Friday, June 26, 2009

Timeline of the Golden Age of Greece

The chart below (click to enlarge) was put together to compare the intellectual accomplishments of the Greeks around the time of the Golden Age of Athens. The list includes philosophers, playwrights, scientists, mathematicians, the poet Pindar, and Hippocrates who is known as the “father of medicine”.

The two horizontal bars delineate the period of greatest achievement, which brackets the Golden Age of Pericles (464-431).

It’s interesting to note that the Greek philosophers overlapped each other over a three hundred and sixty year period as each built on the accomplishments of his predecessors. We see how the tragic playwrights were active during the time of the Persian Wars and into the golden age.

Plato lived through the decline of Athens and Aristotle, as Alexander’s tutor lived through the transition from an independent Greece to Greece as a part of the Macedonian Empire.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Greek Mind

What is it about the Greeks that enabled them to create the unique civilization we admire twenty five hundred years later -- a civilization some might argue has never been matched. To try and get at the answer, we look at the setting that fostered the building of a Greek identity, starting with the Greek dark ages and progressing to the classical period during the 5th century B.C. when the intellectual Greece reached its zenith.

In the time before the Greeks, man saw life as a dark and risky experience. Priests were part of each tribe and carried the responsibility for interpreting the will of the gods, which was not something that could only be understood by “specialists”.

The Greeks were able to escape the primitive view of the world and become enlightened as individuals. How?

Part of the story is the geography of Greece: mountainous with areas of extraordinarily fertile land, sitting at the connection of Europe to Asia, and not easy to invade. The mountains separated the people into local tribes, and those human colonies evolved into cities of equals. No aristocracy developed because there was no way to accumulate wealth; no way for a king to buy power. Military leaders ruled because each city had to be able to defend itself. Geography kept the colonies small and homogeneous -- the right setting for evolving the Polis.

Still geography does not tell us the whole story. It doesn’t tell us why the Greek mind began to wonder about man’s place in the world. To these first thinkers, the world seemed predictable and not magical. Physical events could be shown to repeat themselves meaning there must be order to the universe.

But the Greeks were thinking more broadly than the laws of physics. They adopted a unique synthesis of mind and spirit which has seldom existed before or since. Everything was looked at in terms of the whole and not its parts. Human beings were seen as part of a species even though they are individuals. The Greeks understood anatomy but realized a heart is the same in everyone. When they designed a building, the Greeks took into account its surroundings and how it fit in the space – the whole as important as the parts. Famous men were interested in everything as we see in the philosophers who were trying to learn all that could be known.

The Greek spirit is what we are missing today -- the experience of the joy of life. They played games for the purity of athleticism and competition and not for any other purpose. How sad to compare the Roman games of slaughter with the Olympics! They reveled in the joy of beauty and the appreciation of beautiful things. They described virtue as “beautiful” giving an aesthetic trait to human character.

The Romans never had the Greek spirit. They were “mind” only. Look at a problem, solve it, and move on. The context doesn’t matter; only the finished product – best army, best temples, best roads – but spiritless.

The same problem exists in the world today. We have become pieces separated from the whole – there is no whole. Only the individual matters, and individual rights over the rights of the people as a whole. Our minds have produced the greatest “things” but what does owning a designer shirt mean? Only more self-serving isolation from the rest of mankind.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spartan Timeline – The Collapse

The period following the Peloponnesian War was a disaster for Sparta. With victory came the responsibility to govern, so Sparta, as an oligarchy, sought to impose oligarchic governments on those it defeated. But the Spartans did not know how to govern others and many of their appointed governors became tyrants. A “group of thirty” ruled Athens for only a year before it was overthrown and a democracy restored. Elsewhere puppet governments were despised and resisted. Former allies conspired against the Sparta, fearing its intentions, and it wasn’t long before all the defeated Greeks were independent again.

There was also trouble at home. In 398, a plot was discovered which had helots and two Perioeci towns plotting to overthrow the Spartan government. At the same time, the issue of wealth began to bring out the more base instincts of Spartan men; instincts the Lycurgian laws had blocked for so long. As the spoils of the Peloponnesian War reached Sparta, its people began to forget their simple life. Some became wealthy and others coveted that wealth.

