Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sparta and the Divine Twins






The ancient Greeks had many gods, demigods, and heroes. The sheer numbers are confusing and the fact that the same god could go by different names or be assigned different attributes in different cities makes the study of ancient Greek religion particularly complex. I readily admit my own discomfort with polytheism generally and with the religion of the ancient Greeks in particular. Greek gods could be petty, selfish, immoral, arbitrary, cruel, fickle, dishonest, and everything else that humans can be.  Rather than serving as moral arbiters much less as examples of virtue, their very immorality often seemed to constitute an excuse for immoral behavior. In all this chaos and depravity, however, one story stands out as touchingly uncharacteristic – and tellingly it is the story of two Spartan princes particularly honored and revered in Sparta. 

According to ancient Greek mythology, the Divine Twins, the Dioskouroi, were the brothers of Helen.  More precisely, Polydeukes was Helen’s full-brother, likewise fathered by Zeus on her mother Leda, while Kastor was her half-brother, the son of Leda by her (mortal) husband Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. Raised at the Spartan court as twin sons of the king, the Dioskouroi lived the ideal lives of aristocratic youth in the age of heroes. They had great adventures, sailing with Jason on the Argo, hunting boar with Herakles, rescuing their sister from the Athenian king Theseus, who had abducted her – and then robbing two sisters from a neighboring kingdom for their own wives. Nothing about these adventures suggestions anything particularly virtuous or morally exemplary. They were, it seemed, just hot-blooded young Greek heroes. 

And then, in a fight over stolen cattle, Kastor was killed. According to the myth, both brothers would have been killed, if Polydeukes hadn’t been immortal.  Polydeukes lived on after his mortal end and went to his father’s home on Mount Olympus, while Kastor went into the cold, dark grave, a prisoner of grim Hades, destined never to see the light of day or breathe fresh air or enjoy any pleasures of the senses ever again.

According the myth, Polydeukes was so distraught by his brother’s fate that he was unable to enjoy his own immortality. Seeing his son’s misery, Zeus took pity on him and allowed the twins to switch places on an alternating basis. Every other day, Polydeukes took his brother’s place in hell, so that Kastor could escape the grave. 

There is, I think, something wonderfully Spartan about this tale. It includes both the love of life, which – contrary to popular opinion – was characteristic of ancient Sparta (see Loving Life in Lacedaemon and Nothing in Excess), and the spirit of self-sacrifice that we associate with Leonidas.


Experience Spartan Society more closely in my  Leonidas' Trilogy:


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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mycenea - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"



One of Sparta’s often overlooked diplomatic victories was prying Mycenae and Tyrens out of Argos’ sphere of influence and into her own. Little is known about this diplomatic success beyond the fact that it followed the Spartan victory at Sepeia and lasted through Leonidas’ deployment to Thermopylae. In my novel “A Peerless Peer” I provide a plausible scenario of how and why Mycenae was -- under Leonidas’ reign -- a Spartan ally.





Mycenae. Agamemnon’s city. It crowned a hill that nestled against the backdrop of the majestic peaks of Mount Zara and Profitis Ilias. Deep ravines encased it, and the natural slopes leading up to the sheer walls were steep and treacherous. Mycenae, “rich in gold,” was also a nearly impregnable citadel.

Of course, it was not Agamemnon’s city anymore. That had been burned and plundered and razed in the reign of Orestes’ son Tisamenus. Somewhere nearby there must be ancient graves, perhaps still filled with the treasure of Troy. But the survivors of that final catastrophe had not been many; the descendants of Agamemnon’s army had submitted to the invading Dorians and intermarried with them. This was a new city, built upon the ruins of Agamemnon’s capital some three hundred years ago, and it was neither particularly large, nor rich, [but it was an ally of Argos]…

Leonidas hadn’t a clue what form of government this obscure, secondary city had, except that it was unlikely to be a monarchy. He presumed it was also less democratic than Athens, and that made it an oligarchy of some sort. At all events, he was facing ten old men.

