Ancient History & Civilisation



He was capable, too, of convincing everyone with him that ‘Clearchus must be obeyed’. He used to do it by being hard: he was gloomy in appearance, harsh in voice, and he used to punish severely, sometimes in anger so that there were times when even he was sorry afterwards. He used to punish on principle, for he used to think that there was no good in an unpunished army… In danger, the troops were willing to obey him wholeheartedly and they would choose no one else to command them, for his gloominess then seemed to be brightness and his hardness… to be a saving grace. But when they were out of danger… many of them would desert him… for he had no charm… and they regarded him as boys regard a schoolmaster.

Xenophon, Anabasis 2.6.9–11, on Clearchus the Spartan

In the seventh century BC freedom, justice and luxury were indeed active agents of political change. The pursuit of ‘luxury’ really did divide Greek communities’ upper classes, and it was not an irrelevant moralizing which caused laws to be passed to limit it. The political exclusion of non-nobles and the biased settling of disputes led to a demand for impersonal justice which is best seen in Solon’s reforms and their underlying values. Solon also stood for freedom, in the sense of freedom from the ‘slavery’ of a tyrant and the ‘enslavement’ of paying ‘dues’ as a citizen to a superior. After his reforms all Athenian citizens were assured legally of freedom from one another’s harassment. They could bring lawsuits, even as a third party, against anyone who behaved violently and abusively (showing hubris) and they were forbidden to make a fellow citizen into a slave. By law, they were granted a crucial ‘freedom from…’ superiors as arrogant as the Iliad’s Odysseus.

It is, however, in Sparta of this period that freedom, justice and luxury brought about the greatest changes. For centuries, the Spartans’ lives would be conditioned by the results. In winter 125 Hadrian himself visited Sparta and is said to have praised ‘Spartan values’.1 Like other tourists, he witnessed the games and festivals of the Spartan young men and would have watched the brutal whipping of the young male runners who took part. It was still a most peculiar place with a famous past, but he and his contemporaries had no true idea of how and why ‘Spartan values’ had originated. Sparta’s secrecy is notoriously hard to penetrate because legends about Sparta, a ‘Spartan mirage’, colour almost all of our surviving evidence, from the early fourth century BConwards. An idealized Sparta has been the most influential of all utopias in history, and has influenced generations of political thinkers, from Plato through Thomas More to Rousseau.

Unlike most other Greek communities, ancient Sparta retained kingship, but unlike all known ancient states (except the Khazars by the Black Sea in the eighth century ad) she had not one king but two at the same time. These kings had religious duties, duties which other Greek states parcelled out among priests: they led the army in war and when they died they were given a highly reverential burial. The villages from which Sparta was made up were odd too: throughout their history they were unwalled. Nobody in future times, the historian Thucydides remarked, would ever infer Sparta’s power from her insignificant physical remains. Her political order spanned a wide range of unusual statuses. There were Spartiate ‘Equals’, ‘Inferiors’, people called mothakes, and the ‘Dwellers Around’ (perioikoi, who lived in outlying towns in Sparta, not the main villages). There were also the helots (‘captives’) who were owned by the community; they worked the land and gave half of their produce to the Spartiates, but could not be bought or sold like slaves elsewhere. Helots ranked for ancient theorists, too, as people ‘between slave and free’. As for Spartan children, the boys of Spartiate (citizen-Spartan) families underwent a fearsome compulsory training from the age of seven. There were manyoddities in Sparta which puzzled outsiders. Several Spartiate brothers might end up sharing one wife (in my view because she was an heiress); girls, too, would be trained in running, wrestling and other sports, some of which were undertaken naked (arguably to prepare them to be mothers of fit, healthy children). All male Spartiates dined in communal groups or messes and ate simple food including a notorious black broth. Respect for superiors and fellow Spartans’ opinions was integral to these messes’ social values.

Adult Spartiates prized brief utterances and vivid, verbal images. Even those who could write a few words saw no need to write at length or use books for self-enrichment. Their restricted code of speech went with a strongly conservative and ordered society. Above all else, the system was shaped to train soldiers, so much so that a Spartan’s failure in battle was quite often followed by his suicide. It is understandable that archaeology in archaic Sparta has recovered thousands of little lead figurines of hoplite warriors, bronze figurines of female dancers who are holding their skirts (or ‘mini-chitons’) above the knee, and large reliefs in limestone, showing small figures approaching big seated persons, evidently heroes who were worshipped. The male warriors and the female dancers point to Spartans’ education, while the reliefs show Spartans’ extreme reverence for the gods and heroes, which was famous even in antiquity. But some of the Greek gods were not prominent among them: Spartan men are not known to have had a cult of Dionysus. The god of drunk, disorderly release was the very opposite of masculine Spartan control.