As the Oracle had predicted 300 years before, “Greed will be Sparta’s ruin.” Aristotle put it another way, “The Spartans always prevailed in war but were destroyed by empire simply because they did not know how to use the leisure they had won, because they had practiced no more fundamental skill than skill in war”.

Overseeing this Spartan decline was the king Agesilaus, who ruled from 399-360. Agesilaus was an enigma. He was never supposed to rule being the younger brother of the heir, and excelled in the Agoge despite being lame. Rival of Lysander and admired by Xenophon, Agesilaus did his best to protect Spartan honor despite the handicap of an un-Spartan-like mercenary army. Against Boetia in 398, he was severely injured and had to be carried from the battlefield. Later, his many battles against the rising power of Thebes came to nothing and the defeat at Leuctra in 371 proved the Spartan army was finished. The next year, Thebes and her allies invaded the Peloponnese and attacked Sparta itself. Beaten off, they settled for the liberating the Messenians, which ended three hundred years of the helot system.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Spartans and “False Victory”

The period from 464 B.C. to 404 begins with the great Spartan earthquake and ends with the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War.

The earthquake was a large magnitude event that caused significant loss of life in Sparta. Debate as to whether the army was seriously impacted by the loss of trainees and mature Spartiates is inconclusive, but it may have had an impact on Spartan thinking later. Immediately after the earthquake, the Messenian Helots took the opportunity and revolted. The length of their revolt is unclear, but it could have lasted several years. The Athenians sent a force of four thousand hoplites to assist Sparta after she made a request for aid, but that gesture only soured the relationship between the two Greek powers when the Athenians were not able to help prosecute the siege of the Messenian stronghold at Mount Ithome.

The Athenians were sent home, causing the reign of Cimon and the Athenian alliance with Sparta to come to an end. Cimon was exiled in favor of Pericles. The Athenians and Spartans went to war in 460 and fought half-heartily until 445 when they signed a thirty year peace treaty. The treaty lasted until 431, when the great Peloponnesian War began.

That war can be summed up as follows: Athens and Sparta fought to a draw between 431 and 422 when Athens sued for peace fearing defections of her allies. The war began again in 421. Two events mark this segment: the defeat of Athens and her allies at Mantinea in 418 and the failed Athenian attack on Syracuse in Sicily. In the third segment, starting in 413, Sparta invaded Attica and then allied itself with Persia who built ships for the Spartan Navy. Lysander, a brilliant Spartan admiral, defeated the Athenian allies at Aegosotami, the Athenians surrender, and the war finally came to an end.

Somewhere between the Messenian revolt and the Battle of Mantinea, Sparta changed the structure of its military and started to deploy Perioeci to fight along side Spartiates trained in the Agoge. Her hand may have been forced by the loses in the earthquake and closely fought battles such as Tanagra. The thirty year long Peloponnesian War also took its toll as the number of deaths exceeded Sparta’s ability to replace them. As strong as the Spartans were, even they couldn’t win without numbers.

Sparta reached the end of the Peloponnesian War as a “false victor”. The Athenians and their allies had surrendered, but Sparta was weak and in possession of Poleis it didn’t know how to control.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Timeline of Spartan History

The diagram below shows a basic timeline for the most important periods of the Spartan civilization.

You will notice that there are four periods identified: Archaic, Golden Age, False Victory, and Collapse. This is my terminology; invented to help characterize each interval.

The archaic period refers to the time when fact and myth run together and cannot be easily differentiated, making it difficult to identify the “real” history. The Golden Age occurred when the Lycurgian reforms took hold and Spartan people embraced the military discipline we think of as “Spartan”. The False Victory period ends with the Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War. The victory was “false”, because it appeared to establish Sparta has the leading power of Greece, when in fact it was never able to control its conquests. At the end of the fourth period, Sparta collapsed as a military power when it was defeated at Leuctra in 371 B.C.

I want to use the next two posts to discuss the reasons why Sparta collapsed as a military power. How could this happen in a mere thirty years time? It took the Roman Republic one hundred years to collapse, and the Roman Empire perhaps two hundred years -- so why thirty in the case of the Spartans?

The truth is it took longer than thirty years, but we’ll discuss that shortly.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Map of Ancient Sparta and Its Relationship to the Modern City

The image below contains an outline of ancient Sparta superimposed over an aerial view of the modern city. The areas occupied by the four original towns are shown with their names and locations. The ancient acropolis, located just north of the modern city is marked with a circle.

