Thursday, January 1, 2015
During the Peloponnesian War Sparta’s enemies allegedly joked that it was no wonder the Spartans were willing to die in battle -- because no one would have liked to live the way they did. Aside from the fact that these commentators probably knew very little about the way Spartans actually lived, the assumption is that lack of luxury and the pervasive deprivation to which Spartans were condemned by their laws made them unhappy men. Yet Xenophon, a noted Laconophile who lived and campaigned with Spartans for decades, argued the other way around: that precisely because the Spartans learned to get along with very little, they were actually happier.
The view west from Sparta to Taygetos -- a good reason to for good spirits!
Certainly modern efforts to measure happiness have produced various indexes which prove that there is no direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Unscientifically, I would add that in my personal experience the Nigerians surrounded by corruption, pollution and collapsing infrastructures are much happier and have a greater joie de vivre than do the Norwegians – a people with one of the highest standards of living and one of the most equitable and developed societies on earth.
Without getting too deeply into the philosophical topic of what constitutes happiness, I would like to suggest that happiness has less to do with objective circumstances and more to do with a state of mind – i.e. attitude rather than possessions. We all know that whether a glass is described as half empty or half full depends on whether the observer is a pessimist or an optimist, but as my father pointed out: the optimist and the pessimist are both wrong – but the optimist is happier.
When outsiders looked at Spartiate society and (based on what they knew) decided such a life wasn’t worth living, they may indeed have accurately described how they would have felt if forced to live the way the Spartans did. However, they tell us nothing about the way the Spartans themselves felt. They are describing Spartan society as “half empty” – but that is not necessarily the way the Spartans saw it. The historian has to look beyond the opinion of outsiders and search for hints about Spartans attitudes toward their society.
Returning to the opening comment, I would argue that, in fact, men are very rarely willing to die for something they don’t think work preserving. Troops notoriously break, run and surrender when they have lost faith in what they are fighting for. If Spartan rankers thought that their way of life wasn’t worth living, then they would have welcomed defeat as a way of introducing revolution and constitutional reform. Indeed, if young Spartans thought the Spartan way of life was so abdominal that it was better to die than live as they were supposed to live, then idealistic young Spartans would have deserted to the Athenian side, helped defeat the oppressive regime they hated, and introduced Athenian-style democracy. In short, witty as the Athenian joke is – and it made me laugh out loud – it does not describe the Spartan frame of mind.
So how do we come closer to the Spartan attitude toward life? What made Spartans willing to die for Sparta? Was it really just a mindless fear of showing fear? A fanatical devotion to a code of honor? Or was Xenophon on the right track when he suggested that the Spartans learned to enjoy life – and love it better – by learning self-control and restraint?
As evidence of a certain, if not joie de vivre, at least contentment, I would like to first draw attention to those pieces of Spartan art that we have to date uncovered. Unlike the art of some warlike cultures (notably the Aztecs), Spartan art depicts many peaceful scenes: farm animals, lions and mythical beasts, bulls and horses (lots of horses!), riders with and without hunting dogs, chariots with horses and charioteers, girls running, married couples side-by-side, a king watching the correct weighing of goods for export, youths and maidens and hoplites, lots of hoplites. It is notable that the facial expressions on the human figures are uniformly benign. A convention certainly, but I would argue that a society that rarely smiled would not have conventionalized the smile as the expression in its art.
As a witness to Sparta’s love of life I would also like to call Sparta’s most famous philosopher, Chilon. According to a variety of ancient sources, Chilon was the origin of the quintessential laconic advice “Know Thyself” – inscribed in the forecourt to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Maria Papadopoulos points out in her contribution to “Sparta: A city-state of Philosophers: Lycurgus in Montaigne’s essais” (Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 7, No. 1, July 2011), however, that this expression is a condensation (laconic interpretation!) of the longer command from Apollo to “know that you are not a God, know that you are mortal, know that the finitude called death is an irreducible component of life. Live accordingly.” If Papadopoulos is correct, then Chilon’s admonishment to “know thyself” was not so much advice to know one’s own abilities and limitations, but advice to live each day in anticipation of death – which is much the same thing as “Carpe Diem”—usually translated as “use each day.” Arguably “using” each day is not the same as enjoying each day, and yet as Papadopoulos goes on to note: “The ancient Spartans trained hard but they enjoyed themselves [too]: feasts, dancing and singing, creative imagination and satirical banter and a temple dedicated to the God of Laughter….”
