Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

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:


Friday, August 1, 2014

Sparta and Marathon

This is the month in which Marathon was probably fought, and so a good time to reflect on what happened there -- and what it meant for Sparta.

Marathon was an Athenian-Plataean victory.  Although Athens fielded her maximum force and the Plataeans sent every available man, the Persians still significantly outnumbered their combined strength. Yet when Miltiades finally led the assault, the victory went to the Athenians and Plataeans.  According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persian soldiers lost their lives on the plain of Marathon, at the price of just 192 Athenians and an unnamed, but certainly smaller, number of Plataeans. The Spartans were nowhere to be seen.

And yet, Marathon is a significant chapter in Spartan history.  First, the Athenian request is an indication that they believed halting Persian incursions in Greece was sufficiently important to Sparta to override any other considerations arising from their less than harmonious past relations. Second, Sparta agreed to send help, although Persian wrath was directed exclusively at Athens and Eretria at this point in time, and Sparta would have been justified telling the Athenians to face the consequences of their support for Aristagoras’ revolt alone.  Yet Sparta did nothing of the kind. 

Sparta, according to Herodotus, was “moved by the appeal [for help], and willing to send help to Athens,” but was unable to respond immediately because they “did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full.” (Herodotus, 6:107).  Most historians interpret this to mean that Sparta was at the time celebrating the Carneia, a ten-day festival, and could not march until it was over.

That the promise was not empty is evidenced by the fact that, again according to Herodotus, after the full moon “two thousand Spartans set off for Athens.”  They covered roughly 120 miles of in part very rugged terrain to reach Athens on the third day after leaving Sparta – a notable achievement for an army on foot. They arrived in Athens allegedly on the day following the Battle of Marathon and continued on to Marathon to see the bodies of the slain.

The fact that Sparta delayed responding to the Athenian call for help has occupied historians for generations.  Given the urgency of the request and the evidently genuine desire to help, modern readers find it hard to believe the phase of the moon or a festival would have been allowed to get in the way.  Speculation about a possible helot revolt has been particularly popular. Yet I find it hard to believe a revolt could be of such a predictable nature that the Spartans could know in advance it would be over by the full-moon -- and then in fact be so completely subdued that 2,000 men – the entire active army by some accounts - could march out exactly on schedule. Hints of a revolt prior to the major insurrection of 460 may be credible, but are insufficiently precise to prove a revolt took place at exactly this point in history, in my opinion.

Equally significant but, to my knowledge, less frequently noted, is that Herodotus does not identify the Spartan commander of the 2,000 Spartans that arrived in Athens too late.  Up to this point, Sparta’s armies abroad were commanded invariably by her kings jointly or, after the debacle of Cleomenes and Demaratus quarrelling openly while campaigning against Athens at the end of the previous century, by one of the kings.  It seems very odd, that suddenly, for such an important confrontation, no king is mentioned.

The absence of a king is particularly odd given the large numbers involved.  Herodotus speaks of 2000 “Spartans.”  While this need not necessarily mean Spartiates and could, at a stretch, include perioikoi, it certainly excludes Allies. Furthermore, based on the assumption that the force of 5,000 Spartiates sent to Plataea represented the maximum strength of a citizen force including 15-20 age-cohorts of reservists, 2,000 men probably represents the size of Sparta’s standing army, the citizens aged 21-30, at this time. Such a force represented the very flower of Spartan manhood and would hardly be entrusted to anyone less than a king.

But in the summer of 490, Sparta was in the midst of a dynastic crisis. The Eurypontid Demaratus had been denounced as a usurper and dethroned by a judgment of Delphi only a couple years earlier. After being humiliated by his successor Leotychidas, Demaratus fled Sparta, only for it to then come to light that Delphi’s judgment had been bought by King Cleomenes. This cast grave doubts on the legitimacy of Leotychidas in the eyes of most Spartans, yet it appears to have been impossible to recall Demaratus.  Meanwhile, Cleomenes himself had gone mad and was in self-imposed exile.  Thus in the summer of 490, the Spartans literally had no king to whom they could entrust their army.

