Night drew on apace, when I reluctantly quitted these renowned ruins, the shade of Lycurgus, the recollection of Thermopylae, and all the fictions of fable and history.

(F. de Chateaubriand, Travels in Greece, Palestine,
Egypt and Barbary
, trans. F. Shobel, 1811)

The Spartans—of all my subjects in this book—would surely have rejoiced at the notion of a very short introduction. They are the patron saints of brachylogy, the masters of the snappy repartee. It is in their honour that we still describe such an utterance as ‘laconic’, since one of the ancient names for them was ‘Lakônes’, of which lakônikos is the possessive adjective. Examples are legion, and legendary. One of my favourites occurs in Herodotus book 3, chapter 46, in a context of about 525 BCE. Some exiles from the island of Samos appealed to the Spartans to bring about their restoration, making ‘a speech whose length matched the extent of their needs’. But the Spartans just replied that the speech was too long and complex: they had forgotten what the Samians had said at the beginning and didn’t understand what they’d said after that. The Samians took the point and, when they applied again for aid, made no formal speech but pointed to an empty sack and said allegorically, ‘The sack lacks barley-meal.’ The Spartans’ comment on this dumbshow theatre was that even ‘sack’ was a word too many—though they did then agree to grant the requested military aid!

For the Spartans it was deeds, not words, that counted, which is part of the explanation why our written evidence for Spartan history is so scanty—relatively, at any rate, to that available for Athens. Indeed, so averse were the Spartans to writing on principle that Sparta’s laws were deliberately left unwritten, and a general ban on named tombstones was implemented, with but two exceptions: for soldiers who died in battle and—according to the preserved text of Plutarch—priestesses who died in office. (I shall return to the status of Spartan women in general below.) The exception made for heroic soldiers is telling. Uniquely among all Greeks down to the late fifth or even early fourth century BCE the Spartans actually trained for war. Indeed, they organized their whole style of life around the demands of battle-readiness, as we shall see. One reason for this unique societal orientation was their decision to enslave an entire population of Greeks, and to base their lifestyle largely upon ways of ensuring that it remained not only enslaved but productively so, providing the essence of Sparta’s economic infrastructure.

That outcome was hardly predictable in the later eleventh or tenth century BCE, which is when the site of historical Sparta first shows signs of occupation after a long hiatus following some sort of cataclysm towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, round about 1200 BCE. Laconia is the name, Roman originally, that is conventionally applied to the south-east Peloponnese region centring on the fertile Eurotas valley and bounded by the mountain chains of Taygetus (2,404 m. at the peak) and Parnon (1,937 m.). No Mycenaean palace has yet been discovered in Laconia, but if there was in reality a palace to match that at Pylus in Messenia, as the Homeric Iliad suggests there should have been one fit for Menelaus, the brother of the great high king Agamemnon and husband to the ineffably beautiful Helen, then it will have been situated somewhere in the Eurotas valley: either towards the northern end, roughly where historical Sparta lay, or further south—recent surface finds of Linear B tablets at Ay. Vasilios offer exciting prospects.

The former location was the one favoured by the historical Spartans themselves. In around 700 BCE they consecrated a sanctuary and temple to Menelaus and Helen on a bluff overlooking the Eurotas just a few kilometres east of the town centre; and worship of Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother, is attested later at Amyclae a few kilometres south. But the Spartans’ principal religious sanctuary was devoted to Athena the ‘City-Holder’ and located on what passed for an acropolis (a paltry affair by comparison to the Athenian, for instance); and, cultically speaking, far more important than Menelaus or Helen, or even Agamemnon, were the sanctuary of the local vegetation and fertility goddess Orthia (later assimilated to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the wild margins and of age-transitions from sexual immaturity to maturity), right on the banks of the Eurotas, and the sanctuary devoted to Apollo and Hyacinthus that was situated to the south at Amyclae, an integral part of the city of Sparta, politically speaking.

I begin thus with religion, because although for all ancient Greeks religion and politics went hand in hand, the Spartans seem to have been quite exceptionally pious, or superstitious. Twice Herodotus says that the Spartans rated religious matters as more important than purely mortal affairs—well, all Greeks did that, so what the well-travelled historian must have meant was that for the Spartans a conception of pious duty was considered overriding in ways that were not necessarily the case for any other Greeks. Omens and portents were always taken deadly seriously by them. For example, their entire code of laws and discipline was attributed to an oracular pronouncement of Apollo of Delphi. In this they differed from many other Greek cities, who relied on Delphic Apollo rather for the authorization of external settlements. But this was for the very good reason that the Spartans established only the one overseas colony (Taras, modern Taranto, in south Italy), in sharp contrast to, say, Miletus with its many dozens of scattered offshoots abroad.


