Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Marines! - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

Sparta was elected to lead the coalition of Greek cities opposing the Persian invasion in 480 BC not only on land but also at sea. Compared to Athens and Corinth, Sparta’s navy was small, but Sparta’s naval tradition was considerably longer than numbers suggest, and Sparta’s perioikoi marines may have enjoyed a strong reputation for competence since they often fought alongside the Spartans.  

Fighting as a marine, however, was a very different skill from fighting in a phalax on land. In the following excerpt from “A Peerless Peer” I describe a completely fictional naval engagement in which Leonidas commands a mixed Spartiate and perioikoi force that is providing marines for a Corinthian fleet bringing grain from the Black Sea. The point of the episode is to remind readers of Corinth’s dependence on imported food, to highlight the fierce fight for the Aegean Sea during the Ionian revolt, and give the reader insight into what such naval actions might look like.

Specifically in this scene, Leonidas and his marines are trying to protect six ships that have been damaged in a storm and are now lashed together like a large float to enable the strong ships to drag the precious cargoes of the disabled ships to port. They are attacked by a squadron of Phoenician triremes under Persian command and manned by Persian marines.

Despite the unusual circumstances, thanks to a lifetime of keeping contact with their rank-mates and endless drill in adjusting their own movements to those of the men left and right, the Spartiates crossed onto the other ship in a line without serious gaps. That proved to be enough. When the Persian archers realized that the wall of bronze was moving toward them, they broke and ran. Only the fastest made it. Anyone who slipped and fell on the bloody deck or tripped over rigging and scattered weapons was stabbed mercilessly by the “lizard stickers” of the Spartan spears.

When the line of bronze shields and scarlet cloaks appeared along the side of the ship, the Phoenician captain shouted furiously and the trireme backwatered wildly, pulling itself free of its victim. As it withdrew, the Corinthian merchantman settled into the water and started to list noticeably. Leonidas turned and led his men up the incline, to get back to the fight that was taking place at the far side of the float.

By the time they were back aboard the “Golden Dawn,” the enemy was pouring over the railing on the far side. There were bodies strewn across the deck of the far ship—Greek bodies for the most part. Arrows were pouring down on them again. It flashed through Leonidas’ mind that he might die right here, along with every Lacedaemonian under his command. He could clearly expect no help from the two Corinthian triremes, which were both fully engaged. The sailors were proving surprisingly poor soldiers—something he hadn’t expected, since they were defending their own ships and lives and had nowhere to escape. But there was no point thinking about it.

He called a halt to dress their lines. They were two men short—the man with the eye wound and someone else. No time to identify the casualties. At least they were on a level deck now and they could advance across it at a steady pace, drawing on their discipline and training.

The second Phoenician hadn’t rammed, but had come alongside. The enemy troops poured over the gunnel along the whole length of the ship. Fortunately, they were the same poorly armed and unarmored men, and were just as undisciplined as their countrymen. Oddly, there seemed to be more of them, and the hindmost men were stabbing the men ahead of them in their backs! They were Greek marines!

At last Leonidas’ brain registered that there was another ship beyond the Phoenician trireme—the Corinthian freighter “Orcelle”!

The fool! But at the same moment, Leonidas felt such a rush of gratitude for the crippled Corinthian [captain commanding her] that it was as if he’d just been reinforced by the Guard. He increased the pace. Step and thrust, step and thrust. The enemy was going down before them with very little chance of defending themselves. The trick was to ignore the arrows, Leonidas decided. Raising his spear arm for the thrust, the man beside Leonidas took an arrow in the armpit and crumpled to the deck with a croaked-off wail. The man behind closed the rank with Leonidas without missing a beat. Step and thrust. They had cleared the deck of the “Golden Dawn.”

Ahead was a confused melee of sailors and an exceptionally large number of marines from the “Orcelle,” mixed with enemy archers and enemy marines. The sun broke over the horizon, and for the first time Leonidas could see that the Persians wore clothes of yellow and purple in bizarre stripes and chains of diamonds. It was the gaudiest sight he had ever seen in his life—all liberally splashed with red. And just beyond, the sun glistened blissfully on a calm and enchanting seascape.

