If you’ve seen the movie “300”, you’re familiar with the dispute at the beginning regarding the Carneia. In the year 480 B.C, Leonidas, King of Sparta, decided to take the Spartan Army north to block a Persian invasion of Greece, but his plan was vetoed by the Ephors who demanded that he “Honor the Carneia”.
What really happened and why was this festival so important to the Spartan race?
The script in the movie was over dramatized based on my reading of Herodotus, who states that a small Spartan force was purposely sent north to reconnoiter the Persians and provide psychological support for the Greek allies, whose resolve was wavering. The Spartans, from the beginning, intended to send the rest of their army as soon as the festival was over. Unmentioned was the fact that the allies were also constrained from sending full armies because the Olympic Games were going on at the same time.
Herodotus states that Greeks did not anticipate the rapid onset of hostilities or they would have waited before sending anyone. When the real danger became apparent to Leonidas and his associates, they convened a war council. Those from the Peloponnese (except the Spartans) proposed an orderly retreat. This idea was opposed by the Phocians and Locrians who feared their homeland would be overrun by the approaching enemy. Leonidas decided that the Spartans would stay, but he also sent out a request for reinforcements.
The Carneia was an ancient Doric festival held to worship Apollo Carneios, the most highly revered god of the Peloponnese. It began on the seventh day of the month of Carneios (July/August) and lasted nine days. Few details about the festival survive, but it is known that nine tents were pitched near the city, inhabited by nine men who lived like soldiers. A priest conducted sacrifices with the help of five unmarried men from each Spartan tribe chosen as his ministers. Some of them were labeled staphylodromoi ("grape-cluster runners"). During the festival, they chased a man wearing a garland, and, if they caught him, it meant good luck for the coming harvest.
The Spartans actually had nine festivals each year and no wars could be fought during any of them. The Carneia was the most important of the nine.