Fig. 3. Sparta

Mythically, the Spartans ascribed the foundation of their city to the ‘descendants of Heracles’ and spun a complicated tale of how these great-grandsons of the super-hero had ‘returned’ to the Peloponnese from exile to regain their rightful possession, along with the Dorians (on whom, see Chapter 4). In sober archaeological reality, occupation of the site of Sparta, as mentioned, is first attested in the later eleventh or early tenth century, and there is a sharp cultural gap at Sparta—unlike at Amyclae—between the latest Bronze Age and the earliest Dark Age material. Indeed, apart from some humble painted pottery and a few painted spindle-whorls found at the sanctuary of Orthia, and rather more material including some crude bronzes from the Amyclaeum, there is hardly anything to attest even habitation, let alone prosperity, before the eighth century, and the second half of the eighth century at that.

This was when, according to traditional ancient dating, the Spartans made the remarkable, and fateful, decision to expand—actually more than double—their home territory by conquering and permanently occupying that of their neighbours in what since Homeric times at least was known as Messene. In the process of occupation they also subjugated the principal portion of the local Messenian population, that which inhabited the fertile Pamisus valley (just as large and more fertile even than that of the Eurotas), and turned them into a collective body of serf-like primary producers called Helots (literally ‘captives’). This conquest and occupation at a stroke solved any possible issues of land-shortage globally speaking; though it remained a contentious issue to decide how the new take was to be distributed among the Spartans. But the occupation and subjugation also ensured that the Spartans found themselves entangled forever with an enemy within: for these Messenians were Dorian Greeks, just like the Spartans themselves, and many of them managed to retain some sort of self-consciousness precisely as a once-free Greek people which had been unjustly, almost unnaturally, deprived of their Hellenic birthright of freedom. Moreover, when occasion allowed, these Helots were prepared to rise up in rebellion to reclaim that birthright. The first such occasion of revolt came in the mid-seventh century, just a couple of generations after their original conquest, and was prompted or at least encouraged by a major Spartan defeat at the hands of the Argives at Hysiae in 669 (see end of Chapter 4). It took the Spartans many years to quell this first major rebellion, and, once it had been quelled, they voluntarily imposed on themselves a kind of internal mutation or even revolution that transformed Sparta into a special kind of Greek city.

The reforms were attributed to a legendary lawgiver whom they named Lycurgus (literally, ‘wolf-worker’), but he could not possibly have introduced at one fell swoop all the reforms with which he was credited, and it is not beyond the bounds of credibility that he never actually existed as a real human being. At any rate, he received religious worship in Sparta later on, as a kind of god rather than as an originally mortal hero. The three key aspects of the ‘Lycurgan’ reform package were economic, politico-military, and social.

Economically, some kind of land-distribution occurred, principally of the new Messenian take, such that all Spartans were given access to a certain minimum amount of land (known as a klaros or ‘lot’) together with a certain number of communally owned and enslaved Helot families to work it for them. Spartan soil, aspect, and climate in both Laconia and Messenia were (and still are—hence the famously delicious Messenian ‘Kalamata’ variety) peculiarly favourable to growing olives, which must be one part of the explanation for a particularly influential Spartan cultural invention: the practice by adolescent and adult males of taking athletic or other physical exercise stark naked (the Greek for ‘nude’, gumnos, is the basis of the Greek gumnasion, our ‘gym’) and then, after scrubbing down with a bronze scraper (strigil) anointing themselves liberally with olive oil. A special kind of container was invented to hold the oil, called aryballos, and both painted clay and bronze versions of them might be offered up as dedications to the gods and goddesses, for example to Athena and Artemis in Sparta. Other Greeks followed the Spartans’ lead, until exercise and athletic competition for males in the nude not only imparted a specially masculine inflection to the great Panhellenic games such as the Olympics and soon after gave rise to the distinctively Greek type of statue known as the kouros (adolescent youth or young man) in bronze or stone, but was also used as a distinguishing cultural marker of superiority over non-Greek ‘barbarians’—who Greeks liked to believe were ashamed to display their flabby bodies in public.

Politico-militarily, all Spartans became equal voting members of a primary warrior-assembly—but they voted by shouting rather than balloting, and above the Assembly remained an aristocratically inflected Senate (called Gerousia) of just thirty elder statesmen, of which the two Spartan kings (hereditary joint-sovereigns, drawn always from the same two aristocratic families) were ex officio members. The divine twins Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, had a special association with Sparta, since images of them were carried onto the field of battle as heavenly symbols of the earthly dyarchy. Apart from the kings, the other twenty-eight members of the Senate—elected also by the shouts of the Assembly—really were elder statesmen, since as well as being of aristocratic descent candidates had to be aged at least 60 and were elected for life. All full Spartan citizens (adult males, of correct birth and upbringing) were equipped to fight as hoplites, perhaps as many as 8,000 or 9,000 of them in the seventh and sixth centuries. In all other Greek cities only a relatively small proportion, perhaps a third or so on average, were hoplites—so if the ‘modal’ size of a typical Greek citizen body was between 500 and 2,000, then a typical Greek city’s hoplite force would have numbered fewer than 1,000. Sparta could count on nine or ten times that number.