By the time Leonidas made it aboard the Phoenician trireme, he realized that the Greek sailors had gained full possession of her after slaughtering the Phoenician crew. They cheered him and his marines as they crossed the trireme, heading for the “Orcelle.” Lychos was hanging over the side of his ship, clutching the rail. He was dressed in full panoply, and Leonidas knew that it must have half killed him just to put it on.

Leonidas shoved his helmet back and grinned up at the Corinthian from the deck of the captive trireme. “You stupid fool!”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Lychos grinned back at him. “I think the Phoenician captain died of pure astonishment when he realized a freighter was attacking him!”

“I sympathize!”

“It helped that my marines are first-class archers and sent him to Hades with an arrow in his throat.”

Leonidas threw back his head and laughed, then thought to ask, “Just how many marines do you have on board?”

“A lot. My father still won’t let me go anywhere without all the protection he can buy.”

“He’ll wring the marine captain’s neck when he finds out what you did!”

“But it was so beautiful, Leonidas! It was the most beautiful moment of my whole life—coming to your rescue.”

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Spartan Dress and Fashion

Spartan dress and decoration differed from that of the rest of the Greek world sufficiently to provoke comment among ancient observers.  At the same time, Spartan dress remained essentially Hellenic.  The Spartans did not wear clothing fundamentally different from other Greeks, they were simply more conservative in the adoption of new styles, meaning that they retained archaic fashions, such as the peplos and long hair for men, long after Greeks from other cities had adopted new fashions.  When one considers the fact that new fashions were introduced primarily from Persia and Macedonia, than it is fair to say that Spartan dress was more purely “Greek” or “Doric” than the fashions of Athens.

The most obvious example of the conservative character of Spartan dress was the preference of Spartan women for the old-fashioned peplos, even after Greek women elsewhere had adopted the long chiton.  The peplos is the robe worn by almost all archaic kore, and these archeological models refute modern allegations that Spartan women went around in short skirts like Amazons. The ancient complaint that Spartan women were “thigh-throwers” did not refer to skirts or chitons so short they revealed a woman’s thigh, but rather to the fact that a woman wearing a peplos was very restricted in her movements – unless the side seam was opened to above the knee. Thus, while Athenian women in their looser cut long chitons could walk vigorously without revealing their legs, their Spartan sisters always showed some leg when they walked.  The characteristic Spartan bronzes that show a girl in a short skirt running or dancing do not depict mature Spartan women but rather girls; the most likely interpretation is that they depict girls in the agoge, and as such girls before puberty. 

Another typical Spartan fashion that dated back to at least the archaic age was for men to wear their hair long. However, modern depictions of Spartans as shaggy, unkempt men with scrawny, chest-long beards and wild, tangled hair hanging to their shoulders (alà Richard Hook’s illustrations in Osprey’s The Spartan Army) are not supported by ancient sources. A statue fragment found in the heart of Sparta and dating from the early fifth century (commonly – or affectionately – referred to as Leonidas) shows a man with a clipped beard and neat hair. Earlier archaic artwork unanimously shows men with short beards and long, but very neat, “locks” of hair. (Consider, for example, the hoplites on the magnificent frieze of the Siphnian Treasure at Delphi dating from Leonidas’ lifetime, the Krater of Vix and other figures of known Laconian origin displayed now in the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin or pictured in Conrad Stibbe’s Das Andere Sparta.) 

Likewise, I reject emphatically descriptions such as those of Otto Lendle, who describes Spartans as stinking, filthy and slovenly. These images likewise contradict the historical record and existing archeological evidence. Herodotus makes a great point of how the Spartans groomed themselves before Thermopylae, for example, and no one would be tempted to stress the beauty of Spartans  -- as Plutarch explicitly does -- if they had been repugnant for their lack of grooming and cleaning. Plutarch also claims Spartan men took particular care of their hair especially in the face of danger, and refers to an alleged quote from Lycurgus that long hair was preferred because it rendered a handsome man better looking, and an ugly one more frightening.  

