Historian Helena P. Schrader discusses ancient Spartan society and culture, seeking to rectify a number of misconceptions. She will also review recent books on Sparta or set in Ancient Greece as well as discuss her published novels on archaic Sparta, and her three part biographical novel on Leonidas and Gorgo.
Although Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae is widely viewed as
the epitome of “Spartan” behavior, it was in fact unique in Spartan history. No king had ever died in battle before
Thermopylae, and famously, less than hundred years later in 425 BC, several
hundred Spartans trapped on the island of Sphacteria surrendered rather than
die to the last man.Nor was this later
incident the act of isolated, dishonorable individuals. The Spartan government
was so anxious to recover the men who surrendered that it sued for peace.
Thus, far from doing only what he had been raised to do,
Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae was a very personal one. To understand it, it is useful to look at him
as an individual – starting with his childhood. For the next seven months, I will be looking at Leonidas' biography to trace how he came to make his stand at Thermopylae. I start with his childhood and youth.
Two aspects of Leonidas’
childhood may shed light on his later life: the bitter rift within his family and
his education in the agoge.
By the time Leonidas was born, his father had – very much
against Spartan custom – taken a second wife. The circumstances were
notable. King Anaxandridas, according to
Herodotus, was “devoted” to his wife, the daughter of his sister, but their
marriage was childless for years. The ephors, concerned about the extinction of
one of the royal houses, urged Anaxandridas to put aside his apparently barren
wife and marry again. Anaxandridas
flatly refused. Not only that, he explicitly stated that his wife was
“blameless,” and he called a divorce “improper.” (A Spartan way of saying “absolutely
unthinkable.”) The ephors reconsidered and came back with a new proposal; they suggested
Anaxandridas to take a second wife
for the sake of the dynasty. A key aspect of this deal was clearly that the
former princess and now queen was allowed to retain her status not only as wife
but as queen and that she almost certainly remained in the royal palace.
Anaxandridas’ second wife was a “child of the people” – probably
selected by the ephors because she was the direct descendent of Chilon the
Wise, the man usually attributed with greatly increasing the power of the
ephors, effectively turning them from mere agents of the kings into
independently powerful representatives of the Assembly. Anaxandridas “did his duty” and sired a son on
this second wife, but it is unlikely that she lived under the same roof as his
favored, first wife, or that she enjoyed his affections or attentions after she
had performed her dynastic function. Certainly, she bore no children except the
one son, Anaxandridas’ eldest son and heir, Cleomenes.
On the other hand, Anaxandridas’
first, allegedly barren, wife became pregnant shortly after the birth of
Cleomenes. Despite suspicions that this was a trick of some kind, she gave birth
-- in the presence of the ephors -- to a healthy son, Doreius. What is more,
she went on to give Anaxandridas two additional sons: Leonidas and Cleombrotus.
In short, Anaxandridas continued to
cohabitate with is first, beloved wife, while his second consort was apparently
ignored and neglected.
The importance for
Leonidas is that although he would initially have grown up in an apparently in
tact family unit, he would soon have been confronted with the underlying
rivalries between his older brothers, Cleomenes and Doreius. While we cannot know what Anaxandridas’ first
wife felt about his second (or the fact that her husband allowed himself to be
persuaded into sharing her bed), we can be certain that she favored her own son
over her rival’s. Because Cleomenes had been born first, however, he was
technically the heir apparent. Herodotus further claims that even as a child
Cleomenes showed signs of mental instability (“was not quite right in the
head”). Dorieus, in conctrast, was the
“finest young man of his generation.” This undoubtedly fed the hopes of his
mother – and Doreius himself -- that he would take his father’s place on the
Agiad throne when the time came. Herodotus records that Doreius was “confident”
he would succeed his father, and was correspondingly “indignant” when “the
Spartans” (the ephors? The Gerousia? The Assembly?) made Cleomenes king
instead. So indignant, we are told, that he could not bear to remain in Sparta under
his half-brother’s rule. Instead, he set
off with men and ships – but without the approval of Delphi – to set up a
colony in Africa.
Notably, Leonidas did not go with him. Nor did Leonidas go
with Doreius on his second, sanctioned adventure to Sicily, several years
later. There could be any number of reasons why not, but one plausible
explanation is that Leonidas was more at loggerheads with his older brother
Doreius than his half-brother Cleomenes.