And on a regular basis too, since Sparta’s social organization was geared towards fitting tightly and harmoniously with the military. From the age of 7 a Spartan boy would be ‘educated’ communally, centrally, under state-controlled supervision. The title of the new state’s chief executives, the five annually elected Ephors, which literally meant ‘overseers’, had a special application to the boys aged from 7 to 18 undergoing the comprehensive and compulsory Spartan schooling—or drilling. The most famous Spartan to hold the post of Ephor was Chilon, who flourished in the mid-sixth century and had connections by marriage to both the Spartan royal houses. By a custom that was especially prevalent in Sparta he was officially worshipped after his death as a hero—that is, someone who had been born wholly mortal but after death was deemed to have risen above the purely mortal state and to deserve the appropriate religious cult. The same heroic cult was also accorded automatically to all Spartan kings, however successful or otherwise in their lifetime.

Spartan citizenship was a great prize; indeed, it was not a legal entitlement for all who were born to Spartan parents but had to be earned. The first test to be passed was successful passage through all the stages of the upbringing. (For an elite few, there was an extra stage of testing added on, for the years between 18 and 20, which involved the near-adults ‘going wild’, living off the land—and their wits—individually, away from the normal hypersupervised routines of the city, and, as a kind of proof of manhood test, killing any Helots they might encounter, under cover of darkness, although armed with just a dagger and no other offensive or defensive equipment. These ‘Kryptoi’, or ‘secret personnel’, thus injected an element of official state terror into the anyhow tense relations between Sparta and the Helots, who not surprisingly perhaps could be likened, by Aristotle, to an enemy forever lying in wait to exploit their masters’ misfortunes.)

Already in the later eighth century Sparta had begun to expand its horizons as far north-east as Argos’s territory and so inevitably to tangle with Argos. Most ancient Greek warfare took the form of conflicts of some sort over land between neighbours. In the first half of the sixth century, by which time the ‘Lycurgan’ reforms had had plenty of time to take root, the Spartans felt they should expand also due north up the Eurotas valley and into Arcadia. Here, though, they experienced an unexpected reverse in the plain of Tegea and decided to content themselves with a symbolic hegemony rather than a material occupation. But it is a clear sign of their utter confidence that neither Argives nor Arcadians nor the men of any other city were ever likely to make an assault upon them by land that they built no city-walls—until the second century BCE, in fact (although by then the city had been penetrated by a hostile force—see Chapter 10). Indeed, in a physical sense the city of Sparta remained only quasi-urbanized, and the five ‘villages’ of which the city was composed (the four original ones, plus Amyclae by the mid-eighth century) retained some sort of separate and individual identity. For example, the four original ones formed teams to compete in sporting contests against each other, and the men of Amyclae had a special devotion to their local god Apollo and his annual festival of the Hyacinthia, as opposed to the annual festival of the Carneia, also in honour of Apollo, but common to all Dorians.

The real-life Sparta that emerged in the eighth and seventh centuries was thus a tough warrior community, whose power and massive 8,000-square-kilometre territory (the largest by far in all Greece; Syracuse’s 4,000 came a long way second) were based on exploiting as quasi-serfs the native Greeks they cruelly called Helots (‘captives’), and on a strict military discipline imposed centrally on all Spartan males from a very young (though hardly tender) age. In all the ‘Archaic’ age of Greece (seventh and sixth centuries) Sparta was easily the single most powerful Greek state by itself. From the middle of the sixth century on, it chose to consolidate this hegemony by forming a military-political alliance based mainly on Peloponnesian cities (hence the modern name ‘Peloponnesian League’). Not the least function of this was to act as a shield against potential Helot rebellion from within. It was as undisputed head of this alliance that Sparta spearheaded the unpredictably successful Greek resistance to Persia in 480–479.

Already in the 540s Sparta had been appealed to for aid by Croesus, King of Lydia, as he was being threatened by the rising Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus. But rather than involve themselves militarily on the continent of Asia the Spartans sent Cyrus a stiff diplomatic note, ordering him to keep his hands off their Lydian friend—to which Cyrus allegedly replied contemptuously, ‘Who are these Spartans?’! So it was not until the long reign of the powerful Spartan king Cleomenes I (c.520–490) that Sparta’s attitude to Persia became a matter of urgent practical politics. The rather murky end of Cleomenes’s reign and life coincided with the Persians’ first invasion of mainland Greece, which culminated, disastrously for them, in the Athenian triumph at Marathon (see next chapter). But though the Spartans were agreed with the Athenians on the need to resist the Persians without qualification, the Spartan army did not actually manage to join up with the Athenians on time before that famous battle—allegedly because a prior religious duty prevented the Spartans setting off from Sparta in time, but possibly also because they were then having one of their periodic bouts of difficulties with rebellious Helots at home.