Combined I think these fragments of evidence suggest that the Spartans themselves did not find their lifestyle so burdensome and certainly not intolerable. The “deprivations” and hard work that strangers found so depressing were in contrast of little importance in a society that learned to love life itself in full consciousness of its transience. A man who keeps in mind the alternative (death) loves even the simplest things in life. This, I postulate, was the secret of Sparta’s love of life.
Monday, December 1, 2014
This month, I'm delighted to welcome W. Lindsay Wheeler back to "Sparta Reconsidered" with a new -- highly thought-provoking - guest blog. He would welcome feed-back, so don't hesitate to contact him at the email address provided at the end of the article.
The True Parellel to Sparta is Christendom
Far too many modern textbooks put Athens at the start and center of our cultural understanding. Skipping over two thousand years, we go, as it were, from Athenian democracy straight to modern civilization. But there is a bump in the road, the English Classicist J. Burnet, for example, notes that “…The Platonist tradition underlies the whole of western civilization”. (93) The Platonist tradition had nothing to do with Athenian democracy; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all, excoriated democracy. That being the case, the question then becomes where did Plato’s teachings arise? From Sparta as Socrates points out.
Many modern textbooks equate Sparta with dictatorship and totalitarianism with a number of academics conjoining Sparta with Nazi Germany.
If Sparta provoked Socrates and Plato, then what is the true parallel of Sparta should be in line with the Platonist tradition, right? The real parallel of Sparta is Christendom! *
The most glaring characteristic shared by both was serfdom of the helots in both Crete and
Sparta and the feudalism exhibited by
most of Europe. Just like in , these
Indo-Europeans created caste societies of soldiers, workers, tradesmen,
priests, royalty and aristocracy. India
There is a continuation of Indo-European life and practice from the Doric Greeks of Crete and
thru , to
Christendom. “Christendom was all but conterminous with the Rome Roman
Empire.” (Urquhart) Roman laws, ideas, institutions, practices were
carried over into Christendom.
From her early history, Rome and her culture have been influenced and directed by Doric customs for both Cicero and Plutarch point to the tribes of the Sabines as bringing Doric (Spartan) Culture to bear upon City upon the Tiber, during the earliest kingly reigns: the idea of mixed government of King, Senate, and assemblies, the regard for religious involvement (auguries), and military customs and dress. There is a continuum from Sparta to Rome and then from Rome to Christendom.
At the Fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into a state of war brought on by the countless invasions of migratory nations. This state of Nature forced all nations to create, naturally and organically, into the warrior caste system which mirrored Sparta, of King, Aristocracy and commons. As Diachercus of Messina labeled
government a Tripolitcus, many
European governments unconsciously replicated a tripartite government system of
royalty, aristocracy and commons. The crucible of Nature, hence the Natural
Law, worked its designs unconsciously upon European people. This same
pattern/paradigm can be seen with the Spartans, the early Roman “Republicanism”
of the Roman kings, and the monarchies of Europe. Sparta
Another grand parallel is that the Doric Greeks, the Romans and Christian Europe were heavily intertwined with religion. Spartan and Roman kings and later Roman Emperors along with other Roman office holders had religious duties.