The digital TV conversion. Is this psychological slavery?

I write about ancient history for several reasons: its fascinating, helps us understand ourselves, and it gives us a possible window into the path of human society. Generally, I feel like I’m defending the ancients because this modern world is not interested in old dusty characters who weren’t “savvy” like we are today (they didn’t have cell phones).

But there are cases in the modern world where the human race goes backward, and this is one of those times. To see the reality of this retrograde one only needs to look at the recent digital TV conversion in America. For years we were told this was coming: on TV, on radio, and in print, warning after warning. Then, when the date for the conversion drew near, it was moved back because the public was perceived as “not ready”. Ads blanketed the airwaves with warnings about the loss of one's TV signal. Coupons were sent out so people could get low cost converter boxes, which ultimately were given away. Now, finally, the day of conversion is past and armies of federal workers man phone banks to answer questions from people who’s TVs don’t work or don’t know how to use their new converter box. The same people who pushed through the warnings are now surprised the problem is not as big as they anticipated.

My question is, “When will Americans take back responsibility for their own lives?” Isn’t it the individual’s responsibility to make sure his TV works, like it’s his responsibility to make sure his electricity works by paying his bill? For those old or poor people who don’t know what to do, where is their family and why aren’t they taking care of them?

Unfortunately, we have two forces in our society who want to take responsibility for us because they’ve made a decision we’re incompetent. These forces are liberal politicians and trial lawyers. Liberal politicians feel guilty about the world for reasons I can’t explain. I think its because they have money and don’t want to give it up, so they push government to give away money so they can feel better about themselves. One problem with that idea is that the government is very bad at doing anything, so the “help” is ineffective.

The second group, the trial lawyers, is much more sinister. They make no bones about robbing others (mostly companies) to enrich themselves, under the guise of caring for people. We are now in a time where an enormous amounts of money is wasted avoiding lawsuits: swing sets have to have rubber carpets in case a kid falls off, lawnmowers need to shut off automatically, and packing materials have to display the label “don’t eat.” Why is the mower manufacturer responsible for some idiot who sticks his hand into a spinning blade. Duh, shut it off first. Trial lawyers research new ways to sue and for those which show promise, they push the envelope. How about suing McDonalds because its customers ate cheeseburgers and got fat? Sounds like a good way to make money!

The Greeks and Romans would have had a simple solution to our legal mess -- eliminate the lawyers. If I were a philosopher king for one day, my first act would be to disbar half the lawyers. The remainder would then be forced to do real law.

As far as liberal politics goes, there are two truisms in the history of government. One -- when a political system is efficient it raises the quality of people’s lives. Two – people do best when they have the opportunity to succeed on their own without the help of government. Liberal politics is the negation of these two concepts. In the latter period of the Roman Republic, a battle went on for thirty years between liberal and conservative politicians. The liberals won and they got a dictator.

In the ancient world people knew they had to be responsible for themselves or life would be nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbs said. Government had only a limited role, including the maintenance of an army to repel foreign invasions and enforcing the laws written to protect the people.

What we're doing in America is psychological slavery – equivalent to the physical slavery of ancient times. We are subtly getting people to adopt attitudes that negatively influence their self-esteem and, in the end, their behavior. You can’t be expect to do A, that’s not your job. You got hurt? It must be someone else’s fault. You killed someone? Oh, you must have been abused as a child. It’s your parents fault. You’re a drunk? You couldn’t help it, there was just too much pressure at work. Why try? The system is against me.

Maybe after a few decades of this we’ll progress to the barbarian stage.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Spartan Sayings II

In my previous post on this topic, I included sayings of a military nature – those that reflected the Spartan view of battle and their strength against all enemies. Today’s collection includes quotes which reflect the Spartan view of their society and political system. I find the quotes of women fascinating because their Spartan philosophy stayed intact even when confronted with extreme emotional pain.

When asked what gain the laws of Lycurgus had brought Sparta, he said, “Contempt for pleasures.”

On noticing a house in Asia roofed with square beams, the Spartan asked the owner whether timber grew square in that region. When told no he remarked, “ So if it were square, you would make it round?”

Someone inquired how many Spartans there were. The reply, “Enough to keep out undesirables.”

A Spartan told a man who was angry at being exiled, “Good friend, it is exile from justice, not from your city, you should dread.”

