Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spartan Hegemony

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spartan Fraternities and Spartan Families

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

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

The dramatic decline in the Spartiate population between Thermopylae (480 BC) and Leuktra (371) has often been cited as the cause of Sparta’s political decline as well. At Thermopylae, a full call-up of all citizens over the age of 20 and under the age of 55, enabled Sparta to field an army of 6,000 citizens (Spartiates) – not counting perioikoi or helots. Yet at Leuktra, when again there was a full call-up of 35 age cohorts, the Spartan army consisted of only 700 citizens.
This dramatic decline in manpower was not only a serious disadvantage on the battlefield, where Sparta’s enemies could deploy (as they did at Leuktra) forces 50 deep to Sparta’s 12-man-deep line, it was also a disadvantage in economics and politics.  Because, evidently, the subject population of perioikoi and helots was not declining at the same rate, a shrinking ruling class of Spartiates was trying to dominate an ever larger body of disenfranchised inhabitants. Like apartheid or feudalism, regimes dominated by too tiny elites generally collapse sooner or later. This is the reason Sparta’s population decline has long been a focus of scholars.

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

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

The Great Earthquake of 464, on the other hand, is an event which allegedly took 20,000 lives in Sparta alone, and its role in Sparta’s decline needs to be re-examined. The accounts of the earthquake are nothing if not dramatic. Pliny claims only five houses were left standing, and there are less credible tales of youths surviving because they ran out of a gymnasium to chase a hare, while the army was saved by being marched out in time. While the details may be hard to credit, I think it is safe to say the earthquake was catastrophic without, notably, impacting the strength of the army. 

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

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

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

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

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

 
(1)    K.M.T. Chimes, Ancient Sparta: A Re-Examinaton of the Evidence, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1952.
(2)    Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta, The Classical Press of Wales, London, 2000.
(3)    Thomas Figueira, “Population Patterns in Late Archaic and Classical Sparta,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 116 (1986), pp.165-213.
 
 


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spartan Thieves

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

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spartan Mothers and Sparta's Military Ethos

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

These sayings are all too commonly taken at face value, despite serious grounds to doubt their authenticity.  First and foremost, with the exception of the quotes attributed to Gyrtias and Damatria respectively, almost all these sayings are anonymous.  “Anonymous” has been the author of most slander in the history of mankind, and while “anonymous” clearly does have an author and a real identity, he/she is very rarely who he/she purports to be.

Second, except for the quote attributed to Gyrtias, all are vague and generic, with nothing to suggest the date and context. Thus nothing about them requires an intimate knowledge of Spartan society or personalities. Yet the sayings undoubtedly convey an unattractive, not to say alienating, image of Sparta.

After all, what could be more alienating and repulsive than a mother so unnatural that she wants her son to die? The love of a mother for her child is one of the most primeval feelings in the world, a love that mankind has long acknowledged and cherished. Ancient Greek literature sets the standard. Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is understandable not because he brings Cassandra into her home, but because she is revenging the murder of Iphigenia. Medea remains a repulsive barbarian because she is willing to kill her children out of jealousy. The quoted sayings "of Spartan women" are clearly intended to make Spartan women sound like barbarians, like unnatural, unfeminine creatures, who deserve no sympathy even in their adversity.

Furthermore, all the sayings are predicated on cowardice on the part of young Spartan men.  So, allegedly, while the women were upholding Sparta’s post-Thermopylae ethos of victory or death, the young men were deserting in droves having failed to absorb the proper ethos despite their allegedly harsh upbringing.  Based on these sayings, Sparta was populated by cowardly men, a situation that seems hard to square with the historical record – even if we admit that Spartans were probably no braver than most other Greeks.

Keeping in mind that slogans and apocryphal stories often evolve to counter sentiments that those in power find dangerous, one could hypothesize that these sayings were developed as examples of the “good old days” and were supposed to depict model behavior.  Maybe they were intended to inspire young men and women, who the older generation did not think were living up to the ideals of their own youth. But it seems odd that, if the Spartan elders wanted to motivate the younger generation to behave more like their ancestors, they did not put the slogans into the mouths of historical figures rather than anonymous ones. Surely it would have been more effective to give the women and their sons names? Wouldn’t, for example, the story of the young man killed by his mother after reporting “all the men are dead” have been more effective and intimidating if it had been attributed to the mother of one of the two survivors of Thermopylae?

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

The greatest pity is that most modern readers take them a face value and imagine Spartan women as unfeeling beasts – curiously without likewise adopting the image of cowardly Spartan men.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 300 and Sparta's Military Ethos

One of the most common misperceptions about Sparta today is that the Spartan army had a tradition of “do or die,” that is, that it was against Sparta's laws to retreat. This myth has its roots in Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae, and the most important piece of evidence is the memorial that the Spartans themselves erected at Thermopylae after the Persians had been driven out of Greece. This famous monument had a dedication that in one common translation ran: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, in obedience to the laws, we lie.”