Sparta and were both very cognizant not only of
Divine Providence but also Divine Involvement. Religion played such an integral
part in Rome
that their constitutional law was divided between two spheres, the res divina and the res publica. Thru St. Augustine, the conceptual duality of the
spheres, res divina and res publica
inherent in Roman constitutional law formed the political order of Christendom,
i.e. Throne and Altar: Rome
“Two there are, august emperor, by which this world is principally ruled: the consecrated authority of bishops and the royal power.” (Mastnak quoting Pope Gelasius I c. 494 A. D., pg 2)
The idea of Church and State formed an integral whole from
Sparta, thru , to Christendom. Rome
The Altar was Roman Catholicism. And here too, not only did Sparta lay the groundwork for Hellenism that created the environment for Christianity’s birth and growth through Plato but also, thru Plato, formed the consciousness, intellectualism and dogma of Roman Catholicism. In his book Plato’s Gift to Christianity, The Gentile Preparation For and The Making of The Christian Faith, Prof. Ehrlich all but names Plato as the founder of Christianity. Cochrane observes that there are “…undoubted affinities between Christianity and Platonism.” (pg. 376) As Rome Hellenized (Horace), Christianity in turn Hellenized and itself, in turn, took up Roman clothing accoutrements, laws, titles and customs thus creating Roman Catholicism.
Christendom was a Catholic theocracy, and the English Anglican divine, W. R. Inge, writes that
“If we had to choose one man as the founder of Catholicism as a theocratic system, we should have to name neither Augustine nor St. Paul, still less Jesus Christ, but Plato, who in the Laws sketches out with wonderful prescience the condition for such a polity, and the form which it would be compelled to take.” (26)
Nature created the warrior cultures of Europe. They did this by the natural effervescence of environment and racial proclivities (Dumezil’s trifunctionality) and second by reinforcing those proclivities by consciously copying and imitating the Natural Order, the Cosmos that is embedded in Plato’s writing down of Doric philosophy. The Natural Law, found in the Dorian’s creation of philosophy, formed the basis of Western Culture’s religion, ethics, contemplative thought and the order of their societies, consciously and subconsciously.
The Sparta/Rome/Christendom/Christianity continuum was all formed by Nature and God. Western Civilization has a continuous trajectory from classical times to the Throne and Altar of Christendom. And this belies the grandest equivalent between Sparta and Christendom, the telos of these societies was directed toward spiritual objectives—theosis for the Dorians (Wheeler) and salvation for the Christian, thus the authoritarianism of both these societies. On the other hand, the whole modern world is from the imagination and will of mortal, fallen man not only divorced from Nature but from God, all based on hatred. That the historical event of Christendom doesn’t even touch the minds of modern academia and to see all of modern academia miss this so obvious correspondence is scandalous.
If the German National Socialists were channeling the whole of Sparta, it woulda/shoulda recreated Christendom but they were egalitarians, having a great hatred for royalty, aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church. Hitler was a demagogue. Where else have demagogues appeared? Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn traces Nazism to Athens and its democracy where demagogues lived and ruled.†
There were no demagogues in Sparta. Sparta is not only the foundation of the Throne but of the Altar of Christendom as well. Sparta’s true parallel is Christendom.
W. Lindsay Wheeler, November 12, 2014
* Christendom: “In its historical sense, the term usually refers to the medieval and early modern period, during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power juxtaposed with both paganism and especially the military threat of the Muslim world.” (Wikipedia) For this purpose, from the Edict of Constantine to the French Revolution, where the Roman Catholic Church, Monarchy and the classical republics such as Venice, existed as a unified civilization of Europe.
† “The modern totalitarian parties are all fundamentally ‘democratic’.” (Kuehnelt, 246) In the anakylosis, Socrates and Plato both said that dictatorship comes out of democracy. “It was German liberalism and German bourgeois democracy which had turned National Socialist”. (ibid, 262)
Burnet, J. (1924) Philosophy. In R. W. Livingstone, (Ed.) The Legacy of Greece. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
Cochrane, Charles Norris (1940) Christianity and Classical Culture, A Study of Thought and Action From Augustus to Augustine. NY:
Press: 1980 University Press
paperback. Oxford University
Inge, W. R. (1924) Religion. In R. W. Livingstone, (Ed.) The Legacy of
: Clarendon Press. Oxford, England
Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von (1993) Liberty or Equality. Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press.
Mastnak, Tomaž (2002) Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order.