The later quote suggests, of course, that while a handsome man might have groomed his hair assiduously, an ugly man might have consciously ratted his, but this hardly makes sense if one considers the need for a man to wear a helmet, as all Spartans did until they had reached the age of 61.  It is more likely to refer to the fact that hair braided back from the forehead tends to give the face greater prominence than a crown of curls such as other Greeks wore in the classical period.  Thus, while both a handsome and an ugly Spartan wore their hair neatly braided from the forehead, the effect was to highlight the good features of the former and the bad features of the latter. I would note further, that anyone familiar with African hair braiding knows that a great deal of variety, and so different effects, can be achieved without breaking the fundamental concept of long hair, neatly braided from the forehead. I like to imagine that Spartan dandies shocked and irritated their conservative elders by obeying the letter of the law (long, neatly groomed hair) while nevertheless developing individual styles.

I would also like to note that no ancient source claims that Spartan women did not adorn themselves.  On the contrary, in Euripides’ plays and Aristotle’s political commentary both, Spartan women are despised and castigated for being exceptionally vain, luxury loving and self-indulgent. Thus, while Spartan men are portrayed as (stupidly) restrained and austere, Spartan women are loathed for being even more fond of self-adornment than Athenian women, who are themselves viewed as excessively fond of cosmetics, perfumes and jewels.

This suggests that even if, as some argue, Spartan laws prohibited not only the use of gold and silver currency but also gold and silver objects d’art, Spartan women found other means of adorning themselves. One option would have been to make jewelry from other materials – ivory, copper, bronze, lapis lazuli, jade, amethyst coral, amber etc. etc.  In addition, the garments could have been decorated with bright colored embroidery or borders with beads of bronze, copper, ivory etc. Alternatively, the peplos themselves might have been made of brightly colored fabrics.  The most precious purple dye was produced from shells found in the Gulf of Laconia, after all, and Lacedaemon undoubtedly exported this dye and or fabric stained with it.  Other important dyes, such as indigo, were also produced in Lacedaemon. 

Anthropology, archeology and art history show us that there is almost nothing as universal as human vanity. Throughout history and throughout the world, men and women have been astonishingly inventive in developing ways to adorn themselves and make themselves appealing to one another.  Sparta, a society far closer to our own than many others the world has known, was certainly no exception.

The Sparta of my novels reflects the above reality rather than the artificial austerity of most modern writers. Read:

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Pleasures - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

An Athenian symposium was a very different place from a Spartan syssitia. Undoubtedly, many symposia were venues for philosophical discourse and political intrigue. Many more were simply orgies of excess in both sex and wine. A Spartan would have found himself a fish out of water in an Athenian symposium as Leonidas does here in this excerpt from “A Peerless Peer.”

An eruption of exclamations distracted them. In the doorway was a female figure completely swathed in a sober, dark gown and shrouded in heavy black shawls. She paused dramatically for a moment, then let these outer garments drop to reveal a sky-blue silk himation with red trim. On her arms were gold bracelets, while her throat was completely encased in the metal, and a gold tiara glittered against her black hair. Even her sandals appeared to be of gold—at least they glittered with gold decorations. As she stepped deeper into the room, she shed her himation, revealing a golden gauze gown so transparent that it revealed more than covered the body underneath. It was the kind of body to inflame any man’s loins: heavy on top, slender in the waist, and gently rounded at the belly and hips over long, graceful legs. She stood in the middle of the room, smiling from one man to the next, and they cheered and clapped and toasted her. “Incomparable Therapne!” “Aphrodite’s rival!” “Helen’s reincarnation!”