A man asked, “How can Spartans confidently face danger in war?” The rely, “Because we practice proper respect for life, not fear of it like the rest of mankind.”

An Athenian called a Spartan uneducated. The reply was, “At least we are the only ones who have learned nothing wicked from you.”

An Athenian was giving a funeral eulogy in praise of some men killed by Spartans. A Spartan noticing this said, “What, then, do you think was the quality of the men that defeated them?”

When the sophist Hecataeus was invited to the Spartan mess and said nothing, he came under criticism. The King Archidamidas, who was present, said, “Evidently you don’t understand that an expert at speaking also knows when to speak.”

Someone asked Demaratus, a Spartan King, how he could be exiled. His reply, “Because Spartan laws are more powerful than I am.”

The ambassador from Elis stated that he had been dispatched to Sparta for the specific reason that he emulated the Spartan way of life. King Theopompus said, “So which of the two ways is better, yours or that of your fellow citizens. The ambassador declared that his was, causing the king to remark, “How then could this city of yours keep itself safe when among the population there is only one brave man?”

Someone asked why Spartans drink so sparingly. The reply, “So that others may not make decisions on our behalf, but we may for others.”

A foreigner asked a Spartan, “You people adhere strongly to having no occupation. The Spartan replied, “You are correct. Our aim is that, unlike you, we shouldn’t be concerned with every random pastime.”

After their victory at Platea, the Spartan king gave orders for his men to enjoy the Persian dinner which had been prepared before the battle. Looking at the expensive spread he remarked, “ How greedy those Persians must be to come here and chase our barley bread.”

A Spartan mother heard her son had been saved and escaped the enemy, so she wrote to him saying, “You have been tainted by a bad reputation, which you must remove.”

As a Spartan was describing his brother’s noble death to his mother, she remarked, “Isn’t it a disgrace for you, then, not to have gone on such a fine journey with him?”

A woman upon hearing of her son’s death said, “So bury him and let his brother take his place.”

As man in a finely embroidered robe was making advances to Gorgo, Leonidas’ wife, she said, “Get out of here. You can’t even play a female role.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Plato on Sparta

The setting of Plato’s Laws is the island of Crete where an unnamed Athenian is on a walk with two other men: a politician from Crete named Cleinias and a Spartan citizen named Megillus. The walk is a pilgrimage to the Cave of Zeus, and the entire dialog is played out along the way. In the first three books, the discussion centers around the characteristics of good government and how government should function to create good citizens. Then, at the end of Book III, Cleinias announces that he has been given responsibility for creating laws for a new Cretan community (Magnesia) and would like the Athenian’s assistance. The stranger takes the opportunity to expound on his political philosophy as he tries to explain to the others how a city should be governed. There are references to the Spartan system because Plato has selected a Cretan and a Spartan as his main characters so they are able to reference their own political systems.

In Book I, the Athenian complains that the Spartan system is too heavily tilted toward enduring and overcoming pain when in fact courage is only one component of virtue. He asserts that virtue is also learning to avoid excessive pleasure, so, because the Spartan system does not provide pleasure avoidance training, it is deficient.

In Book III, the Athenian laments the collapsed ancient alliance between Sparta, Argos, and Messene, as the cause of disunity in the Peloponnese and the inability to repel the Persian invasion. This disunity, he contends, led directly to the adoption of the quirky Spartan political system with its Ephors and Gerousia.

In Book VI, they discuss population groups and the issue of slaves is discussed. The Athenian points out how troublesome the Helots are because they revolt. He claims a government will be better off if it treats its slaves with as much respect as equals receive.

He also agrees with the Spartans that a city should not have walls, because their presence, “is also apt to produce a certain effeminacy in the minds of the inhabitants, inviting men to run thither instead of repelling their enemies, and leading them to imagine that their safety is due not to their keeping guard day and night.”

Plato is critical of the Cretans and the Spartans for having no Mess for women, because women need to be subject to laws just like men are.

These are the opinions of Sparta as expressed in Laws.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sayings of the Spartans

The militaristic Spartan culture touched every aspect of the lives of its people – even the use of language and speaking style. A “laconic” person is a man of few words; a characteristic of the Spartans well known to all the Greek people. The word is derived from Laconia, the district where Sparta can be found.