Berkeley, CA: Press. University of California
Urquhart, F. (1908). Christendom. In The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 10, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03699b.htm
Wheeler, W. Lindsay (2011) Macrocosm/Microcosm in Doric Thought. Self-published: academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/1619468/Macrocosm_Microcosm_in_Doric_Thought_Part_I
Saturday, November 1, 2014
It may surprise many modern readers that Plato, writing a history of philosophy in the 4th Century BC, claimed that all early philosophers were “imitators, lovers and disciples of Spartan education.” Furthermore, the seven “wise men” that Plato considered the fathers of philosophy included two Lacedaemonians, one of which was Spartiate: Chilon the Wise. Although in the 5th century BC it had become common to speak about “seven” wise men, whose selection varied from writer to writer so that a total of 17 are actually named on one list or another, Chilon – like Solon of Athens – is always among the seven.
So just who was Chilon of Sparta?
Based on the stories told about Chilon, which include personally meeting the famous writer of fables, Aesop, and Hippokrates, the father of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, historians conclude that Chilon lived in the first half of the 6th century BC, or – one might say – in the Golden Age of Sparta. Furthermore, he is said to have been an ephor during the 56. Olympiad, or between 556 and 554 BC, by which time, the sources say, he was “very old.” Modern historians such as Conrad Stibbe suggest he was somewhere between 60 and 75 when he was elected ephor in ca. 555 BC.
Chilon was a Spartiate, but apparently not from a “leading” or royal family. The fact that his descendants married into both royal houses, however, is an indication of just how highly he was regarded by his contemporaries and admired by subsequent generations of Spartans. Particularly significant is that a great-granddaughter of Chilon was selected by a later college of ephors as the bride for the then childless Agiad King Anaxandridas. Anaxandridas had been married for many years to his niece, who appeared to be barren, and the ephors after futilely urging the king to set aside his wife and take a new wife, convinced him to take a second wife. This wife (who is nameless in Herodotus) promptly became pregnant and gave birth to a male child, who later became one of Sparta’s most controversial kings, King Cleomenes I. What is striking about this particular marriage is less that the college of ephors would put forward the name of a girl descended from one of their own predecessors, than that Anaxandridas, who would have been a reigning king at the time Chilon was an ephor, would accept her as his bride.
The importance of this fact is best understood when we remember that Chilon is credited by ancient and modern historians with raising the status of the ephorate to a body almost as powerful as the kings. The ephors are not mentioned in the so-called Great Rhetra which allegedly encapsulated Lycurgus’ constitutional reforms, nor do they appear in any of the fragments of Tyrtaeus’ poetry that have survived. Originally, the ephors appear to have been little more than official servants of the kings, charged with executing the kings’ orders. In consequence, the ephors make no particular mark in history prior to the mid-6th century.
The first historical act of the ephors was the already mentioned incident in which they forced a reluctant King Anaxandridas to take a second wife. This interference in the personal life of a king was justified by their concern over the future of the Agiad line and indirectly the Spartan Constitution. It was initiated because, according to Herodotus, the ephors were tasked with observing the heavens at regular intervals and interpreting the stars. In other words, this first act of interference could be interpreted as more a religious than a political role, in that the ephors were simply interpreting the Will of the Gods, rather than acting in a constitutionally independent role.
In the centuries to follow, however, the ephors increasingly engaged in activities that are unashamedly political. By the late 5th century, the ephors could fine citizens for misdemeanors and bring charges against them for more serious crimes, even those elected to public office. They controlled relations with the perioikoi and helots (at some point initiating the practice of declaring war on the helots annually.) The ephors drafted bills for presentation to the Assembly and set the agenda at Assembly meetings. They could summon the Assembly and presided at it. The ephors decided based on their estimate of the comparative volume of the shouted “ayes” and “nays,” whether a motion had passed, and they enforced the decisions taken at Assembly.