Spartan society was never static, and the ancients were wrong to ascribe its entire constitution to one single early lawgiver, Lycurgus. When they tried, many years later, to date people in the distant past with a formal chronology, they gave Lycurgus dates which equate to c. 800–770 BC. However, his very existence is now rightly doubted. Most of the laws which reformed Spartan society had occurred, I believe, by c. 640 BC and were intended to address the basic issues of freedom, justice and luxury which underlay the rise of tyrants and lawgivers elsewhere in the contemporary Greek world.

In the late eighth century the Spartans, under their two kings, did not follow other Greeks and embark on a series of overseas settlements. Instead, they incorporated a fifth village, Amyclae, into their existing four, the obai. They also took in exiles from the coastal settlement, Asine, of their great rival and near-neighbour Argos. They then conquered lands of Messenia, their independent Greek neighbour, which was separated from western Sparta by a high intervening range of mountains. The Spartan kings then allotted these conquered lands to their own warrior-citizens. This allotment was selective and unequal and it was probably the unrest which it caused that led to the Spartans’ one overseas settlement, Tarentum in southern Italy (modern Taranto), supposedly in 706 BC. Later legend ascribed it, wrongly, to the promiscuity of women in Sparta during their husbands’ absence in war: when the men returned, it was said, they had to expel the resulting bastard children.

These moves outside their home villages were varied and, no doubt, therefore controversial; arguably, it was in the wake of them that the Spartan kings sought the approval of the Delphic oracle for a constitutional reform. Its thirty-eight words (preserved later by Aristotle) are known as the ‘Great Rhetra’ (or ‘pronouncement’) but they are highly obscure, and their interpretation is disputed. Certainly they recognize the formal existence of a council of older men who are later known as the Gerousia. This council, made up of men over sixty, was given the formal role of preparing business to be put to ‘the people’: this formal role of preparatory committee work has rightly been described as a major contribution to the techniques of government.2 Proposals were then to be put to the ‘people’, and, on the likeliest interpretation of the text, the ‘people’s’ sovereign right was defined as the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to them. If members of the ‘people’ spoke on anything other than the proposal before them, the elders’ council had the right to ‘set aside’ and simply submit their original motion for decision (even in antiquity, the translation of these Greek words was hard to understand, but in my view ‘setting aside’ in this archaic Greek meant ‘asking opinions’).3

The ‘people’, or demos, were the Spartan citizens, male only. As a body they appear to have been given final power or kratos, a first anticipation of what we later encounter as the single word demo-kratia (‘democracy’). However, this popular power depended on the prior decisions of a council of elders and two kings, and it was exercised only in the deferential context of a soldiers’ assembly. Was this political freedom a concession to a Spartan people who had just changed over to the new massed hoplite army tactics and were newly able to defend themselves in war? In my view, the political change in Sparta came before the military change to a hoplite style. It is better ascribed to the results of Sparta’s major oddity, the existence of two kings. In the disputes of the previous decades, from c. 730 to 705, the kings and their supporters might well divide on contentious decisions and fail to agree. In Homer’s Iliad, such a dispute between two great kingly heroes, Agamemnon and Achilles, is irreconcilable and is played out before the Greeks’ army: it comes before the soldiers only because King Agamemnon lets it spill over into their presence. In Sparta, however, the political reforms required decisions to be put to the citizenry by right, in regular public meetings held at formally defined intervals. This political reform encouraged eunomia, the orderly conduct of citizens under the law. Eunomia was not a new Spartan word or an abstract word for a new constitution.4 It was already used by Homer: the reformed Spartan state allowed an old ideal to flourish.

Nonetheless, a century or so before Solon the Spartans had invented what we would call political rights for a citizen body, and their citizens were free men because they exercised them. Their sense of freedom was sharpened by two local contrasts, one with the oppressed helots, the other with the inhabitants of outlying towns who were classed as perioikoi. Perioikoi later fought in the Spartan army, practised arts and crafts and constructed and manned ships for Spartan use. But they could not vote or attend Spartan meetings. It does not sound very ‘just’ to us, but in the 670s Sparta was already being complimented by a visiting poet, Terpander, as a place where ‘the spear of young men flourishes, as does the clear Muse and Justice in the wide streets’.5 In due course, justice became the business of yet more Spartan magistrates and specially convened judges. Popular magistrates, the ephors, served for a year and spent days judging Spartan citizens’ cases, including cases of civil contract. The kings’ judicial powers were more limited, but were most far-reaching on military campaigns. Otherwise, capital cases went to the elderly council. Even a king could be put on trial in Sparta, but only before the ephors, the council and the other king. What never developed in Sparta was the big popular jury, chosen by lot from ordinary citizens, as at Athens. Spartan justice was never ‘democratic’, nor were Spartan magistrates or councillors ever held ‘accountable’ by a formal process as a matter of principle during or after their public service. Wrongdoers were occasionally brought to trial, but the lack of obligatory ‘accountability’ was a major contrast with the Athenians where the principle became very widely extended.