Assuming that Cleonmenes was raised in a separate household and did not
attend the agoge, Leonidas may not have known Cleomenes very well at all.
Doreius, on the other hand, would have been constantly in front of him, the
“perfect” elder brother, who did everything right (as the finest in his
generation) and very likely his mother’s darling as well. Leonidas, on the
other hand, would have been the middle child of three same-sex children born to
his mother. Such children commonly
display distinct characteristics.
The middle child of three same-sex children is often
rebellious, difficult, irresponsible, and a brilliant under-achiever.
Alternatively, they can be the “peace-makers,” sensitive but secretive, more
focused on peer-groups than family. The most consistent characteristic of
middle-children is that they are almost always the opposite of their older
This might explain a key feature of Leonidas’ personality.
Because his older brother was rebellious and convinced of his superiority and
destiny to lead, Leonidas might have become obsessively loyal, the
quintessential “team player.” He might have been the “peace-maker” between the
two, antagonized branches of the family, and as such been rewarded with the
physical symbol of reconciliation, the hand of Cleomenes’ daughter Gorgo.
in the agoge, on the other hand, united him with his subjects in a unique way.
The hardships of the agoge were designed to make youth bond together. A common upbringing, shared hardships and
follies, can even today create a sense of belonging between class-mates that bridges
political differences and is more powerful than business partnerships. The more difficult, rigorous and elitist such
“school ties” are, the most enduring they are likely to be. The Spartan agoge
appears to have worked remarkably well in giving Spartan citizens a sense of
common identity and responsibility for one another. Usually, the kings and
future kings were excluded from this
close-knit society, however, because the heirs to the throne (in
Leonidas’ generation Cleomenes) did not attend the agoge. But Leonidas, like
Doreius, did. He would have forged close bonds with his classmates, and been
accepted as “one of the boys” even by those who did not particularly know or
Furthermore, Leonidas did not became king until later in
life. Certainly he was a full citizen. Possibly he had been an “ordinary”
Spartan for almost half a century before he ascended the throne. Most of his life he was therefore remained
“one of the boys.” He belonged to the
club, but he wasn’t the leader, not like Doreius. This might have undermined
his authority at one level. One quote is recorded in which allegedly someone
challenged him saying: “Except for being king, you are no better than the rest
of us.” This quote reinforces the image of Leonidas as having being “ordinary,”
rather than “extraordinary” before he came to his brother’s throne. It would also fit in with the pattern of an underachieving
But once he was king,
Leonidas could count upon double loyalty from his subjects. He could count upon
not only the loyalty Spartans owed their kings as descendents of Heracles and
demi-gods, but also upon the more visceral, emotional, blind loyalty of his
comrades. Leonidas was both a king and
one of the boys.
I think this is an important aspect of Leonidas’ appeal. At
Thermopylae, he was not so much commanding subordinates or subjects as rallying
comrades. The paid him back in the highest currency known to man: with their
loyalty unto death. The first book in my Leonidas trilogy, A Boy of the Agoge, hypothesizes in fiction form about Leonidas' childhood.
that sometime before the Persian invasion and probably in the mid-6th
Century BC as we reckon time, the Spartans became restless and wanted to
conquer their northern neighbors in Arkadia. As the Spartans were wont to do,
they sent to Delphi for advice and received the following oracle:
Arkadia? Great is the thing you ask. I will not grant it.
In Arkadia are many men, acorn-eaters,
And they will keep you out. Yet, for I am not grudging.
I will give you Tegea to dance in with stamping feet
And her fair plain to measure out with the line.
Taking this to
mean that they would be successful, the Spartan army invaded Tegea only to
suffer a devastating defeat. As Herodotus explains: “…and those who were taken
prisoner were forced to wear on their own legs the chains they had brought,
and to ‘measure out with the line’ the plain of Tegea as labourers. In my own
lifetime the fetter they were bound with were still preserved in Tegea, hanging
up round the temple of Athene Alea.” (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, 66)
Herodotus does not tell us just how many Spartiates were killed or captured, it
is clear that Sparta was both defeated and that a significant number of
citizens surrendered. (Incidentally demonstrating that Sparta did not have any kind
of a “do or die” mentality at this time!) Indeed, Herodotus suggests that
Sparta suffered more than one defeat saying they “continually” had the worst of
it against Tegea and “a long series of reverses” until the reigns of
Anaxandridas and Ariston. These kings certainly lived in the second half of the
6th century and under their leadership Sparta sent for a second
oracle from Delphi. This told them:
In Arkadia lies Tegea in the level plain,
Where under strong constraints two winds are blowing;
Smiting in there and counter-smiting, and woe on woe;
The earth, the giver of life, holds Agamemnon’s son.