This simple epitaph is widely interpreted to mean that the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae had no option of retreating. Allegedly, these men lay buried in the Pass at Thermopylae, so far from home, because Sparta’s “laws” forbade retreat or surrender regardless of the odds or the certainty of death.

But as I have pointed out elsewhere, Spartan forces both retreated and surrendered in a variety of other engagements over the centuries (e.g. Hysiai, Sphakteria). The Spartans didn’t seem to think there was a “law” against retreat even under far less threatening and less hopeless situations than that presented to Leonidas at Thermopylae. Are we to believe Leonidas and his 300 were the only Spartans who lived and died by Sparta’s laws? Or could there be another explanation of the epitaph?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the fact that there were, according to Herodotus, in fact three separate monuments erected to commemorate the men who fought at Thermopylae. First, there was a collective monument which read: Four thousand here from Pelops’ land, Against a million once did stand. This clearly referred to the other Peloponnesian allies that fought with the Spartans at Thermopylae on the first two days. (The Thespians appear to have erected their monument only at home, or a separate monument to the Thespians had disappeared by the time Herodotus visited the site of the battle.) Second there was the monument referred to above, and third there was “a stone lion in memory of Leonidas.”

In short, there were two Spartan monuments: the one to Leonidas and the one to the other Spartiates. If we separate the two, then we see the glimmer of an answer because it suggests that the “law” that the 300 obeyed may not have applied to Leonidas at all.

Leonidas had an option. Leonidas could have decided to pull-out of the Pass as soon as it became indefensible. Leonidas would not have broken any “law” if he had done so, because there was no law that required Spartans to fight until death rather than retreat or surrender.

But there was a law that required obedience to Sparta’s kings as long as they were beyond the borders of Lacedaemon in command of Sparta’s army. This law is documented and was widely respected.  Sparta’s kings could be charged, tried and exiled once they were at home, but not during war, not while campaigning abroad. As long as they were commanding the army in a military engagement outside Lacedaemon, their troops were bound to obey them, and for the most part did. 

What this means is that once Leonidas decided to stay and die – as he no doubt believed was his destiny based on the oracle from Delphi – his body guard had no option but to stay with him. There is anecdotal evidence recorded by Plutarch that Leonidas tried to save some of his companions by asking them to deliver dispatches, but the “older men” saw through him and refused. This is consistent with a king determined to face his destiny, but distressed by the knowledge that his decision will drag three hundred of Sparta’s finest with him.

The erection of two separate monuments and the epitaph makes sense in this context as well. Leonidas was the lion, who decided to go down fighting defiantly rather than live to fight a another day. After he had made that courageous decision, however, his bodyguard had no choice and for them, therefore, they lay buried in a foreign pass not as particular heroes but simply “in obedience to the laws.” 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sparta Lost and Found

Unlike Athens, that remained inhabited from the archaic period to the present day without interruption, Sparta was not only defeated and humiliated, it was destroyed by earthquakes, flooding and ultimately abandoned. When the Franks and the Ottomans came, there was not even a village to mark the site of Ancient Sparta.
 
Equally devastating was the lack of a Spartan literary tradition. A society that placed value on silence and brevity did not produce historians or play writes, and while Spartan philosophers were admired throughout the rest of the ancient world, they preferred an oral to a written tradition.
 
