Sunday, November 28, 2010

Expansion of Ancient Sparta

I’ve been reading a great book called Some Problems of Greek History by Arnold Toynbee, the well known English historian, which was published in 1969. Toynbee is best known for his The Study of History, a monumental work published in 1934 and 1939. This significant contribution to comparative history has been criticized for a variety of reasons mostly around his assumptions and use of questionable data. Still, A Study of History is worth reading because of its unique approach.

Some Problems of Greek History does not create controversy and is a rigorous review and dissection of all data known about parts of Greek history -- mostly Sparta. In my last post, I talked about the origins of Sparta and Lacedaemon. This time, we’ll review the expansion of Sparta geographically through the lower Peloponnese.

Sparta conquered Laconia and Messenia during the eighth century B.C, a date which Toynbee points out is more accurate than theoretical dates farther back which are unsupportable. Most notably, he asserts that the two Spartan royal families were extended backward by myth to Herakles, a connection that cannot be (and according Toynbee) should not be made. To him, the Dorian invasion and fall of Mycenae are not connected directly to the rise of the Lacedaemonians.

The first step in the expansion of Sparta was the conquest on Amyklai (eighth century timeframe unknown) and its incorporation into Sparta as an equal. This victory gained Sparta an influential ally and opened up southern Laconia to them. The Spartans then continued their southern expansion through Aigytis until they reached the coast, circa 720 B.C. I use that date because the Italian colony of Tarentum was founded by Sparta in the time period 708-702 B.C. and for Sparta to have sent colonists to Italy, she would have needed to control of a port for some period of time. That port was most likely Gythion, which we know was a Spartan naval base by 413 B.C.

While Sparta gave Perioecic status to the communities of the Mani peninsula down to Cape Tainaron, the lower Eurotos Valley was conquered and forced to choose between enslavement and deportation. This was the beginning of Helotry and the use of Messenian lands for agriculture.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Spartans as Lacedaemonians

The region of the Peloponnese which held the Spartan people was called Lacedaemon (now Laconia) and the Spartans were known as the Lacedaemonians from at least the fifth century B.C. By that time, Lacedaemon was used interchangeably with Sparta when referring to the political entity. What happened before that time?

In the Iliad, the land ruled by Menelaus is referred to as “a hollow” which is “scarred with ravines”, certainly an apt description of the Spartan lands as they look today. But if the setting of the Iliad was the Mycenaean Age, the residence of Menelaus would have been a castle. Where was it? Toynbee speculates that the original “Sparta” may have been at Therapne or Amyklai, nearby towns that date back to the Mycenaean time.

Sparta originally meant “sown land” and represented part of the cultivated area of the Eurotos Valley. Later, at some point, the land became the town when the Spartans relocated there. They may have called themselves Lacedaemonians from the time their territory encompassed more than one or two villages, but Spartans only when they needed to distinguish themselves from the Perioeci and the Messenians.

The city of Sparta consisted of four settlements: Pitane, Limnai, Kynosoura, and Messoa. The tombs of the Agiadai kings were located in Pitane, while the tombs of the Eurypontidai were located in Limnai. This suggests that the two royal houses originated from these towns and their combination occurred voluntarily. How Kynosaura and Messoa may have joined the Spartan community is obscure.

It appears that the foundation of Sparta must have occurred no earlier than the beginning of the ninth century B.C. because there is no evidence of Mycenaean or sub-Mycenaean culture there. The earliest that Spartan kings can be dated is through independent evidence is ~ 730 B.C. when Polydoros and Theopompos reigned. This was also the time of the First Messenian War, when Messenian names ceased to be listed among the winners at the Olympic Games.

Although we don’t know the origin of the Lacedaemonians, the Spartans and Messenians of the fifth century were speaking the same dialect of Northwest Greek as the Dorian invaders who attacked the entire Peloponnese and destroyed Mycenae. The fertile plain of Sparta and whatever wealth existed there as a result of the Mycenaean culture would have been attractive to the invaders sweeping down from the north. After the invasion, the newcomers combined with the natives to form what would become the Lacedaemonian people.
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Basileus as a Bridge Political Figure in Ancient Greece

Basileus is a strange word – hard to pronounce (Bas-sill-es) and difficult to define. It has an obscure origin, although the Mycenaeans used it as gwasileus. Many linguists consider it a non-Greek word adopted by Bronze Age Greeks from eastern Mediterranean origins. Although Basileus has had many definitions during the last three thousand years, it’s the one that was used during the Greek Dark Ages that we’ll focus on here.

After the fall of Mycenae in 1200 B.C, Greece sank into a period of decline commonly known as the Dark Ages, which lasted until approximately 800 B.C. During that time, Greece became separated from the Orient and collapsed into itself. Writing ceased as a sub-Mycenaean culture tried unsuccessfully to carry on what had come before. Most of what we know of the first half of the dark ages is told through items buried with the dead and remnants of pottery. The second half saw a reawakening of the Greek spirit and an evolving political system leading to the Polis as the ultimate end point.

With the death of the Mycenaean kings, the notion of hereditary royalty was erased. In its place rose the Basileus as a new kind of leader. He could never be a king because the king’s powers had been dispersed among the people. Priests served the role as spiritual advisors and the common people organized themselves in assemblies to handle local administration. The Basileus was left with (or took) the role of war leader and successor to the war leaders of the invaders from the north who combined with elements of local government. He was only able to dominate a small area – a single village and its environs because he did not possess the power to control more. Consequently, his war leading ability was confined to raids on other villages.

The Basileis were not wealthy and lived by agriculture – on their own land and the land assigned to them by the community. Their possessions were mainly treasures, food, and metals as described in the Iliad. They did not have a higher standing than their fellow tribesmen economically, politically, or by their customs which basically mirrored those of the wealthy. The reputation of any one of them depended on their own prowess -- the ability to be a military leader. Some locales had more than one Basileus working together as in Elis as described in the Odyssey.

The Basileus was absolutely fundamental to the development of the Polis because without him there would have been no unified structure to serve as its foundation. In the late dark age period, the Greeks could have gone in either of two directions politically: strengthen collective action through a complex political organization or move toward personal leadership. There is evidence that the latter was attempted; that the Basileus became more powerful for a time. But that path was a dead end and he was eventually replaced by an administrator type – like the Archons of Athens. He lacked the historical requirements for personal leadership – wealth, a significant following among the people, and precedent. Ultimately, the people were unwilling to cede power to the Basileus and turn him into a king. They kept the power for themselves and elected administrators who they felt they could control.
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