Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Spartan Society and Institutions

Unlike Athens, Sparta was clearly an important state in Homeric times. Helen of Troy is properly called Helen of Sparta, since she was the heiress to Sparta.  Menelaus was king of Sparta through his marriage to her.  Castor and Pollux, honored as gods especially in Sparta, were two Spartans heroes, brothers of Helen.  People have often spoken of these legendary figures as if they were classical Spartans. Euripides' play Andromache speaks of Helen as a typically shameless Spartan woman.  I recall a TV movie in which Menelaus tells the famous story of the Spartan boy hiding a live fox under his cloak who let it claw him to death rather than endure the same of not being able to withstand pain.  And many people have expressed surprise reading the Iliad that Menelaus, though king of Sparta, is not a particularly distinguished warrior.

But these are anachronisms.  They confuse the Sparta of Homeric times with the Sparta of classical times centuries later.  The Greeks of Homeric times were Achaean Greeks of the Mycenaean civilization. Classical Spartans were descendants of Dorian Greeks who invaded and subjugated the Achaeans.  Dorians overran the Peloponnese.  One such group settled in the town of Sparta and made its capital there.  From Sparta they spread out and conquered the plain of Lacedamon or Laconia, which is why classical sources often refer to the Spartans as Lacedamonians or Laconians. They then went on to conquer to plain of Messenia.  The Achaean population, descendants of the Homeric Spartans, were reduced to helots, or serfs. Originally the Spartans were as fond of comfort and fine art as anyone else. But a comfortable and cultured lifestyle proved to be an unsustainable luxury while holding down a hostile subject population.  It was then that Spartans adopted the barracks life for which they are famous.

The term Sparta/Spartan is more familiar these days than Lacedamon/Lacedamonian, but when referring to the army, Lacedamonian is more accurate.  The Spartiate, i.e., full citizens who lived in the town of Sparta, were the elite forces, but a minority of the total.  They were joined by the periocoi, free but non-citizen "dwellers around" who were the bulk of Lacedamon's craftsmen and traders.  Freer, in some ways, than full citizens, they lived private lives, could leave the country without special permission (necessary for foreign trade) and often had limited municipal government. Also joining them were mothax, (disenfranchised citizens or sons of Spartiate men and helot women) noeodamodes (helots freed for service to Sparta), and even helots, although helots during training had the handles removed from their shields before they were allowed to take them home.  In war they were allowed a shield but not a spear (except, presumably, in actual combat), and Spartiates ranged around them with spears, waiting for trouble.  Herodotus describes the Lacedamonians as providing 5000 citizen hoplites (heavy armed infantry), 5000 free non-citizen hoplites, and 35,000 helots as light forces.  This is the source of the common estimate that helots outnumbered citizens by seven to one.  Thucydides mentions 392 Lacedamonians taken prisoner, including 120 Spartiates, i.e., about 40% of the total.  Xenophon, writing at a time the citizen population had been depleted by wars and demotions, says that of 4,000 people in the agora, only 40 besides the Council and Ephors were citizens!  Whatever the exact figures, the Spartiate were badly outnumbered face with serious domestic security problems.  It was because of these problems that they adopted their famous barracks lifestyle.

Our main sources on the subject are Xenophon's Polity of the Lacedamonians and Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus.  Both agree that the Spartiate considered manual labor beneath them, things to be done by helots or periocoi while citizens devoted themselves to being full-time warriors.  Spinning, weaving, and other women's work was considered beneath the dignity of Spartiate women who should leave such things to slaves and focus on being mothers of warriors.  Spartan women alone among the Greeks engaged in athletic training and competitions (in the nude, just like men) in the belief that they would have stronger sons that way.

All Spartiate males from age seven up were forbidden from eating at home and ate at communal dining tables instead.  Leaving after dark, they were forbidden a torch so they would learn to find their way in the dark. Excess drinking, which could make them stumble, was considered shameful.   Plutarch says that boys were taken from their mothers and sent to military school at age seven, and that men continued to sleep at the barracks until they retired at sixty.  Xenophon agrees with the communal dining, but seems to imply private households.  He speaks, for instance, of boys being out in the community rather than segregated in military schools, or of money being so bulky that it would be impossible to bring any significant amount into the house without attracting attention. On the other hand, both agree that it was considered shameful for a man to be seen entering his wife's bed chamber, so he had to sneak in on the sly.  If Spartiate men lived in private households rather than the barracks, how would anyone know?  (Gossip by servants, maybe?)  The theory here was that infrequent sex would be more passionate than frequent sex and produce stronger children.  Like other warrior societies, Spartans valued fertility over chastity and permitted husbands to share their wives with any warrior they thought was good breeding stock.  Older men with younger wives were encouraged to do so.  But, with a strangely male obtuseness that the real limiting factor on fertility is the number women who can have babies, they did not follow other warrior societies in allowing men to take plural wives, even if wars caused large numbers of men to be dead or absent.

Plutarch says that boys were sent to military school at age seven.  Xenophon seems to imply that boys remained at home and in the community, but under the supervision of a "warden," backed by young men with whips.  In the absence of the warden, any Spartiate man could punish a boy he saw misbehave.  Invariably the boy's own father would also punish him upon finding out.  Both agree that boys were given only one garment and no shoes.  To teach them to live off the land, they were given deliberately insufficient rations and encouraged to make up the deficiency by stealing.  Even offerings on the sacred altar were considered fair game!  But the boy caught stealing was whipped, not for theft, but for being so incompetent as to be caught.  Adolescent boys were taught to go about with their hands inside their cloaks and their eyes downcast, silent in public, modest and demure as a young bride.  When young men came of age, the Ephors would choose three of the best as Commanders of the Guard.  Each of the three would choose 100 young men for his group, giving his reasons for preferring one and rejecting another.*  Each group is pledged to uphold the group's honor and do nothing to bring disgrace on it.  Each also resented the other groups and kept a zealous eye on them, eager to detect and report any breach of honor. Members of rival groups would invariably fight when they met.  This was encouraged as a way of keeping in practice, but kept in bounds because members were required to stop fighting whenever anyone in authority told them to stop.

Contrary to my earlier impression, Ephors were not the only regularly elected officials.  Xenophon refers to other, unspecified officials elected to one-year terms, but clearly subordinate to the Ephors. Indeed, the Ephors were given quasi-despotic powers, to fine, depose, or even arrest any subordinate official they see misbehaving. Ephors were also given power to fine or otherwise punish any other minor offender on the spot.  For major crimes they could arrest and bring charges; trial was by the Council of Elders.  Of course, there was an important constraint on the power of the Ephors -- they held it for only one year.  At the end of that time, they returned to being regular guys.  But over all obedience to authority received a very strong emphasis in Sparta, as one would expect in a military society.

Besides war and military training, Spartans learned reading and writing (with an emphasis on military skills like dispatch writing and map reading), sang martial songs composed by Sparta's leading poets (and possibly composed their own), and learned the laconic art of the short, witty comment (often directed at putting the other person in the wrong).  Like other Greeks, they had many religious festivals, celebrated with dancing and singing choruses.  To this Spartans added the women's chorus.

*Xenophon does not explain whether, given the small citizen body, this 300 accounted for all men in the age group, or whether some were left out altogether.

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