Monday, June 1, 2009

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.

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