The ephors, furthermore, had diplomatic and military roles as well as political and administrative ones. Not only did they receive and dispatch ambassadors, they also named – and recalled – commanders, such as Pausanias and Lysander. They appointed the three hippagretai, who then each selected one hundred men from among the 21 – 30 year olds to form the royal body guard. After the Assembly voted for war, it was the ephors, who mobilized the troops, and two ephors accompanied whichever king commanded the Spartan army on campaign. The latter was clearly intended as a check on the behavior of the kings. Although the kings commanded absolute obedience while the Spartan army was outside of Lacedaemon, the ephors were expected to keep an eye on them and exercise their right to bring charges against the kings on their return. If a king was charged with a capital offense, the ephors sat in judgment of him along with the Gerousia.
But returning to Chilon himself, Conrad Stibbe in his excellent work on archaic Sparta Das Andere Sparta (Mainz: 1996) credits Chilon with conceiving of the Peloponnesian League. As he points up, throughout Sparta’s previous history, complete subjugation of a conquered people followed successful Spartan conquests. This was true for the conquest of the heartland of Lacedaemon, the Eurotas Valley in the 9th century and for the conquest of Messenia in the second half of the 7th century. Yet after a bitter war with Tegea during the first half of the 6th century BC, in which Sparta suffered at least one humiliating defeat resulting in the enslavement of Spartiate hoplites, Sparta chose a different path. Following a decisive victory over Tegea under the leadership of King Anaxandridas, Sparta made the revolutionary decision not to subjugate and occupy Tegea, but rather to form a defensive alliance with its defeated foe. This course was unprecedented in Greek history at the time. (Note: My novel The Olympic Charioteer deals with this period of Spartan history.) Furthermore, the alliance with Tegea was not a one-off event, but rather signaled a completely new Spartan foreign policy that was pursued throughout the rest of the century. Under both Anaxandridas and his sons, Sparta built up her power and prestige not through direct conquest but through the formation of a system of alliances, first on the Peloponnese (under Anaxandridas and Cleomenes) and with all of Hellas under Leonidas.
Yet while Chilon sought peace and alliances with Sparta’s democratic neighbors, he was according to ancient tradition together with Anaxandridas the driving force behind a series of military actions undertaken by Sparta to depose tyrants in Sikyon, Samos, and Athens. The fact that Chilon and Anaxandridas are mentioned as working together to depose the tyrants is significant because it suggests a joint policy – something that makes the later marriage of Anaxandridas to a great-granddaughter of Chilon more understandable.
Interestingly, Chilon is described in Herodotus as a seer and Chilon’s first act of extraordinary wisdom was advice that, had it been followed, would have spared Athens the tyranny of Peisistratos in the first place. Chilon’s wisdom was thus associated with Sparta’s opposition to tyranny. According to legend, when the father of Peisistratos, Hippokrates, was in Olympia, he received a sign from the Gods. A cauldron full of sacrificial meat he had donated to the gods boiled over without a fire being lit under it. Although Hippokrates recognized that this could only be a message from the gods, he could not interpret it, and turned to Chilon for advice. Chilon told him not to marry and if he was already married to disown any son he already had.
The Spartan Chilon was according to ancient tradition also a contemporary of the fable-writer Aesop. According to legend, Chilon told the former slave that Zeus’ job was to “humiliate the mighty and rise up the humble.” While this was clearly a reference to Aesop’s own fate, it is a strikingly revolutionary statement nonetheless – heralding the Christian notion that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”
Likewise with respect to women, Chilon set revolutionary standards of behavior that were uniquely Spartan. While the Athenian philosopher Socrates showed utter contempt the intellect of his wife, refusing to even take leave of her after he was condemned to death, Chilon was depicted on his grave sitting side-by-side with his wife. Even more impressive, one of his daughters, Chilonis, was recognized by name as a disciple of Pythagoras. In short, while the Athenians contended that women were permanent children with brains incapable of developing rational thought,[i] Sparta’s greatest philosopher encouraged his daughter to study under the greatest of his contemporaries.
