Sunday, May 31, 2009

History of Sparta – The Myth

According to Spartan myth, Taugete bore Lacedaimon who wed Sparta. Sparta was a daughter of Eurotas by Cleta. These two provided the names for the region, Sparta for the capital and Lacedaemon for the region. The son of Sparta and Lacedaemon, Amyclas, founded Amyclae, a town near Sparta. Diomede married Amyclas and they had several children. Their son Argulas ruled Sparta for a short while but since he died before his mother, his brother Cynortas ruled after him. Cynortas was the father of Oebalus. Oebalus married Gorgophone. When Oebalus died his son, Tyndareus, was scheduled to rule Sparta but his half-brother Hippocoon ursurped power. But he offended Herakles and perished with his ten sons when later attacked by Herakles and Tyndereus. In exile in Atolia at the palace of Thestius, Tyndereus met Leda and fell in love with her.

Leda was seduced by Zeus disguised as a swan and laid two eggs. Out of one came Helen and Pollux: out of the other Castor and Clytemnestra. When Thyestes seized control in Mycenae, two exiled princes, Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus came to Sparta, where they were received as guests and lived for a number of years.

Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world, and when it was time for her to marry, many Greek kings and princes came to seek her hand or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. Among the contenders were Odysseus, Ajax the great, Diomedes, Achilles, Patroclus, Idomeneus, and both Menelaus and Agamemnon. All but Odysseus brought many and rich gifts with them. Helen's favourite was Menelaus who, according to some sources, did not come in person but was represented by his brother Agamemnon, who chose to support his brother's case, and himself married Helen's sister Clytemnestra.

Tyndareus would accept none of the gifts, nor would he send any of the suitors away for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus promised to solve the problem in a satisfactory manner if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with the chosen one. This stratagem succeeded and Helen and Menelaus were married. Eventually, Tyndareus resigned in favor of his son-in-law and Menelaus became king of Sparta.

Some years later, Paris, a Trojan prince came to Sparta to marry Helen, whom he had been promised by Aphrodite. Helen left with him--either willingly because she had fallen in love with him, or because he kidnapped her, depending on the source--leaving behind Menelaus and Hermione, their nine-year-old daughter. Menelaus attempted to retrieve Helen by calling on all her former suitors to fulfil their oaths, leading to the Trojan War and her eventual return to Sparta.

Later, Hermione married Orestes, son of Agamemnon. Clytemnestra had Agamemnon murdered after his return from Troy and Orestes avenged his father’s death by having his mother murdered eight years later. Hermione’s son Tisamenus ruled Sparta until the Heraclidae invaded the Peloponnesus. The Heraclidae were the grandsons of Herakles. They claimed the Peloponesus because of descent from Alcmena, the mother of Herakles and daughter of a Mycenaean king. As a result of their victory they divided up the Peloponesus. Then the twin sons of Aristodemus, Eurysthenes and Procles jointly ruled and set up the lines of the historical kings of Sparta.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Spartan Character

As W.G. Forrest astutely points out in his book, The History of Sparta 950-192 B.C, the three great Spartan characteristics were equality, military fitness and efficiency, and austerity.

The 9,000 or so Spartiates were equals -- equal to each other and superior to all other men. They got there by passing through the Agoge: twenty three years of military training starting at age seven. The years before age twenty were brutal and made up of long and increasing difficult military training. Beaten by their elders, the young would train in teams with a watchful eye of an elder looking to identify the best of them. Then from age twenty to thirty the victims became the punishers, as they achieved senior cadet status. They learned to read and write; to sing and dance, but all of this was window dressing around the fine tuning their ability to fight. Everywhere there was rivalry -- boy against boy within a team, and team against team. Admission to the sussition (mess) was the end point, but not without a unanimous vote in favor – a single no vote and a man became an outcast.

After graduation, the soldier could marry, but still he ate the evening meal with his 288 man Lochos. Each soldier took his turn finding food for the meal which usually featured the Spartan “black” broth, made of pig’s blood, pork, and vinegar. No Spartan soldier worked; work was for the helots. The soldiers needed only to train, socialize with their peers, and go to war. It was agreed that war was a relief from having to train, and much easier.

Aristotle was critical of the Spartan system, saying, “The Spartans turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of a city’s life, end up making them inferior to even that”. True enough, but Aristotle was looking through the lens of his own time rather than the past when an army was the foundation of the polis. It’s interesting that the Spartans built their political system when the military was most important to the state, but then never evolved because their system was so stable.

And austerity – in spades! Spartan youth were allotted one cloak per year and slept on a bed of rushes gathered from the riverbank. All had to find their own food or steal it, whatever was required. And no alcohol -- only the helots could drink, so they could set an example of bad behavior.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Units of the Spartan Army

The chart below shows a breakdown of the units in the Spartan Army. The total size of the army changed from time to time but the example below is a typical representation.

The smallest unit (Enomotia) had 36 men who could be formed into three files (columns) of a rank of twelve men (rows). A Pentecostys made a unit of twelve by twelve. A typical battle unit, the Mora, could made up a Phalanx of twenty four hoplites across and forty eight hoplites deep.