When her painted eyes fell on Leonidas, she stopped and cocked her head. Leonidas felt his pulse race. She walked straight toward him, and his mouth went dry. But then she reached out to stroke his head like a hound, and Leonidas instinctively pulled back sharply.

The room hooted in derision. Therapne silenced them with an imperative gesture of her hand as she addressed Leonidas. “You are no puppy, Spartan. What is your name?”


“And well it suits you! A lion among the pampered lap dogs.” She tossed the insult casually over her shoulder, and the others groaned or protested, but she ignored them. “May I join you?” She prepared to recline upon his couch.

Leonidas shook his head. “I don’t think that would be in your master’s interests.”

“Sorry?” She raised her well-traced eyebrows. 

“As I am a stranger, your owner will have no particular benefit from my friendship.” Leonidas was testing her. He was hoping she had chosen him for himself, but he was very wary of being used. He was also aware that sexual desire could be as enslaving and as humiliating as drunkenness.

“On the contrary: to a man intent on war, no ally could be of greater value than Sparta.”

It was not the answer he had hoped for but now that he knew she was only acting on the orders of her master, he found it easier to resist. “I am only a Spartan Peer.”

“Funny. I was told you were a Spartan prince, the brother of Cleomenes, whom my master would be most interested in befriending.”

“Then I am the last man you wish to please, for my brother heeds me not at all.”

“Why ever should he ignore such a splendid brother?” she teased, smiling at him intimately.

Leonidas laughed but retorted, “It is a long story. Do your master’s bidding with someone else.”

Several others at once started clamoring for her to come to them, and Therapne shrugged and turned to smile at them; but Kallixenos said for all to hear, “You are a fool or a coward, Leonidas. You could have enjoyed her first and then told her she was barking up the wrong tree. What true man turns away pleasure like that when it comes crawling to him!”

“What is the pleasure in being another man’s pawn?”

“Don’t be so puritanical! What pleasure is more basic or universal than sexual satisfaction?” Kallixenos challenged him.

“Satisfaction of the loins is animal, while the joys of love cannot be purchased.”

Kallixenos looked at him, uncomprehending; but Therapne spun around and, clapping her hands slowly, declared: “And the lion has claws! Well said, Leonidas!” She went toward him again, her hips swaying provocatively and her eyes fixed on him. “But tell me, if you scorn the pleasure I offer you, where do you take your pleasure? Have you a mistress to whom you have sworn fidelity? Or is there some boy who has turned your head?” Her lips curled in a sneer and her eyes fell contemptuously on the little boy, who sat naked on his lover’s couch, blushing bright red with natural shame.

“Mine is the pleasure of the sun breaking over Taygetos after a long, chilly night on watch; the pleasure of diving into the cool waters of the Eurotas after a morning in the dust and sweat of the drill fields; the taste of my helot’s apple tarts; or the sight of my dog, bursting with pride, when she brings me a stolen duck.”

Kallixenos broke out laughing. “You are going to give your countrymen a reputation for garrulousness with answers like that.”

Leonidas looked down, embarrassed and ashamed of himself. He had indeed said too much.

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Of Dining Clubs and 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 meals.  These clubs were viewed as one of the key features of Spartan society that distinguished it from all other Greek cities. Although it was common, popular and indeed considered a matter of pride for men (never women!) to dine together in Athens as well, 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. To the spoiled pallets of other Greeks -- most of whom would never have eaten at any a Spartan syssitia -- it was furthermore assumed that the fare offered at these dining clubs was dismal.

Aside from the debatable question of the quality and taste of food prepared by different cooks at different messes over centuries, these characteristics of Spartan dining clubs are well established. Yet 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 — and incidentally more successful at — undermining 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 Powell 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 the fact is most men 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, indulging themselves with prostitutes both male and female, before staggering home drunk. 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. Attempts to portray the syssitia as a component of a Totalitarian Spartan state’s systematic destruction of family and individual will reveal an alarming lack of objectivity. 

The Sparta of my novels reflects the above reality rather than the artificial austerity of most modern writers. Read:

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