is no more historical evidence that Leonidas committed this crime than that Xerxes was a monster. The historical record, foggy and imprecise as it is, suggests that far from being a tactless brut, Leonidas was probably a very savvy diplomat. 



The evidence for Leonidas’ diplomatic talent is indirect rather than explicit. It is evident in what he did, rather than what is said about him.  Quite simply: During his brief reign, Leonidas managed to forge a coalition of Greek states willing to oppose the Persian invasion and to convince this loose coalition of independent and proud city-states to agree to a unified command.  The significance of such an achievement can be measured by the fact that ten years earlier Athens didn’t place her army even under the unified command of a single Athenian; no less than ten generals shared command of the Athenian army at Marathon.  Equally notable, while Leonidas’ brother Cleomenes alienated Lacedaemon’s Peloponnesian allies to the point of provoking revolt, Leonidas won over new Allies such as Mycenae and Tiryns.  

As for the incident with the Persian ambassadors, Herodotus tells us that the Spartans shared the guilt for the murder of the ambassadors.  According to Herodotus, the entire city was threatened by ill-omens and the Spartan Assembly met repeatedly in order to find volunteers from among the citizens willing to appease the Gods by dying in atonement for the murdered Persian ambassadors.  If, as when Cleomenes’ burned the Sacred Wood near Argos, the crime had been committed by either of the Spartan kings, the Spartans would have expected/demanded that the king bear responsibility.  Whoever killed the Persian ambassadors, the entire Spartiate population felt collectively guilty about it – something that suggests the Persian emissaries had not been the victims of a spontaneous act of violence but rather condemned by the Spartan Assembly.  (Something which in turn suggests that Spartan Assemblies could be quite rowdy affairs, but that is a subject for another day….)

Leonidas' sophisticated diplomacy is an important theme in the third book of my three part biographical novel of Leonidas: A Heroic King.



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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leonidas III: Usurper and Murderer?





It has become fashionable to denigrate the memory of Leonidas by associating him with suicide bombers (Cartledge) or by accusing him of murdering his brother. Thus Dr. Nic Fields in Thermopylae 480 BC: Last stand of the 300 dismisses Herodotus’ version of King Kleomenes’ death on the grounds that “the Spartans were notoriously abstemious” and concludes instead that: “It seems more likely that Kleomenes’ reign was cut short [sic] by murder, arranged and hushed up, on the orders of the man who succeeded him on the Agiad throne.” (p. 14)

There are a large number of problems with this thesis.  First and foremost, of course, is that there is not a shred of historical evidence for it.  Not one ancient source accuses Leonidas of fratricide.  Herodotus, as Fields notes, has a completely different version of events. So we are talking about nothing more than a modern commentator’s fabrication.

Fields feels justified fabricating this story because, according to him, all Spartans (every last single one of them over hundreds of years) were “abstemious” and since none ever drank in excess, a Spartan king who drank too much is a historical (physical?) impossibility. Frankly, that’s a little much. Even Spartans were human beings, and human beings are fallible.  Furthermore, we are talking here about one of Sparta’s kings. Even if one could argue that peer pressure on an ordinary citizen would have been too great in Sparta’s overweening society to ever allow anyone to deviate too far from the norms, a Spartan king clearly did have more leeway. The fact that Herodotos mentions the Spartans blamed his madness on his drinking habits underlines the facts that Kleomenes’ behavior was not considered normal in Sparta. Spartans as a rule were abstemious, Kleomenes was not. Fields’ argument is untenable.

Of course, Fields is not the first historian to conclude that the hero of Thermopylae was really a murderer on the run. Most accept the fact that Kleomenes might have had a drinking problem, but cannot believe that anyone would try to flay themselves alive.  Because they cannot imagine something so appalling and hence cannot accept Herodotus at face value, they feel justified in accusing Kleomenes’ successor of regicide, fratricide and patricide (since Kleomenes was not only Leonidas’ king, but also his brother and father-in-law) all at once.

Yet, as W. G. Forrest points out in his excellent, concise work A History of Sparta: 950 – 192 BC : “A recent psychological study has pointed out that the details of [Kleomenes’] final self-mutilation are in fact consistent with a paranoid schizophrenic suicide.”

As so often, the evidence is with Herodotus – not those, who lack the imagination to believe him.

Yet even if we were to dismiss Herodotus’ version of Kleomenes’ death as implausible, would that justify pointing the finger at Leonidas?

W. P. Wallace in his excellent article, “Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia” (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954), pp. 32-35), suggests some plausible reasons why the Spartan state might have wanted to rid itself of Kleomenes.  Wallace presents some weak but nonetheless cogent evidence that an Arkadian league formed at about this time and Herodotus also speaks of Kleomenes stirring up trouble in Arkadia.  Wallace argues that if Kleomenes was being successful in turning some of the Arkadian states against Sparta, than the Spartans may have felt he had to be taken out of circulation once and for all. But even this does not justify putting the blame for any surreptitious regicide on Leonidas.

People, who subscribe to this theory, argue that because Leonidas succeeded to the throne, he had to have the most to gain from murdering his brother, and so he must have been the man behind it.  But Leonidas was Kleomenes’ heir at the latest from the day his elder brother Dorieus died, possibly from the day Dorieus departed Sparta. Why would he have waited almost 40 years until he was over 50 years of age to suddenly become ambitious and covet his brother’s throne? Did he, after serving Kleomenes almost his entire life, suddenly turn against him because of “troubles” in Arkadia? Surely Kleomenes had made other, more dramatic blunders, from Athens to Argos, that would have given him a pretext for murder -- had he been so inclined. But we hear nothing of Leonidas being disloyal after Kleomenes’ earlier debacles.

Another thing I would like to know from those who charge Leonidas with murder is what Gorgo was doing while her husband murdered her father? Gorgo, of all Greek women, is known for being out-spoken. Are we to believe that she just stood by and let her husband kill her father without a word of protest? More: that after her husband murdered her father, she continued to be a loyal wife, assisting him and asking for his instructions as he marched out to his death?  Surely, the woman, who as a child had told her father not to take bribes, would have gone on record protesting her father’s murder and then avenging his death or scorning the murderer? (Think of the wrath of the Spartan princess Kleitamestra!)

Or are we to believe she was an accomplice? That she supported her murderous husband like some ancient Lady MacBeth?

If so, someone needs to provide an explanation of why Kleomenes’ only child and heir, evidently greatly favored by him as a child, suddenly wanted him murdered in a barbaric fashion. Trouble in Arkadia hardly seems a sufficient reason for such an appallingly unnatural sentiment. Indeed, explaining why Gorgo allowed her husband to kill her father is psychologically a great deal more difficult than explaining how a man as consistently instable as Kleomenes came to commit suicide!

Last but not least, what action or statement by the historical Leonidas and/or Gorgo justifies imputing to them the level of moral perversion inherit in fratricide and patricide?  What did Leonidas or Gorgo ever do or say to give historians the right to dismiss them as brutal, self-serving criminals? The arrogance is staggering.

It is sad that modern commentators feel compelled to propagate errant nonsense about a historical figure. To be sure, we know too little about the real Leonidas to know what sort of man he was, but that hardly justifies untenable accusations of sadistic fratricide just because we are uncomfortable with the disturbing but completely plausible explanation provided by Herodotus.  

Leonidas' relationship with his half-brother and father-in-law is portrayed in depth in my novel: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer.




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