By carrying the command structure down to the level of 36 men, the Spartans could react quickly to changing battle requirements. When tactics required a sudden reversal of position, the commanders could react immediately rather than waiting for instructions from above.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Peloponnesian Wall across the Isthmus of Corinth

Immediately upon hearing of the defeat at Thermopylae, Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies began building a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth. The first step was to block the Scironian Way, an important road connecting Megara to Corinth. Then the wall itself was started – 3.6 miles long. Herodotus tells us the wall was mostly complete as the Battle of Salamis approached.

The Greek commander, Themistocles, concerned that the Peloponnesian Navy would not fight, removed their chance of escape by conning the Persians. He sent a false message to the Persian commander declaring that he was disloyal and letting them know that the Greek Navy was about to withdraw. He suggested that if the Persians attacked quickly they could destroy the Greeks. The Persians believed the story and immediately sent their fleet into the Saronic Sea near Athens. The Spartans, trapped by the blockade, were forced to fight along side the rest of the Greek Navy. The result was a great victory and the end of the Persian advance into Southern Greece.

After the Battle of Salamis, the Athenians came to Sparta to ask the Spartans to join in a military campaign to drive the Persians out of Attica. The Ephors took a several days deciding what to do. Herodotus speculates they wanted to make sure the wall across the Isthmus was complete before proceeding, because they suspected the Athenians would surrender to the Persians if the opportunity arose. The Ephors finally consented and sent a full contingent of five thousand Spartan warriors and thirty five thousand Helots. This army, along with the rest of the Greeks, went on to win the Battle of Platea.

I have not been able to find a second source describing the construction of this Peloponnesian Wall and specifically where it was located. Later, 450 A.D, a Byzantine Wall was built across the Isthmus. There are excavated ruins for this later wall.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Were the Spartans Penniless?

We’ve talked about money on this blog before: specifically how the Romans used bronze coins until they converted to silver in the late third century B.C. The Greeks were way ahead of the Romans, producing silver coins in the mid-sixth century B.C. They were early active traders, while the Romans did not trade in earnest until the time of the Punic Wars.

What about the Spartans? What was their coinage and how did they use money?

Sparta was a closed society. It used Messenian people (Helots) as an underclass, so the elite could spend their time on military training. There was also another race tightly connected to the Spartans – The Perioeci. These people lived primary in the hills around Sparta as autonomous cities, and also controlled the important Laconian Island of Cythera. They had no foreign policy of their own but served in the Spartan Army.

More importantly the Perioeci acted as the merchants for the Spartans, who shunned practical business dealing. The Spartans did not like money and had no coinage of their own. According to tradition, the man who designed the Spartan government, Lycurgus, banned gold and silver coins as decadent. From that time until the third century B.C. the Perioeci used awkward iron bars as currency for Spartan transactions. After the third century, the Spartans began to strike their own coins.

Thermopylae Postscript

Simultaneous with the land battle at Thermopylae, a sea battle took place near Artemisium at the Northwest corner of Euboea. The Greek allies were attempting to block the Persian Fleet using the same tactic as Leonidas’ attempt to block Xerxes’ Army at Thermopylae. The Greeks saw their army and navy as coordinated elements that would communicate to each other about the success of each mission, so they designated a fast ship to carry messages between them. Greek fleet was commanded by the Spartan Eurybiades and the future Athenian hero Thermistocles.

After losing 400 ships in storms, the Persians struggled to keep their fleet together but were finally able to anchor at Aphetae at the Southeast point of Thessaly. The Greeks located themselves across the Straight of Artemisium so they could block Persian path to Phocis and Boetia. In an initial skirmish on the first day, the Greeks were able to capture 30 Persian ships. Stung by the defeat at the hands of such a small force, the Persians put a larger battle fleet together and fought the Greeks to a draw on the third day. The Greeks could not afford a draw because they had fewer ships, so they were considering a withdrawal when they heard about the military defeat at Thermopylae. They retreated back to Salamis, leaving the door open to a Persian invasion of Attica.

Xerxes invited his sailors and commanders to visit Thermopylae to witness the victory of his army, but not before he had twenty thousand dead Persians buried to make the losses look more even.

Later the Spartans sent an envoy to Xerxes asking for payment as compensation for the way Leonidas body was desecrated after his death. Xerxes laughed, stating that his general Mardonius would deliver the Persian reply to the request when he destroyed Greece during the next year’s campaign. Of course, the next year Mardonius was killed at the Battle of Platea, which ended Persian attempts to conquer Greece.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Run Up to Thermopylae

In 480 B.C, when the Persians began their march onto the Greek peninsula, the allies argued about how to defend their homeland. Many thought resistance was futile, but ultimately, the patriots won out and the discussion turned to a strategy for stopping the Persians. The loyalist Greeks decided to defend the Tempe Line, a vale between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa in Thessaly. Unsure of the loyalty of the Thessalians, the allies did not include them in the plan.