But it was hardly for his attitude toward women or former slaves that Chilon attained so much fame among his fellow Greeks. Rather, Chilon was admired and honored by subsequent generations of Greek philosophers and their Roman and modern admirers primarily for his “wisdom.” Chilon was the author of some 600 verses familiar to the ancients that they admired greatly. Unfortunately, none of these have survived into the present, at least none have been identified as the work of Chilon. More famous, however, were three – typically Laconic – sayings that were craved over the entrance to the Delphic oracle and attributed to Chilon. Let me close these brief essay on Chilon by quoting him. I think many would find his advice relevant even today:
Sponsorship brings misfortune.
Nothing in excess.
Chilon plays a minor -- but important -- role in my novel: The Olympic Charioteer.
[i] Good sources on Athenian attitudes for women can be found in the Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Waves and Slaves, (New York: 1975), Sue Blundell’s Women in Ancient Greece, (London:1995) and in the chapter on “Citizen Women in Athens,” in Anton Powell’s Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 BC, (Portland, Oregon: 1988).
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
The image of the Spartan educational system (the "agoge") in most literature is a catalogue of horrors no loving parent would inflict upon his/her children. Paul Cartledge even makes a great fuss about the word agoge being used for cattle as well as children – although the English word “to raise” is also used for both children and cattle without, to my knowledge, all American, British and Australian children being denigrated to the status of livestock. (Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections, Duckworth, London, 2001.)
The assumption in literature and film is that boys (and possibly the girls) were taken from their homes at age seven and never again had anything to do with their parents. Instead they were under the tutelage of the Paidonomos and his assistants, elected herd leaders, “lovers” and eirenes (whatever these were). The boys are described as learning virtually nothing, running around virtually naked, stealing to eat, fighting constantly with their peers, but intimidated and abjectly obedient to their elders.
Yet what we know of Spartan society as whole is not consistent with such an educational system.
First, there is strong evidence that family ties were as strong in Sparta as elsewhere. No society, in fact, has ever succeeded at destroying the institution of the family -- even when they tried to as in Soviet Union and Communist China. We know from modern experience that attendance at even a distant boarding school does not inherently indicate a lack of parental interest in a child’s development. Thus, it is ridiculous to think Spartan parents lost interest in their children just because they were enrolled in the agoge. The agoge, after all, was located in the heart of Sparta. Far from never seeing their families ever again, the children of the agoge would probably have seen their fathers (who had to take part in civic activities and eat at their syssitia) and school- and army-aged siblings daily.
In addition to the comfort of daily contact with fathers and brothers as desired, we can assume that the agoge was not opened 365 days a year. Just like every other school in history, the agoge will have had “holidays.” We know of at least 12 festivals each year. (See Nikolaos Kouloumpis, “The Worship and the role of Religion in the formation of the Spartan state,” Sparta: Journal of Ancient Spartan and Greek History, Vol. 6, # 1.) The Spartans, furthermore, were notorious for taking their religious festivals extremely seriously. Soldiers on campaign could return home for festivals particularly important to their specific clan, and the entire army was prohibited from marching out during others. (It was because of religious holidays that the Spartan army was late for Marathon and only sent an advance guard to Thermopylae.) It is not reasonable to assume that what applied to the Spartan army did not apply to the public school. Far more probable is that the agoge closed down for every holiday and like school children everywhere, they gleefully went “home for the holidays” along with their eirenes, herd-leaders, instructors and all other citizens.
The equally common presumption based on fragmentary ancient sources that the boys never got enough to eat and routinely took to stealing to supplement their diet is inconsistent with a functioning economy. No society can function if theft is not the isolated act of criminal individuals but rather a necessity for all youth between the ages of 6 and 21. If all the youth were stealing all the time, the rest of society would have been forced to expend exorbitant amounts of time and resources on protecting their goods. Every Spartan farm ("kleros") would have been turned into an armed camp, and there would have been nightly battles between hungry youth and helots desperate to save their crops and stores. Nothing of the kind was going on in Sparta, a state known for its internal harmony and low levels of common crime.
Nigel Kennel argues persuasively that theft was only allowed during a limited period of time at a single stage in a boy’s upbringing (Nigel Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1995). As for only being punished for being caught, that is very nature of all punishment seen from the thief’s perspective. No undiscovered crime is ever punished. Nothing about that has changed in 2,500 years.