Bring him home, and you will prevail over Tegea.
At this point a
clever Spartiate, Lichas, learned that a smith in Tegea had discovered a coffin
ten feet long with a skeleton inside that was just as large. Interpreting this
as the body of Orestes, Lichas reported what he had heard to the Gerousia. The Spartans
pretended he had committed some crime and exiled him. He returned to the forge,
explained what had happened and leased the plot of land with the bones. In
secret he then dug up the bones and brought them back to Sparta, and, according
to Herodotus, “ever since that day the Lacedaemonians in any trial of strength
had by far the better of it.”
But that is only
half the story, for -- despite having recovered what was believed to be
Orestes’ bones -- Sparta refrained from launching a new war against Tegea and
negotiated a non-aggression pact instead.
Why? Herodotus is
silent on this, so we are left to speculate.
We know is that
Sparta opted to negotiate with Tegea rather than to resort to arms. We also
know that the resulting “non-aggression” pact became to pro-type of all
subsequent agreements with other cities in the Peloponnese, and so the core of
the Peloponnesian League. We also know that a key feature of this agreement was
that Sparta agreed to assist Tegea against external enemies (presumably they were
thinking of Argos), but also that Tegea agreed to assist Sparta against internal
revolts. This suggests that recognition of the threats inherent in a large
subject population may have induced Sparta to seek an alliance in place of
conquest. A number of historians point out that the Tegean conflict probably
fell in the life-time and possibly the ephorate of Chilon the Wise, and postulate that this universally respected Spartan leader
may have been the voice of reason that held Sparta back from new aggression.
The course of
history: the attack, defeat, new appeal to Delphi, successful re-location of
“Orestes” and then the astonishing restraint demonstrated by Sparta in not
attacking again suggest that Spartan society was probably divided between “hawks”
and “doves.” Far from being a monolithic society with a single will and a
robot-like population, Sparta was a complex society inherently vulnerable to
internal division by the peculiar institution of the dual kingship. Since the
Kings were equal in all things, any fundamental policy differences between the
kings led inevitably to political strife. Each king could be assured support
from his own relatives, friends and clients in both the Gerousia and Assembly.
This means that each king would seek to win majorities by various means of
persuasion and the same kind of political maneuvering we are familiar with today
in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. The “hawks” won the first round;
the “doves” – very probably led by Chilon the Wise – won the second round.
hypothesis is the basis for my novel The
Olympic Charioteer. The novel opens in Tegea, after Sparta’s defeat. In the
absence of any historical record about the political system in Tegea at this
time, I have used Tegea to portray one of the characteristic political
developments of the period: the rise of tyrants on the backs of increasing
political demands by the hoplite-class against the aristocratic elite. The
novel moves from Tegea to Sparta, where the internal divisions between two
factions in Sparta are revealed. The central character of the novel is one of
the Spartiates taken captive in the Spartan defeat: a young man, who just
before the start of the war had driven his father’s chariot to victory at the Olympic
Modern histories of Sparta
tend to brush over the Messenian War(s) in considerable haste and without
providing a great deal of detail. The
reason is obvious. As Paul Cartledge stresses in Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (one of the
few general histories of Sparta to focus seriously on the early history), the
literary evidence is almost nil and the archeological evidence ambiguous.
Indeed, he describes Tyrtaios, a poet whose works have been handed down to us
only in fragments, as the only "reliable" [sic!] literary source, while pointing out
that the ancient sources Herodotus and Thucydides refer to only one war.