The combination of these factors, a lack of a written record, the dispersal of any inhabitants that might have kept an oral tradition alive and the physical destruction of the city, left subsequent generations with an image of Sparta that derives entirely from the accounts of outsiders. Many commentators on Sparta, even in ancient times, had never been there – or at most visited briefly. Some, like Xenophon, knew Sparta relatively well, but remained fundamentally Athenian. Trying to understand Sparta on the basis of the accounts of Athenians and Romans is like trying to understand Africa from the reports of Victorian explorers.  It won’t get you very far.
Our images of Sparta, the city, are dominated to this day by what we have been told about Sparta and Spartans by these visitors from a different culture. Even someone who has never studied Sparta or read a single book about it has images of Sparta that have been transmitted through our language alone.  “Spartan” is an adjective used to denote “severe,” “plain,” and “austere.” Laconic speech is “terse,” “concise” and “economical.” The most rudimentary and fleeting brush with Sparta in literature will not be without reference to rigid discipline, disdain for luxury, self-sacrifice and endurance of hardship.
The more a novice looks into Spartan society, the quicker he/she is confronted by references to a childhood of deprivation in which one had to steal to get enough to eat and was allowed only one garment per year. The boys, we learn, had to cut down the river reeds with their bare hands or the help of a tool which is dismissed as practically worthless, and then sleep upon these instead of real beds. Worse, they had to live practically in the wild, exposed to the elements without shelter or proper clothes.  Books like Gates of Fire describe horrendous beatings to which Spartan boys were apparently subjected for any tiny infraction of the rigid rules of acceptable behavior.
Nor are youths the only Spartans whom, we are led to believe, suffered deprivation. This was a society, according to most sources, where women were prohibited from wearing jewelry or even taking pride in their weaving. Indeed, all gold and silver was banned, and so could adorn nothing - not even the temples of the Gods.  The houses, we are told, were not painted (as else where in the Ancient world), and if one believes the oft quoted “sayings of Spartan kings” they did not even hew their house beams into regular square posts, but left them raw and untreated – one imagines crude timber as in a log cabin. Meanwhile, the young men lived in barracks (notoriously grim places in any society!) and for their entire lives ate their meals at men’s clubs where the cuisine, we soon learn, was infamous throughout the ancient world for its lack of sophistication and variety.
Such a society is most readily imagined in an austere, plain, indeed barren, landscape.  After all, a society characterized by deprivation of food, clothes, decoration and fine cuisine sounds like a desperately poor society, a society barely surviving in a hostile environment, a society which has made a virtue out of necessity. It is logical to assume that the underlying – if unspoken – root cause of Sparta’s obsession with self-discipline and self-denial for the good of the community, the City, was a fundamental lack of resources that required such a rigid regime.
 
This assumption is reflected in modern literature about Sparta. In his best-selling novel Gates of Fire Stephen Pressfield calls Sparta “a village” adding: “The whole stinking place would fit, with room to spare, within His Majesty’s [Xerxes of Persia’s] strolling garden at Persepolis. It is … a pile of stones. It contains no temples or treasures of note, no gold; it is a barnyard of leeks and onions, with soil so thin a man may kick through it with one strike of the foot.”[i]
But there is a problem here.
If you drive down the modern road from Tripoli (or Tegea as I prefer to think of it) toward Sparti (Sparta) there is a moment when coming around a bend you catch the first glimpse of Taygetos. I will never forget the first time I encountered that view: it took my breath away.  I could hardly concentrate on the winding road for straining to get another glimpse of those spectacular, snow-capped mountains. And when the valley of the Eurotas was spread out before me it was like revelation. My image of Sparta – Ancient Sparta and all that Sparta implied – was transformed in a single instant.
The valley of the Eurotas is anything but barren! It is quite the reverse. It is green and fertile and stunningly beautiful - like riches cupped in the hands of the gods. From the blooming oleander to the wild iris, the valley is a garden. The orange orchards stretch as far as the eye can see, brazenly advertising not only the abundance of soil and sun but water as well. Most spectacular of all, the Eurotas valley is one of those few places on earth that offers the sensually stimulating sight of palm trees waving against a back-drop of snow-capped mountains.
Has Laconia perhaps changed dramatically in the last 2,500 years? Was it poor when the harsh, economical, self-disciplined Spartan society took root in its – then – sparse and almost barren soil?  Does it bloom now artificially because of modern fertilizers and irrigation?
If we are to believe the ancient historians, no. Herodotus speaks of Sparta’s “good soil”[ii] or Thucydides describes the entire Peloponnese (with the exception of Arcadia) as the “richest part of Hellas.”[iii] It is when speaking of Athens, that Thucydides draws attention to “the poverty of her soil.”[iv]
So the fertility and abundance of the valley has not changed since Ancient times any more than the shape of Taygetos beyond. But if this rich valley was the seat of Sparta, then Spartan austerity and deprivation did not come from necessity! Sparta’s land was rich, fertile and productive enough to enable the highest standard of living available in the ancient world – at least to the always modest number of elite Spartiates. In short, if Sparta was as austere a society as it is depicted in modern times, then that austerity was self-imposed.
But is it reasonable to imagine that a people raised in the midst of wealth and beauty had no appreciation for either? Or is the very austerity of Spartan society as mythical as the thin soil of Pressfield’s Sparta?
 
Maybe our images of a rigid, harsh and brutally disciplined society is also a distortion? A fractured image? A misunderstanding based on ignorant, or prejudiced foreign reporting? Imagine what American society looks like through the eyes of the Taliban!
 
It's because I firmly believe that modern images of Sparta a largely based on inadequate, hostile and sometimes purely fanciful source material that I have dedicated this blog and my website “Sparta Reconsidered” to questioning common assumptions and misconceptions about Sparta.

[i] Pressfield, p. 188
[ii] Herodotus, Book I.66, p.26.
[iii] Thucydides, Book I.2, p.36.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Nicastro, p. 67
[vi] Pausanias, III.10. p. 37.