Those of you who saw “300” heard a few Spartan sayings including, “Spartans lay down your arms. Come and get them” and "If the Persian arrows block the sun, then we will fight in the shade.” These are actual historical quotes. Now for some you may not have heard.

A Spartan was asked, “How far do Sparta’s boundaries reach?” The Spartan answered, holding out his spear “As far as this can reach.”

Someone asked why Sparta had no walls or fortifications and the Spartan said pointing to a group of soldiers, “These are our walls.”

The Spartan army was passing by a city with high walls. One Spartan admired the fortification. Another said, “What women live in this place?”

A king was asked, “When you go to battle, how do you take into account the size of your opponent?” The king said, “Spartans don’t ask how many the enemy are, but where they are.”

A man was ridiculing the small size of the Spartan swords when the Spartan replied, “They can still reach the enemy.”

An Athenian remarked, “We have often driven you from Cephius” (a river near Athens). The Spartan replied, “Ah, but we have never driven you from the Eurotas” (a river near Sparta).

Someone asked, “After your frequent wars with the Argives, why have you not wiped them out?” The Spartan replied, “We wouldn’t wish to wipe them out because we need sparing partners for our young men.”

Someone remarked that the enemies numbers were substantial. The Spartan commander said, “Then we will win greater fame since we will inflict higher casualties.”

Sometime after Thermopylae, the Spartan kings began to utilize an imperial guard of three hundred. Selection gave great prestige to the Spartan warrior and all Spartiates competed for a place in the unit. One soldier, upon hearing of his rejection, got a bright smile on his face. The commander asked why he was so cheerful and the man said, “I am happy knowing there are 300 citizens better than I.”

And a couple from Leonidas at Thermopylae.

Someone remarked, “The Persians are close to us.” Leonidas said, “Then we are also close to them.”

Someone asked him, “Leonidas, why are you here taking such a risk with so few men against so many?” The king replied, “If you think I should rely on numbers, then not even the whole of Greece is enough, since this is only a fraction of the Persian horde: but if I am to rely on courage, then this number is quite adequate.”

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Plato and Aristotle on Sparta

I thought it might be interesting to read Plato and Aristotle’s views on Sparta because their philosophical approach could be an interesting contrast with that of the historians. The impact these two great thinkers have had on our modern civilization is enormous as it relates to philosophical thought, religious philosophy, and the evolution of modern science. As a former philosophy student with a god-like reverence for these “fathers of philosophy”, I expected interesting insights. Unfortunately, what I found was disappointing, for reasons I will explain.

Plato discusses Sparta in Laws; Aristotle in Politics. Plato wrote Laws as his last work in 360 B.C. at age 67 or so. Aristotle wrote Politics in 350 B.C. at 34.

When you study the writings, it quickly becomes apparent there are factors influencing the writing that have to be considered before any definitive interpretation can begin. These factors relate to their biases as Athenians, the condition of Sparta when they wrote, and their knowledge of Sparta during its most influential period.

Plato was born during the Peloponnesian War and was twenty-three years old when it ended. Aristotle was thirteen when the Spartans lost the battle of Leuctra, ending their role as the superior military power of Greece. I contend that both Philosophers were biased against Sparta for several reasons. In the first place, as Athenians, they would naturally think their own political system was the best. Secondly, both of them (particularly Plato) would have reason to resent Sparta for the Peloponnesian War and its occupation of Athens. Thirdly, they both had reason to reject the Spartan political system as too radical because it stifled the kind of independent thought they believed was important to mankind. The Spartan system did not fit their concept of the ideal political system – it wasn’t a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy.

At the time Plato and Aristotle were writing, Sparta was a second rate power and worse. The end of the Peloponnesian War had been a false victory (Pyrrhic?) for Sparta because it forced them to govern other Poleis. The Spartans proved to be bad managers and in a short time their control over the defeated enemies was lost. Moreover the Spartan system became degraded through the influence of Athens as its citizens became more interested in wealth and the trappings of luxury than the historical military ideal. The great Spartan army had become one of mercenaries rather than citizen soldiers. Obviously, Plato and Aristotle saw what was happening and blamed the failure of Sparta on its quirky culture. I don’t know what history the philosophers had access to which would have taught them about Sparta at its zenith (Herodotus for sure), but it certainly would have been more difficult to criticize the Spartan system during a time when it was the leading power in Greece and responsible for the protection of Athens as its ally.