Yet, arguably, nothing was
more important to the evolution of Sparta into a city-state with a radically
unique constitution than the Spartan conquest of Messenia. W.G. Forrest argues, for example, that the
conquest of its agriculturally rich neighbor reduced the need for distant
colonies and so the interest in the wider world, while the agricultural basis
of Spartan wealth reduced Sparta’s interest in industry and trade. Others argue
that the conquest of such a vast territory and the subjugation of an entire
people resulted in permanent fear of revolt that in turn created the need for a
militaristic state. Sparta as we know it – with its unique institutions from
the agoge to citizens permanently under arms – is a function of its conflict
The facts of conquest which
are undisputed are quickly summarized: Sparta controlled Messenia completely by
the start of the 6th century BC. Sometime in the 7th
Century, during the life of the poet Tyrtaios, Sparta was engaged in a bitter
struggle with the Messenians, a struggle that Tyrtaios clearly describes as one
involving pitched battles between hoplites (though not phalanxes). Tyrtaios furthermore
refers in his poems to the great deeds of “our father’s fathers,” which is
usually interpreted to mean that the initial conquest of Messenia occurred two
generations earlier. Tyrtaios also speaks of a struggle that lasts 20 years.
Both the references, however, may be purely poetical; the first may mean little
more than “our forefathers,” and the latter be a literary device to stress that
it was “a long struggle” by making the fight in Messenia exactly twice as long
as the conquest of Troy.
Archeologically, we can trace a gradual expansion of Laconian influence
into Messenia starting in the late 8th Century.
We also know that in the first
quarter of the 7th century BC, Sparta adopted a new constitution attributed to
Lycurgus. (I know there has been scholarly debate about the exact dating of the
Spartan constitution, but I find W.G. Forrest’s arguments dating the Spartan
revolution to the period between 700 and 670 cogent and convincing. See A History of Sparta, 950-192 BC, pp.
55-58.) Furthermore, we know that
Sparta’s only colony was established at the turn or very end of the 8th
Century BC, traditionally in 706 BC. Both the introduction of a radical, new
constitution sanctioned explicitly by Delphi and the establishment of a colony
are attributed by ancient sources to internal unrest in Sparta.
Conventionally, these facts
are woven together as follows: Sparta invaded and conquered Messenia in the
late 8th Century, subjugating the local Messenian population. This
conquest was allegedly followed by a period of intense internal unrest that
led, first, to the founding of Sparta’s only colony, and second to the Lycurgan
reforms. The later, however, are usually seen as contemporary with Tyrataios
and were, therefore, implemented during a second period of conflict with
Messenia, usually described as “the Second” Messenian war. If one presumes that
Sparta won the initial conflict with Messenia, this can only be explained by a
revolt of some kind. So the allegedly brutally oppressed Messenians were within just two generations capable of financing hoards of hoplites and
fielding entire hoplite armies.
This taxes my imagination.
Periods of intense domestic unrest rarely follow victorious wars – particularly not wars of conquest that have
greatly increased the wealth of a state. Likewise, slave revolts do not involve
pitched battles between hoplite armies and don’t take two decades to defeat.
The history of modern
revolutions shows that revolutions most commonly occur during economic crises
or after military defeats. Classical revolution theory says that revolutions
occur when a period of rising living standards and expectations ends abruptly
in a crisis that threatens recent gains.
If we apply this to the Spartan revolution we get some interesting
hypotheses – that square remarkably well with the (scanty) historical record.
following a period of growing prosperity, productivity and population, Sparta’s
kings/leadership decided to conquer neighboring Messenia, invaded – and then
got bogged down in a terrible war that they failed to win? What if, to
obtain/retain support, Sparta’s kings and aristocratic elite promised the
poorer and lower classes land in Messenia? What if they then couldn’t deliver
on that promise? What if, as the war
dragged on, casualties mounted, and popular support for a lost war waned? What
if, the Messenians became increasingly successful and aggressive, bringing the
war to Laconia?
Such a situation would have
produced all the features of mid-seventh century Sparta that we know existed: the
domestic unrest, the calls for a redistribution of land, impetus for the
founding of an external colony, and finally readiness to accept a new,
revolutionary constitution and lifestyle – as well as the continuing conflict
with organized, well-armed Messenian forces.
Furthermore, if Sparta lost the First Messenian War (at least
in the sense that it did not obtain its objectives) and it took three
generations to subdue the Messenians, then we have a better explanation of why
Sparta became a militarized society. Only sustained conflict and perpetual
threat could force a society to adapt a system of government that is so
singularly focused on ensuring military preparedness at all times.