Ten years later the situation was very different. Xerxes had succeeded his father Darius as Persian Great King in 486, and once he’d sorted out his own pressing internal imperial problems in Babylonia and Egypt he turned his attention full-time from 484 on to settling the ‘Greek question’ once and for all. His simply massive expedition was launched by land and sea in 480, and is the main narrative subject of Herodotus’s historical masterpiece. To his eternal credit, the Halicarnassian does not spare the Greeks’ blushes, revealing that more Greeks actually fought on the side of the Persians than against them, and bringing to light the squabbling that went on even amongst the tiny handful of resisting Greek cities and communities—a mere thirty-one of them out of at least 700 in mainland Greece alone—even after Xerxes’s troops had penetrated deep into the Greek mainland. One group, the Phocians, he said, decided to fight against the Persians only because their neighbours the Thessalians were on the Persian side! As for the men of Argos, they de facto ‘medized’ (our enemy’s [Sparta’s] enemy is our friend), but without going quite to the lengths or depths of active collaboration that later were to haunt Thebes’s memory.

Herodotus personally chose to assign the greater share of the credit for successful resistance to Athens, which led the loyalist Greek effort by sea, winning above all the Battle of Salamis in August 480, with its superior navy funded by local silver. But at least as important was the Spartans’ morale-boosting, self-sacrificing resistance at the pass of Thermopylae a few weeks earlier, and, crucially, their role in the decisive battle on land at Plataea in Boeotia in the summer of 479. The naval operation shortly after at Mycale in Asia Minor near to the island of Samos was just a mopping-up exercise.

Sparta thus—together with Athens—‘won’ the Graeco-Persian Wars, and so enabled the extraordinary subsequent florescence of Greek high culture that is often referred to as the Greek ‘Golden Age’. But Sparta played little or no part itself in that florescence. That is a story associated essentially with the subject of our next chapter, Athens. On the other hand, Sparta’s influence over not just ancient Greek history and culture but much more of the Western tradition was by no means spent. From the end of the fifth century—and as a direct effect of the politico-military and cultural antagonism between Sparta and Athens—there developed a phenomenon known to modern historians as the Spartan ‘mirage’ or ‘myth’. Sparta came to be set up on a pedestal by both theorists and practical politicians either as a model ideal state to be imitated, as the ‘Laconizers’ (pro-Spartans) wished, or alternatively as a model of everything that should be excoriated and avoided.

The role and social status of women, who by conventional Greek standards seem unusually ‘liberated’ (they could own and dispose of landed property in their own right, for instance), the place of the Helots (see above); and attitudes to outsiders (Sparta appeared extraordinarily xenophobic)—these were just three of the most controverted and controversial areas for continuing debate or propaganda. And it was both a consequence of its iconic status and a further fillip to the myth’s development that under the early Roman imperial domination Sparta turned itself into a kind of ‘theme-park’ of its imaginary ancient self. Plutarch, notably, who was a major contributor to the myth (he wrote a hagiographic ‘biography’ of Lycurgus, for example), visited Sparta in c.100 CE to watch Spartan youths being flogged to within an inch of their life (or beyond) for the entertainment of foreign tourists such as he. Perhaps it was a mercy that in the 260s a marauding band of ‘barbarians’ known as the Heruli devastated physically an already spiritually enervated community.

Despite these ancient vicissitudes ancient Sparta has usefully bequeathed to us English-speakers three loan-words: ‘helot’, used generically to mean any member of a subaltern or oppressed group or people; ‘laconic’ (above); and, most obviously, ‘spartan’—austere, spare, self-denying. Yet anyone visiting Sparta in the seventh century BCE and seeing the usual array of Greek artefacts being produced, consumed locally, and exported—especially nicely decorated fired-clay drinking-goblets (Plate 9) and finely crafted bronze vessels (such as the Vix Krater, Chapter 6) and figurines—would have been astounded at the socioeconomic transformation required to make Sparta as it were ‘spartan’, as it had certainly become by the fourth century BCE at the latest.

The likeliest explanation, in one word, is the Helots. The price for the Spartans of survival on the basis of exploiting Helot labour power was to have to turn their city into a kind of military barracks—though there was a compensation too, a huge one. From the mid-seventh century to the early fourth Sparta was easily the most powerful single Greek city in infantry warfare in the entire Hellenic world. And, in 480–479 at least, Sparta played a role in determining the future course of all Greek—and Western—history that was by no means entirely selfish or despicable. Though itself an ‘archaic’ city in many ways, it thereby enabled the flowering of Greek Classicism.

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