More details on Plato and Aristotle's views of Sparta to follow.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lycurgus – The Mess (community meals)

In addition to the Agoge, Lycurgus brought “The Mess” back from Crete. In Crete the common meal was called andrei; in Sparta phiditia, meaning place of friendship.

Spartiates were required to eat all evening meals together in groups, and were not allowed to dine with their families. They were required to eat specified meat sauces, cereals, and the famous black broth as part of a practice of moderation. This production of non-wealth was a leveling force among rich and poor. A rich man dining with a poor man could not put on an expensive display, nor could he eat first at home and then attend the mess, because others would be watching for anyone trying to defeat a system designed for all. Eating with one’s fellow soldiers prevented the men from spending too much time at home as Plutarch puts it,

“Lying at table on expensive couches, being waited upon by confectioners and chefs, fattened up in the dark like gluttonous animals, and ruining themselves physically as well as morally, and by giving free rein to every craving and excess which demanded lengthy slumbers, warm baths plenty of rest, in a sense, daily nursing.”

Plutarch says the groups at Mess were fifteen, but most likely they were much larger – either Pentecostys (144) or Lochos (288). Each man was required to contribute monthly barley-meal, wine, cheese, figs, and some money for meat. Often the Spartiates would make their contribution by going on hunts and bringing the meat to the Mess.

Once the meal was complete, the group disbanded and each man made his way home in the dark. They were not allowed to carry torches because Spartans were taught to function skillfully at night just as well as day.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lycurgus – The Spartan Monetary System and Wealth

Lycurgus began with a decree that all gold and silver coinage was outlawed and all Spartan coins must be made of iron. He made the coin units low value and heavy so they were difficult to store and transport. He had the hot iron doused with vinegar to make the metal weak and fragile.

This caused crime to disappear from Sparta, because who would steal, rob, or plunder something that could not be hidden, envied, or melted down into anything? All useless alien crafts disappeared because there was no sale for their products, since the iron money could not be used anywhere else in Greece.

As Plutarch puts it,

“It was now impossible to buy foreign goods and no cargo of merchandise would enter a Spartan harbor, no teacher of rhetoric trod Laconian soil, no begging seer, no pimp, no maker of gold and silver ornaments – because there was no coined money. Thus gradually cut off from the things that animate and feed it, luxury atrophied of its own accord.”

The wealthy had no outlet to show off their wealth and were resigned to keep it in storage.

Craftsman, now released from useless jobs, began to work in the manufacture of essential goods such as tables and chairs, so the competition among them was fierce and the resulting quality of these products first rate.

Lycurgus – Founder of the Spartan System

One can’t discuss the Spartan system without talking about Lycurgus, who designed and implemented this historic militaristic culture. He is a shadowy figure in that we don’t know when he lived, and there are many aspects of his life that are unknown. Indeed, some believe he was a myth, but to me the evidence is too strong in favor of a real human being.

Some scholars believe Lycurgus lived in the early 8th century B.C. (circa 770), and others place him a century later. I believe the reforms were probably implemented after the Second Messenian War in 640 B.C. The Spartans had originally subjugated the Messenians in 708, but they revolted in 640, and had to be defeated and controlled a second time. Most likely changes were made then to prevent further revolts.

The earlier date seems unlikely, because writing was not established in Greece until 750 B.C, and it’s hard to imagine a Lycurgian Constitution before that time. Moreover, the first Athenian Constitution dated from 594, so putting the Spartans one hundred and fifty years ahead of the rest of Greece in the creation of a modern government seems farfetched.

According to Greek history, Lycurgus traveled to Crete and became exposed to the Cretan culture, including the Agoge system (rigorous training) and the Mess. Plutarch says he brought the new system back to Sparta where much of it was adopted easily. Some aspects were resisted for a time before they became part of the new culture. It's impossible to know how long this took and how difficult it must have been. Obviously, in the beginning, Spartans of influence would have to accept the reforms or the Lycurgian system would have been stillborn. One imagines a next step where the leaders forced a new system on the people until it was completely accepted. Not that “forcing” would have been as difficult in this case as other times in history, because there were many elements that would have made the new system attractive to the Spartan people – equality, property, freedom from manual labor, and more, so perhaps the implementation took place rather quickly.