It was between c. 680 and 660 that the Spartan army made the change to the new hoplite style of fighting, not least in order to oppose their ‘hoplite’ neighbours, the Argives. In 669, however, the Argives won a major victory over the Spartans and in the 650s, the Spartans’ conquered land of Messenia rose in a revolt. Gruesome poems by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus urge the Spartan troops on to greater effort in the war to recover Messenia: they continued to be sung by Spartan soldiers on the march in many subsequent campaigns.

By the late 640s, neighbouring Messenia had been finally conquered by the Spartan army and its entire land became available for allotment to the victors. The Spartans were now well aware of the new style of ‘tyranny’ which had become established in Corinth and elsewhere to the north of them since the 650s; they surely knew of the conflict and bloodshed which it had caused. As masters of Greek Messenia, the Spartans could not possibly risk such a turbulent tyranny in Sparta too, and so they addressed the social rivalries and competitive ‘injustice’ which were likely to bring it about. Social and economic reforms were therefore introduced within the existing political framework of their previous Great Rhetra. In my view, then, the major social laws were approved as early asc. 640 and were conceived as a genuine Spartan ‘alternative to tyranny’. Its authors were then conflated into the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus and their names forgotten; nonetheless, they are the first comprehensive lawgivers in early Greece.

These laws obliged all Spartan males to undergo the training which equipped them as soldiers and citizens. For the first time ever, education was made compulsory for an entire social class. Aged seven, boys were taken from their families and obliged to train barefoot, sleep outdoors or on hard pallets, and ‘steal’ as an adventurous duty. They had to eat truly austere ‘Spartan’ food. They progressed through clearly defined age groups which were under the authority of older ‘prefects’. At each stage, there was selection and competition. Aged twenty, a small corps was selected to be the ‘Knights’ (hippeis) in the kings’ bodyguard; those who were not selected were encouraged to fight and make trial of those who were, a process which was repeated annually. These Knights were not at all the cavalry-hippeis of other Greek states: a socially superior cavalry would have been contrary to the Spartan ideal of a solid ‘peer group’. Instead, they were the picked group of 300 who guarded the kings and fought as first-choice troops. The Knights, then, were surely the ‘300 champions’ who fought with 300 picked Argives in a celebrated contest in 546, and, above all, the Knights were the world-famous 300 who fought against the entire Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Each year, the five oldest surviving members of the Knights became ‘Benefactors’. These Benefactors were not active financial donors, like benefactors in other Greek cities: they were police officers whose duty was to oversee conduct in and outside the city. Horses, alas, were not at all a part of the Spartan Knights’ life.

Young males of citizen birth were elected into a common ‘mess’, or dining-club, by existing members, although a single contrary vote could exclude a candidate. Once elected, all members had to meet the expense and demands of their common table. Sexual affairs were frequent in this male society, but they were not required by law or imposed as a fixed stage of a citizen’s initiation into full manhood. Young members of the ‘messes’ were encouraged to roam the countryside, both in order to hunt to supply the common table and to check on the subservient helots. They had orders to kill any troublemakers: in due course, the yearly Spartan magistrates, the ephors, would declare war annually on the helots, so that any killing of them would be ‘justified’.

Adult Spartan males were obliged to marry, probably in their mid-twenties, and were expected to father children, the future warriors, and to sustain them in turn through their long education. Their brides would be younger women of citizen parentage, perhaps aged eighteen or so, who were trained in the running, dancing and other sports. Marriages were occasions when the sexes had unusually disparate roles. The male made as if to seize the female from her family; then her family attendants would cut her hair short to mark her change of status and help her to put on a man’s cloak and sandals. She waited in an ill-lit room for her long-haired husband to come and consummate the union, evidently with the minimum disturbance to his homo-erotic expectations and mess-life among men. The aim was to produce a healthy male child: ancient sources, written by non-Spartans, claimed that weak and deformed Spartan babies were exposed as a matter of principle.