A force was sent north by sea under the command of the Spartan Euaenetus and the Athenian Thermistocles to take a position at the Line. Later, a warning was delivered from a loyal Macedonian, named Alexander, who had observed the Perisan Army on the move. He explained that the Greek position was vulnerable because of an alternative route around the pass which could be used to flank them. Realizing they had no other option, the allies returned to Corinth to modify their plan.

Xerxes ending up using the alternative route the Greeks were warned about, and once he arrived, the Thessalians proved their disloyalty by taking the side of the Persian invader.

When the loyalists met again, they decided Thermopylae would be the best place to form a line of defense.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Unique Spartan Political System

The Spartans were unique among Greeks because the political system they developed never quite made it to a democracy. Elsewhere kings were overthrown by an aristocratic class, which became the governing body of the Polis, and later extended democratic rights to the common people. In Sparta, however, the kings came to some kind of accommodation with the wealthy where they would give up some power in return for the continuation of their authority. This sharing of power created the stability Sparta needed to survive for six centuries.

Sparta had two kings -- hereditary kings, one from each of two families. The kings were the sole military commanders and religious leaders but nothing more. When it came to governance, they could only act as advisors to the oligarchy. Sparta had a governing council called the Gerusia consisting of twenty-eight men plus the two kings. This body advised the assembly, could veto legislation if it disapproved, and also presided over trials for capital offences. Members had to be sixty years of age and served for life. The assembly consisted of all adult Spartiates over twenty years of age – a number on the order of 5000. The assembly had limited power but was allowed to debate the merits of legislation to try and influence its passage.

There is one other component of the Spartan political system we have not mentioned – the Ephors. The creation of Ephoric office was said to have been part of the mid-seventh century reforms of Lycurgus. Five were elected by the assembly each year, and their powers were varied and extensive. They had disciplinary control over other magistrates, conducted foreign policy, and presided over the assembly and council. Their powers even included some controls over the king. For example, they could summon the kings to a meeting, fine them for bad behavior, or even recommend the king be impeached. Perhaps the Ephors most powerful role was in foreign policy, because they were to ones who met with foreign dignitaries and negotiated treaties.

What is it about the Spartans that made them carry on a model of hereditary kings and go down a path different from all of Greece? Somehow they developed a unique character: secretive, organized, and religious -- closed to the outside. We will look at them again in coming posts to see what they have to teach us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Time for a little Humor

I came across this video today and have to share it. After all, we can’t take history too seriously.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Hot Gates Today

The images below, taken from Google Earth, show the site of the Battle of Thermopylae as it looks today. The upper image, taken at an oblique angle, gives a sense of the terrain. Steep hills on the south side of the modern road mark one side of the narrow pass. On the other side, I’ve marked the ancient shoreline, now inland. Leonidas’ statue sits at the approximate site of the battle.

The image below, taken from directly overhead, shows the large land area created from sediment deposited since 480 B.C. The coastline of the Gulf of Milia is now a couple of miles north of its earlier location.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Carneia – Nothing, even war, could release the Spartans from their most important festival

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.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Spartans and Their Helots

As I discussed in the last post, Sparta evolved a military society in part because it needed the capability to control the Messenian Helots, an enslaved underclass. This subjugation of a neighboring people was unusual in antiquity because the Messenians were cultural peers and not a beaten enemy or foreign race.

Sparta had limited arable land and, as it grew, it began to covet the fertile land of its western neighbor. It first invaded Messenia in 735 B.C. and was victorious, but did not subjugate its victims. A second war erupted in 670 and, this time, the Messenians were able to hold out for twenty years before being forced to surrender. The end of this war corresponds with the time period of the reforms of Lycurgus, signaling the onset of the Spartan military state. The enslaved Messenians became known as helots meaning “those captured and made to become prisoners”. This new social class in Sparta, was distinguished from slaves who were considered property.

Now Helots were forced to till plots of land for their Spartan overseers. Half of the profit from the harvest went to the Helot and the other half was given to Sparta. Some 9,000 of these individual farms were put into operation. Over time, the Helot workload was expanded to include all manual labor required to run the Polis, releasing the Spartan men for full time military training.

The subjugation of the Helots was ruthless. Each fall, when the newly elected Ephors took office, they would start with a proclamation to all Spartans, “shave your moustaches and obey our laws”, followed by a declaration of war against the Helots. The war declaration extended martial law for another year and allowed the killing of Helots without penalty. As part of the Agoge (military training), young Spartans were enrolled as members of a secret organization called Crypteia. Their task was to go out at night, kill any Helots they encountered, and take their food. This activity was designed to train Spartans to travel by stealth at night and keep the Helots fearful. The care with which Sparta protected itself are not surprising when one realizes that its army was perhaps 10,000 strong while the Helots numbered 220,000.

Spartan control continued for another 200 years until 464 when an earthquake struck the city. Once they realized the number of casualties (reported to be 20,000), the Messenians took the opportunity to revolt en mass, and it took four years to put down the insurgency. The Helots were finally liberated for good in 371 B.C.