This is the first in a series of posts describing the reforms in detail. These details make the Spartan way of life real and create a human side missing from the uninteresting list of reforms found in most descriptions of the ancient Sparta. My partner in this activity is Plutarch who wrote a book On Sparta, including a chapter on Lycurgus.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Spartan Battle Tactics

The diagrams below show how Spartan marching columns were deployed to face an enemy approaching from the front or rear.

In the first example, a Spartan marching column is deployed into a phalanx when facing an enemy in front. The commander of each Enomotia (labeled as “1” in the first unit) would deploy his unit into the first phalanx position then the units behind him would fill the first row. Other units would fill the rows behind it.In the second example, the enemy is located behind the marching column so the commanders ordered a countermarch causing each unit to reverse position but keeping the same order. The unit commander would now be on the left of his unit rather than the right. As the marching column is counter-positioned, it could move into the phalanx formation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fascination with the Greeks

I find the Spartans and the Athenians equally fascinating. How is it that two cultures like these could exist at the same time in history -- and in the same region of the world? If we drop the Spartans out of the picture for a few moments and look at the golden age of Athens (460-430 B.C), there was perhaps no greater culture in the history of the world. Between science, art, architecture, mathematics, drama, and philosophy the Athenians did it all. Why then and why not since then? One doubts that the ancient Greeks were smarter than every culture since then, but then we’re forced to conclude it was the environment – geography, culture, political system, etc., that was responsible.

There is no doubt the political structure was supportive. Greek democracies promoted free thought and equality among the people. Still, there had to exist the intellectual capacity and curiosity to produce advanced thinking. There is no question that the Greek art, architecture, and philosophy still have great influence.

Separately, mathematics and science continue to advance today as they have continuously over two thousand years – how could they not given the number of thinkers, perhaps more in one American university today than all of Greece in 450 B.C.

But most of the rest of our intellect is corrupted by our complex society and the love of “things”. We have made life easy -- to easy – and discipline is too hard for modern society. Few Americans could tolerate the Spartan life, psychologically and physically.

What the Athenians did for intellectual thought the Spartans did for the art of war. They began a unique system of discipline to protect themselves from their enemies and took it to the extreme -- producing a perfect fighting machine. If you’d asked a Spartan whether he felt like a slave in his culture of discipline, he’d say no. It was a way of life, an honorable life they lived. The Spartan king Agesilaus was asked which of the laws introduced by Lycurgus was most important. He replied, “contempt for pleasures”.

History of Sparta and the Peloponnese – The Myth Applied

In his histories, Herodotus describes how the Spartans sought to gain control of Arcadia in their quest for control of the Peloponnese. They consulted the Oracle at Delphi who said,

“Archady? Great is the thing you ask. I will not grant it.
In Archady are many men. Acorn eaters,
And they will keep you out. Yet, For I am not grunging,
I will give you Tegea to dance with its stamping feet
And her fair plain to measure out with the line.”

The Spartans failed to grasp the meaning of the Oracle and proceeded to attack Tegea, bringing with them chains for the conquered prisoners. But Sparta was defeated and the Spartan prisoners were forced to don the chains they had brought with them and become the line that was measured out.

After a time, during the reign of the kings Anaxandrides and Ariston (circa 550 B.C.), the Spartans again visited the Oracle. This time the response was different.

“In Archady lies Tegea in the level plain,
Where under strong constrainst two winds are blowing;
Smiting is there and counter-smiting, and woe on woe;
There earth, the giver of life, Holds Agamemnon’s son.
Bring him home, and you will prevail over Tegea.”

The Spartans searched for the bones of Orestes unsuccessfully until they sent a special agent named Lichas to Tegea. He found the bones in a coffin buried behind a blacksmith’s shop. Lichas interpreted the oracle winds as the bellows of the blacksmith and the smiting and counter smiting the hammer on the anvil. True or not the bones or Orestes were returned to Sparta, the oracle was fulfilled, and Sparta went on to defeat the Tegeans.

Tegea was the key to Arcadia which, after Laconia and Messenia, became the third piece of the Peloponnese to fall under Spartan control. All that remained of importance were Corinth and Argos. Cornith remained independent although a strong member of the Peloponnesean League. Argos also remained independent but was shunned by its neighbors for refusing to participate in the Persian War.