The notion that the boys constantly fought among themselves and were encouraged to do so is equally untenable. Boys of the same age cohort would inevitably serve together in the army. The Spartan army was famous for the exceptional cohesion of its ranks. You don’t attain such cohesion by fostering competition and rivalry to an excessive degree. A strong emphasis on competition was prevalent throughout ancient Greece. Spartan youths engaged in team sports, and there would have been natural team spirit and team rivalry. There can be no question that now and again such competition and rivalry turned bitter and could degenerate into fights. But Sparta more than other Greek city state needed to ensure that such rivalries did not get out of hand because all citizens had to work together harmoniously in the phalanx.
As for the youth of the agoge being abjectly respectful and obedient to their elders, such behavior is incompatible with high-spirited, self-confident youth – yet this is what the agoge set out to produce. Spartan discipline appears to have produced exceptionally polite young men by ancient standards. Since observations about Spartan youth at, say, the pan-Hellenic games or on visits to Sparta does not require inside knowledge of Spartan society, we can assume that these reports have a certain validity. But there is a vast difference between being polite and respectful on the surface and being cowed, intimidated and obedient to an exceptional extent. English school-boys of the 19th and early 20th Century also had a reputation for politeness that had nothing to do with being beaten down or docile.
The thesis that Spartan youth learned almost nothing (except endurance, theft, competition and manners) is untenable for a society that for hundreds of years dominated Greek politics and whose school was admired by many Athenian intellectuals and philosophers. Starting with the circumstantial evidence, Spartans could not have commanded the respect of the ancient world, engaged in complicated diplomatic manoeuvring, and attracted the sons of intellectuals like Xenophon to their agoge if they had been as illiterate and uneducated as some modern writers like to portray them. Ancient sources stress the Spartan emphasis on musical education and on dance, and Spartans certainly knew their laws by heart. They could -- and effectively -- did debate in international forums, and their sayings were considered so witty that they were collected by their contemporaries.
Indeed, some sources claim that “devotion to the intellect is more characteristic of Spartans than love of physical exercise.” (Plutarch, Lycurgus:20) Furthermore, Sparta is known to have entertained leading philosophers and to have had a high appreciation of poetry, as evidenced by the many contests and festivals for poetry, particularly in the form of lyrics. The abundance of inscriptions and dedications found in Sparta are clear testimony to a literate society; one does not brag about one’s achievements in stone if no one in your society can read!
Last but not least, while everyone agrees that Spartan education was designed to turn the graduates of the agoge into good soldiers, the skills needed by a good soldier included far more than skill with weapons, physical fitness, endurance, and obedience. A good soldier also had to be able to track, to read the weather from the clouds, to navigate by the stars, to recognise poisonous plants, to apply first aid, to build fortifications and trenches, and much, much more. All this knowledge was probably transmitted to Spartan youth in the agoge.
Finally, let me turn to the most offensive aspect of this common picture: institutionalized pederasty. Without getting into a fight about the dating and nationality of the sources alleging institutionalized pederasty to Spartan society, one indisputable fact is that modern psychology shows that abused boys grow up to despise women. Whatever else one can accuse the Spartans of doing, despising women was not one of them. Athenians, notably Aristophanes and Hesiod, on the contrary, very clearly did despise women and it was in Athens and Corinth that the archeological evidence likewise suggests widespread pederasty. In Sparta the situation was so different that Aristotle fumed against the power of women and attributed it to militaristic society in which homosexual love was not common. Sparta stands out as the exception, which is probably why it was so profoundly misunderstood.
Stripped of common misperceptions about the nature of the Spartan agoge, the institution starts to look not only tolerable but even admirable – something that would be consistent with the historical record. We know that many men we admire for their intellect, including Socrates himself, were admirers of the Spartan agoge. It is time that modern observers of Spartan society stopped relying on familiar but illogical commentary and used common sense to assess the Spartan agoge.
My novel Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge hypothesizes and portrays an agoge consistent with the above insights.
Monday, September 1, 2014
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
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
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.