This situation might not have been revealed to the outside world, if the Persians had not chosen to launch their invasion of Attica at precisely this time.  Under the circumstances, the Spartan government recognized the need to confront the Persians, but, without a king to take command, Sparta was in no position to respond at once. The Spartans first had to agree among themselves how to deal with this unprecedented situation by appointing a non-royal commander. The delay in responding can, therefore, best be explained by the time needed to find a consensus candidate, which undoubtedly entailed debating the issue in the Gerousia, drafting a bill for the ephors to present to the Assembly, and calling an extraordinary Assembly. It was possible to calculate how many days that would take, and easier to blame religion than confess to the Athenians that the Spartans had a dynastic/leadership crisis. After all was said and done, the Spartan army marched out under someone other than one of the kings.

Herodotus is silent on who led the 2,000 men to Marathon. We will never know for sure. But one candidate stands out as the most likely commander: Leonidas.  Leonidas was an Agiad. He was heir to the throne. He was a mature man, probably with considerable military experience by this point in time. At a minimum, he would have fought at Sepeia against Argos just four years earlier. It is hard to imagine that anyone else in Sparta at the time could claim equal right to lead the Spartan army in the absence of her ruling kings.


If Leonidas indeed led the Spartan army that arrived in Athens one day too late for the Battle of Marathon, it would have given him the opportunity for him to meet Athenian leaders – and win their trust. This may in turn have been a contributing factor to Leonidas’ election as commander of the joint Greek forces in 480.  Perhaps equally significant, arriving one day too late for Marathon may have left a psychological scar that made Leonidas determined not to come too late to Thermopylae. In 480, Leonidas refused to await the end of the Carneia and took his advance guard out of Sparta before the end of the festival.  I think Leonidas was determined not to be late again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spartan Hegemony

In his introduction to Persian Fire Tom Holland argues that “Sparta’s greatness…rested upon the merciless exploitation of her neighbors.”  The sentence made me stumble. Is Holland truly unaware that the Peloponnesian League at this point in history gave every city-state an equal vote in the League Council? Is Holland unaware that some city-states in the League chose to march north with Sparta to fight the Persians at Thermopylae and Plataea?

Since Holland goes on to contend that “to people who had suffered under Spartan oppression for generations, Xerxes rule might almost have felt like liberty."  He apparently believes that the helots and perioikoi and other Peloponnesians, who fought with the Spartans at Plataea, were all “mercilessly oppressed” Spartan slaves fighting against their own best interests. One wonders how 5,000 Spartans managed to keep 40,000 oppressed slaves under control and prevented them from defecting to their Persian liberators, while simultaneous defeating the Persians on the battlefield? Spartans must have been truly superhuman indeed to succeed at such a feat!

It is a particularly notable feat when one considers that the mere proximity of a potential liberator induced 20,000 Athenian slaves to defect in 413. The freedom loving, benevolent and ever democratic Athenians apparently didn’t treat their slaves as well as the “merciless oppressors” of Sparta or 20,000 Athenian slaves would not have “voted with their feet” by abandoning Athens for Sparta. 

It also seems incredible that Sparta would have been elected to supreme command of the Greek forces opposing the Persian invasion – including Athens, if at that time it was widely perceived as a brutal oppressor of its neighbors.  Would the United States at any time in its history have elected Nazi Germany to lead a joint coalition? Would we have asked the Soviet Union to assume command of joint NATO and Warsaw Pact forces to fight a common enemy? It tries my imagination.

Whatever else one says about Sparta’s treatment of helots (and I firmly believe they were far better off than chattel slaves in the rest of Greece, not to mention Persian), to suggest that Sparta “mercilessly oppressed” its neighbors  as well is a gross distortion of the historical record. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spartan Fraternities and Spartan Families

Observers of ancient Sparta noted the peculiar Spartan custom of dinning clubs or syssitia at which adult Spartan citizens were required to share their evening meal.  These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. The Spartan dining clubs were considered peculiar in the ancient world because: 1) they had fixed membership (for life), and 2) they were a compulsory pre-condition for attaining citizenship and failure to make the designated fixed contributions to the mess could cost a man his citizenship.
 