“You wished to speak with us, Spartan?”

“Who are you?”

“The Governing Council of Mycenae. And you?”

“I am the commanding officer of the Lacedaemonian army surrounding this city. My orders are to subdue the Argolid and render it incapable of threatening us for another generation. Those orders could be interpreted to mean I should seize and raze Mycenae.” Leonidas was watching the faces of the men opposite him very carefully. He had the impression he was not telling them anything they didn’t already know. They, too, had spies.

“So why are you here, Spartan? Do you want us to surrender our freedom without a fight?” The man who said this was trembling slightly as he spoke. Leonidas considered him. He was not trembling from fear. Possibly it was just a frailty of age—or the power of his emotions. His eyes were milky with cataracts, but he sat very straight, wrapped in a soft woolen himation with a wide border of mythical beasts in rusts and greens.
“I know little of your city, but I was told you pay homage to Argos.”

“Argos takes from us one-third of our olive-oil harvest, one-fourth of our wine, 100 head of cattle, 200 sheep, and 166 goats each year—and it led 116 of our finest young men to their deaths at Sepeia.” That did not sound like a declaration of loyalty.

“And what do you get in return?”

There was a long pause. The old man just sat with tears dripping slowly down his face, and finally one of the other men admitted, “Nothing.” The man seemed to think about it and then added, “Nothing at all.”

“You call that freedom?” Leonidas asked.

Another man spoke up, more hotly than the other two. “We still live by our own laws. We have our temples, our festivals and customs. We can sacrifice at the graves of our fathers. Our daughters go intact to their marriage beds, and our sons learn the use of spear and sword.”

“That is true in Tegea, Corinth, and Elis as well.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” the hot-headed man demanded; but the older man stirred himself and hushed his younger colleague. He focused his not entirely blind eyes hard on Leonidas while explaining to his impatient colleague, “Tegea, Corinth, and Elis are allies of Lacedaemon.”

“We don’t require tribute,” Leonidas reminded him.

“Just obedience. To follow wherever your kings lead.” Yet another member of the council spoke up.

“If a majority in the League Assembly approves,” Leonidas reminded them. Leonidas was acutely aware that the changes in League leadership imposed upon his brother and characterized as “humiliating” by Leotychidas, Brotus, and others might prove decisive in avoiding bloodshed today. He pressed the point. “Your vote would be equal to ours.”

The Mycenaeans exchanged glances and then put their heads together, to whisper among themselves. One cut the others short and asked the Spartans to step out into the street while they discussed the proposal.

On the porch, Oliantus murmured, “Are you sure you have authority to offer this?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Only the ephors can sign treaties, and the Assembly has to ratify.”

“Do you think they would reject an application by Mycenae to join the League?”

“You never know what the Assembly will decide,” Oliantus warned. “Especially not when Leotychidas and his clique start their whisper campaigns!”

The Mycenaeans, however, were finished with their internal discussion and called the Spartans back inside. The spokesman asked, “Are those your terms? That we become an ally of Lacedaemon?”

“That you break with Argos and join our allies, yes,” Leonidas clarified.

The Mycenaeans again looked at one another, and then the spokesman asked, “What is your name, young man?”

“Does that matter?”

“It does. You seem very young to have so much authority, and you offer us something that seems quite unimaginable. We came here expecting demands of abject submission. We thought you would want us to hand over our daughters and humiliate ourselves in front of you. We thought you would take away our youths for your own pleasures and demand tribute that would leave us nothing at all but the naked walls of our homes.”

“You were wrong.” Leonidas insisted.

“But how can we know this is not just a trick—a way to make us let down our defenses and open our gates to your brutal troops?”

“I am Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas, brother of Cleomenes. I am a direct descendant of Herakles through my father and my mother both. My word is good. And I give it to you.” It frightened Leonidas a little to realize how much he enjoyed saying that—and it surprised him even more how effective it was.