This coherent system trained males as citizen-soldiers in an openly entitled ‘peer group’. The system was not a survival from an earlier, tribal past: it was deliberately imposed and extended so as to head off the contemporary danger of tyranny. When outsiders tried to explain the self-styled Spartan ‘Equals’ (the homoioi), they found the precise nature of their ‘equality’ problematic. They alleged that all the plots of land in Sparta and Messenia belonged to the state and that private possessions were forbidden between true ‘Equals’. State-owned land did indeed exist, but perhaps only in the Spartan homeland, and the probability is that once, and once only, equally sized allotments had been given out as ‘starter-plots’ to each male warrior-citizen after the conquest of Messenia in the 640s. These plots, however, could be bought, sold and bequeathed, unlike the ‘state-owned land’. By an important loophole, property left to a daughter could pass outside the family on the girl’s marriage. Inevitably, girls with property were married off to the most propertied suitors and then, the doubly propertied young couple would try not to rear too many children between whom their newly gained economic superiority would have to be divided. Consequently, land-holdings were concentrated into fewer hands by a familiar narrowing of inheritance. This process was one which other Greek states, including the Athenians, tried to regulate stringently. It eventually contributed to a decline in the number of Spartan citizen-males who were able to pay their way through the messes and the education. Some 9,000 Spartiate ‘Equals’ are said to have existed when the system began (c. 640 BC). By c. 330 the numbers of Spartiates had shrunk to less than 1,000: infertility was not the cause of the decline.

The core of the Spartans’ austere system was adopted so as to enable a fully ‘hoplite’ citizenry to persist in Sparta without the accompanying risk of a coup by an aspiring tyrant. Ruthlessly, the system aimed to limit divisive luxury, to a degree which intrigued later political theorists, especially Rousseau. The Spartans took an extreme route to the aim of social cohesion which was being addressed by the piecemeal laws against extravagance passed by tyrants and lawgivers elsewhere.

What had seemed precautionary and ‘modern’ in the 640s persisted at Sparta and came to seem especially archaic and curious to later outsiders. Items like the Spartan use of iron weights had not been peculiar in the 640s, before coinage even existed, but they became very odd from c. 520 BC onwards when coinage began to be used widely by other city-states in Greece. Despite the fantasies of later political theorists (whether Karl Marx or the Nazi publicists), Sparta never became a totally collectivist state. In fact, the vagaries of private ownership continued and before too long ‘all Spartiates were equal, but some were more equal than others’. From the mid-sixth century onwards, we can point to a rich Spartan minority who owned hugely expensive teams of chariot-horses. From the 450s onwards, during years of persistent war and crisis, superior members of the ‘peer group’ are recorded as winning glittering individual prizes with horses and chariots at Olympia and elsewhere. As a retort, King Agesilaus II is said to have encouraged his daughter to finance a winning entry at Olympia in order to teach the Spartiates that chariot-victories were an unmanly business.

The Spartans remained, nonetheless, free of tyrants and the disruptive bloodshed which would have broken their hold on conquered Messenia. The Spartans still enjoyed festivals for the gods, competitions (even in horse racing) and fine occasions for singing and choral dancing: their young girls sang and danced to a haunting Maidens’ Song (composed by the visiting poet Alcman, c. 610 BC), and, at their shrine of Artemis, finds of clay masks imply that males engaged in ritual dancing too, wearing ‘young’ masks or ‘old’ ugly masks in a performance the nature of which escapes us. To Aristotle, nonetheless, Spartan society appeared like an army camp, and indeed he was right. Back in c. 700 BC, in my view, Spartan males had first acquired their right of political decision, but not because they were a newly empowered hoplite soldiery. Some fifty years later, however, they were exercising this right in a social structure which had become focused on military success before all else. The competitions, even the female dancing, were designed to promote fit and hyper-ambitious participants: mockery was one of the great reinforcing social instruments in Sparta, including (we are told) the mocking of helots who were made to tramp around absurdly when drunk.

What endured was the novelty of the Spartans’ permanently trained, professional army of hoplites, far superior to the lightly trained occasional hoplites, the citizens of all other Greek states. For centuries, they marched in ranks, dressed in their purple cloaks, to the sound of pipers and the martial poems of Tyrtaeus. Their neighbour, Argos, had been so prominent in Homer and, as the seat of King Agamemnon, might have been expected to dominate southern Greece. But the Spartans hit back with their professionally trained army and a constitution which continued to adapt itself after their occasional grand blunders. The Argives had no such system. The kingdoms of the Near East also lacked a solid trained infantry of their own and in the 550s BC, when they cast around for trained and heavily armoured foot soldiers, it was to distant Sparta that they turned. Gifts to woo a Spartan military alliance were sent from rich King Croesus in Lydia, while the Pharaoh in Egypt sent a heavily woven linen breastplate, a real wonder, including gold thread and figured embroidery, each thread being made of 360 separate strands (a sister-piece was sent to Athena’s temple at Lindos on the island of Rhodes; it had the same density, as was verified by the studious Roman governor, Mucianus, in c.AD 69: he claimed to have counted 365 strands per thread in its fragments, perhaps miscounting one for each day of the year).6 These gifts beckoned Sparta to an altogether less fettered and archaizing world, the settlements of Ionian Greeks on the islands of the Aegean and mainland Asia Minor.

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