Yet while the fact of these ancient fraternities is well established, the reason(s) the Spartans instituted and maintained this peculiar tradition is controversial. A large number of theories have been put forward over time including the desirability of men of different age cohorts dining together (so that young men would learn respect and benefit from the wisdom of older men) to the conscious desire of the Spartan state to weaken family ties.

This later thesis is put forward forcefully by Anton Powell, for example, in his contribution to Michael Whitby’s Sparta. Powell argues that totalitarian states, recognizing the influence of the family as inherently inimical to state control, have consistently tried to break down family ties. He cites examples from National Socialist Germany, although Soviet Russia and Communist China both provide much more compelling examples of anti-family policies designed to undermine family structures and influence.
The problem with the comparison between 20th Century totalitarian states and Sparta is two-fold. First, whether Nazi Germany or Communist China, these anti-family societies were consciously revolutionary. The reason they sought to undermine the family was because they recognized families as inherently conservative. Yet Powel himself stressed the fundamentally conservative nature of Sparta! If Sparta was essentially conservative, than no institution was better designed to reinforce conservative values than the family. The experience of 5,000 years of history supports this fact. It is when family structures break down that societies become most vulnerable to change – not the other way around.

The other problem with Powell’s thesis is that men eating one meal together at a club is hardly a good way to undermine family structure! It may be a modern truism that “families that eat together stay together,” but also a fact that most men in the Western world today also eat at least one meal away from their families. The most common pattern in Western industrialized societies is for men (and often women) to eat the mid-day meal away from home among their work colleagues rather than their family. Why should it be more destructive of family life to eat the evening meal away from home than the morning or mid-day meal? In many, particularly agricultural societies (such as ancient Sparta) it is the mid-day, not the evening meal, that is most important. 
I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that full Spartan citizens (31 years and older) did not eat the morning and mid-day meal with their families.  On the contrary, given the intimacy of Spartan society, I think it is very likely Spartans ate both breakfast and dinner (mid-day) with their families, and went to the syssitia in the evening for what was essentially a light supper. 

Certainly, as all accounts agree, Spartan men returned from the syssitia to their homes (or barracks) sober before it grew too late. Furthermore, syssitia were not noted for the entertainment of flute-girls and courtesans, unlike the tradition of Athenian symposia.  At the latter, men allegedly caroused together until the dawn and then staggered home drunk after indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female. From a wife’s point of view, the Spartan custom of syssitia was infinitely preferable to the Athenian symposia, and in consequence it is arguable that the syssitia did far more to strengthen family life than to disrupt it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Missing Mothers -- The Cause of Sparta's Decline?

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.
This dramatic decline in manpower was not only 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 disadvantage in economics and politics.  Because, evidently, the subject population of perioikoi and helots was not declining at the same rate, 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 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)) 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 ending in 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 been seen to decline for almost thirty years.  This is because the youth of the agoge were not disproportionally 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, April 1, 2014