The paranoid excesses of late
classical Sparta (krypteia, mass executions, etc.) followed the Helot Revolt of
465, but they probably took the disproportionate form they did because there was
still popular memory of the first lost war. A first lost war that traumatized
Sparta would explain why Sparta responded with unparalleled harshness toward
the rebellious Messenians two hundred years later. We need only consider how
memories of past wars still shape, for example, British-Irish, or Russian-Polish
relations today. I believe it was more likely the trauma of a lost war than an
unbroken series of victories by an invincible army sparked the revolution that made Sparta the unique society it was.
Sparta – What Homer’s Helen tells us about Sparta
Raphael Sealey in his study Women
and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: 1990) makes a strong case that
the marriage customs and status of women as portrayed in the works of Homer are
incompatible with customs in classical Athens. He argues that: “The Athenian
and Homeric concepts of marriage are so markedly different that one cannot have
developed from the other.” (p. 126)
Sealey furthermore argues that the depiction of Helen in both Iliad and Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of the Athenian
theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her
“dear child,” while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy
and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen. In the Odyssey, Helen is depicted in Sparta apparently
enjoying the respect of the entire population and providing wise advice to her
husband. It is striking that such a
portrayal of Helen is consistent with Spartan tradition, where Helen was
honored alongside Menelaos, temples were built to her and an annual holiday was
celebrated in her honor.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the Helen portrayed by Homer
in the Odyssey is that she, like
Gorgo, is shown to be cleverer than her men! She is the first to recognize
Telemachos (Odyssey 4:138:32), and it is Helen who deciphers the significance
of an eagle carrying a goose (Odyssey
This begs the question if Homeric traditions with respect to women
had a stronger influence on Sparta, particularly Archaic and pre-revolutionary
Sparta, than they did on Athens. Is it possible that Doric traditions generally
owed more to the world described in the works of Homer than did Ionian
traditions? Admittedly, we do not know
just what society the Iliad and Odyssey actually describe and many argue that
the world of Homer, like Homer himself, are completely fictional. Yet repeatedly, archeological evidence has
come to light that verifies elements of the great epics previously dismissed as
“fiction” (e.g. helmets with boars tusks).
We know that women in Sparta enjoyed exceptional freedom and
status compared, particularly, to women in Athens. While this difference is
traditionally attributed to the laws of Lycurgus, it is unreasonable to presume
that something as fundamental as attitudes toward women would change
abruptly. It is far more likely that
women in Sparta already enjoyed higher status and that the revolution in Sparta
that followed the First Messenian War only codified, institutionalized and developed
to new levels pre-existing tendencies. The fact that Cretan women, Achaian
women and women in Gortyn also had notably more freedom and status than women
in classical Athens is further evidence that there was a wider, pre-classical
tradition which contrasted sharply to the misogynous practices and laws of classical
It would be interesting to know if Doric traditions differed
markedly to Ionic traditions in other spheres as well – and equally intriguing
to investigate to what extent (if any) Ionic traditions were influenced by
Asiatic customs. Is it possible that Athenian misogyny had more to do with the
influence of the East – of Babylon and Persia – than with the roots of Greek
civilization? Was Sparta’s comparatively greater respect for women perhaps more
“Greek”? If so, was Sparta's entire society and ethos closer to its "Greek" roots than those of Athens?
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
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.
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.
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
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 India, these
Indo-Europeans created caste societies of soldiers, workers, tradesmen,
priests, royalty and aristocracy.
There is a continuation of Indo-European life and
practice from the Doric Greeks of Crete and Sparta,
thru Rome, to
Christendom. “Christendom was all but conterminous with the 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 Sparta’s
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.
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 Rome 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:
“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 Rome, to Christendom.
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
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)
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
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.
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.†
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
* 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.
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:
Charles Norris (1940) Christianity and
Classical Culture, A Study of Thought and Action From Augustus to Augustine.
NY: OxfordUniversity Press: 1980 University Press
Inge, W. R.
(1924) Religion. In R. W. Livingstone, (Ed.) The Legacy of Greece,
Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
Erik von (1993) Liberty or Equality.
Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press.
Tomaž (2002) Crusading Peace:
Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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
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
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
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:
Chilon plays a minor -- but important -- role in my novel: The Olympic Charioteer.
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,