Spartan Thieves

Every scholar of Sparta knows Xenophon’s descriptions of how Spartan youths and boys were kept hungry so they would learn how to steal, and were punished only for being caught rather than for theft itself.  Credible as Xenophon generally is, his commentary on this aspect of Spartan society is very questionable. Aside from the fact that thieves in any society can only be punished when caught, and many robbers undoubtedly view punishment as the price of poor performance rather than theft itself, the greater problem with this common depiction of Sparta is the notion that Sparta’s youth was continually stealing just to keep alive.
Admittedly, a nation of thieves may well fit Athenian views about their enemy.  The French referred to the English as “perfidious.” Americans and Soviets routinely attributed treachery to each other throughout the Cold War. The Israelis and Arabs have no end of adjectives to describe the deceitful character of the other side. Rather like calling your enemy’s men “fags” and their women “whores,” attributing sly dishonesty and immorality to the enemy is standard fare in propaganda wars regardless of culture or century.
A nation of thieves does not, however, fit well with a society that even her enemies considered remarkably stable and orderly. How do you keep a society orderly, if the entire male population between the ages of 7 and 20 are actively encouraged to steal? More important, how do you keep an economy functioning at the high levels of efficiency needed to finance a brutal, 30 year war, if every farm, shop, house, workshop and warehouse must be locked and guarded against hoards of desperate, half-starved youth? There are thieves in every society, but high levels of crime are one of the most destructive factors to social stability and political credibility.
Admittedly, the theft of food alone might not be so devastating to an economy as the theft of all goods, but the accounts usually cited, supplemented with details such as the absurd story of a youth caught stealing a fox (which is not on anyone’s menu), suggest that theft as such was encouraged. It is this picture of Spartan youth which dominates modern portrayals of Sparta.
To his credit, Anton Powell, in his article “Dining Groups, Marriage, Homosexuality,” in Michael Whitby’s Sparta, notes that “theft offended against two ideals of Spartan society: obedience and respect for elders.” (Sparta, p. 102). However, rather than questioning if Xenophon’s account is accurate or complete, Powell tries to argue that the military benefits of teaching youth stealth and deceit outweighed the disadvantages of corrupting their morals.  The problem with this argument is that such skills were conspicuously not necessary to the phalanx warfare at which Sparta was so good. Powell attempts to make a connection between guerrilla warfare and the custom of theft despite the fact that Thucydides states explicitly that prior to the Pylos campaign the Spartans had little experience of brigandage. Unable to square such a statement with his own image of Sparta, Powell hypothesizes a long history of (completely unrecorded!) helot revolts in which the Spartans learned guerrilla warfare – and so needed training in theft and stealth, but which Thucydides and Herodot knew absolutely nothing about.  
Admittedly, the kryptea was an organization in which the skills of deceit and theft would have been useful, but we are told that only selected Spartan youth ever served in it, not all of them. Furthermore , as Dr. Nic Fields so significantly pointed out, Sparta probably did not have that repulsive institution unit until after the helot revolt of 465.  There is, in fact, no credible indication whatsoever that Sparta had to deal with helot revolts of any kind prior to 465 – unless one counts the Second Messenian War as a major “helot” uprising. It is far more likely that both helots and perioikoi prospered throughout the archaic period.
Rather than inventing unrecorded wars, I think it makes more sense to examine the presumption that Spartan youth were encouraged to steal.   It is far more likely, as Nigel Kennel argues in The Gymnasium of Virtue, that if Spartan youth were encouraged to learn stealth and theft at all, it was only in a very limited and restricted context, and/or only after the degeneration of Spartan society had set in in the mid-fifth century BC.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spartan Mothers and Sparta's Military Ethos

Probably the second most common myth about Sparta is that Spartan women were lesbian amazons, who had little to do with their men – unless it was telling them to go and die for Sparta.  This myth has its roots in the Plutarch’s collections of Spartan sayings by Spartan women, eighteen of which share the now familiar theme of “with your shield or upon it.” All these women, named and unnamed, share the (alleged) Spartan ethos of preferring to see their sons dead than defeated or disgraced. They either express themselves in graphic and often insulting language to sons who failed to live up to these ideals, or reject comfort and exhibit no grief when told of a son’s death. Three of them even go so far as to kill their disgraced sons themselves. 

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?

More plausible to me is that all these sayings are the invention of Athenian or other enemy commentators intended to create/reinforce the “Feindbild” – the image of the enemy as alien and contemptible. The sayings had the two-fold benefit of making Sparta’s warriors seem less frightening, and Spartan women less human.  Sparta’s warriors were diminished because these sayings proved that many of them were really cowards who would run home to their mothers if they could. At the same time, unlike the Trojan women, who are frequently portrayed as loving mothers deserving of sympathy (see Euripides plays), these sayings make Spartan women seem so repulsively unnatural that Athenians could feel justified in any kind of atrocities against them.

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.